Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl: My friendship with Julian Assange

Julian Assange is my friend, confidant and inspiration. He was a friend to my husband Peter and I for more than 25 years. Regardless of time and distance, he always remained at the forefront of our minds and close to our hearts. He is protective, loyal, and has always offered unending kindness and support to those who matter to him. This was not only evident in our friendships with him, but in the other close friendships he has had along the way.

Julian receives so much media attention for his role as founder of Wikileaks, together with his political and public life. As with all public figures, it seems people either want to put him on a pedestal or condemn him as a monster. Sadly, the reality of Julian as an actual person is lost in these simplistic assessments of his character and his work. This is true even more so, because, unlike many other public figures, Julian has autism spectrum disorder, which makes him even harder for many people to relate to.

Julian is a wonderful and complex person, but like all of us, he is also a flawed and fallible man. He has a brilliant mind, a generosity of spirit, intense focus, a strong sense of justice, and a passion and drive to improve the world for his fellow human beings. Likewise, Julian is beautifully flawed: he can be aloof, stubborn, and, at times, impetuous; he can be socially awkward, is a terrible dancer, always late, and very messy. Julian also has his quirks. His favourite film is the Dr Strangelove, he can go days without sleep, he can drink more milk in a day than most people I know, and, above all, he thinks outside the box in ways I haven’t seen before. At the same time, he’s surprisingly ordinary: he loves Pink Floyd, board games, and Japanese food; he’s an avid reader, and he isn’t above a bit of harmless gossip about people in our social circle.

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The first time I met Julian, I visited his house with a mutual friend named Luke, who needed to help him with a server upgrade. It was the mid-1990s and at the time he hosted the Victorian arm of Suburbia.net — Australia’s first public access internet provider. From the outside, the house was just like any other boring old, white single-fronted weatherboard terrace in the leafy suburb of Hawthorn. But as soon as you crossed the threshold, you were met with the unmistakable sound of dial-up modems with their mysterious beeps, twangs, tings, pings, and, finally, a loud crash of static. Venturing down the long hallway to the far end of the house, you’d reached the dark living room and be greeted by a steel frame — one that housed at least 10 dial-up modems and a huge computer server. On any other day, Julian would be sitting in front of his monitor, the blue glow of the monitor whitewashing his already pale skin. It was often the only light in the room.

On this day, however, he greeted Luke and I at the front door. He was tall and thin, with grey-blue eyes and long silver hair, and he wore faded blue jeans with ripped knees, and a plain white dress shirt. He had such remarkable presence, but his deep voice — which has always reminded me of Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam — was soft and quiet. He gave us a clipped ‘hello’ before he turned and walked down the hallway without gesturing for us to follow. By the time we made it down the hallway to the living room, it was clear that this man was not only socially awkward, but that he was nervous about having a stranger in his home with whom he was now forced to interact with. Small talk has never been his strong point. Eventually he thawed. He became enthusiastic and animated, as he explained how he’d come to host Australia’s first ISP and his motivations for doing so. Even then, he had such a strong belief in the public’s right know about and debate actions of large institutions, and to have access to the world of information that the internet had to offer. More than that though, he wanted to promote community within the burgeoning Melbourne internet scene and bring people together to discuss and exchange ideas.

As our friendship grew over subsequent years, Julian was a major source of encouragement and support to me. To understand the true significance of this support, you need to understand a little bit about my background. I grew up in a home filled with domestic abuse. My parents had divorced when I was one-year-old and my mother had remarried a physically and psychologically abusive tyrant. These were the years where fathers couldn’t win custody and were lucky to get a weekend every other week. I was too scared of my stepfather to tell my dad about the abuse and his hands were tied regardless of his efforts to intervene. By the time I reached 12, both of my elder siblings had left home — one went straight into the state system with the other falling pregnant at 17. My mother was an alcoholic who was having an affair with her boss, and was not at all interested in raising a teenage daughter. When my stepfather finally left her, I made the call that it was time I left too. She and her new partner drank constantly, and I felt unsafe and abandoned. When I sat her down to explain that it was time for me to go, she gave me $50 for a cab. Over the ensuing years, I was in and out of halfway houses and spent periods of time homeless. By the time I hit my second year of high school, it became impossible for me to continue with formal education — especially with no guardian and no fixed address. So, I dropped out of high school and never returned.

