Julian Assange: The wanted man who lived in my attic

By Espen Moe - originally posted to Flickr as IMG_4739, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11530654

They say that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. Well, not in my house. My London home has been a fragrant aquarium for years.

The upside of being married to a human rights lawyer for nearly three decades are the many intriguing house guests I’ve entertained for long periods.

My attic has been a temporary home to exiled Prime Ministers, banned poets, prisoners on the run … My dear pal Salman Rushdie hid with us once during the Fatwa years (it’s more of a Thin-wa now, I’m happy to say); James Hewitt sought refuge and legal expertise when the Palace was rumoured to be trying him for treason after his affair with Princess Diana; Julian Assange also came seeking legal advice over sexual assault allegations. (He was determined to clear his name, but feared extradition from Sweden to America.)

Rock stars dodging paparazzi, movie stars dodging dodgy agents … Basically, I’ve had everybody in my attic, except Anne Frank.

Julian Assange stayed with us in 2010.

He wasn’t the most domesticated of men — giving the kitchen a sweeping glance was the closest he came to housework. But what man is? The enlistment of labour on a subsistence basis is forbidden in Australia, except for one state — the holy state of matrimony, right girls?
But I definitely did not see any hint of the outrageous behaviour alleged by the Ecuadorian embassy to justify withdrawing Assange’s asylum. (And the heavy-handed harassment meted out to visitors to the Embassy at times, was definitely not the way I would treat guests, that’s for sure.)

The other benefit of having Assange as a house guest is that all the kids’ laptops and iPads were humming and zinging and totally free of viruses. (Luddite that I am, my idea of curing a virus involved some vegemite on toast and Vicks Vapour Rub.)

Passionate and philosophical, Julian proved a diverting dinner guest. His unusual upbringing, first on a commune and then on the run with his mother, lent him the larrikin, maverick aura of protagonist in a Peter Carey novel.

During his stay, our only clash concerned fiction.

Research shows that a lot of men, Julian included, neglect fiction penned by women. But, unlike a lot of blokes, Julian did turn over a new leaf — a new book-leaf that is.

When incarcerated in Wandsworth prison, some time later, I sent in a box of novels by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliott, Virginia Wolfe, Edith Wharton, Alice Munroe, Anne Tyler etc. with a note saying “Now that you’re a captive audience …”

After enjoying a hoover of said oeuvre, Assange was completely converted to female fiction.

I actually got to know Julian so well that when the Simpsons planned to feature Assange in their 500th episode, he asked me to write his dialogue. For any writer, a credit on The Simpsons is the ultimate accolade, so I accepted with alacrity.

The resulting episode is pithy, witty and topical, although the producers cut my favourite line which involved Marge Simpson asking Julian for the recipe for his BBQ marinade — to which he head-shakingly replies, “I’m sorry. But I never reveal my sauces.” Well, it made Julian and me laugh.

In fact, the skateboard Assange was seen riding in security footage the Ecuadorean embassy recently released to, they say, illustrate his ‘disrespect’, was a thank you gift from the Simpsons creators. Julian’s rather clumsy endeavour to ride it was filmed at the weekend, when no one was disturbed. Of course, he would have attempted a little ride outside, except for the slight obstacle of the round-the-clock, armed police guard stationed at his door.

But what I haven’t written about Assange is my heartfelt belief that Julian is on the autistic spectrum. My 28 year old son is autistic, and, like all parents living with the condition, I’ve developed an astute radar for the symptoms. Now, a label is nothing more than something on the side of a jam jar, but it does provide a psychological short hand to help explain quirky, erratic or idiosyncratic behaviour.

Autism is a life long, neurological condition whose chief characteristics are poor communication and socialising skills, often chronic OCD and anxiety, but also, often, a very high IQ.

A diagnosis of autism is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but it could help explain why people so often misread his single-minded absorption as ‘narcissism’ and why he has alienated allies so easily in the past.

With diagnostic hindsight we now know that Mozart, Einstein, Orwell, Van Gogh, Steve Jobs and many other scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians and computer masterminds like Turin, for example, were on the autistic spectrum. Assange is basically Wikipedia with a pulse — like many computer geniuses.

Autistic people are the garlic in life’s salad, and therefore not to everyone’s taste. But how dull life would be without them — a case of the bland leading the bland.

Just to re-cap, Assange is accused of assisting US soldier Chelsea Manning to crack an encrypted password to gain access to the US defence department computer network.

The hundreds of thousands of downloaded classified documents revealed much of the heinous barbarity of the post 9/11 US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in Guantánamo Bay.

Two Britons who faced similar charges of hacking into US military and government agencies — Lauri Love and Gary McKinnon — were medically diagnosed with Asperger’s and both successfully used English court proceedings to stymie US extradition applications. Both were also represented by lawyers from the Wikileaks legal team, so I hope they will encourage Julian to seek an official prognosis.

Heroic freedom-fighter or reckless controversialist — Assange is a polarising character. I don’t agree with everything he’s said nor everything he’s published. But I do defend his right to say and publish it.

Extradition to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government. To extradite would be to send the message that no journalist or publisher is safe anywhere in the world.

Obama’s administration determined that to prosecute Assange for publishing documents would gravely imperil press freedom.

And, although desperate to prove his innocence, nor should he be extradited to Sweden without solid assurances that he won’t be whisked through a back door into the bowels of some American Super Max.

Surely the Australian government should be working to bring Assange home — after all, modern Australia started life as the world’s biggest open prison.

Oh, there’s a knock at the door … Sorry to cut this short, but I just need to rush upstairs to make the bed in the attic.

It’s probably the Queen, dodging the official Trump visit. Although, when Donald lobs into London, the whole nation will probably want to take refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy.

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