by Gary Greenberg
[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "In the Kingdom of the
Unabomber," which appeared in the most recent issue of McSweeney's, a
literary quarterly. The article tells the story of what happened when Gary
Greenberg, a Connecticut psychotherapist and professor, approached Theodore
Kaczynski and proposed to write the Unabomber's biography. The selections
below comprise approximately one-third of the full version, in which
Greenberg, who had no previous experience in journalism, recounts his
discoveries not only about Kaczynski but about the publishing business,
journalistic ethics, celebrity culture and his own ambition.]
The first letter, which arrived in mid-June of last year, had not come unbidden. Six months earlier, just after he'd pleaded guilty to the Unabom crimes, I'd written Kaczynski a letter. Although I had paid close attention to his case for nearly three years, from his emergence as a composite sketch demanding space for his manuscript in a national publication to his arrest, incarceration and abortive trial, my letter wasn't fan mail. Instead, it was a pitch.
It started like this:
January 24, 1998
Dear Mr. Kaczynski:
Please forgive my intrusion into your life. I am not sure if this letter will gain a sympathetic reading, or any reading for that matter. But after thinking long and hard about writing it, I'm taking the chance.
I would like you to consider allowing me to write a biography of you. I am sure you have had many requests from other people to do this, and for all I know you are already working with someone. Or, for that matter, you may be opposed in principle to the very idea. In the event, however, that neither of these are the case, I hope you'll read on and think about my request.
I know nothing of you, of course, except what the news media have decided to tell me, so what I am about to say is no doubt presumptuous -- it's just my reading between the lines. It seems to me that you are one of the notable antimodernists of our age. At least since saboteurs hurled their sandals into machines and Luddites rioted in factories, people have deeply (and sometimes violently) objected to the fundamental tenets of the modern world. This protest is not against one or the other work of technology -- against, say, nuclear weapons or automobiles -- but rather against the world view that underlies and makes possible the creation of any particular machine or device. And, as many antimodernists have discovered, this world view does not tolerate radical protest. It must either co-opt it or eradicate its opposition, the latter through outright killing or mere discrediting. I believe this is one of the reasons that there has been so much interest in finding a psychiatric diagnosis for you: not, as the various lawyers have claimed, to ensure that you are competent or sane to stand trial, but rather to dismiss your protest as the ravings of a lunatic.
he read on, Kaczynski found out that I thought I was suited for the job
for many reasons. I explained that I was a psychologist with a research
interest in the misuses of psychiatry, of which I believed his recent
diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic (and his ensuing mass-media portrayal
as a lunatic) was a perfect case. And I ended by saying that all of this
coupled with the fact that I had lived off the grid in a cabin in the woods
for a number if years meant that I could give him as sympathetic a treatment
as he was likely to get. I invited him to write me back if he was
interested, and then I waited.
My prospective subject was interested enough in the project to ask, through his lawyer, for more information about me. So during the spring I wrote Kaczynski a short autobiography. I told him about my therapy practice in New London and my teaching at Connecticut college, even a little about my personal life, and I sent him some of my academic writings -- two articles and a book. I heard nothing directly, and in mid-May, 1998, after he'd been sent to the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, I sent him a gentle reminder of my existence. His first letter came in response.
Kaczynski couldn't know that he had written this letter on my 41st birthday but, despite myself, I allowed the coincidence to take on some meaning. Midlife had left me wondering about my professional craft, hard-pressed to fulfill therapy's promised miracle -- not the offer of quick cures for psychic suffering, but the extension of a hope as American as Plymouth Rock: that with honest hard work, some weeping here and some soul-searching there, anyone can pursue and find happiness. The miracle embedded in this promise is that it keeps alive the possibility of a good life amid the execrable social order that Ted Kaczynski wanted to destroy.
The first letter itself wasn't much: a four-page, single-spaced document, handwritten with pencil. There were no signs of erasures or corrections. The prose didn't so much flow as march steadily from the beginning of an idea to its end, with nary a false logical step in the parade. Above all else, the letter conveyed a calm rationality, a sharp intellect and a distinct courtliness. Kaczynski had detected my impatience to hear from him and explained, without complaint or self-pity, the restrictions under which he labored, the difficulty in getting money for stamps, the necessity of submitting letters to prison officials, the fact that he did not get my book because, according to some inscrutable prison regulations, he was not allowed hard cover editions. He informed me, out of fairness he said, that he was probably going to write an autobiography, but he allowed that a book by someone else would still be a worthwhile addition to the knowledge about him. He seemed accustomed to thinking of himself as a historic figure.
And then he asked me a question, based on the articles I had sent him: Did I really believe, he wondered, that there was no such thing as objective truth? After all, he said, a nuclear bomb's effects are predictable and deadly regardless of the culture in whose midst it explodes. He wanted to know how my relativism, which he'd detected in my critique of psychiatric practice, could encompass this fact.
I wanted to know why he chose that particular example.
