The Real Life of Chelsea Manning

The whistleblower’s new memoir chronicles her journey from queer teenager to enemy of the state

By Natasha Lennard

Photos by Brian Vu

A picture of a blonde woman sitting casually in a lounge chair.

Chelsea Manning’s new memoir, README.txt, opens with a fateful moment. It’s 2010, she’s a 22-year-old military intelligence analyst home on leave from Iraq, and she’s using the free public Wi-Fi in a Maryland Barnes & Noble to upload a vast trove of classified documents to Wikileaks. The disclosure will make public barbaric truths about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and lead to seven years in military prisons for Manning. If there’s one thing that her telling of her own story makes clear, however, it’s that there was nothing inevitable about that chain of events. Had the Barnes & Noble internet connection been a little bit shoddier, she explains, she might have given up on the whole endeavor. It was a “thirty-minute window” between what happened and her “just throwing it away and never returning to it.” The choices Manning made ultimately made history. As she writes in the book, “lots of people wonder whether my later disclosures were an unforeseeable event, or whether the real surprise is that many other people didn’t also make these kinds of disclosures. I wonder, too.”

README.txt (the title references the explanatory text file she uploaded alongside the documents) is not the tale of a born-to-be whistleblower. It is a coming-of-age story, and an exploration of the details, contingencies, decisions, indecisions, drives, and desires that together constitute Manning’s biography. We get to know Manning as an intellectually gifted kid from a troubled home in Oklahoma where, she writes, “gender roles… were as hard and fixed as the land.” She invites the reader into the quotidian and meaningful moments of her youth, as she explores her gender identity, secretly trying on women’s clothes and makeup, and finds community, shared politics, and play in gaming and hacking. Leaving her parents’ dysfunction behind, she moves to Chicago’s Boystown, where she finds escape and romance in queer dance clubs, but soon, facing homelessness, joins the military. “The army,” she writes, “was a lifeline of last resort for many of my colleagues, as it had been for me.”

The book chronicles Manning’s coming out as a trans woman and her politicization through LGBTQ+ struggle. “For me, at least,” she writes, “being trans is less about being a woman trapped in a man’s body than about the innate incoherence between the person I felt myself to be and the one the world wanted me to be.” 

Throughout the memoir runs a deep discomfort about how other people’s projections have created her public image — from the officials that persecuted her as a traitor to the supporters who cast her in the light of their own politics. Taking ownership of her own story, rich as it is with ambivalence and reflection, was one reason that she decided to write the book at all, she told me when we spoke over Zoom in late October, the week of README.txt’s release. It has been 12 years since she uploaded those documents and five years since President Barack Obama commuted her military prison sentence. She is now known as far more than a whistleblower and political prisoner: She’s a celebrated activist, a trans icon, a data science expert, and a techno DJ. But what Manning herself makes clear, both in her book and in our conversation, is that life is not experienced as a grand narrative, but as a matter of surviving the day in front of her, and the day after that.

Manning said she knew people might be expecting something of a political thriller (a genre she “can’t stand”), but she wanted to “to tell something more natural, more human, and more, frankly, absurd — because this whole story is happenstance, it’s serendipity, it’s last-minute decisions. The thing I wanted to get across is just the sheer number of logistical hurdles in trying to get this [disclosure of documents] done. It’s mixed in with doing my job, getting coffee, getting food, eating, traveling… It really was the small things that made the biggest difference in how this played out. And I wanted to tell the story about the small things and the small decisions and the small details.” (Small details she shares with me include the very ordeal of writing the book: It began in 2014, in prison, where she had to work on a computer that wouldn’t save, so she had to print out each page, and retype it if she wanted to make an edit.) 

