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Changes: Chelsea Manning

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Chelsea [00:00:00] There's something strange that happens with homelessness, there's something strange that happens in war, and there's something strange that happens in prisons, which are these very extreme sets of circumstances. 

Annie [00:00:09] You've done all three. 

Chelsea [00:00:10] You get to see the absolute worst of society and the absolute worst that humanity can do, but at the same time you get to see the most incredible humanity, like what people are really, truly capable of in these sets of circumstances. 

Annie [00:00:29] Hello and welcome to Changes. It is Annie Macmanus here bringing you an episode that I hope will be very memorable for you. I cannot think of a better guest for changes than Chelsea Manning, our guest this week. Chelsea's name, gender, anonymity and freedom all changed irrevocably in her twenties, but she is most well known for one particular event. It was 2010, Chelsea was 22 years old and working as a data analyst for the U.S. Army. She was stationed in Iraq. But on this day, she was back in Virginia on leave. Chelsea went to a Barnes and Noble bookstore and uploaded half a million classified U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks using the Barnes and Noble free Wi-Fi. She has always claimed that she released the information for the public interest. Upon returning to Iraq, the repercussions were swift and brutal. Prior to her trial she was kept in military prison for three years, 11 months of those being kept in solitary confinement. This involved being in a windowless six metre cell for 23 hours a day. Initially, she was on suicide watch, meaning she wasn't allowed to sit down. She was allowed no possessions or bedsheets even, and at times was sometimes forced to go without even her underwear. Unbeknownst to her, Chelsea, in the public sphere, was a divisive figure. Some celebrated her for trying to expose human rights abuses in the military. Some condemned her as a traitor. After those initial three years, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Soon after the sentencing, she came out publicly as a trans woman. In 2017, seven years into her sentence, Chelsea sent President Obama a letter pleading for her release. Obama listened and finally commuted her sentence. Chelsea has since written a memoir called README.txt, referring to the file name she used for the leaks. There's also a documentary called X Y Chelsea on Amazon Prime and Apple TV. Chelsea now lives in Brooklyn and joined me back at the start of September to talk through the monumental changes in her life. I started by asking her how the first time on deployment in Iraq changed her perspective on the war and the world. 

Chelsea [00:03:02] So, I considered myself to be a very educated and informed citizen, right. You know, I wasn't necessarily political. I like to say that in my late teens and early twenties my politics were 'leave Britney alone' *Annie laughs*. You know, because I wasn't- I was kind of apolitical, I didn't really have like- even whenever it became the centrepiece of the national conversation within the U.S., which was, you know, the war in Iraq is spiralling out of control at this time. It's 2006, 2007, and I'm in my moment where I don't know who I am, right. I'm trying to figure that out. And I had just gone through this chaotic journey of the last three or four years of my late teens which were very chaotic. I lived in the U.K. for a period of time, I lived with my father for a period time. I didn't have a home for several months and then I finally found that I was sort of living with my aunt, but I didn't- but I was like, just trying to ground myself. And so I was really looking for purpose and meaning and I was kind of lost. And so I sort of latched on to this national conversation and I was like, oh, well, you know, somebody needs be somewhere, right? You know, maybe. So I, with some back and forth between myself and my father who I was trying to rekindle our relationship with because we'd kind of fallen out, just trying to like, re-establish our relationship, and he was a Navy guy, so he was just like, you should really enlist in either the Navy or the Air Force. I wanted to participate in that but I also knew that the real action in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was in the Army and in the Marine Corps, and so I went over to the Marine Corps recruiting centre. And the Marine Corps wasn't there, they were off that day, so I ended up going to the Army recruiting centre *laughs*. 

Annie [00:04:52] So arbitrary isn't it. 

Chelsea [00:04:55] You know, and I did that, you know, because our Army, you know, Navy don't get along *laughs*. So I was in a sense like trying to one out my dad a little bit. 

Annie [00:05:05] So it was kind of still doing roughly what he wanted but your away. 