Even more, I wanted to know how the person who had fashioned this note, with its politeness and sensitivity, its levelheaded clarity, its measured expression of frustration -- how this person had spent 17 years of his life perfecting a technique for building bombs and delivering them to people he didn't know. How could he be so cold-blooded? And, I wondered, not for the last time, what was I doing getting involved with such a man?
second letter I got from Kaczynski came in early July; it was 20 pages
long. It was addressed, "Dear Gary," and signed, "Best regards, Ted
Kaczynski." From then on, we were on a first-name basis.
Some of the letter was personal: Kaczynski agreed with me that living in the woods was alienating, but that hadn't bothered him as it had me. Some of it was revealing: He told me that he had long had a recurring nightmare in which he and his cabin were transplanted to an island in the midst of a huge shopping mall. He paid me a compliment, telling me that he thought I was someone with whom it was possible to have a rational conversation. He insulted me, using one of my papers as an example of the way that philosophical writing buried its insights in "bullshit." Most of the letter was as dry as a math textbook. It had five footnotes, which ranged from simple amplifications of what he was saying to quibbles with me about my interpretation of early Christian martyrdom. The Unabomber had written me a treatise.
I should explain the occasion for this outpouring. The paper he criticized had nonetheless hit close to home for Kaczynski; it had an indirect but significant bearing on his case. The article was about a curious development in my profession. On a day in 1973, the psychiatric industry had eradicated a disease that had theretofore resisted all attempts at treatment and ruined many lives.
After two years of contentious meetings, disrupted conventions and what one psychiatrist called "fevered polemical discussion," the American Psychiatric Association officially deleted homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The love that dared not speak its name was now safe to discuss with the doctor. Not only was homosexuality no longer an illness, it had never been. It was all just a misunderstanding, and the doctors were very, very sorry.
This change was both good and bad news for the industry. The good news was that it explained why those millions of couch hours had failed to make desire flow in its proper channels. The psychiatrists hadn't lacked skill; they had just tried to use it to fix something that wasn't really broken.
This good news led to better: a new disease called "ego-dystonic homosexuality." To the relief of therapists everywhere, gay people still needed professional help -- no longer to try to reorient their sexual compass, but now to combat the effects of living in an intolerant society. Homosexuals were suffering not from homosexuality but from internalized oppression. The very doctors who had legitimized the stigma now stood at the ready to help its victims reclaim their dignity and accept what they once sought to eliminate. Of course, no one was going to get their money back, or even credit toward treatment of the new disease. This wasn't penance or community service, but capitalism at its most exuberantly irrational.
The bad news, though, was grim. As one psychiatrist said, "If groups of people march and raise enough hell, they can change anything in time. ... Will schizophrenia be next?" You can see the problem: All the hellraising in the world won't stop cancer from eating up your insides, but enough marching might relieve psychiatrists of the power to make pathology out of deviant behavior. This would be a disaster for the industry. And even if it didn't materialize, its very possibility was troublesome. The unmistakable hustle of therapists to keep up with the times, to avoid eating the dust of the sexual revolution, revealed psychiatry's darkest secret: that most diagnoses are moral judgments wrapped in medicine's cloak, and that therapists are really clerics disguised as scientists.
My paper was about the industry's response to this bad news, how it had been caught with its pants down but still managed to maintain its professional dignity and protect its franchise on the scientific understanding and treatment of human behavior. It's one of the great public relations coups of the 20th-century, and it was of vital interest to Kaczynski because, in his view, if psychiatry had lost its franchise, he might not be in his current position: left to rot in Supermax, where his bed and table are made out of molded concrete and exercise takes place in a kennel.
Instead, he'd be dead, or at least under a death sentence.
why my paper got a 20-page rise out of Kaczynski, you have to
know a little Unabomber history.
Kaczynski's lawyers knew a hopeless case when they saw one. There was a warehouse of evidence against him: bomb-related hardware, journal entries lamenting his failures and applauding his triumphs, various eyewitnesses to his whereabouts. Even Hamilton Burger couldn't have booted this one. Worse, the federal government had a new death penalty, and the Unabomber seemed a fitting early target: He'd committed heinous crimes, embarrassed the FBI by eluding them for almost two decades, and seemed entirely unrepentant. To his lawyers, this meant that there was only one possible plan: to find a defense that would minimize their client's chances of getting executed. But to Kaczynski, this was an end that served the lawyers more than their client. And this wasn't fair, as he wrote to attorneys whose support he sought after he had been convicted: "The principle that risk of the death penalty is to be minimized by any means possible... is very convenient for attorneys because it relieves them of the obligation to make difficult decisions about values or to think seriously about the situation and the character of the particular client."
The problem, in Kaczynski's view, was that the single course that would save his life was to turn to the psychiatrists and make him out to be a mental patient. After all, if you're going to order an execution, your condemned had better be a villain and not someone to whom you can, as we therapists say, relate.
