Lisbeth Salander’s Real Life Twin May Be Iceland’s Next Prime Minister
The unlikely and awesome rise of punk, anarchist, and hacker Birgitta Jónsdóttir in the land of Vikings
Author’s note: I first heard of Birgitta in 2010. I was amazed by her double stance as a WikiLeaks’ volunteer and parliamentarian in Iceland — as a political hacker. Her country had been blown away by the subprime crisis, another thread in my work. I started following her story and became interested in her ideas and initiatives for freedom of expression and democratic revival. I also stayed up to date on Iceland, the jailing of its bankers, the return to GDP growth, the crowdsourcing of its constitution. After a short burst of activity, Iceland fell back to traditional politics and crony capitalism. Birgitta left WikiLeaks, imported the Pirate Party to Iceland, and remained alive and strong all the way. I wanted to see for myself—to understand her appetite for life, her inner strengths, and the spirit of that sublime country. So I went to Iceland last summer, where Birgitta tried to explain it all to me: the crisis, the hacking, the pirates, true wealth, and the soul of a country so tiny that it can experiment with almost anything it wants. This story is based primarily on those conversations, as well as interviews with other key people involved and published reports. — Flore Vasseur
On the morning of October 7, 2008, Icelanders wake up uncertain of their fate. Will supermarkets be restocked and open today? Since the beginning of the year, the Icelandic crown has been devalued by half. Prices have been skyrocketing, like the debt taken on during the euphoria of the boom. Consumer spending is in a slump, and local businesses are closing. With the country’s financial system about to crash, the government has been forced to choose who was too big to fail: the banking system or the people?
The answer came on live TV the evening before, when a tired-looking Geir Haarde, prime minister of Iceland, enacted an emergency law placing the banking system under state control, effective immediately, and protecting Icelanders’ accounts. “God save Iceland,” he concluded, short of any convincing argument. For the first time in 25 years, a country in the West had requested the assistance of the IMF, in the form of a $10 billion emergency loan. Adrift after the golden years of the miracle boom, Icelanders found themselves back at square one: cut off from the world.
Four days later, a small group gathers on the Austurvöllur Square in front of the Parliament building. Almost 70 years old, the songwriter and actor Hordar Torfasson wants to understand what just happened to his country. Loudspeaker in hand, he stands alone and calls for the representatives to step down. A police officer asks him to be quiet so as not to disturb those in power working inside. Hordar leaves smiling. He comes back a few days later with pots, wooden spoons, and some company: Birgitta Jónsdóttir. The lady is eager to make some proper noise.
Poet, editor, activist, and anarchist, Birgitta Jónsdóttir is “used to be[ing] the ugly duckling.” Tall, dark-haired, with an insatiable appetite for new ideas, she does not belong to any circle. She has no agenda, just a solid track record of speaking loud and true. And she is one of the few on the island with experience mobilizing political protest.
Like a wounded animal
“I am a punk: I am used to people disapproving of me,” Birgitta begins. Her smoker’s voice, made rougher with past shouting, still lilts and teases like a child’s. Feline and physical, she is a wounded animal.
Icelanders hide behind masks; Birgitta’s face tells all her battles. Feminine, she carefully picks her accessories, hairstyle, earrings. Nothing is done randomly; the body is a message. Her figure is stooped by life, her gait altered by back problems. Her hands are manicured, her mineral-blue eyes are alight, her facial features delicate. For years, she has been shouting into the void. To make her voice heard, she has used poems, the internet, painting, performance, activism. As an anarchist, Birgitta resents the Icelandic boom, not only for its consequences but in and of itself: “[I]t was scary. Everything was so sanitized. I really thought we were becoming Luxembourg.”
For 12 centuries, Iceland lived as a castaway. Attention came only at peak oil, around 1997, from a world desperate for energy resources. The next chapter would play out as a financial disaster case study, partly described in John Perkins’s 2004 autobiographical bestseller, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
In the book’s plot, a consulting firm arrives with good news: Iceland is sitting on a little-noticed gold mine: geothermal energy. Easily accessible, unlimited, clean, and virtually free, the heat of the land is a gift from heaven. Until then, Icelanders had been using it to heat homes and thermal pools. Now they could become a major energy producer, one of the kings of the universe.
