I Open My Arms to the World

I’ve always been interested in genealogy.  When I was 15, I asked my father all the schools he had ever attended.  He humored me, thinking that in some way he’d always be around to tell me that information.  Twenty years later, the ambulance came for the last time.  I still have that list.

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My father, Donald Groves

When I was 23, I asked my father’s father about our forebears.  He was the most silent man I’ve ever run into, and by that time, he was bedridden. I had driven all the way out from West L.A. to Yucaipa, a 2-hour drive, and he wouldn’t talk.  Finally, after about an hour, he said something.

“There’s more than one way to kill a cat,” he said with a sly grin on his face.

I waited for enlightenment, and then he gave it to me.

“The best way, though, is to slit it lengthwise along the belly and press up from the backbone.”

He did finally let me in on one important tidbit: his grandfather’s name.

Left to right, Sally Groves, Roy Groves, Emily Groves

My father’s father, Roy Groves

“C.C. Brundage,” he said.

I wrote that down.

“You know what the C.C. stands for?”

“No, what?”

“Christopher Columbus.”

Grandpa Roy let out a weak grizzled laugh.  It’s hard to describe what it sounded like, although maybe this captures it: It sounded like lung damage.  He had smoked most of his life, and on top of that, had had a career working for decades at a paper mill, where paper fibers floated in the air at all times.  Even at age 18, he was working at a factory that manufactured strawboard, which was a kind of paper made from straw.  I’m sure those fibers were permanently embedded in his lungs, too.  He died at age 70.

But the toughest genealogical resource in my family has always been my mother.  It’s not that she doesn’t give me information, although she sometimes does it in a grudging way, as if elucidating the past is putting another nail in her coffin.  Her toughness expresses itself in different ways, but in this example, it’s that she has never filed a census form.

My mother at age 16

My mother at age 16

In my genealogical researches, census forms have been my most valuable resource.  Through that, I have established the names and birth dates of many relatives.  In the common U.S. Census form, they first list the head of household and his or her age, and then list the other occupants and their ages.  Often, it’s clear what their relationship is.  In that way, I established that my great-grandfather’s name was Charles (born 1869), my great-great-grandfather’s name was John (born 1836), and my great-great-great-grandfather’s name was John, as well (born 1792).  I’ve also established the names of sons and daughters that have branched off my direct line.

Census forms also provide other fascinating information, too.  Depending on the year, U.S. Census forms have asked questions such as:

  • Level of education attained
  • Employment
  • Disabilities
  • Occupation
  • Address
  • Race
  • Birth country of parents
  • Relation to head of household
  • How many slaves you own

I make no excuses for my mother.  She’s guilty as charged.  But who is ever going to prosecute her for it?

It was in the year 2000 that I first witnessed her dodging the census taker, but it was in 2010 that I became acutely aware of it.  Because she had had a couple of strokes, I began going to her house on a more regular basis.

“Did you lock the front gate?” she would ask when I entered the house.


“Well go lock it.”

“Why?  I’m here to protect you.”

“The census lady is looking for me.”

“Why don’t you want to fill out the census?”

“It’s none of their business.”

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My mother now.

So I would lock the gate upon arriving at her house, and again upon leaving, shaking my head all the way.

This evasion went on for months and months.  Sometimes, I would ask her why she was so dead-set against filling out the census.

“I’m a very private person,” she would say.

“They don’t release the census to the general public,” I would say.

“It’s still none of their business.  Oh, you’re such an open person.  You’re always writing things on the Internet, giving away all of our personal business.  Why do you have to do that?”

“What is there to be afraid of?”

“Because it’s nobody else’s business!”

Strangely, very strangely, I have very different conversations with her about government surveillance.

“My new novel is about a woman who has a secret admirer in the NSA,” I said.  “He loves her and he hates her.  He’s spying on her all the time without government clearance.  It points up the dangers of having such an extensive surveillance apparatus here in the U.S.”

Cover What Happens 1d

“But we’re at war.”

“Mom, we’ve been at war for 12 years against the terrorists.  There’s no end in sight.  When is it going to stop?”

“Why do you have to get involved in politics?”

“So you’re afraid of the census lady but you’re not afraid of people who can listen to all your phone calls and read all your mail and don’t need a court order to do it.”

“Let’s not talk about this.”

I rarely show my blogs to Mom.  To most of them, she wouldn’t react well.  Mentally ill forebears, a great-uncle who shot himself in the chest at age 40, a brain-damaged great-aunt who babbled nonsense.

Why do they have to know our business?!