Fortunately for defendants with good lawyers, there is no end to my profession's ability to commonly denominate the most heinous act or the most loathsome personality: Charles Manson had a mother too. Thus is revulsion turned to empathy, and all transgression's horror reduced to the banal recitation of trauma everyone might share.
So the defense rounded up its investigators and psychiatrists to prove that this hermit, with his poor hygiene and inscrutable mailing list, was a nut. They even arranged, in a strange fulfillment of Kaczynski's bad dream, to bring his cabin to Sacramento for the jury to examine.
"You've got to see this cabin to understand the way this man lived," said Quin Denvir, his lead defense lawyer. What you would see, Denvir explained to the press, is the external manifestation of a demented mind. "The cabin," he said, "symbolizes what had happened to this Ph.D. Berkeley professor and how he came to live. When people think about this case, they think about the cabin." Back in the early '80s, when I lived in my little cabin, I knew people who thought I was nuts simply by virtue of my chosen lifestyle. If I had had legal trouble, I don't think I would have wanted my lawyer to be among these doubters. But that was Kaczynski's situation. His lawyers wanted to save him from execution, and to do so they were willing to turn the better part of his adult life into a case study. Kaczynski didn't want his life saved that badly. So he fought throughout the fall to stop his lawyers from mounting any kind of mental-defect defense, refusing to participate in psychiatric evaluations for his own lawyers or the government's.
After endless motions and counter motions and chambers conferences, even after some highly unusual letters from Kaczynski to Judge Garland Burrell -- virtually begging him to relieve him of his lawyers -- on Jan. 5, 1998, the day his trial was to begin, Kaczynski stood up and said, "Your honor, before these proceedings begin, I would like to revisit the issue of my relations with my attorneys. It's very important." Kaczynski and the lawyers filed back into the judge's chambers, where he once again explained that he could not endure the daily injustice of a portrayal that could not be refuted. And now, he said, he was done with these lawyers. He wanted a new one: Tony Serra, a San Francisco lawyer who had lurked on the margins of the case for 21 months, and who had promised to not use a mental-defect defense.
But Serra proved to be unavailable. And when, on January 7, Burrell ruled that Kaczynski's lawyers could introduce mental-status evidence, even against their client's wishes, Kaczynski tried unsuccessfully to kill himself. The next morning, he decided to seek to become his own lawyer. But crazy people can't represent themselves, and now, at long last, the Unabomber was going to have to submit to the mental health experts: Judge Burrell refused to rule on Kaczynski's request for self-representation until he cooperated with a psychiatric evaluation. Sally Johnson, a psychiatrist who had come to prominence when she determined that John Hinckley was insane, was flown in.
Johnson worked at amphetamine speed. She read the full Unabomber archive in five days, including 20,000 pages of writings obtained from Kaczynski's Montana cabin. She interviewed all the lawyers on both sides, his mother, his brother, all but one of the seven experts who had weighed in on his mental status, even the town librarian in Lincoln, Montana. She made a pilgrimage to Kaczynski's cabin in its new home in an airplane-hangar-turned-warehouse in Sacramento. And she met with the defendant himself for 22 hours. Then she wrote a 47-page, single-spaced report that concluded, provisionally, that Kaczynski was a paranoid schizophrenic.
in itself was nothing new; it had been the conclusion of the other
doctors, but, because he refused to cooperate, they had had to coax the
diagnosis either out of Kaczynski's known history or his current orneriness.
They had, for instance, taken the fact that he used his own composted shit
to fertilize his garden (a practice not quite so unusual as it sounds;
there's even a name for it: humanure) as evidence that he suffered from
"coprophilia," an unhealthy interest in feces. His hardscrabble, third-world
life showed a lack of self-care. And his failure to allow them to evaluate
them or to accept that he was truly deranged was "anosognosia," the
condition of being too sick to agree with the psychiatrist, a hallmark
feature of schizophrenia, and a word to bear in mind the next time you
disagree with a psychiatrist. But Johnson needed to do no diagnostic
conjuring. In 22 hours, she had taken the measure of the man, gotten a full
frontal view of the Unabomber, and she'd concluded that he was really and
truly crazy, at least provisionally.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, which is a sort of Audubon Field Guide to human foibles, is very clear that paranoid schizophrenia is not just one of those diagnoses you send in to the insurance company to ensure reimbursement. It's really not enough simply to think psychiatrists are the enemy, at least not in the current edition. You also have to have delusions, and Johnson thought she had found them, as she wrote toward the end of her report:
In Mr. Kaczynski's case, the symptom presentation involves preoccupation with two principle [sic] delusional beliefs. A delusion is defined as a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what all most [sic] everyone else believes, and despite what constitutes incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.... [I]t appears that in the middle to late 1960s he experienced the onset of delusional thinking involving being controlled by modern technology. He subsequently developed another strong belief that his dysfunction in life, particularly his inability to establish a relationship with a female, was directly the result of extreme psychological verbal abuse by his parents. These ideas were embraced and embellished, and day-to-day behaviors and observations became incorporated into these ideas, which served to further strengthen Mr. Kaczynski's investment in these beliefs. So here was the final proof that Kaczynski was crazy: He thought technology controlled his life, and he believed that his parents had made mistakes that had made his life miserable.