Chelsea [00:05:09] Right. And I really enlisted in the military to grapple with things that I did- that I didn't know how to grapple. So I basically just sort of threw them off onto the military shoulder, you know, like in my mind, which was to, you know, like have structure and have, you know, the military sort of tell me where I need to go and how to live. So that way I wouldn't have to deal with, you know, things like, you know, like who I am or where I belonged or where I fit in the world. Because these are all like burning questions that I had within myself. Like, why do I have this feeling that the gender that I present as publicly and every day in my line of work, why does this feel so uncomfortable? Why did I have this, like, you know, this real gut feeling of just sort of like, this can't be right. And then I'm faced with, you know, the life and death every single day. Like, it was just- I often like to say that, you know, in a war or combat environment, there's sort of a cheapness to life because it becomes this- it just sort of becomes a statistic. So many people living and dying every- you know, on such an unfathomable scale every day that one of the things that's really changed for me fundamentally is I don't really care what other people think anymore or what society's expectations are anymore, you know, because it really doesn't matter. And I think even afterwards when I you know, which we can talk about later, I went to prison for seven years, you know, like that, that really so solidified it even further and crystallised in me. And so whenever it comes to the sort of the change of how I perceive the war in Iraq, I didn't know. I really didn't know. And even the training that was provided for us, you know, it was very statistical, was very sort of methodical, was very abstract. It took an understanding of what was going on and untangling and a real on the ground sort of understanding, like you have to see faces and see neighbourhoods and, you know, I remember flying in the Black Hawk helicopters which we would be transported to and from, and looking over at neighbourhoods of eastern Baghdad and knowing the neighbourhoods and being able to physically see it, to smell it, and you know, to know that there are real places and that there are real things. And also to know, you know, sort of read between the lines with reporting and understanding like what's really going on, including the things that aren't necessarily written down. To have that experience and to have that really jarring, like processing period between what the public knew or thought they knew or understood versus the reality and how like, gigantic this chasm was. 

Annie [00:08:04] That discrepancy, right. 

Chelsea [00:08:06] And I find it funny because people now understand it better. It was tainted before, but because it's had this sort of taint removed from it, you've forgotten that was once, you know, glossed over and varnished in such a way. 

Annie [00:08:24] Mm mmm. I mean, can you be more specific about those discrepancies in terms of what the American public were being told through the media and what you were seeing? Like, what was the difference there? 

Chelsea [00:08:35] I can't. That's sort of the complexities that exist here is I did it once and I got in trouble and I can't do it again or I'll get in trouble again. But I can tell you the feeling that I had and it was alarming. It was very jarring. Even when I was on leave or even when I was talking with people back home, you know, it was like they had forgotten about it by this point because there was a new administration, because this was a- this is seen as like George W Bush's war, right. That's sort of the perception among the public that this is George W Bush's war. And we were in the Obama administration by this point. So it was the early Obama years and nothing had really changed. Like, really like, you know, like the policies hadn't really changed, the on the ground reality hadn't changed, just sort of like the perception of it had changed and I found that very jarring because like, I would be like, yeah, I'm you know, I've been deployed to Iraq, I've been deployed to Iraq for four months now and people would be like, oh, we're still there? There was this deep sort of feeling of like, oh no, there's something really wrong here. 

Annie [00:09:40] Mm mmm. So zooming in to the 8th of February 2010, Tysons Corner Centre, a mall in Virginia which you visited whilst on leave from your job, you uploaded those files as classified files- 

Chelsea [00:09:55] Which almost didn't happen! *Laughs*. 

Annie [00:09:57] I know. I mean, it's literally like something out of Jason Bourne, the start of your book, you're like, oh my God, will she get those up in time?! She's got to catch her flight. 

Chelsea [00:10:04] Well, I mean, I think it's funny because people, you know, often tell me like, oh it's like a- it's like a thriller. And I'm like, well, in the moment it felt pretty like normal. Like, you know, it was like- 

Annie [00:10:16] HOW?! 

Chelsea [00:10:16] Because it's life, you know, like life is complicated, life is messy, life is jarring. I mean, it was like-  

Annie [00:10:21] Did you feel fear when it was happening? I mean, it's 12 hours so it's plenty of time to feel all the feelings while you were uploading it, but like, how did you feel going through that? Did you feel a change as that information was off your shoulders and in the world as such? 

Chelsea [00:10:32] I think I really wasn't able to process any of it, you know, as all of this was happening and, you know, like because I- and I didn't really- like everything happened so- like, from my perspective, like everything was just sort of a problem and I was like, okay, I have a problem, it's right in front of me. This problem needs to be solved, which is dig car out of snow, right? You know, transport car to, you know, another location. Look for Internet. You know, it was like very sort of like objective based and scenario based, you know, and I, you know, like, you can kind of tell like, I have this- you know, I still have this sort of like military like, you know, sort of like objective *laughs*.

Annie [00:11:09] Yeah! You have a regimented plan. 

