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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Christine Granville

Today's NY Times had a fascinating review of a book about a heroic WWII-era British spy who was quite likely a sociopath. (Italics mine):

Through Enemy Lines
‘The Spy Who Loved,’ by Clare Mulley
By Ben MacIntyre

Christine Granville was one of the bravest, toughest and strangest secret agents of World War II. Her feats of derring-do included acting as a courier in Nazi-occupied Europe, parachuting into France in support of the Allied invasion and rescuing three of her comrades from certain execution. She was said to be Winston Churchill’s favorite spy — a considerable accolade given how much Britain’s wartime prime minister liked spies. She may have been the model for Vesper Lynd, the female agent in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale.” She won medals for bravery from both Britain and France. Men found her irresistible, and she did very little to resist them.

Vesper Lynd -- wow! And "The Spy Who Loved" -- get it? One of Ian Fleming's other Bond novels was titled, "The Spy Who Loved Me."

Keystone/Getty Images

Christine Granville, circa 1950.

Yet this woman, so ripe for Hollywood hagiography, is almost unknown today. Her obscurity is the consequence of her gender (spy history is notoriously sexist)...

That's why you've never heard of Mata Hari -- or Vesper Lynd. (The NY Times just has to stick in its politically correct interpretation of practically everything, it just can't help itself.)

...her nationality (she was Polish, and Communist Poland did not encourage praise of British spies)...

Wouldn't it have been Britain which praised her?

...and above all her character. She was a complex and mysterious individual. 

"Complex and mysterious" usually = "difficult," and difficult sometimes = sociopath. 

She survived the war only to be murdered by an obsessed former lover in the lobby of a London hotel. As Clare Mulley reveals in her admirable and overdue biography, “The Spy Who Loved,” Granville was not a straightforward personality, and all the more fascinating for that.

Born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, the daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and a wealthy Jewish heiress, she enjoyed a comfortable, uneventful and spoiled upbringing. Indeed, her main achievement before the war was to be a runner-up in the 1930 Miss Poland beauty contest. War changed her utterly.

She was in South Africa, the wife of a Polish diplomat, when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. She immediately headed for London, presented herself to the British secret service and offered to ski over the Carpathian Mountains into Poland in order to take British propaganda into Nazi-occupied Warsaw. “She is absolutely fearless,” a secret service report noted, a “flaming Polish patriot, . . . expert skier and great ­adventuress.”

"Absolutely fearless" and "great adventuress" often = sociopath as well. And whatever happened to that husband?

She was duly recruited into Section D, which would evolve into the fabled Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), the sabotage, subversion and espionage unit established by Churchill to operate behind enemy lines and “set Europe ablaze.” She adopted the name Christine Granville, received a British passport and shaved several years off her real age on official forms — self-reinvention was part of her makeup, as it is of many spies. The British gave her the code name “Willing,” an apt reflection of her attitude toward sex as well as her readiness to embrace extreme peril.

Self-reinvention is part of the makeup of sociopaths, and a wanton attitude toward sex is often a result of a sociopath's lack of inhibitions and impulsive nature.

Deployed to Hungary, Granville spent the first part of her war ferrying messages and people in and out of Poland. She crossed the mountains between Hungary and Poland no fewer than six times, bringing out Polish resisters and soldiers who would go on to fight for the Allied cause. She was usually accompanied by Andrzej Kowerski, a one-legged Polish patriot who would become her most enduring (and long-suffering) lover.

The stories of her exceptional sang-froid come thick and fast: skiing past the corpses of refugees frozen to death in the mountains, bribing guards, dodging bullets from a Luftwaffe plane on an open hillside and escaping from the Gestapo by biting her own tongue, spitting blood, and thus convincing her captors that she was ill with tuberculosis.

If these stories are true, there is much to admire about Granville; yet "exceptional sang-froid" is something sociopaths specialize in, and the ability to ad lib under pressure is another thing they excel at.

According to one account, she could even charm her way around animals: when a “vicious Alsatian dog, trained to bite and break necks,” found her hiding under a bush with some partisans, she placed her arm around it, and “it lay down beside her, ignoring its handler’s whistles.” Such tales, as Mulley observes, are “the stuff of legend,” and she is too good a historian to take them entirely at face value. Granville was an expert at her own mythologizing, telling her stories of pacifying enemy dogs “right and left, to whoever was willing to listen.”

No one is more of an expert in their "own mythologizing" than a sociopath. Especially when it's only a myth.