As delusions go, these are problematic. Technology surely mediates our lives, even if it does not control them outright. And the question of parental abuse is an epistemological black hole. Rarely, if ever, does a therapist get corroboration (or incontrovertible contradiction) of a client's claim that he or she was subjected to bad parenting. Indeed, it is often the case that therapists "help" their skeptical clients to see that they were abused. These were subjects about which reasonable people could disagree, but taking one side or the other could hardly be dismissed as delusional. Unless, of course, a psychiatrist was on one side and a "patient" on the other.
Despite her diagnosis, however, Johnson still found Kaczynski competent to stand trial, which meant that he was competent to defend himself. But Judge Burrell, whose knickers had been twisted by this mathematician's unassailable logic and dogged insistence on obtaining the protections of the system he hated, played his last card. When he denied Kaczynski's motion to represent himself, Burrell made no use of Johnson's report; he simply ruled that the motion had come too late, even if Kaczynski had repeatedly indicated that he was ready to proceed immediately. He had to go through with his lawyers' defense.
Kaczynski had been bamboozled. Now he had the worst of both worlds: the psychiatric exam he had never wanted, and the certain prospect of hearing its findings reiterated in open court. He felt he had no choice but to plead guilty. Five months after he made this choice, when Kaczynski got my paper on the bankruptcy of psychiatric diagnosis, he must have thought that even if I didn't already know all that had happened to him, I would probably understand and believe him when he said he'd been bushwhacked. That might be why he wrote me a 20-page letter in response. There was someone inside the industry who wouldn't think he was crazy simply because he didn't like psychiatry. He must have figured he could use such a person, and he turned out to be right.
there are 27 letters, a stack one inch thick. They date from June 9,
1998, to June 1, 1999. Twenty of them came between Aug. 11 and Dec. 11 of
last year. They're on lined, usually white but occasionally yellow paper,
mostly written in pen. Kaczynski's evenly spaced block letters are neat and
unadorned. His left margin is ruler-straight, his right taken to the edge of
the page unless that would disrupt the orderly rhythm of his print. Perhaps
Kaczynski's penmanship is his attempt to mimic his impounded typewriter, the
one on which he wrote his manifesto. Maybe he misses it.
Kaczynski's grammar and syntax are as precise as his handwriting. His carefully unbroken infinitives and faithfully maintained parallel structures read like examples from Strunk and White. It all suggests a schoolboy's pride in following the rules, his relish of a job well done, lurking in all this compliance; Kaczynski's rebelliousness, his love of the wild, stops here.
And there's a flourish that is most interesting: when he signs his name, he often underlines it with a scrawled "Z" that looks, for all the world, like the mark of Zorro.
The letters were dense, carefully argued, and full of promises. He stopped short of saying he'd cooperate with me in writing his biography, but he was clearly willing to discuss the matter. Even more promising, he had told me I could come to visit him, although, as I found out in early August, he was currently unable to get his visitor's list approved by the prison.
All this exchange with a serial killer, a cold-blooded murderer, had a strange effect on me. In one sense, I was a clinician, discovering the everyday complexity and self-contradictions of a man. While he tried to live a life of complete consistency between his beliefs and his actions, in some ways he embodied the biggest opposition of all. He was at once a mathematician, a man of science, entirely convinced of reason's superordinance as a means of negotiating the world, and at the same time a savage critic of rationality's greatest achievement: technology. It's impossible to divorce Descartes' ego cogitating its way to certainty from Henry Ford's Model T slipping down the conveyor belt -- both grow from the desire to hold the world firmly in our grasp, to make it yield to us. Most of us see the resulting, nest-fouling problem. Kaczynski saw it too, but he seemed unable to turn this infinite loop of alienation into the wry irony the rest of us are so good at. It just pissed him off.
In another sense, I thought I recognized something familiar in Kaczynski's antimodern, anti-technology politics. In his pamphleteer style, he had written about things I'd studied: notably, that technology wasn't simply an assemblage of tools that awaited our use, wise or foolish. Rather, technology was a way of being in the world, one with some very peculiar psychological characteristics and social consequences. For, as various philosophers and novelists had been pointing out for some 200 years, it seemed to leave us fully aware of, but unable to do anything about, the way our devices alienated us from each other and the natural world and, more to the point, threatened great peril.
The problem, in Kaczynski's view, was that technology had a life of its own, because technical progress had trumped all other possible ends to which humanity might be put. He made the point this way in "Industrial Society and its Future," better known as the Unabomber Manifesto:
The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. When skilled workers are put out of a job by technical advances and have to undergo "retraining," no one asks whether it is humiliating for them to be pushed around in this way. It is simply taken for granted that everyone must bow to technical necessity and for good reason: If human needs were put before technical necessity there would be economic problems, unemployment, shortages or worse. The concept of "mental health" in our society is defined largely by the extent to which an individual behaves in accord with the needs of the system and does so without showing signs of stress.
