While growing up, Scott C. Johnson often wondered what his father did for a living. The family moved a lot. Keith Johnson was absent for extended periods, and there were whole areas of his life that seemed to be secret.
Johnson was 14 when he learned the truth. His father took him aside and said, "Scotty, I'm a spy."
For the younger Johnson, now 39, the admission had far-reaching implications. In his powerful new memoir, "The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA," the Oakland-based author and journalist -- a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek and an Oakland Tribune reporter since 2010 -- writes that secrecy and mistrust became significant parts of his heritage.
In an interview near
Over time, though, the knowledge of his father's work raised complex issues. "There was a feeling of tension," Johnson explained. "It was hard to keep that secret and to navigate that terrain -- to know what I could say and to whom."
As a young boy, Johnson lived with his family in India, Yugoslavia, Pakistan and Camp Peary, a U.S. government compound in Williamsburg, Va. He believed that his father -- an intelligent, charming man who never raised his voice -- was a diplomat. They were close, but in his 20s, Johnson grew increasingly confused about who his dad really was. The book often recounts their relationship in cryptic phone calls, in which the younger Johnson tries to ascertain the exact nature of his father's work -- and gauge whether his highest loyalties were to his family or employer.
"I was having trouble trusting his version of events," he said. "I never stopped loving my father, but I kept wondering: Did I really know him?"
Keith Johnson remains a shadowy figure throughout "The Wolf and the Watchman," whose title was inspired by "Mowgli's Song Against People," a poem from "The Second Jungle Book" by Rudyard Kipling. At its core, Johnson's memoir is about his struggle to establish his own identity. His parents divorced when Scott was just 6. Afterward, the boy alternated living at the homes of each.
After college, he worked various jobs -- teacher, commercial fisherman -- before moving to Paris in 1998. He went to work for Newsweek there. In his 12 years with the magazine, he reported from Afghanistan and Iraq, Mexico, Jordan and South Africa.
Becoming a journalist was a natural, Johnson said -- he loved poetry and writing, had a facility for languages and a passion for travel. He realized there were striking similarities between journalism and spying. "You're out in the world in foreign countries," he said. "Your job is to cultivate people, to be persuasive. You use these human tools, like cajolery, to extract information. That's a carbon copy of what a spy does."
Was he aspiring to replicate a part of father's career, or just doing what came naturally? Johnson wasn't sure. But he admitted his father's influence was always there. "He was my hero," Johnson said. "Aspiring to his world was in my DNA."
So was danger. Johnson's work for Newsweek took him deep into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the book recounts those experiences in often harrowing detail. He narrowly escaped firefights and a kidnapping attempt; in 2006, he survived an IED explosion while riding with Marines in a Humvee. His accounts are a reminder that military personnel aren't alone in putting their lives on the line.
Johnson returned from those experiences traumatized, sinking into a deep depression. "I was having nightmares, anxiety," he said. "I was having real trouble functioning normally." He sought treatment and eventually returned to the job as Newsweek's Africa bureau chief. Through work, he met his wife, Alison, a journalist and editor born in South Africa. The couple married in 2012.
Writing the book didn't answer all of Johnson's questions. He's still in contact with his father, who is 73, retired and living in Washington. Their relationship is solid, he said; his dad has read the book and given it his blessing.
"He had nothing to do with the writing, but he's been very supportive of my efforts to understand our relationship," said the author. "I think writing the book was a cathartic experience for both of us. It allowed us to get closer, to talk about personal things -- to have some breathing room to air our fears, secrets and regrets."
Scott Johnson will discuss and sign his book at 7 p.m. May 23 at Diesel Books, 5433 College Ave., Oakland (510-653-9965, www.dieselbooks.com).
Freelancer Georgia Rowe writes the monthly Books by the Bay column for the Bay Area News Group.
W. W. Norton & Co.
$26.95, 320 pages