Chelsea [00:11:10] It's very procedural, right, you know. And so, like, that's how I get through things. Like, that's how I got through whatever I- because eventually I went into prison and, you know, then became like a, you know, surviving solitary confinement. You know, like, I need to eat food. I need to, you know, I need to drink water and, you know, like that, that's my brain. That's where where my brain is. And I latched on to this, all of the emotional stuff, which I'm sure is there but, you know, I've had a therapist explain this to me like that I went through long periods of alexithymia, which is like an inability to, like, grasp or understand the emotions that you're feeling because you're just making everything into a puzzle or a challenge and working through that. And it really wasn't until very recently, probably the last five or six years that I've really been able to disentangle some of the, some of that. 

[00:12:10] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:12:20] Let's go to young Chelsea in Oklahoma and focus on this first change that we ask every guest on this podcast. What is the biggest change of your childhood, please? 

Chelsea [00:12:32] That would be my parents divorce. 

Annie [00:12:34] Okay. How old were you? 

Chelsea [00:12:36] I was, I think 10 or 11. 

Annie [00:12:39] And what kind of a kid were you? 

Chelsea [00:12:41] So I was, uh, I was really into math. I was really into science. I was an academic high achiever. You know, I was on the basketball team. I wasn't the greatest at sports, but I tried really hard. So that became like where I put a lot of my eggs in the like, value basket because, you know, the reality was is that my life at home was very difficult. 

Annie [00:13:07] So what did home- you had a sister, right? 

Chelsea [00:13:09] I had a sister. So my sister had moved out by then, though. I still saw her regularly but she was living- she was living on her own and, you know, different town. And so my parents were still the bedrock of my existence, really. And I had this assumption that- not only was our home the way that every home was, like it was all the same, you know, like I was like, oh, every kid goes through this existence, but also that it was not changing. That it was, you know, that I would have my mother be at home and my father would come home from work or be travelling and come home and that was the way it was always going to be. And yeah, the jarring thing was that, was whenever my parents started to fall apart, the relationship started to fall apart, my mother had a suicidal episode and my father found a new relationship and my mother wanted desperately to move back to the UK, and so I had all of these seismic life changes happen in about a year to a year and a half period of my life. 

Annie [00:14:26] Right, and how did that, like, practically manifest? What happened next for you? Where did you live? What happened? 

Chelsea [00:14:33] So I ended up living in the UK, which is a foreign country for me at this time. You know, I-

Annie [00:14:39] Wales, right? It was Wales. 

Chelsea [00:14:41] *Laughs* it was rural South West Wales, right. You know, which is- I love Pembrokeshire, but you know, it's definitely a jarring change from rural central Oklahoma. And so I had these very jarring changes like culturally, you know, educationally, the expectations that were on me, like everything had just gone completely off the rails in my life. 

Annie [00:15:06] And your dad was gone. So you moved to Wales with your mum. So that's important to say that it was just you and your mum at this point. 

Chelsea [00:15:11] It was. So it was my mother and, you know, I guess it was a package with, you know, my mother's like sisters as well. So I had a number of aunts. 

Annie [00:15:21] Do you mind talking about the relationship between you and your dad as well? Because you mentioned there about trying to kind of, you know, win his favour after an argument. What was that like, you and your dad? And how did the relationship ebb and flow as such throughout this time? 

Chelsea [00:15:35] When I was younger, I always just wanted my father to love me and to respect me and to like, tell me you're doing good. You are- I'm proud of you. And he just wasn't capable of that. And no matter how hard I tried academically, no matter how well I did at, you know, building something or working on something or achieving something, no matter what achievements I had, it just never really, ever was enough. He was very hypercritical. I remember I built this gigantic Eiffel Tower out of Lego pieces. It was like three feet tall, which, you know, at like six or seven years old was this achievement. And I think it was like seven or eight years old and you know, he's like, oh, it's the wrong colour, right. And to do that- for somebody of that young- 

Annie [00:16:34] Yeah. 

Chelsea [00:16:35] You know, it's just like a gut punch. It's an emotional gut punch to like- the first thing that you get after this massive accomplishment is, is just sort of an immediate criticism. And, you know, so we had good times. And I want to be clear, like, my father was very good- he was very good at sitting down and teaching me things. Like he taught me how to use computers, he taught me, you know, he was very good at like helping with homework and that was why I wanted to achieve so much academically, because he you know, he would like walk me through things and like, pique my interest in things and was really good at sitting down and walking me through problems and problem solving. But like any kind of emotional support or availability, just not there. 

Annie [00:17:18] No, not there. And he was a drinker, right? 

Chelsea [00:17:21] Increasingly, yes. I would say that both of my parents, you know, became much more dependent on alcohol as I was getting older. 

Annie [00:17:33] Mm hmm. 