For all her insistence on contingency and happenstance, a certain politics does appear to undergird Manning’s choices — a politics rooted in a commitment to collective care and survival. “The decision to bring those files to America and upload them was one decision among many others,” she writes. “I made life-and-death decisions every day. I always had the responsibility of other people’s lives in my hands [as a military intelligence analyst]. This felt, in some sense, like just another choice, where I was weighing the costs and benefits and deciding that this was the best way to save lives.” In prison, she helped organize with other incarcerated people around meal provisions, realizing in the process that “the scariest thing, to the prison administrators, was when we all worked together. It meant they were losing control.” And in a sentence reflective of her actions throughout the book, she writes, “I have an instant affinity with anybody who is getting harassed, humiliated, or tortured for just being different. I’ve dealt with that kind of treatment my whole life.”

That treatment started when “my father beat the crap out of me; he abused everyone close to him,” she writes early in the book. We learn, too, that while enlisted, she was sexually assaulted by another soldier, but she felt trapped and unable to report it given the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy then in effect, which kept non-hetero military personnel from serving openly. She spent 11 months in solitary confinement during her time incarcerated at both the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia, and then at the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Her account is haunting for its psychic vagueness: “I coped by dissociating, and it is difficult for me to describe emotions from that time,” she writes. “I can recall details of what happened to me, but not how they made me feel. The experience is blank—that is the horror and torture of solitary confinement.”

“I have an instant affinity with anybody who is getting harassed, humiliated, or tortured for just being different.”

Manning told me she sees solidarity as fundamental to surviving ordeals like these: “I do tend to be somebody who leans towards civil service or assisting others and working cooperatively, it’s not lost on me that there is this self-preservation instinct that’s built into that…And that’s a more complex driver behind me and all of these dilemmas that I’ve faced throughout life: I very much am focused on just trying to survive. And I have found throughout my life that cooperation, solidarity, supporting others, and really bonding with the people around me is about survival for me, and the things that I care about as well.” 

Her political evolution in the book may surprise some readers. It’s not anti-war marches but LGBTQ+ protests that radicalize the younger Manning. While many people her age were celebrating Obama’s win in 2008, Manning was devastated by the passage that same year of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage; she writes that she felt it as “a personal rejection of me, and millions of other queer people, as human beings. I felt the horror of the moment in my body.” Meanwhile, she was still in Iraq, and the strictures of DADT informed much of her military life. It’s clear that a sense of injustice in one area (LBGTQ+ rights) informed her broader ethical convictions. But she’s wary of one narrative proposed by critics: that she was just bitter because she couldn’t come out as trans, and therefore her disclosures are suspect. That’s “a standard practice of how government operates,” she said. “The strategy is essentially ‘nuts and sluts.’ You paint the person who’s done the government wrong as unstable or as sexually deviant or ambiguous in some manner to delegitimize them.” To her, there’s no causal relationship between her treatment and her desire to leak the documents: “I acted as I did because of what I saw, because of the values I hold.”

There’s a tactical edge to Manning’s politics; she is, after all, trained as an intelligence analyst. In the book she describes attending a rally for gay rights in the U.S. while she was still in the military. She was unimpressed, and she knew that the protest would be easily dismissed by those in power, if they were even paying attention. She thought of the Iraqis, the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies she spent all day studying: “It was the people who fought back, who refused to move, who even pushed the crowd out of the way as a way of taking a stand and showing political agency—those were the ones who concerned the military.” It is, she told me, a lesson she applies when thinking about activism today. 

Protest has to lead to what she calls “conference room moments,” she said, “moments where a decision maker in some capacity — it could be a city mayor, a commanding officer, or some high-level official — has to have an emergency conference meeting to address something…unless they are forced into that position, then how on earth do you expect to get any concessions? Or any change?” If this doesn’t happen, “then I think you do need to have what in the military is known as an escalation of force. You escalate your tactics to draw your opponent into paying attention. So, 5,000 people showing up to a protest in a major city might not get anyone’s attention. Maybe it gets some press attention, but the decision makers think, ‘ah, whatever.’ But then, you’ll have 10 people do an action and it directly impacts the logistics of an operation. And then, even if it doesn’t get press attention at all, it can draw them into that conference room like, ‘Oh, my God, this impacts our operations, this impacts our logistics, this impacts our workflow. This is bad and it’s critical. We have to do something about this.’ That’s why I think the concept of a diversity of tactics is very important to me. Not every single situation is the same, and not every single situation is going to call for the same protest tactics.”

