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Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Ryan Hillsberg: A Letter to My Son About Staying Out of Danger

In the CIA, where Ryan Hillsberg worked for more than a decade, they call it "getting off the X." There's no better skill for a dad to impart.

Fatherly’Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words.

Dear Hunter,

I once asked you who you would save if there was an emergency in your school and you could only save one person. “Michael,” you said, naming your best friend before quickly revising your answer. “Wait, no! Lena!”

Your mom and I couldn’t help but laugh at your sister’s miffed response upon hearing you’d save your friend before you’d save her. 

Only moments ago, when you were out of the room, I asked Lena the same question, and without hesitation, she named you as the one person she’d grab if she had to get off the X. Although we laughed at your response, we are confident that if there was an actual emergency, we could count on you to take care of your sister. 

I knew this because I had been instilling in you, as I’ve done with your siblings, the idea of “getting off the X” since you were old enough to understand the concept. “Get off the X” is a technique I learned years ago at the CIA’s covert training facility, The Farm. The X represents any type of danger — a person, thing, environment, etc. — and the longer you stay on it, the more likely it is you’ll be harmed. The CIA trains you to move away from the X as quickly as possible. That includes doing things like listening to your gut and visualizing your escape route beforehand. When emergencies happen, people often freeze, not knowing what to do. 

That’s why I taught you what it means to listen to the hairs that stand up on the back of your neck and to be aware of exits in case you need to make a quick escape. We’re giving you your best chance to survive in the unlikely event you were to find yourself in a dangerous situation. 

In addition to these techniques, I’ve also emphasized the importance of listening and acting quickly when there is an alarm telling you to leave a building or location. You shouldn’t assume it’s a drill. There was a study on the survivors of the 9/11 attacks that found that 90 percent of the survivors delayed their evacuation from the World Trade Center buildings, sometimes by nearly a half hour, to do things like save their work or shut down their computers.

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If you ever can’t get off the X, I want to be sure you understand the fragility of the human body. I’ve been trying to teach you that ever since you could wrestle with me on the floor. You need to understand that what you see in the movies and in video games is not realistic, and in fact, it’s the opposite. Real life isn’t like the movies, in which someone can be punched multiple times and get back up. And that’s why I’ll pause a film so that we can discuss it. I have to remind you it’s not real life. In fact, a person could be killed by much lesser trauma, sometimes only one punch. 

When you learn the fragility of the human body, you can better understand why fighting for your life is the worst-case scenario. I would prefer you avoid the dangerous situation altogether by getting off the X. I want you to have realistic expectations about what you’re capable of surviving so that you can make smart decisions in emergencies and not put yourself at a higher risk, unnecessarily.

Even more than some of the physical skills I learned while working at the CIA, you must learn the importance of trust and loyalty. Much of the CIA’s training has a primary goal in mind: making sure the intelligence asset is safe. Operations Officers conduct surveillance detection routes to and from their meetings to ensure they aren’t being followed by the local security service. The people who choose to have a clandestine relationship with the CIA are often doing so at great risk to themselves and their families. Ensuring you arrive at a meeting alone is critical to keeping them safe and alive. Moreover, operations officers don’t reveal their source’s name, even to other CIA officers unless they have what’s called a “need to know.”

In the same way the CIA protects its assets, I want you to protect your greatest assets in life: your loved ones. I began teaching you this concept by using the phrase “I promise” sparingly. And on the rare occasion when I did say it, I always followed through. Perhaps not so sparingly, I use the phrase “I’m sorry,” because when you’re building trust with someone, the ability to admit you’re wrong, especially as a parent, can go a long way. Placing an emphasis on trust in our family allowed me to share my biggest secret when you and each of your siblings turned eight years old—Dad was a spy. I had no doubt I could trust you with this information, and in fact, sharing it with you even further cemented our family’s bond.

At the end of the day, I want you to understand that it’s not just the quick-thinking skills I’ve taught you from my time as a spy to keep you physically safe that are important. It’s about more than that. I want you to use those skills to protect your loved ones when you can. I like to say that life is all about relationships — and I don’t just mean the clandestine ones between nation-states and foreign actors. If there’s an emergency scenario, I know without a doubt, Hunter, that you will protect your family members, myself included. In fact, if I had to choose who I’d want by my side in that situation, you would be at the top of my list.

Love,

Dad

Ryan Hillsberg is the co-author, with Christina Hillsberg, of License to Parent: How My Career As a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids. Both are former CIA intelligence officers who later transitioned to the private sector. They live near Seattle, Washington, with their five children and two Rhodesian Ridgebacks