Overnight, this report becomes the government’s “master plan.” Too happy to finally be taken seriously, it all but gives away the country’s resources. The gift of nature becomes the fuel of the “Icelandic miracle.” The aluminum industry comes to the fore, dynamites mountains, damages rivers, and floods valleys for hydropower. The battle of nature against the economy plays out of sight, in the Icelandic steppes — just as Halldór Laxness, 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, had predicted, and as Andri Magnason, one of Iceland’s best-known contemporary authors, would depict in his book and film Dreamland.
In the end, the government exceeded the consultants’ recommendations. To ease development, officials privatized the banks in 2001 and appointed their friends, all new in finance, to oversee them. Good fellows of the markets, convinced they were making history, they opened the door to its most creative products. Capital flowed. Sovereign wealth funds bought 4.2 billion euros in ISK-denominated debt, the so-called glacier bonds that would later come back to haunt the country during its insolvency. Everyone believed they’d get rich in an instant. Enjoying credit lines backed by almost nothing, they went on a buying and building spree and piled up debt (up to 10 times the GDP). Construction giants and large retail chains arrived. The international airport, a new road network, the magnificent Harpa (a 164 million–euro concert hall), luxury SUVs, and designer houses came out of the earth. The media, also privatized, boasted staggering expansion (between 2001 and 2008, the Icelandic economy grew by 230 percent). Flattering the national ego, it celebrated “Viking business” quick wins, all financed by debt, such as landmark real estate deals in Copenhagen, the former colonial power. They ignored the warnings, the loss of triple-A debt ratings, the price to be paid for this growth boosted by debt: preemption of the future.
While politicians and citizens were gorging themselves on toxic loans and the media looked the other way, Birgitta joined a small activist group that was trying to block the construction of aluminum smelters.
“At that time, nobody wanted to question the basis of the miracle boom. I chose to be broke. And luckily, I have always been poor,” she said. Birgitta didn’t stop then. Nor did she stop when, in the wake of the 2008 Olympic Games, she picketed for a free Tibet every morning for months in front of the Chinese embassy in Reykjavik.
Now, overnight, the country’s collapse creates an unexpected opening: “Society erases your personal behavior,” Birgitta says. “Crisis usually gives us something, a peculiar energy. You get the chance to change. Or not.”
It’s a catastrophe, and Birgitta rejoices. It’s chaos, and Birgitta wants to organize it.
After the shock of October 6, 2008, people begin to speak out again. Something shifts in the county; there is a spark. Icelanders meet in sewing clubs, concerts, thermal baths. For 12 centuries, they have come through all sorts of calamity, starvation, the plague, and cold. Survival is in their genes and optimism in their bones. With 320,000 souls spread over a territory the size of Kentucky, Icelanders are the happiest nation in the world. They’re like a big family.
They think big, love to work, struggle with an ancestral inferiority complex. Their pride wounded by the subprime crisis, Icelanders aim to reclaim their history and identity. In this tiny and almost untouched country, they begin to agitate for a sweeping democratic revival.
More and more people meet outside Parliament with pots and pans. Every Saturday, Birgitta drags her tall frame out to join them. Barely making a living creating websites, she has to care for her younger son, who shows signs of Asperger syndrome. Yet she embraces the rebellion, speaks out, organizes the mobilization. This self-raised punk, entering her forties, has come a long way. All those years, Birgitta had been physically committing to her causes. At last, under extreme circumstances, she is beginning to get some credit.
From October to March, protesters occupy the tiny square in front of Parliament for the second time in history. In 1949, the population rose up against the decision to join NATO and allow a U.S. Navy base in Keflavik. The riots ended in tear gas. Then came the GIs, with their products, brands, and lifestyle, importing the foundations of a liberal economy and nurturing the island’s first boom.
As the temperature drops, the protestors sing, dance, and shout to stay warm. They end up winning—without violence: The government, members of Parliament, and the head of the central bank resign en masse. Geir Haarde exits the prime minister’s house to raw eggs being thrown in his face. The president calls for early elections in two months.
All sorts of new political organizations blossom while the usual suspects hide. Birgitta founds the Civic Movement, an ephemeral party with a budget of 1,500 euros. “We hated each other, but the campaign was so short we didn’t have time to get into really big fights,” she recalls. “My son needed me badly. He was bullied at school because of his condition, which of course got worse. I didn’t want a seat, and we were very low in the polls, but there were not enough women on the list, so I added my name.”