Chelsea [00:17:34] And it became very abusive. You know, it got to a point where my father would even be violent and aggressive, you know, being drunk and being, like, extremely unpredictable, you know? And this was around when I was like, 10 or 11. And so this is like around the time whenever my parents started to split up, you know, they both- they both just fell into the bottle. 

Annie [00:18:02] Yeah. Having done the work now, you know, as a 35 year old woman and kind of worked through so much and gone to therapy, have you figured out how those years have kind of manifested in you and how to kind of move through them as such? 

Chelsea [00:18:18] Sure. You know, um, now whenever I achieve something or accomplish something, it's my accomplishment, right? You know, that's something I had to learn. It wasn't to impress my father. It wasn't to get his attention. It was, you know, oh, I've done something, I can feel proud in myself of that, you know, because, like, I can be super self-critical, like my- it's almost like my father, like, taught me how to find the problems in things rather than, you know- you know, a very glass half empty mentality. I've learned how to- I've had to be like, oh, I'm viewing this as like- I'm being kind of pessimistic or hypercritical. I should look for the good. 

Annie [00:19:00] So you moved to Wales, then you moved back to America after a couple of years, right? 

Chelsea [00:19:06] Yeah. 

Annie [00:19:07] You then moved into your father's house with his new partner, that didn't go so well-. 

Chelsea [00:19:12] Did not. 

Annie [00:19:12] And then there was some time when you were homeless. Reading the book, I just felt for you so bad because you're trying. You're working in a, where was it, Abercrombie and Fitch or something? Like-

Chelsea [00:19:23] I had two jobs, yeah. 

Annie [00:19:23] And Starbucks! 

Chelsea [00:19:24] Starbucks was my main job, yeah. 

Annie [00:19:26] Yeah. And then you were trying to go to college? 

Chelsea [00:19:28] Yep. So I was- I counted it once and I was either doing work or school for over 100 hours a week. So, very little sleep. 

Annie [00:19:38] Very little sleep, trying to make ends meet, trying to do both and it wasn't sustainable, basically. Is that safe to say? 

Chelsea [00:19:44] Yeah, I mean- I often joke because people often say, oh, well, you know, you were in the military. I'm like, well, the hardest job I ever had was actually Starbucks and doing a closing slash opening, right *both laughing*. You know where you you close one night and you open first thing in the morning, right? When did I get to go out? When did I get to go have fun? 

Annie [00:20:03] So, at what point did you leave, end up leaving your father and his partner's house? And what were the circumstances of that? 

Chelsea [00:20:11] I was working a job and I would come home from work every day. She had a son who, you know, had this very regimented schedule because of various, you know, sort of neuro divergences that he had that I'm not terribly familiar with and I never got a chance to really learn. But, you know, I, I was fairly independent of that or so I felt, but there was always this clash between like, okay, like I need to go eat, you know, I need to cook because it's like 8 p.m., she was like well you can't cook in here, it's past 8 p.m.. And you can't be doing this and doing this and I'm like, well I have to eat, like I can't not eat. So I kept pushing and I kept pushing these boundaries and it eventually led to a fight. And she like aggressively sort of was screaming at me one day and I, you know, and I yelled back at her and this was around the time when my father had prostate cancer. 

Annie [00:21:03] Okay. 

Chelsea [00:21:04] So he had just had- he had just had surgery to remove a tumour and so he was out of commission, essentially. And I feel like she used this time when he was drugged up- 

Annie [00:21:21] Okay, heavily medicated, yeah. 

Chelsea [00:21:22] Heavily medicated and unable to like understand what's going on, and she like accused me of, you know, like, of like threatening her or something like that. And, you know, it was an argument but she used that opportunity to call the police and bring, you know- and in Oklahoma, and this is where the legal system, this is my first sort of encounter with the American legal system in all of its complexity and arbitrariness, if there's a domestic call there has to be somebody removed. It doesn't matter if it's frivolous or not, there has to be somebody removed. 

Annie [00:21:58] Wow. 

Chelsea [00:21:58] And so I was physically removed from the property and I never returned. And all I had was a truck and just stuff that was in boxes. And as much as my sister would have loved to have taken me in at the time, you know, she had just finished college, she had just gotten married and, you know, they were struggling. They had just gotten started. I left and I went on this journey across the central United States for the next six or eight months. 

Annie [00:22:27] And ended up in Chicago. 

Chelsea [00:22:30] I ended up landing in Chicago, yeah. And it was funny because I kept on going to bigger and bigger places because I was sort of seeking that anonymity. 

Annie [00:22:39] I mean, at this time in Chicago, you write about discovering the club scene and really finding a home and a kind of sense of community in the gay clubs there. The music, the pe- like just really- can you tell me about kind of how that felt for you after a very turbulent teens, I suppose? 