Along the way, she picked up lovers at astonishing speed, and dropped them just as fast. Sometimes, they took rejection badly. One hilarious British intelligence report describes how Granville’s “attractiveness appeared to be causing some difficulty in Budapest.” One spurned lover had gone to her flat and threatened to shoot himself “in his genital organs.” He missed, and shot himself in the foot.

Granville was “politically naïve”: “An opportunist, keen on action, who fell in with whichever personal contact would give her an assignment to work for the freedom of her country.” Her patriotism was whole-souled, ferocious and probably the only uncomplicated thing about her.

"Opportunist" is a yellow flag for sociopathy.

In 1944, she was parachuted into southern France to aid Francis Cammaerts, the celebrated (and married) S.O.E. agent who became, inevitably, her lover. She carried vital messages and matériel between resistance groups; she addressed Polish conscripts in the German Army, urging them to change sides; she carried a razor-sharp commando knife and a cyanide tablet sewn into the hem of her skirt.

It takes a certain physical courage to be a paratrooper, and a certain cavalier disregard for one's own well-being to be in a position to have to carry around a cyanide tablet. These are both hallmarks of sociopathy. 

Her crowning achievement was to spring Cammaerts and two other captured agents from the Gestapo jail where they were awaiting execution. She bribed her way into the prison, claiming to be General Montgomery’s niece, and informed the French collaborator in command that if the executions went ahead, he would face swift and lethal reprisal from the advancing Allies. The Frenchman saw the force of this argument, and escaped along with his prisoners.

Sociopaths are nothing if not skillfully manipulative.

Granville’s postwar life was as grim and bleak as her war had been vivid and exhilarating. Dismissed from S.O.E., she was, like so many other exiled Poles, unable to return to a homeland now under Communist rule. She found work as a telephone operator, a sales assistant and finally a stewardess on a shipping line. 

Sales assistant? Telephone operator? After having basically been Mata Hari/Vesper Lynd? What a comedown that must have been. And how contemptuous must she have been of the people she worked with, and for?

Britain’s failure to support a woman who had risked her life so many times was shameful, but in truth Granville was fickle, demanding and virtually unemployable, at least in the way she wanted to be employed. She did not want to be a typist, a wife or a mother; she wanted to be a spy.

"Fickle, demanding and virtually unemployable" are code words for narcissism, a key part of every sociopath's makeup.

Mulley — the author of “The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save the Children” — makes excellent use of newly released archive material, the voluminous secondary sources and interviews with former colleagues, friends and lovers. But there is an unavoidable gap at the heart of this book, and that is the missing voice of Christine Granville herself. Only 11 of her letters seem to have survived. She never wrote an account of her exploits or described her own feelings. On the rare occasions that we do hear her voice, it is in fractured English that comes as a jolt: “Tell them that I am honest and clean Polish girl. . . . I like to jump out of a plane even every day.”

Who ever bothers to point out that they are "honest and clean" unless they are dishonest and unclean?

Granville’s story is told, inevitably, through the eyes of others, principally men, who tended to project onto her the fantasy of what they wanted to see. Of no man is this truer than the one who killed her: Dennis Muldowney, an unstable and infatuated ship’s steward unable to cope with Granville’s rejection after a brief affair. Muldowney stalked her, and then stabbed her in the heart in June 1952. He was condemned to death, and went to the gallows proclaiming he was “still very much in love” with the unsung heroine he had killed.

As I said above, there is much to admire Granville for. If she did even a fraction of the things attributed to her, she is an amazing person, and both a British and Polish national heroine as well. But throughout the review, I couldn't help but hear the not-so-faint echo of sociopathy reverberate in the descriptions of her temperament and actions and thirst for thrills. The most successful spies, like the most successful con men, are often sociopaths, for good reason. 

Granville is living proof that in wartime, you want the sociopaths to be on your side. And that there's really no time you want them on the opposing side.


Dave Moriarty said...

I have to read this book-- this was a special person, and wartime requires "skills" that are not every day skills. I am always struck when people have an event rigger a response to change their life entirley. The revolutionary war was like that too where farmers left their plough in the field to walk to boston. On the other hand take the same trains every day and do my best to maintain routine. Something to be said for the people who drop everything for a cause they believe in with their whole being.

John Craig said...

Dave --
She certainly was a special person. A sociopath, maybe, but still a special person. And you're right: just think if the war hadn't broken out: she would have led the rest of her life as the wife of a Polish diplomat, attending parties, having affairs, maybe having children.

One other point about sociopaths: people who drop everything for a cause exhibit laudable dedication, but dropping everything is also another sociopathic tell: they often lead their lives, in wartime or not, as if they have nothing to lose.