Because if you don’t tell the truth in your writing, dammit, you might as well be manufacturing sleeping pills.  Because it’s intimacy.  It’s charged.  Hell, I open my arms to the world.  I let them see my scars.  I let them judge me.  I let them sneer at me, because sneering is what they do, and this is what I do.  So sue me.

Business card Face Cards 6i

Love Intelligence

Previously, I posted about LOVEINT, which is the NSA’s term for employees who spy without authorization on the love interests in their lives–girlfriends, wives, crushes, and the like.  This, of course, is the basis of my newly published novel, What Happens to Us.

Cover What Happens 1dNow, we hear something even more frightening, that most instances of LOVEINT are not caught by supervisors or monitors, but are self-reported.

I’m not sure if the NSA realizes it, but in some ways, that makes it even worse, because it seems to imply that there is no effective monitoring program to catch offenders.  NSA employees seem to be able to spy on their love interests at will–that is, unless their conscience catches them.  To read an excerpt, click here.

NSA Admits Premise of New Novel Is Real

Finally, the NSA has admitted that the premise of my newly published novel is not only real, but a real problem.

“…Most episodes of willful misconduct by NSA employees,” according to the NSA, are employees spying “on love interests.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/08/23/nsa-officers-sometimes-spy-on-love-interests/)

Cover What Happens 1d

The novel that I’ve been working on for six years, and which was published on July 4, details an NSA employee who is spying on a woman he slept with once while they were drunk, and is trying to rekindle the romance.  The spying turns into chasing, and the young woman, who is a recovering alcoholic, feels that she’s in such grave danger that she must leave her job and apartment and go off the grid.  A recent reviewer compared it to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” but it has also been called “a spiritual journey.”

What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, is available as an ebook for only $3.99.

NSA Violates Rules Constantly

Do you think we can trust the NSA?  Apparently, they violate the rules dozens of times a day.


On July 4, I published a novel about abuse of government surveillance, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, only $3.99 to download.

An Enlightening Podcast on Government Surveillance

On the Sunday political talk shows, government officials have been denying that it was collecting data on ordinary Americans, only that it was collecting harmless li’l ol’ metadata.  Now, we know that they were lying, because of an investigative article in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

I was so outraged by this violation of American law that I wrote a novel about it, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  Download for $3.99 onto your Kindle.

Here’s a podcast that gives some perspective on the subject, from NPR.  It’s a must-hear.


They Lied to Us Just Last Week

For the past couple months, government officials have been appearing on the airwaves proclaiming that the NSA collects only metadata.  Oh, they’re saints!  They’re saviours!  They’re only protecting you!

Dianne Feinstein, Peter King, Michael Hayden, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and many others have been telling us what a liar Edward Snowden is.  The government collects only metadata, they say.  And that’s not really data at all!  It’s just like the information on the outside of an envelope!  Chill out, dudes!

Now, it turns out that they collect everything, with no oversight, no FISA approval required. Outrageous.


And on top of that, they’re passing that information on to the Drug Enforcement Agency and other local law enforcement, for them to act upon.


It’s blatantly unconstitutional, so when they bring the cases to court, they cover it up by cooking up a whole other scenario about how the information came to light.  In other words, they lie and cook up another story.

And other law-enforcement agencies are clamoring to get to that data.  If they get their way, the information from our tapped phones will be used to combat all crimes:


Six years ago, I began writing a novel that is a demonstration of the worst that could happen under promiscuous surveillane.  It’s Edward Snowden’s worst nightmare.  Read  What Happens to Us at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  Download for only $3.99 on your Kindle or Nook.

The NSA Responds to “What Happens to Us”

My novel, What Happens to Us, indicts the NSA for its wiretapping policies.  Over 4.9 million people have access to “confidential and secret” information gathered by the government, including nearly 500,000 who work for private contractors like Booz Allen, where Edward Snowden worked.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/10/nsa-leak-contractors_n_3418876.html


That’s an awful lot of possibilities for misbehavior and misuse of that access.  In 2007, I was so appalled by that possibility that I wrote a novel tracing a hypothetical instance of misbehavior and the havoc that it might wreak.  It took the form of a thriller: Cat is being chased by a stranger whom she doesn’t even know.  It’s made much more frightening because this stranger seems to know her friends, where she might spend the night, and seems to locate her mysteriously whenever she turns on her cell phone.

Once I published the novel, it didn’t even take a week for the NSA to learn of its existence.  A Facebook friend forwarded information about my novel to a friend who works at the NSA.  Even though he hadn’t yet read the book, he expressed extreme skepticism.  He wrote that there is “no such thing as an ‘NSA operative,’ but that’s what you get when you combine the concept of CIA agents (‘operatives’) with the public’s view of the NSA as ‘one step even more secret than the CIA.’”

