THE UNAUTHORISED AUTOBIOGRAPHY
BY JULIAN ASSANGE
When Julian Assange signed the contract for an autobiography with the small publishing house of Canongate, he announced, with characteristic immodesty: “I hope this will become one of the unifying documents of our generation.”
The eminent author Andrew O’Hagan was assigned the job of ghosting it. He recorded more than 50 hours of interviews with Assange, and completed a first draft. Assange then had second thoughts, and told Canongate he didn’t want it to publish anything, declaring: “All memoir is prostitution.” When the impecunious Canongate asked for its first tranche of money (£420,000) back, Assange said he had already used it to settle his legal bills.
Against Assange’s wishes, Canongate decided to go ahead and publish it anyway, billing it The Unauthorised Autobiography and rushing it out without the author’s knowledge. Assange was furious, and denounced Canongate as “profiteering”. Far from unifying an entire generation, Assange’s autobiography has failed even to unify the author and his publisher.
It’s all part of a syndrome. Friends are always letting him down. His memoir is packed full of former friends who then become enemies. The word “enemies” is peppered throughout. It even pops up in the second sentence. The first sentence deals with his birth, and the second reads: “One day I would meet my enemies and they would hate me for wanting the truth.”
Julian Assange was born in the unimaginatively named Townsville in North Queensland (“a conformist kind of place”). His mother was a hippy who rode a motorbike and earned money painting faces at fairs. She met his father on an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Sydney, and broke up with him soon after.
Assange treats his own birth and childhood with great reverence. All his description lacks is three wise men and the full complement of shepherds. His grandmother “remembers my sense of dreamy wonderment” while, as a baby, he himself “just breathed curiosity”.
“My first word was ‘Why?’” he recalls. “It was also my favourite.” Could this really be true? I suppose we must take his word for it, but it seems more likely that it was a mis-hearing of “whaaaargh!”
His mother takes up with Brett Assange, “a travelling theatre guy”, who gives his surname to Julian - his real name is Julian Shipton. This is less dashing than Julian Assange, and much less dashing than Julian D’Assange, which was the name a former colleague (now, needless to say, enemy) revealed Julian used to have on his business card.
One day, their house burns down. It is his first real memory, but, even as a toddler, Julian sensed a conspiracy afoot. “It was all very sinister, and the fire brigade took 40 minutes ... The locals seemed to take a certain delight in the idea of pretension and daring getting their comeuppance.”
The young Julian enjoys using a magnifying glass to set fire to ants. He spends his childhood on the move. He attends “well over” 30 different schools, which works out at roughly a new school every term. Can this be true? At one of them, he confronts an “obnoxious little girl who wouldn’t share her scooter ... In accordance with the school’s philosophy, I decided to express myself without hindrance, so I hit the girl over the head with a hammer. This caused a giant fuss, of course, and I had to leave, although the girl was fine.”
Whoah! I wonder whether it was reading passages like this in the first draft that prompted second thoughts in Assange? It’s one thing to talk about hitting a little girl over the head with a hammer when you’re chatting away to a ghostwriter, but quite another thing to read those same words in cold print, and realise they will shortly be read by millions of people who had previously imagined you stood for love and peace.
Assange likes to paint himself as a bit of a rebel. “I started wearing my hair long in spite of injunctions not to ... I decided to dispense with shoes altogether and the teachers considered this to be a crime.” Around this time, his mother leaves Brett Assange for someone called Leif Meynell, a member of a cult that believes that a Melbourne housewife - alas, not Dame Edna - is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and that, moreover, the world is shortly due to end.
Leif is apparently a bad hat. He punches young Julian in the face. In turn, Julian pulls a knife on Leif. Julian and his mother run away, with Leif chasing after them. Heroic Julian finally confronts him - “let’s just say I knew I could waste him and he appeared to know it too” - and Leif is never seen again.
Aged 16, Julian gets his first computer, a Commodore 64. It is his road to Damascus. “This really was the future, and I wanted to understand it.” We are now on page 55: from here on, the passages dealing with his childhood - vivid, though with the slightly unreal air of myth-making come to an end, and it’s computers, computers, computers all the way, together with an ever-increasing army of enemies.
Computers are his one true love. He writes about his Commodore 64 as Abelard once wrote about Heloise. “It was the computer I spoke with, or spoke through ... With a computer ... you disappear into something larger and you serve it as best you can ... I was 16 and my time had come.”
I hack, therefore I am. His computer offers the young Julian the sense he is at the centre of the world (“I always knew I was different”) and part of an elite. He starts hacking into a computer in the Pentagon, along with “an elite group of computer explorers, working at a high level”.
From here on, and for the next 200-odd pages, the book is a relentless and repetitive mixture of a) hacking into computers and b) hacking off colleagues. He often reads like the ranting, self-obsessed anti-hero of a Ruth Rendell novel, or the loveless paranoid spinster in Zoe Heller’s Notes On A Scandal: “Opponents past and present have the same essential weakness about them: first they want to use you, then they want to be you, then they want to snuff you out ... Usually it ends with these people enumerating one’s personal faults, a shocking, ungrateful, unmanly effort, to be filed under despicable in my book. You’ll be meeting more of these people in due course, but I’ve been meeting them all my life.”
By the end, the snowball of these ungrateful people who have let him down has transformed into an avalanche. His deputy on Wikileaks is “increasingly obnoxious”, Washington correspondents are “basically stupid”, Guardian journalists are, among much else, “greedy, reckless, damn-them-all bandits” and “lily-livered gits” and the editor of The New York Times is “a moral pygmy”.
And what of the two women who accused him of rape? They were either upset that he “wasn’t paying enough attention to them, or ringing them back” or else they were part of an “agenda” that “had been rigged from the start”. He can’t quite decide which. Either way, women are to blame: “Sweden is one of the few countries where hardcore feminism has entered the mainstream.”
Throughout the book, he exhibits the extreme solipsist’s skewed sense of an overriding moral superiority: I did it, so it must be right. His beliefs are at the service of his computer skills rather than vice versa.
Irritated by the revving of cars at the traffic lights outside his house in Melbourne, he hacks into the city traffic system and places them on permanent green. Did this result in chaos or accidents? He doesn’t say, because it clearly doesn’t concern him.
For a man who hopes to unify a generation, his philosophical musings are peculiarly flip and shallow. “You don’t steal information ... if I have a look at your watch, I’m not mugging you, I just want to know the time.” It’s hardly Martin Luther King. But at least he is right about one thing: for his sake this autobiography would have been better left unpublished. - Mail on Sunday