These points seemed lucid, reasonable, important even. They sounded like something I could write. But they led Kaczynski in a disturbing direction: The only way out is to dispense with the industrial-technological system altogether. This implies revolution, not necessarily an armed uprising, but certainly a radical and fundamental change in the nature of society -- It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences. If it was disconcerting to find myself thinking of him as just another case, and confusing to find myself agreeing with what a murderer had said was the justification for murdering, it was downright worrisome to find that I was beginning to like him.
didn't mean, however, that he couldn't be difficult. I wasn't the only
person who wanted to get to know the Unabomber. Kaczynski complained
throughout the summer about all his correspondents and the inefficiencies
they caused him. So in August, he decided to do something about it: He
introduced us to one another. His idea was that we would cooperate, stop
asking him the same questions separately and help him to cut down on his
workload. We were to share his letters among ourselves, garnering more
information than we would individually. He wanted to hold a slow-motion
He divided his correspondents into groups and wrote a letter to each group introducing its members to one another and urging them to work together. Kaczynski divided us into three phyla. First, the authors: Vermont Law School professor Michael Mello, Montana-based writer Alston Chase and me. Next, the social theorists, the people who wanted to talk about the Unabomber's ideas: Russell Errett, Derrick Jensen and me. And finally, the shrinks who wanted to explain the Unabomber to the world: a forensic psychiatrist and me. I didn't know exactly what to make of my inclusion in three groups, but I took it as a good sign.
I had already been in contact with one of the men on the list: Michael Mello, who had written an article for a legal journal comparing Kaczynski's trial to that of the abolitionist John Brown. I called Mello because I wanted a copy of his article, which I had then only read about. I wanted to talk to someone else who might be thinking that Kaczynski had gotten a raw deal, legally speaking. We discussed Kaczynski's diagnosis. Mello had come to conclusions similar to mine about the politics of his "schizophrenia," and was pleased to hear them confirmed by someone with a Ph.D. in psychology.
The first thing Mello told me about himself was that he'd been a law clerk for Judge Robert S. Vance, a federal judge killed by a letter bomb (not one of Kaczynski's) in 1989, that he'd loved Vance as a father and harbored a special hatred for mail bombers. I think Mello told me this not only to reassure me that he was no tree-hugging Unabomber groupie, but also to make his interests clear. Michael Mello is dedicated, above all else, to the rule of law; he may hate what you do, but he believes in your inalienable right to be fairly tried for it. Mello wasn't just writing about Kaczynski's case. In the interests of justice, he was helping Kaczynski prepare an appeal of his guilty plea, on the grounds that he should have been allowed to represent himself. A new trial's primary effect would be to expose Kaczynski to the death penalty before a jury disabused of the notion that he was a pathetic madman. Lawyer-assisted suicide, Mello called it.
Late in August I decided to see if I could interest someone in paying me to write about the Unabomber. I pitched an article to Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and another national magazine that I'll call Glossy that was interested only if I managed to convince Kaczynski to let me interview him. But without an interview, which I was still trying to arrange, it seemed that I was just another guy floating his fantasies over a barely open transom. It also seemed that it might not even matter what Kaczynski said in the prospective interview -- whether we talked about books or cabin design or his hit list or what he watched on television -- or how thoughtfully I wrote about it. All that counted was bringing the public a sensation they hadn't yet experienced: face time with Kaczynski.
Kaczynski had also been thinking about how he could make use of our contact. A letter that Mello gave me, in which he'd written to Kaczynski about me, made it clear that he and Kaczynski were already talking about ways that a writer who would put his Ph.D. in psychology behind a claim that the Unabomber's diagnosis was a travesty could give them aid and comfort. And Kaczynski had a very specific idea about how I should do this. He wanted me to read the book he'd just finished writing, comment on it to him, and then consider the possibility of interviewing him and his family to come up with a fairer assessment of the Kaczynskis.
Truth Versus Lies
(scheduled to be published this month, but now listed as
"postponed" on Context Books Web site) arrived in early September, a
548-page typescript. It was Kaczynski's point-by-point, fully documented
refutation of all the unflattering things the media had said about him. His
thesis was that his brother David and his mother Wanda, rather than
acknowledging the Kaczynski family dysfunction, had portrayed Kaczynski to
the national press as mentally ill. A willing and gullible media had then
amplified this account until Theodore Kaczynski had become, in the public
eye, just another lunatic.
He is unrepentant in the book, addressing the Unabomber crimes only obliquely and often providing details that can only make people like him less -- as, for instance, his dispute of a news account about a dirty limerick regarding a co-worker that he'd scrawled on the workplace wall: Kaczynski's rebuttal was that he'd scrawled the limerick on a machine.