It was a couple of years later that I met Julian. By this point I was jaded and weary. I’d been told so many times that I’d amount to nothing, that I should give up trying, and that I was a write-off. Julian never treated me that way. He made me feel like I had potential. Throughout the early years of our friendship he built up my confidence and helped me develop my talents. In those early days of our friendship, I once asked him what someone as intelligent as him saw in an outcast like me, and he told me that he wanted to be there to see what I would become. His support, encouragement, and belief in me never wavered. When I had nowhere else to go, he would let me sleep on his couch. Whenever I doubted myself, he would use more than words to convey his belief in me. Instead, he would challenge me to think and try harder, teach me things and point out how quickly I learned, and that not everyone was capable of the skill I had acquired. He gave me the encouragement to rise above my beginnings and to confront the challenges the world had set forth. In addition to encouraging me intellectually, he would support me through relationships and break-ups by always calmly reassuring me there were better things to come — often as I curled up on his couch and cried. He was my confidant, a source of sage advice, and a role model in so many ways. During the early years of our friendship, Julian was engaged in a lengthy battle for custody of his young son. After being awarded custody, he was relentless in his quest to provide the life he envisioned for his child, and to provide every opportunity available to help him reach his full potential. I would watch him as he parented his young son in such a considered and attentive fashion. He always put his son’s needs before his own. He was never too busy to take time away from his own work to help him to grow and learn, to encourage his inquisitiveness and imagination. He would read voraciously on ways to be a better parent, applying the very best research to support his son’s development. His example continues to serve as an inspiration for my own approach to parenting. I have such a clear memory of the first time Julian held my first born, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Box Hill. As with so many parents of newborns, the opportunities for uninterrupted meals was few and far between. Julian calmly sat and cradled my tiny little newborn daughter, patiently and gently rocking her until her red-faced screams subsided.

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He may be a tough nut to crack, but once you’ve become part of Julian’s circle, you’re in it for life. Several years after that initial meeting, we lost our friend Luke to suicide. Throughout this time Julian was steadfast in supporting Luke’s partner, Heather, and mother, Kim, in dealing with both the grief and the practical difficulties they faced in the wake of their loss. He was among the first to arrive at Heather and Luke’s house to help in sorting through Luke’s things, and preserving precious mementos that represented his long-time friend. He moved swiftly to secure Luke’s computers and hard-drives, preserving years of photos, personal documents and emails, and helped Heather learn how to operate and maintain Luke’s computer network, which meant so much to him. When my husband Peter lost his father, Julian dropped everything to be at his side, despite his many commitments and busy schedule. As always, he was running late, but he slipped in quietly and sat in the back row. He was sensitive to the fact we were grieving and recognised nothing he could say or do would ease the pain. Despite his clear discomfort with social situations and pleasantries, he joined us afterward for the wake, making a feeble attempt at small talk with my grandmother, and a few of the other socially awkward people in the room. It meant a lot to both of us.

Earlier this year, I lost Peter to suicide. Despite the 14 years that has passed since I last saw Julian with my own eyes, he was among the first to express his condolences and deep sorrow at the loss of one of his closest friends. He told me how he wished he could be there with me and my children as we said goodbye. Despite not being able to communicate with me in anything but single sentence messages, he has let me know he will always do whatever he can. When I wrote to him in the weeks after Peter’s death, and asked him to once again act as my confidant, as a silent witness to my pain, grief, fears for my children, and frank reflections on my 20 years of marriage, he sent a simple but clear message: ‘keep writing’. In the seven months since Peter’s death, I have written him numerous letters, thousands of words, shared my desperate longing to change the past, spilled out every thought and feeling onto the page, no matter how dark or bleak, with absolutely no filter. In every letter, I implore him to tell me to stop if it all gets too much, to ask for a break when his own struggles are too much to bear, but he never does. Even in these past months, while he has faced his extradition trial, in the battle of his life, he has continued to shoulder the weight of my grief and selfish need for help. Through this love and support, he feels as present as ever.

The last time Peter and I saw Julian was at our wedding, in the April of 2006. His tall thin figure was clad in hastily assembled wedding attire. He was entirely too conspicuous as he strode across the lawn to take a seat. Once again, he was running late, arriving just as I was beginning to walk down the aisle. Later, when the formalities were done, he beamed as he offered us his congratulations, danced with me in his stiff and demure way — not unlike a teenage boy at his high school dance lessons. That night, he shared his vision for a new project, one that he believed would change the world for the better. That project was Wikileaks.

Weeks later, when we returned from our honeymoon, we spoke with him about the project at greater length over the phone. He was looking for volunteers to help him get it off the ground. He spoke so passionately and eagerly about what a difference Wikileaks could make. He believed that if the public knew about the grievous injustices governments committed in their name, they would surely be outraged and demand better. Peter and I had a long conversation following the discussion with Julian that day. We both supported the idea, but we could see the potential risks involved too. Governments and corporations would surely not take this lying down. The whole idea was premised on his faith in the ability of people to pay attention, demand change, and to back each other when the wealthy, elite, and, corrupt moved to suppress the truth. Peter and I had a young family, and despite our support for the idea, we weren’t in a position to devote ourselves to the cause in the way we’d have wanted to. We felt it was too much to risk. But one idea always stayed with me from the conversation we had with Julian that day. It was that information is power, because the decisions we make as citizens are only as good as the information that inform those decisions.

