When Birgitta Jonsdottir was a punk-rock teenager, a hard-core anarchist who loved to listen to the nihilist British band Crass, her boarding school decided to take her class on a school trip to Althing, Iceland's national Parliament.
The visit was intended to inspire students by offering them a glimpse at the seat of government, presumably so that they could aspire to occupy it one day.
While the rest of her class was in awe, Ms. Jonsdottir thought: “I can't be bothered to go in there.” So she sat in the school bus alone and penned a poem entitled Black Roses about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Given the circumstances, it was really the only thing a self-respecting anarchist could do.
Since then, Ms. Jonsdottir's life has taken a series of unexpected turns, such that the diminutive 43-year-old, who once worked as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner saleswoman in the suburbs of Philadelphia, is today Iceland's most prominent – some would say notorious – parliamentarian. She remains, however, a lawmaker who is deeply uncomfortable with the law.
“This might sound really radical, coming from a parliamentarian, but I don't have so much faith in law,” she said midway through a whirlwind tour last week in Toronto, where she found herself at the centre of a much larger storm.
The U.S. Justice Department has subpoenaed Twitter to hand over Ms. Jonsdottir's personal account information, including private messages, IP addresses and credit-card details. The move is apparently part of the investigation into WikiLeaks, for which she worked at one time as a collaborator and spokeswoman.
Ms. Jonsdottir, a 43-year-old mother of three, has no clue whether she is considered a criminal suspect in the case, like Julian Assange, WikiLeaks's founder, with whom she said she last communicated in October. Still, she is rattled enough to avoid flying over American airspace, on the advice of a lawyer.
If the Justice Department is looking to pick a fight, however, it evidently chose the wrong person.
“There are very few things in life that really scare me. My life has been filled with tragedy, and yet I am still here,” said Ms. Jonsdottir, whose blue eyes are framed by a razor-straight fringe of jet-black hair.
Not that she wants to talk about herself. Ms. Jonsdottir valiantly attempts to persuade all interviewers and audiences to concentrate on the content of the leaked diplomatic cables, which she believes to be the real story, rather than herself.
This may be true, but it is also a bit of a shame, since Ms. Jonsdottir's life and work is, frankly, so interesting.
She grew up in a small fishing village in Iceland with her adoptive parents, and credits her leftist politics to her late mother, a legendary Icelandic folk singer named Bergthora Arnadottir who was also part of a political party that pushed for greater gender equality through representation in Parliament. Her father was a fisherman.
“I was raised up in this sort of environment where you would have fishermen come up for a coffee along with very famous people and my mother never made any distinction between these people,” Ms. Jonsdottir recalled, somewhat wistfully.
“So she would invite a hobo woman to come and use her sewing machine and at the same time meet some of the highest-ranking people in Iceland at our home. I think that was an incredibly important guideline for me to have growing up,” she added.
Ms. Jonsdottir's idyllic childhood was shattered one Christmas. Just before dinner, her father said he had to run some errands. He never returned. The police said he killed himself, walking into an icy river during a winter storm.
The ordeal provided her with some of dark inspiration for a book she subsequently wrote, The Diary of the Chameleon, a graphic account of the sadness in her own life.
“Now we know for sure. My father The Fisher King killed himself last night. He must have been in much agony, but I hope that he has found peace wherever his soul has wandered. … I pictured him in my mind's eye walking heavily into the river, a little bit bent. A lone dark shadow in a blizzard of white. I have hardly been able to cry at all,” she wrote.
Ms. Jonsdottir threw herself into art. She dropped out of college because “I discovered I couldn't just decide what I wanted to learn, so I decided that I would self-educate.”
She published her first book of poetry at the age of 20. Her art has been shown in galleries in Europe and America. She also fell in love with her husband, a photographer named Charles.
The artist and the photographer, to make ends meet, hopscotched through a series of odd jobs, bouncing between continents. He worked as a wedding photographer. She pulled stints as a nanny, a grocery-store clerk and a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner saleswoman, a job that sounds like your basic nightmare to anyone other than Ms. Jonsdottir.
“It was so interesting! My God, it was just so brilliant,” she enthused. “To go into these homes and talk to people in different segregated neighbourhoods. To get to know these people, to go into their homes. Besides, what is more American than being a door-to-door salesperson of vacuum cleaners? It's the perfect cliché,” she said.
She eventually quit for “ethical reasons.”
“I pushed a vacuum cleaner on an elderly couple that had never bought anything on a payment plan. I was driving back home and I was thinking ‘This does not feel good.' They don't need this vacuum cleaner and I have pushed them to do something they have never done before and I have used my ability to persuade for my own benefit. So I stopped, and moved back to Iceland.”
Around that time, tragedy struck yet again. Her husband, who suffered from severe epilepsy and from whom she was separated at the time, disappeared in 1993. “He left a note and vanished,” she said.
Five years later, on Iceland's national holiday, his remains were discovered. Ms. Jonsdottir was, once again, forced to rebound.
In 1995, scouring the ads at an unemployment office in Reykjavik, she saw one that piqued her interest: organizing a local arts festival. That volunteer job put her in the same office space as an Internet ad agency start-up, which offered her a full-time job because the boss “liked my energy.”
The digital world had her hooked. In 1996, she organized Iceland's first live broadcast on the Internet. It centred on poetry and performance.
“On the Internet, you are sort of like a lighthouse, beaming out, and others will be attracted. So I was working with the pioneers in Iceland in this field and now,” she recalled.
She plunged into politics fairly recently, founding a non-partisan “horizontal” movement that ran in Iceland's 2009 election, garnering a respectable four seats.
She used her new-found political sway to push the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which seeks to imbue Iceland with the world's strongest media-freedom laws, making it a haven for whistle-blowers.
Ms. Jonsdottir first met Mr. Assange in 2009, when she began working on the initiative. However, she doesn't want to spend time talking about him.
Ironically, for this former anarchist, it was WikiLeaks's lack of organizational structure that drove her to break ranks with the organization. She also disagreed with the lack of transparency surrounding its finances.
And even though Ms. Jonsdottir now sits inside the Parliament building she visited as a teenager, she still considers herself an outsider.
“I'm just using the Parliament as a tool,” she said.
“When you are in Parliament, you are automatically put in priority, which I don't necessarily like, but I'll use it. So I am still an activist, but my role is to open the windows of Parliament so that others can look inside.”
Sonia Verma is a writer for The Globe and Mail.