Books & Literature

Book Review: With My Little Eye, By Sandra Hogan

NON-FICTION: The incredible true story of a family of spies in the suburbs of 1950s Brisbane.

An interesting read into the life of an Australian spy family
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Sue-Ellen Doherty was born into a family of spies. Her father Dudley and mother Joan worked for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in the 1950s and ’60s.

Their parents trained Sue-Ellen and her two siblings to take part in their work. They were taught to memorise number plates, to spot unusual behaviour, and most importantly, to avoid drawing attention to themselves. The children had to live by a few simple rules: Never lie but keep the whole truth inside the family, don’t make noise, don’t bother Dad for the first half-hour he is home from work, and don’t ask him any questions.

Desperate to learn who her father really was, Sue-Ellen approached Queensland-based journalist Sandra Hogan to help her uncover the truth. After conducting thorough research, they decided to share Sue-Ellen’s story. It’s important to note that, until the writing of this book, the three Doherty children had never spoken to each other about their unusual childhood.

This story offers an interesting insight into what it was like to be a part of ASIO during the cold war. While most spies kept their double life a secret, Dudley and Joan didn’t want to lie to their children. It also offers insight into the psychological mark this life left on the children. To be trusted with such a large secret while having so much information withheld and strict rules to follow, it’s no wonder they spent most of their adult lives wondering what was a dream and what was real.

It wasn’t until ASIO spoke with Joan in April 2011, and confirmed they were now free to talk about the work the Dohertys had done over 50 years ago, that Sue-Ellen could get the answers she had been searching for. Finally, the family could connect, share their experiences, and mend the scars from the past.

I enjoyed the interesting insight into the personal experiences of an ASIO family. It included a good range of examples of the ‘missions’ the family took part in. However, the real focus was on the mental scars Sue-Ellen was left with—how all the secrecy around her family affected her adult life, from making new friends and relationships to her career. 

This is a story of self-discovery as Sue-Ellen attempts to uncover the truth and sort the facts from fiction in her memory. And it’s about learning that the difference between good and evil isn’t so black and white.

While overall I found the book interesting and informative, I found some areas lacking. Since there was so much secrecy surrounding Dudley’s work, some of the information was speculative. By the end of the book, Sue-Ellen realises that not all her memories are accurate, which left me with the impression that she is an unreliable narrator. Not something I enjoy in a non-fiction memoir.

It’s important to note Hogan verified as much information as she could with the Australian National University who completed research on ASIO history.  I also would have liked to have heard more from Joan in relation to her experiences and feelings about her unique life. 

Reviewed by Jessica Incoll
Twitter: @littlejadventur

Distributed by: Allen and Unwin
Released: February 2021
RRP: $29.99

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