Coupled with Julian’s unending encouragement, that idea has motivated and inspired me throughout my career. Shortly after that conversation, I decided to enrol in a Communications degree, majoring in Journalism. Afterall, I thought, if I couldn’t support him with his project, perhaps I could still make a difference by providing people with the information that was so crucial to their decision making and engagement in civic life. As I raised my children, and completed my degree, the journalistic landscape began to change. Jobs for fulltime staff journalists became few and far between, and freelancing became a precarious and cut-throat market. I realised I couldn’t give my children the time and attention that I wanted and develop a career in an industry that had begun to prize speed and frequency over quality and depth. I began to see that the partisan nature of so many publications would compromise my ability to generate the kind of journalism that would stay true to the values of honesty, transparency, and hostility towards bias in service of the truth.

It was around this time that both Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were engaged in grave battles for their freedom. Together with Julian’s own struggle, this made it clear that the championing of whistle-blowers was necessary to ensure the kind of transparency needed for the public to be able to make informed decisions. In turn, this inspired me to begin a Masters degree in applied ethics. My thesis focused on the US Drone War in Pakistan and the veil of secrecy afforded to governments by emerging military technologies — a project that was inspired by drone program whistleblowers like Lisa Ling and Cian Westmoreland. I completed my Masters in 2017, and am currently completing my PhD. My current thesis looks at how emerging technologies discourage us from engaging in moral and political life, influence our moral and political sensibilities, and allow our governments to further conceal the heinous acts they carry out in our name.

When I think about my life today, I often feel like it’s not too shabby for the kid who was a homeless high school dropout and didn’t even make it past Year 8. I still think about that teenage girl who kept being reminded she would amount to nothing. But I especially think about the inspiration, encouragement, and support that Julian gave me every step along the way. Above all else, I remember his absolute conviction that I would amount to more than I could have imagined. It was his conviction that gave me the motivation and courage to try. I remember the countless conversations where Julian would gently encourage me to keep going, and convey his faith in my ability to think critically and deeply about things. Julian was never comfortable speaking about emotions, so on the occasions that he did tell you that you mattered — in his uniquely clumsy way — you knew that he meant it.

I have remained a silent witness to Julian’s pain and suffering for too many years. Like many of our other friends, I have remained quite because I wanted to respect the tiny amount of privacy Julian has left. At any stage, during the years of relentless and deliberate character assassination, he could have asked us to speak out in support of him, but his first concern has always been to protect his loved ones from the fallout of his speaking truth to power. Instead, it was me who asked for his blessing to write this article, because I can no longer stand by while he is dehumanised and demonised for political gain. Julian has given up so much in his belief that we all deserve greater transparency and accountability from our governments. He has sacrificed the chance to have close relationships with his children and to watch them grow up. He has sacrificed his mental and physical health, and his freedom. He has spent more than one-fifth of his life in involuntary detention. He has missed out on so many important milestones and moments, both in his own life and in the lives of those he loves.

I was filled with trepidation as I monitored my Twitter feed last night (AEDT) , like thousands of others, waiting for news of Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s verdict in Julian’s US extradition hearing. The Judge’s remarks, conveyed via tweet-streams from journalists covering the court proceedings, initially seemed to suggest she would rule in favour of extradition. And yet, she didn’t. Instead, she decided that ‘Julian the person’, was more important than ‘Julian the political pawn’. It was such a massive relief to see Judge Baraitser recognise the humanity in Julian. To hear that she shares in my own very real fear that we may lose Julian to suicide if he is extradited. Despite not agreeing with several aspects of her ruling, it was heartening to see her value Julian’s humanity and his life, over politics.

No one is perfect or one-dimensional. Julian is a flawed person. He can be frustrating, quirky, and more than a little odd, but aren’t we all in our own way? So, for all his flaws, please recognise that he is also human. He has made such substantial sacrifices because he believed in the value of humanity, of community, and of protecting the integrity of the public institutions that ensure our flourishing. He believed in the people. He believed Wikileaks would help the people see the injustice and corruption committed in their name. He believed that once they knew the truth, they would rise up and help him make the world a better place. He was there when we needed him to uncover the truth, will you be there for him when he needs you?

PhD Candidate in Moral and Political Philosophy and Graduate Researcher in Technoethics at University of Melbourne.

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