Australian hacker Julian Assange, Wikileaks' silver-coiffed leader, increasingly appears to be the main character in a Web 2.0 Mad Max sequel. His past includes a carefree childhood, escaping a cult and motorcycling around Vietnam. is the whistle-blowing website that's responsible for dozens of high-profile leaks, including this year's Iraq attack helicopter video. Much of the information contained in the long profile of Assange in this week's New Yorker is not new: Assange and his haphazard crew are overly paranoid; Assange is a passionate crusader who sees Wikileaks as the vanguard in a new movement for radical transparency; Assange is sort of a weirdo hobo, who travels the world with a duffel bag full of socks.

But New Yorker reporter Raffi Khatchadourian delves deep into Assange's past and we learn about the abbreviated childhood that shaped his obsessions. Assange for a time lived on the tiny Magnetic Island off the coast of Australia. He was homeschooled, grew up riding horses and making rafts, and when he was eight his mom hooked up with a musician. Things got weird:

The musician became abusive, she says, and they separated. A fight ensued over the custody of Assange's half brother, and Claire felt threatened, fearing that the musician would take away her son. Assange recalled her saying, "Now we need to disappear," and he lived on the run with her from the age of eleven to sixteen. When I asked him about the experience, he told me that there was evidence that the man belonged to a powerful cult called the Family-its motto was "Unseen, Unknown, and Unheard." Some members were doctors who persuaded mothers to give up their newborn children to the cult's leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The cult had moles in government, Assange suspected, who provided the musician with leads on Claire's whereabouts.

They escaped and moved across the street form an electronics store, where Assange learned computers. Eventually, Assange became a part of a hacking collective known as the International Subversives, adopting the moniker "Mendax". He fell in love with a 16 year-old girl and joined a squatter's union with her. After a series of increasingly brazen capers, he got arrested for hacking and spent some time wandering in the wilderness and tooling around Vietnam on a motorcycle.

Really, how could this guy end up becoming anything but the shadowy leader of an activism network dedicated to exposing government secrets? [New Yorker]

(pic via andygee1)