I suppose the all-trees-and-no-forest approach of Truth Versus Lies could be read as evidence that Kaczynski is mentally ill. But surely it is not evidence of neurochemical explosions of schizophrenia and the resulting disorganization of mind. Quite the contrary. The book is remarkable for its controlled tone, the steady focus it brings to bear on a sprawling archive of personal and public history. And underlying it is a method that is both coherent and quaint. It conjures a world, part nostalgia, part desperate hope, in which great issues are discussed in measured tones and brought to incontrovertible resolution by reasonable men in dark-paneled rooms. In that imagined world, people will look at the facts and soberly reconsider their conclusion that a man who lives in the woods and sends bombs through the mail to people he doesn't know, who renounces the bounty of industrial civilization and fertilizes his garden with his own shit must be crazy.
After reading the manuscript, I told Kaczynski that his approach to the problem wasn't likely to change any minds, that his chosen method was like using Euclidean geometry to argue with a hurricane. I added that I thought the manuscript could backfire and give new currency to the image he was trying to discredit. And then I seized my opportunity: I told Kaczynski that if he really wanted to redeem his public image, he might consider allowing me to interview him for a national magazine, and that I happened to know of a magazine that was interested.
Glossy continued to make it clear that it wasn't going to let me fill up space between cologne ads with mere ideas. The interview was still essential. And, despite the serendipitous timing of Kaczynski's request for my comments on his book and his family, I still wasn't sure a meeting would ever take place. So I spent the next couple of months in hot pursuit of an audience with the Unabomber. An alternating current of come-hithers and get-losts ran from his cell to my mailbox, sometimes twice a week. The man of perfect logic was clearly confused about what to do. In one letter, he gave me an unequivocal no, followed by a request for more information about me and a suggestion that I write an article about him, at which point he would reconsider.
To help him make his decision, Kaczynski asked all about me: my household income, my practice, my pet psychological theories, the cars I drove, my wife, how I planned to raise my son, my hobbies. At the end of that long litany, he asked how often I masturbated -- then quickly explained that he was joking. It was his chance to play shrink, he said, to let me know what it felt like.
He understood that I wanted to be more than the Unabomber's amanuensis, that I had ideas of my own. And he was concerned those ideas might make me misrepresent him. Of course, he allowed, it was possible that I might see things about him that he himself could not, that the error might be his and not mine. But it was also possible that I would be mistaken, see things that weren't there and turn him into someone he was not. And this, he told me repeatedly, would horrify him. For Kaczynski, it was impossible that more than one story could be true. Like any good empiricist, he was sure that the world and the people in it could be divided into the really there and the not.
Kaczynski hadn't gone into that cabin just to avoid an electric bill. He'd gone there to keep himself intact, away from the institutions -- corporations, universities, psychology -- that would make him into their own versions of him. He thought that he had the best command of the facts of his life.
October, Kaczynski's doubts began to give way to concerns about the
technical difficulties of the interview: who else would be present, what
documents I'd have access to, how I could get press credentials. He proposed
a topic for the interview -- a discussion of the exact ways in which his
defense team had deceived him about the mental-defect defense. He put me on
the list of people he'd be allowed to call on the telephone (in the event we
had to make arrangements quickly) and suggested I call his defense lawyers
about the possibility of their monitoring the interview. He never mentioned
the interview without hedging, but at least his flat objection had given way
to if-only logistics.
Then I had my audition. I sent Kaczynski a foreword I'd written to Michael Mello's book-length treatment of the connections between John Brown's and the Unabomber's trials. It was the 13,000-word version of my argument that his diagnoses were more political than psychiatric. The doctors had said that Kaczynski's insistence in living his low-tech life, not to mention his aversion to psychiatrists, was the evidence of his illness. But, I argued, these things could only be symptoms if one already assumed he was delusional, which was, of course, what the evaluators were supposed to be proving. Without this assumption, his attitudes and actions, which were undoubtedly deviant and even reprehensible, were no more inherently pathological than, say, the claims of certain women that they are married to God and that they must wear strange clothing and live in convents to uphold their vows. The psychiatric reports reasoned in a circle.
Kaczynski liked my paper so much that, he said, he would be willing to have me come to interview him as soon as I wanted. But there was a catch: He'd recently been in touch with a lawyer who was considering taking his case. In lawyerly fashion, this man had advised Kaczynski to curtail all contact with the outside world. So the final decision would have to await a discussion between the two of them.
What Kaczynski didn't know was that, courtesy of Michael Mello, I knew this lawyer, Richard Bonnie. Bonnie had read the foreword and liked it. It had figured into his willingness to consider taking on the case, helping to convince him that, at least insofar as the psychiatric evaluations were concerned, it was indeed possible that Kaczynski had been unfairly pressured into his plea bargain. Bonnie, through Mello, knew of my contract with Glossy and my negotiations with Kaczynski about an interview. He saw the value of such an interview, under properly controlled circumstances, to an appeal based in part on the injustice of Kaczynski's diagnosis. So, he told me, he would tell Kaczynski that he ought to go ahead with it, and that we would be coming out to see him in January.
