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Shortly after the arrest, Vivian Hanssen, the spy's mother, now eighty-eight years old, was interviewed in Venice, Florida, where she had been living for nearly thirty years.
"He has always been very honest and upright," she said. There was a pause that grew uncomfortably long before she added: "Bob's father, however, was strict with him. I was easy. But I suppose most families are like that."
From the date of her son's arrest, February 18, 2001, it is fifty-seven years back to 1944, when Robert was born. The father and mother lived at the time in a modest house that they owned, on a street with tall elms, in Norwood, near the northwestern corner of Chicago, and this family of three -- mother, father, and son -- was still living there in 1950, when Robert turned six. He was tall for his age, a thin, gangling boy, terribly nearsighted and forced to wear thick-rimmed glasses with heavy lenses.
On the occasion of this birthday, his mother was giving him a party at home. Robert sat alone while the other children, their mothers in the background, ran around the living room. Vivian, a pretty woman, who also had to wear eyeglasses, did her best to smile at everyone while encouraging Bob to get out of his chair. A paper donkey was pinned to a corkboard on the wall, and it had a lot of tails stuck to it.
As Vivian tried to entice her son back into the game, Howard Hanssen, Bob's father, walked in. He was a well-built, good-looking man, and was dressed in his Chicago police sergeant's uniform --perfect, except for a big red lipstick smear on the collar of his shirt. With his gun on his hip and his way of looking at a person with narrowed eyes, as though he could read every bad thought in their heads, he terrified the kids. They stopped playing and froze. Seeing the paper donkey on the wall, Hanssen walked over, touched the tail pinned to its rear, and patted it.
"Well," he laughed. "One of you kids actually got it in the right place. Who was the winner? Was it you, Bob?"
The boy looked down and shook his head. Vivian slipped over behind him and put her hand on his shoulder.
"Well then, Bob. Where did you put the tail?" asked the father.
Bob knew what was coming. One of the kids would blurt it out. "There," the kid said, pointing. The others all giggled.
"Right in the kisser, eh?" said Howard. He turned to his son. "Tell you what, Bob. I guess you don't know doo-doo from spit!"
All the kids roared with laughter. Tears came into Bob's eyes, and into his mother's as well. Reflexively, Vivian lifted her hand from Bob's shoulder.
Howard left the room without another word to his son. Perhaps he was going to change his shirt. It smelled of perfume.
Later, after the party was over, Howard brought Bob back into the room where the paper donkey was still tacked to the wall.
"When you get into a contest," the father said, "win! That's it. Don't coast on mother-love, boy. There's a tough, ugly, doublecrossing world outside, and the only way to beat it is to win." He spoke as if Bob were on the verge of manhood.
"Yes, sir," Bob succeeded in saying without bursting into tears.
"Yes, sir, my eye! Say it like you mean what you say."
"Yes, sir," Bob repeated, but he couldn't hold it in. He started to sob.
Howard reached out for the blindfold that had been tossed aside after the pin-the-tail game was over and covered Bob's eyes with it. He lifted the boy, flipped him upside down, and grabbed him by the ankles before his head hit the ground. Then he began to whirl him around by his feet.
"You dizzy?" he asked, panting a little with the effort.
"Yes, sir," Bob managed to squeak out.
"All right." Howard set him on his feet and tightened the blindfold. "Now, go pin the tail."
When the boy staggered forward, he missed the donkey entirely. He could feel it. His pin had hit the wall, not even the cork. In a fright, the six-year-old took his blindfold off and began to tremble.
Howard was in a rage. "You don't learn, do you?" He picked up the boy by the ankles again and started whirling him around and around and around.
Robert was screaming. "Daddy, stop it! Please stop it! Please stop it!"
Vivian stood in the next room, bent over the kitchen sink. She was weeping, silently.
The more Robert screamed, the faster Howard whirled him around. "I'll keep on doing this until you stop that sniveling!"
The boy made an effort to stop, but it was weak, and the spinning went on until Howard's rage gave way to shortness of breath. Winded, Howard dropped his kid down on the livingroom rug, upon which the boy immediately threw up. Howard's reaction was a reflex -- it was as if some cheap punk he had just brought into the station was puking in the interrogation room. He put Robert's face into the vomit and then had to fight his impulse to scrub the boy's head back and forth. At that point, he stopped. He pulled the boy up to a standing position and forced his voice to be calm.
"I did this," said Howard, "because I want you to know how bad it feels when you lose. This is how it feels, Robert. Got it?"
Vivian came in timidly from the kitchen.
She was trembling. "You can't do what you're doing to the boy," she managed to say. "He's delicate." Her voice pinched off when she saw the look in her husband's eye, but...Master Spy. Copyright © by Lawrence Schiller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.