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  • Michel Martin, NPR

Plame Wilson Makes Fighting Postpartum New Mission

Years before CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's cover was blown in a newspaper column, she faced a private struggle with postpartum depression. After giving birth to twins, she suffered from debilitating sleep deprivation and emotional strain. Host Michel Martin speaks with Plame Wilson about how she got help and her new mission.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, a special Moms conversation with Valerie Plame Wilson. She's a former covert operative for the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency. Nearly 10 years ago, she was at the center of a national controversy after her identity was revealed in a newspaper column.

Former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was eventually convicted of charges in connection with the leak, a leak which was reportedly in retaliation for a column her husband wrote questioning the Bush administration's rationale for the Iraq war.

That leak effectively ended Valerie Plame Wilson's career as a covert operative. That's a story she later told in the memoir, "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House."

In that book, she also revealed her struggle with postpartum depression after her twins were born in 2000. But rather than quietly celebrate her recovery, she has decided to use her platform to educate others about postpartum depression. She's now the honorary chair of the Board of Postpartum Support Virginia. And Valerie Plame Wilson joins us now.

Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

VALERIE PLAME WILSON: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Well, how are you doing? You look great.


WILSON: I'm doing very well, and it's nice to come back to Washington in the springtime with everything in bloom, although we are very happy in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

MARTIN: Well, I'm glad to hear that. As we mentioned, you became famous against your will after you were identified as a covert operative in 2003. But we want to focus on your life before that when you disclosed in your memoir that you suffered from postpartum depression after the twins were born.

And I wanted to ask: How did you know what was happening? I mean, one of the things that you prided yourself on, as I recall from your memoir, is that you were tough. You had really strong coping skills. And so how did you sense that something was wrong?

WILSON: Well, in the CIA, they recruit you to be an officer, an ops officer, in part due to how well you cope with stress and how well you adapt to new situations. And I thought I had that pretty well covered. I loved my career. I loved what I was doing. I was working on nuclear proliferation and the nexus with terrorism, and so forth.

So, when I was happily married and found myself pregnant, I just thought that this would be just the next, normal chapter. I was absolutely thrilled. So what a surprise it was when it turned out to be the hardest thing I've ever done.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip here. Your story was adapted into the movie "Fair Game" two years ago. Here's a clip of Naomi Watts, who played you in the film, describing a training exercise in the CIA.


NAOMI WATTS: (as Valerie Plame) We were bound, hooded and thrown into separate cells. They deprived us of sleep, beat us. All we had to do was give up the name of one of the others. Just one name. They push you until they find it, until they find the point at which you break. And, one by one, everybody broke except me, and that made me feel special. You can't break me. I don't have a breaking point.

MARTIN: Is that about right? Is that, in a way, what made it kind of harder to identify, is that you just didn't think - this couldn't possibly be happening to me?

WILSON: Well, that's what I thought. There's a reason they use sleep deprivation as a torture device in training and, unfortunately, in real life. And - because when you have that sleep deprivation, you're who you are, and your reactions completely break down. And, of course, it's normal when you have a new baby to have everything disrupted. Everything is just tossed upside down.

I had twins, but I was - I also had them rather late in life. So the hormonal and chemical changes in my body and the sleep deprivation, I found myself spiraling down and I had no idea what was happening and...

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, if you don't mind - and I recognize this is personal. How bad did it get? I mean, did you fear you would harm yourself or your children?


MARTIN: Was it - just felt like you couldn't...

WILSON: No. I did experience...

MARTIN: ...get up in the morning and you felt like, I just can't go another day, or what?

WILSON: I wasn't crying. I wasn't experiencing those extremes. What I do remember - and a lot of it is a blur - is I just wanted to go away, which made no sense, logically, because I had married the love of my life. I had two beautiful babies. We had supportive families and, you know, it didn't make any sense. Why was I feeling this way? Empty. And I had very little emotional response. It was all dulled.

And it took me quite a while to recognize that I didn't understand myself. What was I experiencing?

MARTIN: What happened when you went to get help, and what kind of help did you get?

WILSON: Typically, a new mother will go to her doctor six weeks postpartum, which I did, and I was feeling this way but I couldn't even articulate exactly. And I was a little ashamed, you know, because everyone is saying to you, oh, those babies are so beautiful. This must be the happiest time of your life. And inside you're going, actually, it's not. So when the doctor sort of glanced up from the clipboard that she was holding to, you know, go through, OK, this, this and this, she said, well, how are you - I just sort of croaked, oh, fine, fine.