Chelsea [00:22:59] Yeah, well, you know, after everything and after losing essentially everything, I had nothing. 

Annie [00:23:05] Very vulnerable. Like living in a truck, basically. 

Chelsea [00:23:08] At this age, my brain didn't process that as like, I'm in danger or I'm at risk. I processed it as this is an adventure. This is life. This is, you know, exciting. And so I really latched on to this scene because anything could happen, you know? And yeah, sure, it was scary and it was uncertain. And, you know, there were days and nights when I was like, oh, how am I going to eat or do anything. But there was also like the sense of, like adventure as I'm meeting new people all the time and I'm getting to go and explore new places and experience new things, the artistic nature of the scene and the sort of like, the complexities of the community and the sort of, the style, the fashion, the music. And I mean, despite the fact that I was living as a fairly destitute person, I didn't dress like it *both laugh*. You know, I had a chance to live and express myself in ways that I never was able to before. 

Annie [00:24:16] Right, right. That's so important isn't it, it's giving you this freedom to- 

Chelsea [00:24:21] Yeah, when you're not paying rent you could definitely spend money on clothes, so- *both laugh*. 

[00:24:23] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:24:34] So then you join the military. We we know you ended up joining the Army. We know about that leave. Let's talk about what happened next. I mean, your adult change is kind of after that period, you know, that change from being someone who was well-intentioned, well-meaning, working in the military, taking your job really seriously, to then being arrested by that same military and as you said, put in solitary confinement, not knowing what's going on, what's happening to you. 

Chelsea [00:25:02] And being very surprised by that. I think- one of the things that I often like have to remind people is that that had never happened before. Because people now have this like- because now they look at me or they look at Ed's case. 

Annie [00:25:17] Edward Snowden, yeah. 

Chelsea [00:25:18] Right. And so they look at these sort of big cases after 2010 but I mean, I, I didn't know who Daniel Ellsberg was, right, and he never went to prison. 

Annie [00:25:30] And Daniel Ellsberg was another person who, like, whistleblower kind of person.  

Chelsea [00:25:35] Right, from the Vietnam era. And I didn't even know about this, like, that this had happened. So there's this like pre-Internet, sort of like, you know, lack of information, this information void that we were in. But like, this had never happened before because people were like, oh, what did you expect? And I was like, I thought I'd get in trouble, for sure, but I thought- and I thought it was career ending, you know, which is every- when that's all you have, is your career, like that's everything. And so like, that was the end of my life. But yeah, the solitary confinement, the lengthy prison sentence, the lack of connections, like, all of that had never happened before and it was very unexpected because it's just not how it had panned out in other cases, you know. Other cases prior to that and, you know, if they were out of jail, you know, they had lawyers and they had teams and things like that, so I kind of expected my experience to be similar, like I would get in a lot of trouble, but that would be trouble as in like, am I going to have a job after this? Is anybody going to ever employ me again? I'm never going to have a retirement? Like those are the kinds of scary realities that I was going to have to grapple with so to this day, I struggle processing like what happened to me. 

Annie [00:26:49] Yeah. So you were in solitary confinement for 11ish months, then you were sentenced to a 35 year sentence. How old were you when you were sentenced, Chelsea? 

Chelsea [00:26:59] I was 25 years old, and I had been in prison for three years so, you know. 

Annie [00:27:04] So you thought you might get life without parole if you were accused of treason, correct? And you weren't. 

Chelsea [00:27:10] Well, so there's aiding the enemy which is a quote unquote, treasonable offence, but we got past that. I was acquitted of that charge, which again, way outside of the bounds of anything I was even fathoming before that but you know that was off the table. So like, you know, I had a number, so like I was like this is a range, I can work with numbers and you can calculate from that so it just became sort of a math problem to me at that point. But like the idea that I would walk about in my thirties or my forties was far outside the realm of possibilities but I'd come to expect that. So, you know, by the time that happened, I was like, okay, like, you know, like I got some numbers, this is what I got to do. Like, here's like- now I just got to figure out how I'm going to get through the next like 20 years, 20, 25 years, because there is a mandatory minimum. I lived under this sort of expectation like, it's going to be a long time, probably not going to get out of prison but what I can do is I can improve my conditions while I'm in there and I can make my life in prison- 

Annie [00:28:16] Bearable. 

Chelsea [00:28:18] As liveable as possible. 

Annie [00:28:19] Yeah, yeah. So it was at that moment, like after you were convicted, that you then decided to come out as trans and say, I am Chelsea. Like, this is who I am now. Am I right? 

