How Do You Stay Sane When You’re Pretending To Be Someone Else? Find Out At Washington D.C.’s International Spy Museum

Published on September 23, 2019

One of the markers for mental health is integrity—you are who you say you are, and you are that same person with everyone in your life.

By contrast, anyone who enters into the espionage game surrenders that level of personal integrity and lives a life of compartmentalization. That individual is one person to family and friends, and a completely different person altogether to the people with whom he or she lives a secret life.


Remarkably, one of the key lessons learned at the International Spy Museum is that people who spy for their country seem not to suffer the side effects of the surrender of that identity.

If you haven’t been to the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, it’s about as fascinating a place that you, and your children, could possibly visit.

International Spy Museum

The museum offers cutting edge technological exhibits, actual spycraft devices of all kinds, and, perhaps most fascinating, videos by individual spies who have penetrated some of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world and lived to tell the tale.

Watching those videos, you get a chance to assess their mental health and whatever scars they may have endured as result of their giving up of the normal identity that most of us live every day.

To the untrained eye, they seem none the worse for wear.

What’s it all about?

You start off watching a super-wide screen video featuring the faces and words of actual CIA employees, and it’s even narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Videos don’t get any better than that.

That’s what so intriguing and fascinating about the International Spy Museum—the ability to put faces and emotions to the types of individuals whom you could go your entire life without even thinking about.

Did you know that the CIA has a position called worldwide CEO for disguise?

They do, and you can get to know that individual in various places in the four stories of exhibits that depicts spycraft over four hundred years.

Your mission, should you choose to accept…

When you arrive, you get a mission and a secret identity of your own. At various places in the museum, you check-in and update your mission. My assigned cover story: that of a New York-based dancer sent to Accra, Ghana to locate a recruiter for a terrorist organization.

I’d tell you how it all turned out, but then I’d have to kill you.

That process makes one aware of the endless risks that spies face—who might be watching, where they might be, where the video cameras might be placed, and even which piece of trash might provide the clue necessary to make the next rendezvous.

Certainly, spies have been discovered, tortured, and killed; this is the risk these individuals take in order to protect the rest of us.

Lessons taught the fun way

But the real question the International Spy Museum makes one ask is whether one could surrender one’s normal identity and take on another one, with all the risks attendant to there too, in order to stop a tragic outcome or gain vital information for national security.

An example of the brilliantly conceived and designed exhibits: a large mockup of Osama bin Ladin’s home with an attendant interactive video program. How do the exterior walls, the lighting, and other design aspects provide clues as to whether the home is his, or instead belongs to a wealthy businessman, or simply a lower level terrorist? You get the facts and you have to decide as if you were a CIA analyst. So much rides on your decision. Amazing.

One comes away from the International Spy Museum with a sense of awe—not just for the practitioners of spycraft, but also for the individuals who designed and built this museum, which is about as fitting, and breathtaking, a way to honor them as any monument in DC could be.

If you’re coming to Washington alone or with your family, skip the White House tour and don’t even bother with the Jefferson Memorial. Go straight to the International Spy Museum and see how the other half lives.

Michael Levin is a News Columnist at Grit Daily.

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