Manning is currently working as a data scientist and a consultant on digital security projects. It’s what excites her now, the prospect of technical work to “develop tools for organizing, develop tools for communicating, and develop tools to make ourselves less dependent on these large corporations and apparatuses that can turn off at a switch.” The privacy terrain has changed since Manning worked in the military, or since Edward Snowden revealed details about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency. 

“No one is off-grid in 2022.”

“Every single person is walking around leaving these gigantic data trails behind them. No one is off-grid in 2022,” she said. It’s daunting to consider as abortion patients and reproductive rights activists worry about leaving themselves open to prosecution via Google searches or plane ticket purchases. The surveillance apparatus has, she told me, “grown in scale, it’s grown in its ability to filter and go through information. And it’s even filtered down to smaller actors like smaller corporations and more private contractors and smaller law enforcement agencies that now have these tools available to them.” Manning is clear sighted about the realities facing activists navigating this field. “I can’t expect somebody who’s done reproductive rights work for 25 years to automatically, overnight, be able to defeat large scale, well-funded surveillance programs. I just can’t,” she said. “It is also the fear and the anxiety about law enforcement coming that really has the chilling effect against activity. The goal [of the state] is to have people self-censor or to have people be the police force. But I think that even large-scale intelligence agencies and police state apparatuses really struggle to actually execute a lot of actions. They depend very much on the culture of fear, anxiety, and this incessant feeling that you’re being watched at all times.”

Her own ordeal with government repression is not entirely behind her; she’s still climbing out of the financial ruin of fighting the U.S. government on multiple fronts (the book ends in 2017, before she was re-incarcerated for refusing to testify, on principle, before a grand jury that was investigating Wikileaks). And while she says she considers herself financially fairly stable, thanks to her celebrity, skills, and support networks, “I’m one bad month or quarter away from not being able to pay my credit cards and bills.” Constraints on her speech have not ended. The book was subject to a government review, and there are a few redacted sections. 

As I read the book, I kept coming back to the places where Manning highlighted the resilience of trans and queer communities. She recalls, for example, learning about Bash Back!, a queer anarchist network of cells that was active in the U.S. around the end of the last decade, and the inspiration they took from the Stonewall and White Night riots before them. More recently, in numerous media interviews, she’s stressed the strength of queer and trans communities and the solace to be found in small gestures of recognition. Forced to transition while incarcerated, she encountered a prison barber who would thread her eyebrows into a feminine shape. “A small thing,” she wrote, “that made me feel more like the person I knew I was. It touched me deeply.”

Throughout README.txt, there are moments of joy, beauty, and collectivity. Of the summer she spent living in her car in Chicago, she writes, “I wasn’t just living on the margins, I was falling off the edge.” But the queer scene where she danced and flirted gave her an “anchor and a community” and a place to explore desire and being desired. “Steve Angello’s remix of Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ played constantly that summer,” she writes, “Rihanna had just blown up the pop charts. ‘S.O.S., please someone help me / It’s not healthy for me to feel this,’ she sang as I danced all night. The lyrics from that summer are seared into my brain; I lost myself in the music, in the scene, and the freedom was everything I’d ever dreamed of.”

Music and dance as sites of escape permeate Manning’s story. Even while held in solitary confinement, to get around a “no exercise” rule, she “began to dance, alone, to imaginary music, for hours.” 

It’s little surprise then, that she has become a DJ, performing in venues like Bushwick’s vast Elsewhere. For the moment, though, she’s seeking sounds more tranquil. “I’m on a streak of listening to modern orchestra music,” she told me. “Mostly, to stay calm.” 

Natasha Lennard is a columnist at The Intercept, teaches at The New School and is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life.

Hair and make-up by Shideh Kafei