Julian Assange may be the first heterosexual, bathing-averse Australian to compare himself to Oscar Wilde. He may also be the first to compare the prison experience to Barbarella. But this is the joy of the jailhouse memoir: All preconceptions disappear. People you thought were monomaniacs with God complexes or market-worshipping social climbers suddenly reveal themselves to be something other. Friends of the downtrodden. Fist-pumping allies of the urban underclass.
If there's one good thing about prisons continuing to be built as crime rates drop like frat boys at a keg party, it's that we might see more of these jailhouse howls of pain. This week, Mr. Assange's peevish memoir, Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography, joins Conrad Black's A Matter of Principle in a noble tradition that goes back through Jeffrey Archer to Alexander Berkman's classic Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist and beyond.
Granted, the Australian leader of WikiLeaks was only in prison for nine days while he was fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual misconduct charges, although it reads like a year. He was stuck in Wandsworth in South London, "that rank Victorian slammer." (It should be noted that Mr. Assange, currently at the centre of a Rubik's cube of feuds, has disavowed his memoir, which was published without his permission.)
While banged up in solitary, Mr. Assange felt the presence of the unjustly imprisoned Wilde: "The spirit of the man, his fight against prejudice, was indwelling." But he fails to come up with anything to rival Wilde's great prison lament that "each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die," although he does spend a lot of time complaining about the phones. He could have called the book The Ballad of Dreading Mail.
Briefly, he mentions "Bradley." That would be Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who's the alleged source of WikiLeaks's biggest trove. He's been in solitary confinement in an American military prison for more than a year, untried and often unclothed, without even the ghost of Wilde for company. We haven't heard from Private Manning because he's not allowed to speak to the outside world, let alone write a book.
A curious thing happens when the famous get thrown into the hoosegow. They all turn into Jennifer Lopez, their fame as alluring in the clink as on the outside. "The prisoners I met were clearly on my side," Mr. Assange writes. One even slipped him a copy of the U.S.-U.K. extradition policy. Maybe nobody gives toothbrushes carved into shivs as welcome gifts any more.
Conrad Black, too, seemed to profit from his high profile in a Florida prison. His fellow inmates had watched his trial on CNN (you wonder what they were being punished for). A "mafia don" offered him protection on his first day, and a reader of The Wall Street Journal showed him the cafeteria – perhaps there were no Tatler readers on hand. He began tutoring inmates toward their high-school degrees; one, who passed, gave him a hug.
Jeffrey Archer, the disgraced Tory MP who went to prison in England on perjury charges, was asked by his prison library to stop signing books for fellow inmates – the books were being stolen and sold. Instead, the bestselling novelist taught writing class while bartering his signature on birthday cards for Cup-a-Soup and bottled water.
Lord Archer's three volumes of prison diaries are the best thing he's written. The epiphanies in these memoirs aren't so surprising: Wealthy men given the one thing they couldn't afford or wouldn't see on the outside – lots of spare time to think and lots of new tattooed friends to look at. Suddenly, they're surrounded by people they wouldn't normally have shared a room with, let alone a cell three metres square. The guy who, on the outside, washed the Bentley or swept away the oyster shells at the Ivy suddenly had a face and a name and a history – often troubled. Lord Black's become a drum-beater for prison reform. "Most of the people [in prison] they weren't bad," he told Vanity Fair. "They just made a mistake and lost their lives as a result."
Lord Archer is out of jail and inflicting new bestsellers on the public. Lord Black was sent back to serve the rest of his sentence. Mr. Assange awaits news of his latest appeal while under house arrest at a country estate in Norfolk – which presents dangers equal to those in prison: tripping over empty port glasses, for example, or being terrorized by grouse.
Still, they can take consolation from Ho Chi Minh, who spent his time in prison writing "get me out of here" verse – and survived. "A year has come to an end here," he wrote. "What crime did I commit?/ In tears I write/ another prison poem."