The place to be
The Civic Movement wins 7.2 percent of the vote. “[I]t felt like belonging to a sports team that won the game,” Birgitta says. Parliament opens up to amateurs and to Birgitta. Out of nowhere, with no political experience, she jumps in, ready to use any weapon that comes to hand: “My intuition is my compass. I know I could be quite scary. I have a lot of energy but not a lot of time.”
The country aims to learn from its mistakes. Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born French magistrate, joins the Special Investigation Committee (SIC) on economic crimes. The SIC highlights political mistakes and blames media blindness. Run on private capital, the press became the “cheerleaders of the banks,” ignoring negative comments, concludes the committee.
The SIC also blames the population’s general immaturity: “Icelanders should develop realistic, responsible, and moderate identities and engage in critical thinking and media literacy in order to resist the hollow propaganda of marketing and branding.”
Three bankers are each sentenced to 5.5 years of prison for market manipulation and insider trading (to date, 26 bankers have been prosecuted and convicted for financial crimes, with an average sentence of three years behind bars). Geir Haarde, the former prime minister, is found guilty of negligence but manages to avoid a prison sentence. Yet for the first time, politicians’ responsibility for the financial crisis has been put on trial.
New faces rise. The anarchist comedian Jon Gnarr runs for mayor of Reykjavik. Playing on the absurdity of political campaigns, he mocks his traditional opponents by promising a Disneyland in the capital. His candidacy is a joke; the voters put him in office. Iceland becomes the place to be. Even Lady Gaga visits to take a selfie.
Yet the situation remains difficult. Icesave, an online bank that drained 2.7 billion euros from English savings and was once the very symbol of the miracle boom, has drowned with Landsbanski, its parent company. Great Britain is pressing a broke Iceland to repay. The Icelandic president calls for a referendum. By popular demand, the people vote no.
Slapped in the face by citizen power, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown puts Iceland on the list of terrorist states and freezes Icelandic assets in the UK. While the tiny country defies the markets, it ventures into an incredible political experiment: crowdsourcing its new constitution.
A group of 950 randomly selected citizens define the major guidelines that experts will use to draft 700 pages of recommendations. A constitutional assembly of 25 officials, lawyers, singers, househusbands, and people from all generations are elected to create the final text.
The whole country joins in the experiment. On the internet, everyone can share their views on the separation of powers, transparency, access to the internet, protection of natural resources. Each session of the constitutional assembly ends with a song.
Four months later, the new constitution is adopted in a nonbinding referendum with 67 percent approval. It’s an amazing burst of initiatives. Birgitta is all over the place. When not in Parliament, she joins her natural tribe — the artists, anarchists and activists—to rally for a free internet.
The internet took off as soon as it reached Iceland’s shores. Erasing distance, it connected the island to the world, breaking 12 centuries of insularity. Today, Iceland is the most connected nation in the world, with more than 95 percent of the population online.
It’s difficult to understate how completely the internet has transformed Iceland, for centuries cut off from and mostly ignored by the rest of the world. Icelanders jealously guard their newfound online rights. When Julian Assange turns up for a conference on digital freedom in 2009, he is welcomed as a rock star. He’s looking for a safe place to host his WikiLeaks servers, which are loaded with classified material. From the stage, Assange pitches the idea of turning Iceland into a haven, not for taxes, but for freedom of expression. In the wings, Birgitta, who speaks next, jumps on the idea.
A freedom activist and a coder herself, Birgitta immediately sees the idea as a way to get her country onto the worldwide stage. The island’s deserts (72 percent of the territory) could host giant server farms cooled by its freezing air and powered by its cheap and clean geothermal energy. Birgitta also wants to seize the political opportunity. Old democracies are about to get caught spying on the world and their own citizens. The island could make a statement by providing legal protection for whistleblowers and position itself in favor of freedom.
By turning Iceland into Assange’s “paradise for bits,” Birgitta envisions jobs, international significance, and the economy of the future.