Chelsea [00:28:30] Well, I wanted to do it sooner. It probably wasn't until two, three months after I got incarcerated that I even knew that people knew who I was, right. Because I had been that isolated. But around that time when I was like, oh, like people know me as like a different name and a different sort of background- and also people, I read this like New York Times piece where people were describing me as like a loner, you know like who is this person they're describing? *Laughing* right, I was like, I'm a party person!  

Annie [00:29:02] Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Chelsea [00:29:02] What are we talking about here? Like, where's the club? Where's the music? *Annie laughing*. There was this sort of jarring thing where I'm just like, okay, like so what do I do, but it was through my legal counsel who was just like, this is about your survival right now, this is not about like, your access to care and things like that. I'm like, okay, like- but as soon as that's out of the way, as soon as I know where this court martial and this sentence lands, this is what I need to get done. And so I was very adamant that I wanted it. I wanted to come out, I wanted to seek care. I wanted to, you know, get the transition care that I needed. But it was pretty clear that every single resource possible needed to be focussed on the court martial process. But as soon as that was out of the way, I was like, yeah, this is my priority. Quality of life was my priority! 

Annie [00:29:55] Of course. So being able to live as yourself. And when you made that statement and said, no, this is who I am, I'm Chelsea Manning, I guess how did things change for you? Was there a reaction? Did people react to what you said and how did it change how you felt? 

Chelsea [00:30:10] I had no idea how much my story and my experience would resonate with sort of other trans people or that there was a trans community because like, the notion was fairly recent, right? And so this connectedness was new and this sort of understanding of this- like people reaching out to me was brand new. And I was a bit taken aback at first by that, like, oh, people have similar experiences to me. Wow. But, you know, in my day to day life nothing changed. You know, prison was the same rigamarole as it always was. 

Annie [00:30:47] But I was struck on reading your story at the courage that you had in order to present as a woman in prison, you know. 

Chelsea [00:30:55] Why?! 

Annie [00:30:55] Because you're surrounded by men! I don't know, to me that automatically feels like you're vulnerable, like, you know, presenting as a woman I feel like people would like- I don't know, want to attack you or something *Chelsea laughs*. This is my instinct. I don't know. 

Chelsea [00:31:09] Yeah, I mean, I feel like I would be far more vulnerable if I didn't, right? 

Annie [00:31:15] If you didn't. Okay, I see. 

Chelsea [00:31:16] You know, like, if you don't- like, especially in prison, like in an environment where you're around the same people every single day, you're already doing that in the military and it's that x2, right? So, I like to say imagine secondary school, except you can't leave and there is no classes, right. All the drama, all of the complexity, all of the personalities become very known. And if you're not who you are and not presenting as who you are, everyone can see that.  

Annie [00:31:44] I'd say it would be exhausting as well. 

Chelsea [00:31:46] Yeah, exactly. 

Annie [00:31:47] To have to lie. 

Chelsea [00:31:48] Yeah and so yeah, like, it was easier for me to be who I was and was easier for everyone else because, like, oh, yeah, this is you quite clearly, you know? 

Annie [00:32:00] Yeah. And how do people like, take to you? Like you were transitioning in prison, you were the first person in the military prison system granted access to hormones, one of a handful of the military at large. This was, you know, relatively new, you know, as a concept within military prison. 

Chelsea [00:32:15] Yeah, well, you know, it was certainly a fight but, you know, whenever it came to like- because I think people have a very incorrect perception of inmates, right. You know, and the priorities of inmates, right. You know, inmates were like, you know- like people are like, oh, were you scared of inmates? I was like, no, not really. Like they were you know- How did they react to it? And they're like, oh, you got one over on the prison system?! You went up against the system in one?! Like, that's great! Like, this is like, it's the solidarity that I think that's missing from the story here of the prison system, which is like, you know, like we're all in this together. And yeah, of course we want to see more rights among prisoners and yeah, you get one over, like this sort of like David versus Goliath aspect becomes so important to the story internally. One of the battles that I didn't win was, you know, the ability to grow my hair. And it was hard because, you know, as like everything else, it's like, this is the one thing that the prison system didn't want to relent on, and the reason why they didn't relent on it was because they were afraid that they were going to allow, you know, indigenous inmates to have to grow their hair or they were going to have to provide religious exemptions for people. So they stuck on this point and it was- and I had solidarity with the other inmates who wanted the same right, you know, for a different reason. But like, you know, they were like, oh, yeah, we're going to make this as painless as possible. So, you know, I got hooked up with a barber who would stretch the rules to the very limit. You know, only would use shears, would not use buzzers, you know, like somebody who would like, you know, make it as comfortable an experience as possible, you know. 

