Julian Assange: A Ghost Even to Himself?

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What's going on in there? Photo: BEN STANSALL/2011 AFP

The novelist and essayist Andrew O'Hagan spent the better part of a year working as Julian Assange's ghostwriter, before Assange's inattention and ambivalence about writing a book at all sabotaged the project. O'Hagan has now written a long memoir of the experience, which is the most intimate and trustworthy description of Assange to yet appear. Some supporters of WikiLeaks argue that all of the attention paid to Assange's peculiar character is a distraction from the substance of his work, but the more up-close accounts of Assange that have been published, O'Hagan's now chief among them, the more inextricable from his personality his work comes to seem. O'Hagan's essay, in the current issue of the London Review of Books, is titled "Ghosting," and that is the dominant image the novelist chooses: Of the impossibility of writing on behalf of a man who is spectral himself, who for all his fame and conviction has little sense of who he is, who sees himself only as a "a ghost in the machine, walking through the corridors of power and switching off the lights." What that image — the ghost in the corridor — captures perfectly is the idea Assange presented of himself, the hacker stealthy and empowered, the agent of disruption. But this image seems less satisfying the deeper you get into the history of WikiLeaks — it seems like the propaganda version of Assange rather than the real one. O’Hagan suggests the truth may be a bit simpler — that Assange grasped so eagerly for a persona because he didn’t have a clue who he was. Not a ghost in the machine, but something more elusive and spectral still: a ghost even to himself.

The months that O'Hagan spent with Assange were rich in scenery: The Australian, world-famous but under house arrest, was cooped up with a few acolytes in a rambling British manor house, his girlfriend dispatched to check the bushes for assassins. The general shape of Assange's character — romantic, uncultured, childish, narcissistic — has long been established. O'Hagan confirms the general picture, though in his hands, Assange's weirdness is even more intense. "I made lunch every day and he'd eat it, often with his hands, and then lick the plate," O'Hagan writes.

But the book project dissolves, over the course of O'Hagan's story — Assange rants about the publishers and lawyers who are out to get him, claims he has extensively marked up O'Hagan's draft but then will not produce the edit, sabotages interview sessions, and then fixes on the conviction that instead of the autobiography he had contracted to produce he will deliver a manifesto, a description of his ideas. (The publishers predictably nixed this.) When Assange tries to cut descriptions of his own life on the grounds that they will make him look "weak," O'Hagan comes to suspect that Assange, having been paid to assemble the story of his own life, has no story to tell.

"He dressed his objections in rhetoric and principles, but the reality was much sadder, and much more alarming for him," O'Hagan writes. "He didn’t know who to be."

From the outset, Assange himself has been the central author of the Assange myth — of the story in which the Australian is so completely an outsider that he seems less a character in a novel than a figure in a philosophical hypothetical, that the depths of his alienation from society make him destined to tell outsize truths. (The revelation at the end of The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon's based-in-fact biopic, is that Assange dyes his own hair white, perhaps in order to make himself seem stranger and more alien.) Here is how Assange described his childhood to the journalist Raffi Khatchadourian in 2010: “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels.” Assange told Khatchadourian that he and his mother had been tracked through his teens by a cult with moles in the government. In the excerpts that have surfaced of the autobiographical novel Assange once wrote (he calls the Assange character "Mendax," which is the hacker nom-de-guerre Assange used in real life), the Australian styles himself almost a video-game figure, an avatar: “Mendax dreamed of police raids all the time. He dreamed of footsteps crunching on the driveway gravel, of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness, of a gun-toting police squad bursting through his backdoor at 5 am.”

There are now a fairly large number of people who were once close to Assange and who continue to believe in the WikiLeaks project, but have fallen out with the Australian personally because of the sheer difficulty of dealing with him. To O'Hagan, add the celebrity journalist Jemima Khan, the Icelandic politician Brigitta Jonsdottir, the ex-WikiLeakers Daniel Domscheit-Berg and James Ball, and many other writers and thinkers. Among this group, the common lament is that Assange's personality doomed his cause — that if he had simply been more capable of listening to other people, less certain that his allies were plotting against him, able to comprehend that young Swedish women did not necessarily want to have sex with him, then perhaps he would not be locked up in an Ecuadorian embassy and WikiLeaks would be an enduring force for truth and transparency in global politics. There is a regret, as O'Hagan puts it, over "how far all this had taken us from the work WikiLeaks had started out doing."

That's one way of looking at it. Another is that the work WikiLeaks had started out doing would never have happened if not for Assange's own self-aggrandizing character. I mean this in two ways. First, one of the most unusual features of the Manning and Snowden episodes has been — given the comparatively low security clearances each man enjoyed, and the obviously shocking material they uncovered — that no one preceded them, that there weren't a hundred Snowdens and Mannings first, that details of the murderous conduct of American troops and the NSA's overreach took so long to be exposed. Second, had Assange not been goading the press from the sidelines, suggesting that his scoops were of a profound historical importance, it is not at all clear that the public response would have been as outraged as it was. (Consider, for instance, the New York Times' first day coverage of the Afghan war logs, in which news of the major war crimes the logs contained is barely detectable.) These three figures — Assange, Manning, and Snowden — have been widely derided for the detectable traces of alienation, narcissism, and strangeness in their personalities. But given the context, it seems possible that their alienation from other people is part of what compelled them to see the excesses of the state more clearly, and to broadcast their evidence more loudly — that their alienation was a feature, not a bug.

None of which does much to illuminate the nature of Assange's character, of what is behind this grasping construction of a two-dimensional persona. Perhaps the Australian suffered from a “great sentimental wound,” O’Hagan hypothesizes, like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. But that’s a guess, and O’Hagan doesn’t seem to have much certainty about it.

But I do think that we have underestimated the tragedy of Assange a little bit, as the reports of his self-involvement and obsessiveness and endless capacity for mistaking the big picture for the small have mounted. To see Assange as O'Hagan leaves him — "like a cornered animal in the embassy," fixated on the undulations of his public reputation and fame, declaring himself to be the third-greatest hacker on earth — is to feel a twinge of complicity, as one does with Chelsea Manning, as one does with the now-disgraced U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter. It isn't simply, as O'Hagan suggests, that the Australian's character is a cardboard construction, erected to fill a void, and that it wasn't up to the task of fame. It is that in some ways the rest of us needed someone willing to be exactly as two-dimensional as Assange was — that we benefited from what broke him.

Correction: This piece originally stated that Paul Greengrass directed The Fifth Estate, and that Assange is living at the Swedish Embassy.