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My husband's mother always told him that she was svelte and sexy-looking before she had him—that being pregnant with him, her only child, had ruined her figure. But now I know the truth: Her FBI file contains a picture of her taken one year before her pregnancy began. It is labeled: "Hazel Fisher, 5'1'', 140 lbs." Hazel's file contains a section labeled "Lies Told by Hazel Fisher," but it doesn't contain that one.
From 1940 to 1944 my mother-in-law, Hazel Fisher, was a member of the Communist Party. She never talked about it much—it was just something she did in her late teens and early 20s when she was still young enough to think she could save the world or have fun trying. I'd joined the Peace and Freedom Party in my teens. It died before I reached 20, but it gave me a point of identification with her. After she died, I sent for her FBI files, under the Freedom of Information Act.
It took the FBI several years to sort through their files and draw lines through the names of their "reliable informers," but a few months ago her records arrived —over an inch-high stack of papers chronicling her life for nearly 30 years. They covered the minutiae of her life from the titles of the books on her shelves (many of which now line my shelves) to the day her neighbors complained to the police that dogs had knocked over her garbage and they'd found a Communist newsletter blowing about her lawn. The file does not begin until over one year after she quit the party. And at no time does it record that she ever broke any law or had access to any secrets.
The vast majority of Hazel's file was provided by one man, who, while his name is repeatedly blacked out, clearly had six letters in both his first and last names. The file also states that this man had lived with Hazel and gives the addresses. There is only one man who fits that description. We have one of his paintings of Thomas Jefferson hanging on our wall.
I don't know how to feel about Mr. Double-Six's reports. They begin several months after Hazel quit the party. They include letters she wrote that he stole from her mail box and letters she received that he stole from her writing table. They include notes she took at a meeting on "The Role of Women Today" and quotations from speakers at rallies she attended. He even quotes her after a few beers as saying that she had become an atheist at age 15. But at no time do these reports, for which Mr. Double-Six was presumably paid pin money, include any nformation that Hazel ever committed any crime or even said anything hostile about any law. He even quotes her arguing in favor of a trade bill passed by Congress.
Thanks to Mr. Double-Six's reports, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a letter, dated Oct. 7, 1948, calling Hazel, "one of those subjects who are considered a threat to the internal security" and asking the Lansing FBI office for a current report on her activities. The file also records FBI attempts to have Hazel fired from her job at the Michigan Department of Motor Vehicles and a successful effort that prevented her being hired as a librarian in Detroit. Thanks to Mr. Double-Six's reports, the FBI kept their file on Hazel open through the 1960s, logging her every move, every new job, every hospitalization, and her divorce in which she gained custody of my husband, who was then in his teens.
Thanks to Mr. Double-Six's reports, agents harassed Hazel on her way home from work and as she walked in her neighborhood. But the reports also tell of the time Hazel opened a bookstore that failed in less than a year. She never told me about this venture into capitalism. The report also records where Hazel's parents were born and details the time when Hazel's mother filed divorce papers against her father but didn't follow through. Mr. Double-Six even recorded my husband's birth—but he got the date wrong by a week.
Mr. Double-Six is dead now— complications of the alcoholism that his informant's pin money no doubt helped feed. And I don't know what to think about him. He was certainly not the friend my mother-in-law took him for. But without him, I would not have this interesting, gossipy file.
The other informers are easy to dismiss as bureaucrats. There is "the anonymous source" (so named in the file itself) who states that he has seen Hazel Fisher's name and home phone in the private phone book of a person known to be a member of the Communist Party. Another notes that she was interviewed by a Detroit newspaper and that in it her name was misspelled as Hazle. The FBI duly recorded this spelling as an alias. There is an argument in 1949, five years after she had quit the party, between Detroit and Lansing as to whether Hazel should be classified as a "Key Figure in the Communist Party."
The one lie that the FBI accuses my mother-in-law of telling is that an informer says that Hazel said that once when she attended a Communist Party meeting she used the name Hazel Ford.
Not all the FBI agents were heartless spies. On Aug. 23,1946, a kindly FBI agent was asked to interview Hazel about her possible "Hatch Act violations." He wrote to J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, as follows: "At the present time, the subject is approximately six months' pregnant. Inasmuch as there is some indication that subject is nervous, it is deemed inadvisable to conduct an interview with her at the present time. Unless advised contrary by the Bureau, no interview will be had with subject until after the birth of her child and no report will be submitted on the investigation conducted to date."
I had numerous arguments with my mother-in-law. But the only thing she ever did that endangered anyone was her incessant cigarette smoking—a trait that the FBI failed to notice. For over 30 years the FBI followed a woman who had quit the Communist Party and whose most remarkable achievement was raising my husband. Her lifelong turncoat friend was a faithful if flawed biographer. And, in this report, my mother-in-law is revealed as the kind of woman I would like to have known better. Thanks to this file, I can now tell her grandchildren about her in a more positive light. But I don't like feeling thankful to the FBI for spying on my mother-in-law.