Annie [00:33:54] And you describe someone threading your eyebrows, which is a very touching moment. 

Chelsea [00:33:58] Yeah, because he didn't needed the skills to do that and needed to be qualified to do that because under Kansas- under a Kansas Barber official, you know, certification, you have to learn how to do that. So yeah, I get to practice, you know. 

Annie [00:34:12] As every year goes by and you live longer as a free woman, those seven years (Chelsea: Are we free?) will feel smaller and smaller... Well, oh, my God, Chelsea. Okay, now we're getting- 

Chelsea [00:34:22] And this is- but this is what I grapple with, right? You know, which is- 

Annie [00:34:28] How do you mean? So like, in terms of what? How are we not free? 

Chelsea [00:34:31] You know, that's what I mean is like I, you know, whenever I was living on the streets of Chicago right, you know, it was the same sort of mentality of like, you know, like, oh, this is an adventure. This is how I perceived the situation. You know, I felt more free then than I've ever felt in any point in my life and that holds to this day, right, you know. 

Annie [00:34:52] And why is that? 

Chelsea [00:34:53] Why is that? The obligations that I have as an adult, the rent, the bills, the expectation- the social expectations that are placed on me. And now I have these social expectations that are placed on me as a public figure, like, oh, you should- you should be doing this, you should have these social media accounts, you should have a TikTok, you should do YouTube. You know, like you should this. You know? I mean, it's very philosophical, you can get into like, postmodern philosophy, but like, just in terms of like my own life experience, I'm like, yeah, like what is, what is free? And why is it that when I was reading and I was learning the legal system in the law library and I was working in a woodshop, why did I feel more free in general population in prison? Not solitary confinement, when I was in general population, why did I feel more free and more fulfilled than I do as an adult who's paying rent and bills and having to do all of these like social obligations. Why is that? 

Annie [00:35:56] Mmm. Just talking about how you felt about being in prison, there's a scene in the amazing film that you can watch on Amazon Prime, X, Y, Chelsea, of where you're called to be told that Obama has commuted your sentence and you will be coming out of prison and you're not wooping, you're not like woo hoo! You're like, oh, I've got all my friends here and it's going to be weird. And, you know, you can palpably hear a sadness in your voice, a kind of like, oh? Can you talk to me more about, I suppose, you know, you said you felt free but-

Chelsea [00:36:28] No, I didn't, I didn't feel free. I didn't feel free. I want to be clear. 

Annie [00:36:31] A sense of free. A sense of free? Is that more fair to say? A sense of freedom. 

Chelsea [00:36:37] I felt more purpose. I felt more fulfilment. I felt more of a spiritual connection. 

Annie [00:36:41] And also, I presume, a sense of community in there? A very like, solid sense of community, did you have that?

Chelsea [00:36:46] Yeah, like I could just meet any random person and we could play spades and have conversations and I could learn something about them. 

Annie [00:36:52] Did you have meaningful relationships in there? Like did you make- are you still in touch with people from there? 

Chelsea [00:36:57] No. They're very strict about the rules on that kind of thing. And most people aren't like me, they don't get severed. Like they end up in the system and they continually have to be a part of the system. So, even when somebody goes to different facility, you almost never- you very rarely hear from anyone ever again. But sure, am I nostalgic about those moments? Yeah, absolutely. As Solzhenitsyn observed, you know, like it's a microcosm of our society and I think that's true. There's something strange that happens with homelessness, there's something strange that happens in war, and there's something strange that happens in prisons, which are these very extreme sets of circumstances. 

Annie [00:37:34] You've done all three. 

Chelsea [00:37:35] You get to see the absolute worst of society and the absolute worst that humanity can do. But at the same time, you get to see the most incredible humanity. Like what people are really, truly capable of in these sets of circumstances. 

[00:37:49] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:37:59] Well, let's get to the biggest change of your adult life. You kind of cited two changes that came back to back. What were they? 

Chelsea [00:38:07] Uh, well, they were my first time being released from prison into the public and then being a public figure. 

Annie [00:38:15] Both at the same time, which must have been a complete head fuck. 

Chelsea [00:38:19] Yeah, well, it's funny because this is a part of the story that I think gets glossed over and overlooked, which, you know, again, is a part of the story from like the start when I was in solitary confinement, which is like, I don't know anybody knows I'm here! And it's like apparently all over the evening news globally, right? It's like international firestorm. And I'm sitting in there and I'm like, I wonder what's for breakfast, right. I have no idea *laughs*. And it's the same sort of thing where it's like, I have no idea how to do a television interview. And yet I'm expected to know automatically how to do the kinds of television interviews that people prepare for years, spend entire careers trying to be prepared for, and I have to learn how to do this in ten days. There was this moment where I was released from prison and I thought, oh, I'll ride off into the sunset. Like, literally. Like, okay, like, yes, that's that chapter of my life over and it's- we can fade out. 

