I have just read Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating account of how, in 2011, he spent several months ghostwriting Julian Assange’s autobiography, for which the Wikileaks founder had already been paid a substantial advance. It didn’t go according to plan. Much as Assange loved talking, most of what O’Hagan had to listen to was a mixture of grandiose but trite tirades about freedom, and endless fulminations against those whom Assange believed had betrayed him in some way – which was just about everyone who had ever helped or supported him. He repeatedly failed to do any editing or checking of the text himself. Eventually, O’Hagan managed to produce a 70,000 word draft that more or less matched the publisher’s expectations – but at this point it began to be very clear that Assange didn’t really want to publish an autobiography at all, and probably never had. Ironically, the man who had become famous for revealing other people’s secrets turned out to be obsessively opposed to sharing any of his own privacy. By the time the book finally appeared, against Assange’s wishes, and to relatively little interest, his agent and publishers had joined the long list of people who had become in his mind his unredeemable enemies.
Assange appears in this narrative as extraordinarily self-centred, even paranoid. He was surrounded by a vague entourage of supporters who would never disagree with anything he said or did; but anyone who offered their own point of view, however well intended, was quickly demonized as an enemy. But though Assange is an extreme case, I found myself reflecting that in itself this way of dealing with difference is not so unusual. I was reminded of something the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote:
…if other people frustrate us the right amount they become real to us, that is, people with whom we can exchange something; if they frustrate us too much they become too real, that is, persecutory, people we have to do harm to; if they frustrate us too little they become idealized, imaginary characters, the people of our wishes; if they frustrate us too much they become demonized, the people of our nightmares. (Missing Out, pp.29-30).
In Assange’s world, there are hardly any ‘real’ people; he allows it to be peopled only by acolytes who frustrate him too little, or demons whom he experiences as frustrating him too much. And it seems as if this way of relating to the world has become so habitual for him, that he experiences no possibility of changing it.
But I suspect that in certain situations we all adopt the same blinkers as Assange. That client who won’t buy the ad; the head of the other department who refuses to co-operate; the boss who turns down my budget request: all of these can become ‘the people of our nightmares’ on a daily basis, simply because they refuse to become ‘the people of our wishes’. And it often feels much more comfortable to live with the frustration of ‘that arsehole/those idiots’ than to engage with them as real people, with whom we might need to exchange something.
It’s complicated, because if you’ve become a demon to me, I might well also be a demon to you. And when the reciprocal demonisation involves whole teams, departments, tribes or nations, we know how it escalates. But at least we could pay attention to those moments when the other person we need to work with ceases to be real to us, because they frustrate us either too much or little. Perhaps we could learn to value a certain amount of frustration as an opportunity to get back in touch with the reality of the situation, the reality of other people – and then we could practise increasing how much that certain amount might be.