Of course, What Happens to Us never uses the term “operative.”  (I just searched the document.)  But never doubt the power of changing the subject, which is what the government so often does when it comes to surveillance.  After arguing that irrelevancy, he continues in that vein:

“There aren’t ‘NSA agents’, either. No such thing. However, I have yet to see ‘Enemy of the State’, and as I understand, Gene Hackman or someone else is an ‘NSA agent’. It’s pure fantasy.”

Then he takes on a subject on which he is unexpectedly right.

“It’s probably because they’ve been so successfully secret in general that writers have to make such stuff up. The public probably DOES “know” a bit more about the CIA, which is why there’ve been so many CIA characters and movies related to it.”

In fact, it’s true that there’s very little known about the Prism, Pinwale, and other NSA surveillance programs.  In all my research over a number of years, these are the things I learned about it.  It’s based in San Francisco on Comstock Street.  The telecommunication companies seem to be cooperating with it.  And IT workers seem to have incredibly broad access to it.  That’s pretty much all any of us knows.

So that’s the point.  If you want to write about a supersecret program but don’t have many facts, what do you do?  Ignore it?  If you’re a novelist, you make stuff up, as our critic so eloquently put it.  And after all, there is a reason that it’s called fiction.

The larger point of the novel, however, is that all employees everywhere sometimes step over the line.  It’s that when you’re collecting private information, you need oversight.  It’s that my antagonist Rafe Noyes, who hides his obsessions from nearly everyone, could easily exist.  And that’s what’s so frightening about this novel, and ultimately, the NSA.

Why I stand with Edward Snowden

ImagePeople who aren’t bothered by global government surveillance say, “Hey, what could go wrong?  I’m not a terrorist, so why should I worry?”

So much could go wrong.  It all boils down to each individual NSA employee and contractor who has access to the collected information, and recent reports place that number at 500,000.  You don’t have to be an evil person to want to listen in on someone else’s phone calls or monitor their emails.  Good people do that all the time.  Which teenage boy who’s been jilted by a girl hasn’t driven by her house, hoping to see her in the front yard?  If given the chance, might that boy listen in on her phone calls, if just to hear her voice?

I’m sure the NSA and its contractors have written policies designed to protect Americans’ privacy, but which adult hasn’t violated a little policy at work?  We swipe a few post-it packets or boxes of staples.  If we’re in the banking industry, some of us engage in insider trading.  If we’re journalists, we change a quote just a bit to make the story read better.  And if we work in government surveillance, when the boss isn’t looking, we listen in on our hated neighbor’s phone call, just to see what he says about the hedge that you’re having a dispute about.

In 2003, when the original reports of warrantless surveillance first came out, I was so upset about it that I started writing a thriller based on this kind of situation.  In the novel, an NSA operative with access to vast surveillance data has an obsession with a young San Francisco woman. As the novel opens, he attempts to kill her and she gets away. The police don’t believe her, since she is a recovering alcoholic who has given them trouble in the past. Thus begins a breathless chase from house to house, across the country, and eventually, off the grid.

This novel is about more than just a chase, though. It’s about the danger of allowing certain people omniscient power in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s about the innocent victims. It’s about her relationship with a young man who has no idea the trouble he’s in for. It’s about love in a time of hiding. It’s about what America should be. It’s ripped from the headlines.

Some people believe that good people would never step over the line, and that all NSA employees are screened to be good.  Well, I consider myself a good person, and I must confess that I once stepped over the line 20 years ago.  It had been a mistake to get romantically involved with someone who lived upstairs from me.  We were together for a couple months, but when I realized that Haley had been molested as a child and her behaviors around intimacy and relationships were chaotic and maddening, I broke up with her.

But when she started bringing other men home past my front door, I began losing control.  I found myself rushing to the front curtains whenever she walked past my door, peering up at her 2nd-floor window in the evenings.  A tortuous two weeks passed before I realized that the only solution was to sell my condo and move.  I shudder to think what I might have done if I’d had access to her phone calls, emails, and location information.

As Edward Snowden says, I don’t want to live in a country in which every phone call can be monitored without oversight.  The reason is that people step over the line.  A machinery like this must be scrupulously monitored, and as it stands, there seems to be very little oversight at all.  The FISA court is a rubber stamp.  No citizen or organization has judicial standing to sue.  There are no government reports outlining excesses.  Everything is done in high secrecy.  Truly, this is a time bomb waiting to explode.

To download the ebook, What Happens to Us, go here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

If you don’t own a Kindle, you can download the Kindle for PC or Kindle for Mac software for free here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/kindle/pc/download