I Was Julian Assange’s Ghost Writer: The Fantastic Story Of ‘Swedish Whores, Pentagon Bores And Being Hitler
ANDREW O’Hagan’s wonderful essay on ghost writing Julian Assange’s autobiography is better than any book on the Wikileak’s puiblisher.
Highlights from it are:
Assange didn’t want to write the book himself but didn’t want the book’s ghostwriter to be anybody who already knew a lot about him. I told Jamie that I’d seen Assange at the Frontline Club the year before, when the first WikiLeaks stories emerged, and that he was really interesting but odd, maybe even a bit autistic. Jamie agreed, but said it was an amazing story. ‘He wants a kind of manifesto, a book that will reflect this great big generational shift.’
At 5.30 the next day Jamie arrived at my flat with his editorial colleague Nick Davies. (Mental health warning: there are two Nick Davies in this story. This one worked for Canongate; the second is a well-known reporter for the Guardian.) They had just come back on the train from Norfolk. Jamie said that Assange had poked his eye with a log or something, so had sat through three hours of discussion with his eyes closed.
He [Assange] said he’d hoped to have something that read like Hemingway. ‘When people have been put in prison who might never have had time to write, the thing they write can be galvanising and amazing. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in prison.’ He admitted it wasn’t a great book but it wouldn’t have been written if Hitler had not been put away…
I asked him if he had a working title yet and he said, to laughter, ‘Yes. “Ban This Book: From Swedish Whores to Pentagon Bores”.’ It was interesting to see how he parried with some notion of himself as a public figure, as a rock star really, when all the activists I’ve ever known tend to see themselves as marginal and possibly eccentric figures. Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn’t see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted…
He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop. Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions… Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom….
‘Maybe it should be experimental,’ he said, ‘like chapter one has one word; chapter two has two words …’
He wanted his book to be like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
Julian’s favourite activity was following what people – especially his ‘enemies’ – were saying about him on the internet. When I told him I’d sooner cut my balls off than Google myself, he found a high-minded reason for explaining why it was important for him to know what other people were saying.
Julian treated his supporters as subjects, and learned nothing when they walked away…
I picked up my papers and went into the dining room with Julian. After a little while, Sarah joined us. I wanted to discuss the book’s structure. Julian said we should consider having a chapter called ‘Women’.
‘I thought this was going to be like a manifesto,’ Sarah said.
Julian bristled slightly. They were a proper couple: flirting and fighting and not-saying. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘but with personal history woven through.’
‘I just think …’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘Don’t worry.’ She turned to me. ‘He’s got such appalling, sleazy stories about women you wouldn’t believe it. I don’t want to hear all that.’
‘Hold on,’ he said.
‘No. Sorry. I don’t think that’s what the book’s about, your stories of sleeping with women.’….
He wanted again to discuss Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who had worked with him on the initial newspaper deal to publish the leaks. ‘The problem was he was in love with me,’ said Julian. ‘Not sexually. But just in love with me. Like I was this younger guy he wanted to be.’ He said the same thing about the Icelandic politician and activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir: ‘She was in love with me.’ I knew from then on that any understanding of him would involve a recognition of his narcissism. ‘I went to the local pub,’ he said, ‘and the people in the bar were gossiping about me, while I was there. One of them said: “The local ladies will be pleased.”’
What Julian lacked in efficiency or professionalism he made up for in courage. What he lacked in carefulness he made up for in impact. In our overnight conversations, he told me about the mindset of the expert hacker.
…his sentences too were infected with his habits of self-regard and truth-manipulation. The man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own. The story of his life mortified him and sent him scurrying for excuses. He didn’t want to do the book. He hadn’t from the beginning.
I sat back and watched. The night of Sarah’s birthday there was champagne and jokes, but it ended with Julian and Sarah poring over the WikiLeaks book written by David Leigh and Luke Harding, which had been published that day. Sarah would read out the ‘bad bits’, and he would say, ‘it’s disgusting,’ or ‘that’s malicious libel.’ I thought it was all quite lowering, the book’s interest in his sex life and their interest in the book’s interest. ‘It says here you carried abortion pills around with you that were really just sugar pills.’
Sarah: ‘And that you set out to impregnate girls. It says you said to one of them you would call their baby “Afghanistan”. Well, that does sound like you. I’ve heard you say that sort of thing, about naming babies after your campaigns. But you wouldn’t leave all these girls to have babies on their own, would you?’
Sarah: ‘I’m just asking. Have you been at the births of all your children?’
Julian: ‘All except one.’
But I thought he only had one son?
His vanity and the organisation’s need for money couldn’t resist the project, but he never really considered the outcome, that I’d be there, making marks on a page that would in some way represent this process. The issue of control never became real to Julian. He should have felt worried about what he was supplying, but he never did – he had in this, as in everything, a broad illusion of control. Only once did he turn to me and show a glint of understanding. ‘People think you’re helping me write my book,’ he said, ‘but actually I’m helping you write your novel.’
Even if you were the most radical dude on campus, there was always some tight hippie ready to tell you you were bourgeois for liking, say, Earl Grey tea or for reading Anthony Powell. In that same vein, Julian scorns all attempts at social graces. He eats like a pig. He marches through doors and leaves women in his wake. He talks over everybody. And all his life he has depended on being the impish one, the eccentric one, the boy with a bag full of Einstein who liked climbing trees. But, as a forty-year-old, that’s less charming, and I found his egotism at the dinner table to be a form of madness more striking than anything he said.
There’s a big fan-base out there. They will buy this book if it contains the right message and inspires them…It needs to be more like Ayn Rand.’
There’s a distinct lack of clarity in Julian’s approach, a lack that is, I’m afraid, only reinforced by the people he has working with him. Only today, he sent me an email – hearing I was writing this piece – telling me it was illegal for me to speak out without what he called ‘appropriate consultation’ with him.