The parliamentarian offers Assange the chance to make it happen. Flattered by the representative’s attention, he stays in Reykjavik with a few volunteers. For months, they benchmark the best laws in privacy, free speech, and source protection and come up with a complete legal package for Iceland. Through her party, the smallest in power, Birgitta convinces Parliament to pass it. The government turns the proposal into a resolution, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), set to transform Iceland on the world stage.
A few months later, in a cafe near the Parliament building, Assange shows Birgitta raw footage of an American Apache helicopter firing on Iraqi civilians. The video has been uploaded to WikiLeaks. Assange is looking for a safe place to edit it. Birgitta finds him shelter and help. “Nobody really disturbed us,” she says. “We were not hiding at all. The U.S. had no clue we were working on this. Julian was working night and day. I had never seen this before. I had to tell him to wash.”
Birgitta puts herself to work helping identify the victims. “On the phone, I heard the voice of the little boy who had stayed in the van under fire (while his father was trying to rescue the wounded civilians as the helicopter was shooting again). I cried when I assumed he was still alive.”
Birgitta, Assange, and a couple of volunteers edit Collateral Murder in five months. Released online, the short documentary goes off like a bomb. Assange becomes an enemy of the state. As the co-producer of the video and a WikiLeaks volunteer, Birgitta gains a worldwide reputation and an FBI investigation.
For Birgitta, it remains a bittersweet experience: “Julian takes all the attention and resources, while we could not have done anything without Manning. Julian promised to help him pay for his lawyer, but the truth is he only paid half*. Without Manning, there would be no Assange, maybe even no Snowden. I have huge motherly feelings for Chelsea. It tortures me every day to know how she lives.”
By night, Birgitta works to reveal the leaked diplomatic cables. By day, she goes to NATO meetings with a WikiLeaks sticker on her computer. She plays with her double-agent status.
Birgitta’s position in Parliament affords her some protection and provides access to so-called traditional power places. Her connections to the internet underground make her even more powerful. “To come to the best decision, you have to access the greatest minds,” she says. “The internet makes this possible. I feel like I am a complete fake. I know nothing, really.”
With her dangerous liaisons, frankness, and iconoclastic ideas, Birgitta wants to do to politics what Björk did to pop music. Yet despite her country’s atypical temper and energy, it cannot escape the law of gravity. “In 2009, we had a golden opportunity,” she says. “We wanted to tackle too many problems and spread ourselves too thin. So, in the end, we did nothing, really.” The effects of the 2009 decisions take a while to surface. The post-crisis enthusiasm fades away. The population grows weary. Fatalism prevails again.
In 2013, Birgitta imports the Pirate Party and runs in the legislative elections under the Píratar flag. Reelected with two others pirates (a worldwide record), Birgitta attends, impotent, to the traditional parties’ return to power. Back in their comfortable seats, they block the constitutional process, freeze IMMI, drag out their old tricks: bank privatization, media consolidation, resource exploitation. They succeed at the numbers game. Thanks to cheap geothermal energy, the country becomes the world’s leading producer of electricity per capita and returns to growth and employment. Iceland reimburses the IMF’s 2008 loan in full and in advance, much to the latter’s surprise.
The IMF’s congratulations hide a more complex reality. Many residents emigrated for work, and those who stayed need several small jobs to afford living in this super-expensive country. National debt reaches 100 billion euros, and foreign capital (121 billion euros in assets) is controlled to stabilize the currency. Facing austerity measures, the health care system suffers. Eva Joly leaves, along with all the alternative experts consulted after the crash. Exhausted after three years of public service, Jon Gnarr, the flamboyant anarchist mayor of Reykjavik, is also gone for a year at Rice University in the US. Meanwhile, Geir Haarde, the former PM found guilty of negligence in the crisis, is named Iceland’s ambassador in Washington, DC.
A hacker, not a rebel
Is Birgitta all that’s left of the “pots and pans revolution,” or is she the tip of the iceberg of a profound change? She has never been mild, but her solitude radicalizes her. “I want to be the mosquito in the tent,” she says, “so they cannot get any sleep.”
Stubbornly, Birgitta follows the Pirate Party guidelines: horizontal leadership, power rotation, liquid democracy. She votes in Parliament according to the majority will collected on the Píratar web platform. Birgitta is a captain with no title or privileges. Yet she leads.