Annie [00:39:23] There's a quote in the book, you say "it did feel surreal to be free, but it also felt like what I'd been dealing with for the previous seven years would never be over. It certainly isn't over now. I can never leave it behind". 

Chelsea [00:39:35] Yeah, I think that's true. I think that it will fade much like much like a scar. I like to think of it akin to a scar, you know, like it will heal but it will always be there. It will fade, but it will always be there. 

Annie [00:39:51] How has it changed you ultimately, do you think? You know that period of time in prison, how has it manifested in you as Chelsea now? The memories will fade but has it changed you, kind of the essence of who you are, how you look at the world, how you move through the world? 

Chelsea [00:40:04] Sure. When I felt alone and I felt like I didn't have guidance, I now encounter so many people who are lost and needing guidance or whatever and I don't feel that anymore. I don't feel lost anymore. And I think that's real, and I think that's deep and that's powerful. I don't feel lost. I know right where I am and I know right where I need to be. Am I a little off course from time to time? Sure. But I know who I am. I know what I enjoy. I know what I like and what I don't like. I know what my true ambitions are and I've found, like, a real sense of who I am. And I do feel a little sidetracked by some of the obligations that I have, both as just being sort of a, you know, a quote unquote, free adult in the world and as a public figure from time to time, but I get the sense, especially when I'm interacting with people and I get to talk to people, that I feel way more grounded than everyone else. 

Annie [00:41:06] So that brings us really nicely into the final question of change, the change you would still like to make in your life moving forwards, or that you are working on? 

Chelsea [00:41:15] Oh, that's a great question. I've accomplished so many of the things that I've wanted to do in my life. You know, I've ran out of dreams to fulfil, right? *Annie laughs* weirdly enough. 

Annie [00:41:31] You've got to make some new ones, Chelsea. 

Chelsea [00:41:34] I mean, do I? You know, I've had this struggle, you know, for the last year or so. I mean, I think that stability- I mean, like thats- and I said this before, which is like, stability is like what I'm really after, and I'm starting to get that. I'm certainly going to taste that stability and I want it. I want that stability. And I know that that's going against the grain of sort of like everything else that's going on in society is, as things become more unstable, but like, I want a piece of that stability and a bit of that peace of mind for as long as I can for myself, and so I can heal and so I can find my place in all of this that isn't attached to stuff that happened 15 years ago. You know, I, I that's, that's mainly what I've been doing. So it's more, it's more finding, you know, that internal peace which I've finally sort of made a lot of progress on in the last few years, and now I'm turning that into, okay, what do I want in my home? What kind of relationships do I want? And it goes back to the very beginning of this, which is after my parents divorced, I lost that stability and that's what I want back and I- I can do that now. 

Annie [00:42:51] Are you still in touch with your parents? Are they both still around? 

Chelsea [00:42:54] My mother passed away in 2020, sadly. 

Annie [00:42:57] I'm sorry. 

Chelsea [00:42:58] I have not seen my father in over a decade. And I haven't heard from him or spoken to him I think in about five or six, maybe seven years, probably since I was released. But I thought because of something on my part, right? I mean, I've sort of let go of the fact that I'm probably never going to have like a really good relationship with my father. But like, you know, that doesn't mean I wouldn't talk to him. But even other members of my family who I do talk to, you know, on a more regular basis, don't really know what's going on with him, so he's still mercurial. 

Annie [00:43:32] He's out there and, you know, you've got a long life ahead. You never know. You seem so well and buoyant and just in such good form and it's so wonderful to have this time with you and to share those ideas and for you to share your story. I really appreciate that because I can't imagine it's fun going back there over and over again, so I do appreciate your generosity in doing that. Thank you so much. 

Chelsea [00:43:55] Thank you. 

Annie [00:44:00] Thank you so much to Chelsea Manning. As I mentioned, if you want to find out more about Chelsea's story, read her memoir. It's excellent. So beautifully written. As you can imagine, incredibly gripping, such as the kind of huge drama of her life. It's called README.txt and you can also watch her documentary X, Y, Chelsea on Amazon Prime or Apple TV. Do please rate, review and subscribe to Changes. It is so appreciated. And if you fancy sharing it on social media too, that would be amazing. The more people we can get listening to these episodes the better, we want to tell our stories far and wide. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions, and I'll be back next week with more! See you then.