I’d seen Assange at the Frontline Club the year before, when the first WikiLeaks stories emerged, and he was really interesting but odd, maybe even a bit autistic. 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. The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.
I couldn’t understand the slow and lazy way Assange and WikiLeaks went about things. They always talked about the pressure of work, about how busy they were, but, compared to most journalists, they sat on their arses half the day. 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. He hardly mentioned the right-wing press that called him a criminal and a traitor: he expended all his ire on the journalists who had tried to work with him and who had basic sympathy for his political position. In a bank safe, I have dozens of hours of taped interviews with Assange in which he rails maniacally against the Guardian and the New York Times.
Julian had a way of making himself, in his own eyes, impervious to the small matters that might detain others. If you told him to do the dishes he would say he was trying to free economic slaves in China and had no time to wash up. He stood at the centre of a little amateur empire and any professional incursions, from lawyers, from film-makers, from publishers – all of which he had encouraged – were summarily dismissed. His pride could engulf the room in flames. And if you asked him why he had no experienced people, nobody in their forties or fifties or sixties or seventies working alongside him, authoritative people who might contradict him, he would argue that those people had already been corrupted.
He was also losing touch with promises he had made and contracts he’d signed. His paranoia was losing him support and in a normal organisation, one where other people’s experience was respected and where their value was judged on more than ‘loyalty’, he would have been fired. I would have fired him myself if I hadn’t been there merely to help him straighten out his sentences. But 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.
‘Is this a good use of our time?’ I said it again and again and it had no impact. One of his strategies was to invent, on the spot, new avant-garde styles that the book should adopt. One day he said the book should contain ‘parables’ and he suggested the paragraphs should be numbered, like verses.
Carelessness is a ‘tell’. For months, Julian thought he was in control of his relationship with his publishers, agent, lawyers, and writer, but he was demonstrating every day in a hundred ways that he couldn’t face the book. He’d signed up for it, he was pretending to work on it, but, even before the lies, he was dignifying his denial with higher appointments and legal struggles.
I felt quite sorry for Julian. And I continued to feel sorry for him. He was in a horrible predicament. He had signed up to a project that his basic psychology would not allow. In the smart and admirable way of emotional defence, he dressed his objections in rhetoric and principles, but the reality was much sadder, and much more alarming for him. He didn’t know who to be. His remarks, as always, were ostentatiously conceived and recklessly stated. He didn’t know what to believe.