Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey, by Kati Marton

By Jane Ciabattari

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC president Jane Ciabattari discusses autobiography finalist Kati Marton's Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey (Simon & Schuster)

Kati Marton's memoir, Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey, captures the intrigue and suspense of a Cold War spy thriller, but it is a personal story with powerful repercussions.

Marton, the author of six books, a former foreign correspondent for ABC News, and a longtime human rights activist, was born in Hungary. As a child of six, she recalls her home being invaded by the AVO, Hungary’s secret police. Her father was taken away to prison; four months later they came for her mother, leaving Kati and her older sister in the hands of foster parents hired by the state. Her parents—Endre Marton, who wrote about Eastern Europe for the Associated Press, and Ilona Marton, who wrote for its rival, the United Press-—were flagrantly pro-American and considered possible US spies. Her parents escaped thanks to American diplomacy and news media, and brought Kati and her sister to the US to grow up.

In 2005, after her parents' deaths, Marton returned to Hungary to uncover their secret service files. Sitting in the elegant palazzo that was the birthplace of the terror state, she sorted through shopping carts of files. Her greatest fear was discovering “some act of compromise or betrayal that would shatter forever my image of my parents.” The foremost historian of the AVO, the Hungarian secret police, had warned her that she was “opening a Pandora's box,” when she first applied for access to the files. “But I wanted to know the truth about my parents, about what had really happened in Budapest, in those distant Cold War days, when my sister and I were children,” she writes.

Her parents’ file, one of the thickest, documents 20 years of surveillance by everyone in their circle from the governess and the dentist to American embassy and her father’s cell-mate. Digging further, Marton discovers that surveillance continued for 10 years after her parents left Budapest, and that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had them under surveillance, as well.

Marton writes with a journalist’s clarity as she describes her discovery of intimate details of her childhood and her parent’s lives locked up in those files, along with evidence of betrayals and brutality, and of generosity and courage. Humming beneath the surface of her journey is a yearning to restore the precious security of daily life she recalls from her Hungarian childhood, before the terror state turned her country into an accumulation of informers and forced her family into exile.

To see a video of Kati Marton in conversation with Volker Schlondörff (courtesy Daily Beast and NYPL), click here.

To read an excerpt from Enemies of the People, click here.