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Chelsea Manning: the personal and the political

The myth of Narcissus is a familiar one. He sees his reflection in a pool and, as Ovid says in “Metamorphoses”, he “fell in love with an empty hope, a shadow mistaken for substance’”


Chelsea Manning. Photo by Gregor Fischer / republica GmbH / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Sean Sheehan


His falling victim to his own reflection serves as a metaphor for the petrified acceptance of the way things look, the taking of the given as unalterable, an object from which the observer remains apart.

Narcissus, picturing what he saw as being exterior to himself, never realised his reflection was a reality mediated by his own subjectivity. Pining away, he never escaped his (mis)taken identity.

Chelsea Manning, no Narcissus, came to reject knowledge as the mirror-image of an immutable external world, open to passive contemplation. No pining away for her.

Born in 1987 and growing up in rural Oklahoma, memories of which “sit in my memory like beautiful, dusty snapshots”, she quickly realised that her boyish image in a mirror was not a true reflection.

She first kissed a boy when she about ten and got teased for being gay by schoolmates who didn’t know what the term meant. Three years earlier, when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City, the terrorism that entered her world was the work of an American.

Her gender-conflicted childhood, with alcoholic parents and a violent father, ends with 9/11.

Manning began researching hormone treatment before her father suggested enlisting and so, bizarrely, she joined the army; sex drive and gender issues went into hibernation.

Her advanced computer literacy helped her succeed as an intelligence analyst. She was only 21. In 2009 she arrived in Iraq and a deepening consciousness of not wanting to be a man accompanies the wish not to have people die because of the nature of the work.

Her motive for releasing classified files and the “collateral  murder” video to Wikileaks was the desire to break the illusion of  a false reflection retrofitted by the media.

After arrest in 2010 she was kept in a cage, designed for a large animal, inside a tent and kept there for 59 days. Then taken to the US, the vindictive treatment, including nine months in solitary confinement, continued.

Manning was sentenced to thirty five years in prison but, out of solitary confinement, she learned to speak to people again, read voraciously and will ‘my own self into existence’. With incredible courage she took on the fight for gender change and hormone treatment while incarcerated in a penal institution.

“Free Chelsea Manning” poster. Photo from A Disappearing Act / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Transitioning in prison and with no one she could to trust to share confidences with, she relied on tremendous support from people on the outside; some of them become important friends.

The steps leading to the commuting of her sentence by Obama are described and in January 2017, after six years in jail, she learned of her release. After walking out prison, “my first time as a free woman”, the writing of this astounding book became possible.

“README, txt”, by Chelsea Manning,   is published by The Bodley Head.

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