I mean who is going to say: Really? I had no idea this is what I was signing up for. This is horrible - when I finally got to that point, OK, I need to find probably a psychiatrist who specializes in these perinatal mood disorders, and so I went through the phonebook. And I was asking insurance doctors that carried, doctors that had this insurance that would specialize in this. You would've thought that I was asking for a doctor with three arms. They were like what, you know...

MARTIN: You're suggesting that something that is in fact fairly common, or at least is well-known, is somehow still mysterious or not recognized or...

WILSON: This was in the year 2000 in Washington, D.C. You would think that we would have a little more recognition. Twenty percent of new mothers experience mood disorders, anxiety, depression. I mean it manifests itself in many, many ways around the birth of a child. For many women it does resolve itself, that's what's called the baby blues. For others it goes further, as mine was deeper and harsher. And then for a small fraction, which we always read about in the worst possible ways, they harm themselves or harm their children.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Valerie Plame Wilson. She's the former CIA operative whose identity was revealed in 2003 against her will. She became a national figure as a result of that.

What made it better for you? And do you have any advice that you can offer others? And I recognize you're not a medical professional, but based on your experience and your research in this area, what do you recommend for others who are listening to this and thinking, wow, that could be me or someone I care about?

WILSON: Sure. There is a very easy diagnosis, diagnostic tool that doctors and other medical professionals can use to understand that. There should be protocols for screening, not just the baby at six weeks, but the mom for emotional health issues - not just it's OK to have sex with your husband again.


WILSON: I did go on medication - antidepressant - and I got off of them about a year after my babies were born, and I finally felt that I was sort of getting my sea legs - if you will - in this new world of motherhood. So I said here I am, I have financial resources, I have an education, I have a loving family. If it was that hard for me, imagine what it's like for women that don't have a fraction of what I am fortunate to have in my life. So I started a postpartum support group and I started reaching out, because it was hard. It was a hard time. And that's sort of code for going, man, we didn't know what the heck we were doing.

MARTIN: Can I ask, though, how this affected your work? How do you think it affected your work?

WILSON: That's a good question. I took some time off after the babies were born, and I certainly needed it more than I understood to grapple with this and come to terms with it and get help. So when I did go back to work, while I wouldn't wish it on anyone, I really felt I was much more empathetic. I was a much richer person for the experience. And in terms of my work, which is always about - in human intelligence - finding out what makes the other person tick, what are their motivations, it gave me a whole new set of experiences to weigh against. And I, as I said, I wouldn't wish it on anyone but I had it and it's made me a better person as a result.

MARTIN: Yeah. A better understanding of the nuances of the human behavior...


MARTIN: ...and the continuum of behavior.

WILSON: It's called growing up and maturing.

MARTIN: So in the time that we have left, I did want to ask about just what happened after.

WILSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, the big it.

WILSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Your identity was revealed in 2003 in a syndicated column by the late, you know, Robert Novak. And I wanted to ask, did you sense at the time when you read that that it was going to change everything? Did you know then?

WILSON: I did. I knew in an instant reading it very early one morning, when my husband came into our bedroom, tossed the paper on the bed. As you sometimes have those moments in life, you know that everything that comes after and everything that was before are completely different. I didn't know how it would unfold, but I knew deeply. So it's been quite a journey but we've rebuilt our professional lives and our personal lives. And my twin, our twins are now 12 years old. And as much if it's lovely to come visit Washington, D.C., I'm really glad we don't live here anymore.

MARTIN: If you knew then, earlier in your career what you know now, do you think you'd still want to join the agency and do the work that you did?

WILSON: Oh, I would. I love my career. I was so proud to serve my country. And I always make it a point when I speak to students, despite what happened to me, we really need the best and the brightest to consider public service. So I really try to urge all of them as they go out into the big wide world to - it doesn't have to be the CIA or the State Department, there's many ways to contribute. But our democracy depends deeply, vitally, on those that are willing to be engaged, and public service is a way of doing that.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?

WILSON: I am writing a spy thriller. It's called(ph) "Blowback," fictional account about - surprise - a female CIA officer, and it will come out around the holidays. And I'm working with a group called Global Zero on nuclear proliferation issues. But my real job, as I say, is really driving around my 12-year-old kids.


MARTIN: No doubt. No doubt.


MARTIN: No doubt. Valerie Plame Wilson is a former CIA operative. She was outed in 2003 and she chronicled that story in her memoir, "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House." That was later turned into a major motion picture called "Fair Game." She's also honorary chair of the board of Postpartum Support Virginia. And, as she told us, she's working on a new novel, and hopefully she'll come back and talk to us about that. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Valerie Plame Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thank you for having me.

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