But, as you've probably figured out by now, it was not to be. Betrayal came from an unexpected source: Michael Mello. He and I had been in steady contact throughout the fall. He'd given me a crash course in capital punishment law, the technicalities of appeal, all the little details of motions and countermotions. He'd supplied me with endless pleadings, transcripts, reports and in frequent long conversations we discussed the complexities of Kaczynski, his legal situation, and our involvements with him.
So I was unprepared, to say the least, for the letter I got in early December. A glance at the salutation would have revealed that there was a problem: no "Best regards" or jaunty "Z," just a cold "Sincerely yours" and a formal "Ted J. Kaczynski." In a measured but sharp tone, he told me that he had received information that raised questions about my motives and honesty. The list of charges, compiled mostly from what Mello had told him about me, was long, comprehensive and fully documented, even containing a footnote. It was also damning enough to make Kaczynski reconsider his contact with me.
I stood accused by the Unabomber of any number of transgressions, all of which pointed to my being a double-dealing, self-serving person no better, in his view, than your average journalist. Mello, according to Kaczynski, had written that I'd obtained a big-time literary agent who had arranged for me to publish a story about Kaczynski's appeal (and Mello's role in it) in The New York Times Magazine, and that the article was due to appear the week of April 19, the week after the Glossy article would hit the newsstands. Mello had also made it clear that I thought the interview was more of a certainty than Kaczynski did, and he implied that I had been trying to pry information out of him, so much so that he had had to remind me of our information-sharing agreement.
Almost everything Kaczynski was concerned with was not true. But there was no way to prove that without casting doubt on Mello, whom I thought of as a friend and who was probably Kaczynski's most trusted ally. Mello, however, didn't see it my way.
I called him after I got the letter, told him I hoped he could help me out. Mostly, I wanted to avoid conducting a suit of claims and counterclaims through the mail and with the Unabomber as the arbiter, so I asked Mello to tell Kaczynski that he had been inaccurate.
"I have trouble with the word 'inaccurate,'" he said.
I was on my own.
I wrote a long letter, explaining myself. I had had lunch with an agent,
but had not signed on with him. I had discussed with the agent and Mello the
possibility of a "New York Times Magazine article," had drafted a query for
the article but never sent it out. I hadn't intended to deceive Kaczynski by
not telling him of these things. Indeed, I wrote, some proof of this had no
doubt already arrived at his cell: a letter I'd mailed a week ago asking
what he thought of the prospective article. I had discussed publication
dates with Mello in order to understand how the dates of Kaczynski's appeal
would best dovetail with Glossy's schedule, but I had no dates, and no other
contract. I had not intended to pry information out of Mello, I said; to the
contrary, we frequently had long and rambling conversations in which
information freely flowed. I added that I knew Kaczynski had not given final
approval for the interview, but my conversation with Bonnie had seemed quite
decisive to me. I also allowed that I was angry with Mello, that I didn't
understand how this had happened.
Kaczynski had me dead to rights about one thing: I was ambitious. Of course, he'd known that all along, as I had been at great pains to be honest about it. Still, perhaps this had just lulled him, so I wrote a second letter. This time, I just took the bullet. It didn't matter, I said, whether or not Mello had reported accurately on me. The fact was that I had talked with him about things that I hadn't told Kaczynski, half-baked ideas and possibilities of plans. And that wasn't fair to any of us. I couldn't stop thinking or talking about this business, but I would hereafter refrain from doing so with anyone in touch with Kaczynski unless and until I was ready to discuss the matter with Kaczynski himself. And, I concluded, I would try to keep my ambition in better check from here on out.
I sent the letters express mail and waited.
The following week, I got a letter from Kaczynski apologizing for jumping to conclusions about me, expressing relief that my explanation was so satisfactory (as I had come to be one of his favorite correspondents), and wishing me season's greetings. But Mello had written Kaczynski his own letter, in which he claimed that whatever inaccuracies had been in his account were mine, that he'd merely passed along information I had given him. I was, he was forced to conclude, an irresponsible braggart, one whose foreword he couldn't allow to be in his book and with whom he was finished. So I wasn't exactly packing my bags for the interview.
Kaczynski soon retracted his apology. Mello's Letter, he wrote, had made it clear that I had been underhanded. I was still useful to him, at least to the extent that I was willing to say that my industry had done him wrong, so he would proceed with me, but only with the protection of a cooperation agreement that would give him substantial control over me. I'd be hearing from his lawyers.
I told him that I'd be willing to give up some of my autonomy, but not without something substantial from him -- like exclusive biography rights or access to his legal team during his appeal. I never got his counterproposal.