With only three parliamentarians, Pirates have surged into first place for the next legislative elections. (With 38 percent of voter intention, they are ahead of both traditional parties combined.) “People are really fed up,” she comments. Birgitta could become prime minister. She rolls her big eyes and says, “That is my worst nightmare.”
Birgitta isn’t a rebel but a hacker. Complaining and pointing fingers is a waste of time. She has a goal, a plan: Birgitta wants democracy to work again. Being in charge is the price to pay. Yet she imposes her conditions: She wants her hands free. If in power, Birgitta’s action plan is clear: apply the new constitution; implement IMMI to make Iceland a safe haven for freedom of expression and data; hold a proper debate on joining the European Union, followed by a referendum; conduct a six-month policy assessment of every ministry; and turn the recommendation into a government plan. After that, Birgitta would step down to force new elections to have this plan supported across the board. A true pirate, she would leave her seat as soon as she is done. Power destroys souls. It has worn her out already.
“NSA recording device,” reads another sticker on the back of her laptop. “I couldn’t care less about them spying on me,” Birgitta says. “Actually, no, I hope they are listening to me and that I make them change their minds.”
Her Apple Watch, this ultimate bug, dangles with the many ethnic bracelets on her wrist. As she glances at it, Birgitta confesses, “I couldn’t resist. Consumerism is like cocaine. You always want more. I’m a boy, really. I love gadgets.”
Part troubadour, part nerd, part warrior, Birgitta looks like Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the Swedish thriller trilogy. “I am flattered, really, to be compared to her. But I am lucky I didn’t have her past.” Yet Birgitta does have quite a past of her own.
Like her fictional twin sister, Birgitta went wild and sank to places she should never have been able to emerge from. She has lived a thousand lives and lost as many battles—and nearly all of her loved ones. Wandering for love, poems, and projects, she has found her path through chaos.
Her father, the Captain of the Fishes
The story Birgitta tells about herself is that of a Dickensian childhood survivor. She was born to a 19-year-old folk singer, BergÞora Arnadottir, and a man who abandoned them both. The child-mother and her toddler wound up in the tiny port town of Þorlákshöfn and met a fisherman. At the age of four, Birgitta pointed at him, naming him “the captain of the fishes.” Choosing him as her father, Birgitta asked her mother to marry him. The young couple had a child and, as Birgitta recalls, “I became a mother for the first time.” She was five.
A real troubadour, her mother toured the country. Birgitta took care of the baby boy. “Our house was like a bus stop. All sorts of people would come and stay: foreigners — even Japanese! — intellectuals, poets, or homeless people.”
Buffeted by changing winds, Birgitta found solace in books. “They were my only friends,” she recalls. “I would read a book before going to school. During breaks, I would trade library cards so I could borrow more books. By 10, I had read all but the love stories. I was done with the village library.”
As a child, Birgitta spent summers with her maternal grandparents, both musicians, in Hveragerdi, an hour southeast of the capital. Hot springs flow into rivers and sublime waterfalls. In this fairyland universe, the young girl talked to stones like others talk to dolls, enchanted by her grandmother’s stories of elves, the little hidden people. On her grandparents’ bookshelves, Birgitta encountered Orwell and Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Prize–winning writer.
Her parents divorced. Birgitta followed her mother to Reykjavik, separating from her beloved brother. She was just 10 years old when death showed up: Some distant relatives first, then friends and her aunt with her fiance. “[T]hey just vanished one day,” she says. “It was all over the news. We found them later. The road was icy, and the wind swept them into the harbor.”
All around her, life was taken away by cold, ice, alcohol, elves, depression. Birgitta tried to kill herself. In their tiny apartment, she watched her mother’s sordid drinking and visits. “That is how I learned how to read an atmosphere. You get these extra feelers to get a sense of the prevalent mood, to read people. It is very important today, for my political work. When I enter a room, I can feel if there is danger for me.” Desperately looking for some framing or a way out, Birgitta begged her mother to send her to boarding school, “as far away as possible.”
At age 11, Birgitta started smoking. At 12, she discovered alcohol. At 13, she got her first job in a little grocery. “It was the only shop open during the weekends, and the line was enormous, but I loved it,” she says. “I realized being busy was good, that I needed to be occupied to avoid being preoccupied.”
At school, she hung around with the punks. In town, she became one: “They were living on the edge and got to see a world that is important to know. Most of them fell into drug abuse because reality was unbearable to them.” Birgitta learned that emotional wounds are like entry ports, dots to connect. Today, she says she still “has trouble connecting with those that never suffered, the wealthy and privileged.”
The teenage punk listened constantly to the band Crass and Broken English by Marianne Faithful. She experimented with anarchist literature and “all sorts of pills. With my friends, we would skip school to hitchhike to the city in all weather, even during snowstorms, to go where the punks were.” Once, Birgitta even met her biological father there. “I understood later he was convinced to be working for the KGB.” She overdosed and chose another boarding school, in the middle of the island, because, she says, “That is where all the punks used to go—the real place to be.”
She met her first love there. At age 15, with Jon Gnarr, the future mayor of Reykjavik, Birgitta took drugs, read the anarchists, dreamed of opening the Icelandic branch of Greenpeace. Aspiring actors, the couple wrote and performed a play. “We left school at 16 and tried to live together in Reykjavik, but it didn’t work. And then we never nourished our relationship. People drift apart,” she admits, a veil covering her lagoon-blue eyes.
“I have to be the rock”
Rebel without a cause, Birgitta hardly knew what to do with herself. She drowned her sorrow in Hveragerdi at her grandparents’ home. “I feel really sorry for them now,” she says. “They tried to impose all these rules on a kid that was basically self-raised.” She joined the village theater club, which happened to organize a trip to the capital to visit Parliament. Refusing to enter the building for a group visit, Birgitta wrote her first poem outside, “Black Rose.” Her mother had her words published and adapted them into a folk song. Her mother had also just married a man 10 years her junior. Birgitta was only nine years younger than her new stepfather.
As she turned to poetry, writing became an obsession. “I spent many years trying to have my poems published,” Birgitta recalls. The experience was torture. The punk hated begging for validation: “I am very shy, with very low self-confidence.” Creating a stage for her words, performing them became more important than seeing them published. “I rebelled against writing. I started to paint.”
At age 17, out of boredom, Birgitta headed for Sweden. “If you live on an island, you have to go away to find yourself.” She came back for Christmas Eve to the house of her chosen father, the “captain of the fishes.” “We were all there,” she recalls. “He dropped off my brother and the gifts, and then vanished. We got very worried.”
The family called the authorities. The next day, his car was found with his belongings by a river. “He was the best fisherman of his village. When his friend, who had co-owned the ship, died, he could not afford to keep the big boat, so he went for smaller and smaller ones. Eventually, he destroyed his back but saved the crew when one of his last boats sank. He always refused to go into debt. I never realized he had been suffering that much.”
To keep out the cold air of death, Birgitta wrote the poem “Warm Water.”
Birgitta ran away to London, where she tried to save up to pay for art school. Fruitless, she visited her mother in Denmark and found her on the verge of a nervous breakdown and another divorce. “I tried to rescue her and started to use this time to understand why I had been so self-destructive,” she says. “Until my father’s suicide, I had been convinced I would be dead at 25. The captain of the fishes was the rock in my life. With his disappearance, I realized I needed to be the rock.”
She read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm out loud to herself before going to sleep “to convince me to love myself.” After nine months, Birgitta gave up trying to help her mother. Back in Reykjavik, she had her first collection of poetry published at the age of 22. During an interview, she met Charles, a photographer. They fell in love, had a son, and took off for Virginia, where they spent a year on the road in a trailer. “That is very convenient when you are breastfeeding,” she says. “And I have some Cherokee roots. I love the indigenous culture. I felt at home in the U.S.”
To make ends meet as a young mother, Birgitta sold vacuum cleaners around Philadelphia. Charles, who suffered from epilepsy, needed increasingly more medication. Their path crossed with John Aldin, a guru who tried to separate them. “He was very good at it,” Birgitta says. “We were so easily influenced.” In limbo, the couple returned to Reykjavik.
Birgitta began writing a second book and wanted to finalize the divorce. One day she woke up to find that Charles had vanished, leaving his things, a letter, and their two-year-old son. The authorities launched a massive five-year-long manhunt, during which Birgitta coped with uncertainty. She saw signs of Charles everywhere, ghosts. “A psychic told me a tourist will find his bones five years after his disappearance, and everybody will be surprised that they didn’t find him before,” she says. “And that is what happened: He was very close to where we looked. Charles had chosen a beautiful place.”
As professional photographers often do, Birgitta held tight to poetry: Out of that moment came “Bone Day.”
Writing and painting saved Birgitta from drowning but did not fulfill her. She wanted to spread her ideas, to be seen and heard. She needed an amplifier. As a teenager, she hated computers, calling them “the true devil.” She finally bought one “to play with typography, words, my poems.” Without Birgitta noticing, a new road had opened up.
The internet swept Iceland like a tidal wave. The industry, the whole country, started hiring left and right. In 1995, Birgitta found an assistant job at QLan, a local internet service provider, recalling, “I overdelivered. I always do.” The boss noticed her. Her U.S. experience in vacuum cleaner sales qualified her as sales team manager.
One day, Birgitta came across a code error in an advertising banner. The developers were too busy to fix the problem. Birgitta rolled up her sleeves, dove into the chaos of code lines, and discovered computer language, a poetry of its own.
She decided to program her web pages—escaping reality in cyberspace and entering a second life where she could publish without an editor, meet peers without traveling, and talk with thousands without knowing any. Since then, on the web, she has been telling it all, merging her life, dramas, and texts; creating and sharing; mixing art, poetry, graphic design, music, politics. Coding dragged Birgitta out of her solitude and soon provided her with a living.
Birgitta became an entrepreneur, a website developer. “This is the perfect job when you are a single mom: You can do it from your kitchen.” She launched the first art festival broadcast live online. The venture failed and took her savings. Whatever. “I saw traffic taking up all the bandwidth. It was so beautiful,” she recalls. Birgitta no longer felt the need to travel: the internet was travel. In 1998, she dedicated a poem to the web, “A Country Without Borders.”
Translating the poem for the Icelandic market, Birgitta delved into The Four Agreements, a new age guide based on the ancient Toltec wisdom of the native people of Southern Mexico. The book guided her and became a worldwide bestseller. Her mother was doing better, even seeing a doctor. A car accident destroyed her beautiful face, and then cancer finally took her.
“At that time, I was following the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program,” Birgitta recalls. “The ninth step is for addicts’ relatives. You are supposed to both forgive and seek forgiveness; you acknowledge your part. I managed to do that step with my mom before she died. We had a beautiful conversation. There was nothing left unsaid.”
Birgitta’s poems, books, drawings, and photos are her treasures, like the small black-and-white portrait of Charles, her first husband, whom she mentions constantly. “I wish to thank the ghosts in my life for changing my perspective and allowing me to grow and value life,” she says.
The internet also now partly lays in Birgitta’s cemetery. “It is so sad it became an industry,” she says. “I can’t believe how passive people have become. The internet is meant to make real life better, not lesser.”
“Now I know”
Birgitta returned to paper and published her first poetry anthology on September 11 and, and The Book of Hope. The initiative ruined her—again. “I had to sell my apartment. But these two books made it to the White House Library. To thank me for sending them, I received a letter signed by George W. Bush. Isn’t it hilarious?” Birgitta does not laugh for long. As much as she hates Bush and his legacy, she owes him her political birth, for finally kicking her out of the woods.
Poetry told Birgitta that she is alive. The internet taught her that she belongs in this world. The crisis showed her that she has a role to play, and politics showed her that everything needs to change. Birgitta is ready: “Often, I wondered why I had been suffering that much. Now I know.” Aiming for beauty and significance, she has taken control of her personal journey. She is the rock with “a black belt in death.”
She is said to be naive, unpredictable. “That is actually a pretty good thing in politics,” Birgitta says, smiling with thick skin, warm heart, pure rage. “My grandmother played tarot cards with me. I am the fool, always have been. In fact, you have to play the fool.” In politics, as in life, that may well be the only way.
* A quote in this story was corrected by the author on Jan. 25, 2016 at the request of Birgitta Jónsdóttir: “I never said Wikileaks didn’t pay anything to the Manning defense fund, I have always said what is true: they only paid half of what was promised.”
A version of this story was originally published in French for La Revue XXI.
Illustrations courtesy of Juliette Barbanègre.