Kaczynski wrote me two letters during the winter, apologizing for being too busy preparing his appeal to stay in close touch. He asked me to keep writing him, as he enjoyed hearing from me. But the feel of a slack line in my hand was dispiriting, and, after a few notes, I let my end drop.
the end of April, when Kaczynski finally filed his appeal. Richard
Bonnie had decided not to take the case, leaving Kaczynski to handwrite a
124-page brief for himself. He appended a draft of my ex-foreword as an
appendix, in support of his claim that he wasn't crazy and thus should never
have been forced to choose between a mental defect defense and a guilty
plea. You could look it up. It's Exhibit 9 of Theodore John Kaczynski's Pro
Se Motion Under 28 U.S.C. ¯2255 to Vacate Guilty Pleas and Sentences and Set
Aside Convictions. This is how Kaczynski introduces me to the world:
In respect to the ideological bias of the experts' reports on Kaczynski, see the essay by psychologist Dr. Gary Greenberg, attached as Exhibit 9. Kaczynski... emphasizes that Dr. Greenberg's essay contains certain errors of fact and erroneous conclusions. In attaching this essay to his petition, Kaczynski does not mean to express agreement with everything that the essay states or implies.
Kaczynski didn't ask for permission, or even inform me of his plans to use the ex-foreword: I found out from Richard Bonnie. Neither was his disclaimer enough to temper his perfectionism. He corrected one of my errors of fact: I had written, "his portrayal as a paranoid schizophrenic was, in his view, the result of lies told to the reporters, attorneys and investigators by his family." Kaczynski inserted "partly" between "view" and "the," perhaps feeling the license to do so because I was talking about his view. And so he got what he wanted: He made sure any public comment of mine about him would be to his maximum advantage, and that either I would get him just exactly right or he would get to point out my errors. So the Unabomber used me before I could use him.
But not before I could learn a few lessons. First, I am a fibber. Oh, I'm telling you the truth, and I told Kaczynski most of the truth. But I told myself that what I was doing was morally defensible, that good intentions would somehow outweigh or make up for the way journalistic ambition transforms people into commodities in a marketplace. And I was wrong. Redemption of this sort is impossible. Moral purity of the kind that would redeem a franchiser is impossible. The system, as Kaczynski referred to it, knows where you live. Even if you move to a cabin in the woods.
It isn't just would-be writers who have to worry about their scruples. Therapists, too, must turn other people, or at least their suffering, into business opportunities. The moral defense for this is that it's really nothing personal; we're scientists, after all, treating medical conditions, not people selling love by the hour. And to maintain this defense, we must speak the language of pathology, the same language that gives us a name for the sickness that we are certain Ted Kaczynski must have.
But this intuition -- that a person who perpetrates horrific crimes must be ill -- needs some examination. My experience of Kaczynski, in which he was reasonable, polite, coherent, fair and respectful, even when he was being difficult, only comes as a surprise against the backdrop of his violence. Certainly, a killer may be insane. But a person who is sane, sober and rational may do terrible things. As in the case, I think, of the Unabomber.
This statement is only vexing if we have already decided that behaving immorally is a criterion of mental illness. I believe this decision has already been made. It's implicit in the psychiatric case against Kaczynski: such specious reasoning can only bear scrutiny if it's what we already expect to hear. But a case like the Unabomber's forces us to look at this decision, and particularly at the way it puts my profession in charge of public morality.
Take my word for it; this is not a good idea. Not because my colleagues and I are scoundrels, although some of us may be, but because the mental health industry will reduce the political to the personal every time. It is our business to do so. Then we are stuck talking about health and illness instead of about right and wrong. Right and wrong, with their reach toward central questions of what it is to be human, are words worth discussing when it comes to serial killers, not to mention other important concerns raised by Kaczynski and his crimes, like what technology is doing to us and our world. Health and illness, aspiring only to scientific certainty, are, in comparison, hopelessly impoverished.
A society unaccustomed to understanding individuals' behavior as anything other than the result of their psychological states -- their childhood traumas and neurochemical imbalances, say -- cannot account for the political dimensions of everyday life. It cannot, for instance, address in its full scope the question of exactly what is wrong with what Kaczynski did. We perhaps could stand to be reminded of the public agreements that stipulate why we aren't supposed to kill, no matter the cause, and then perhaps we could decide what other people and practices are falling short of the standard that he violated. After all, Union Carbide, as an example, has killed many more people than Ted Kaczynski, but the chemical company met a much different fate than the terrorist. But the Unabomber case can't force this much-needed conversation if Kaczynski is merely a madman. Then it's enough to know that he is not one of us.
But he is.
Because we know that something is not quite right out there. And it may be too much to assert, as the Unabomber did, that we are the trusties of modernity's prisons; it is certainly too much to kill random people for being collaborators. But it is not too much to say that the problems posed by technology are vast and complex and crucial, far outpacing the engineer's ability to repair a glitch or rethink a poor design. For it's not just the dangers and difficulties -- the greenhouse effect and the nuclear waste and the extinction of various species -- that ought to give us pause. Technology is etched deeply on our characters, perhaps as deep as our souls. In many ways, it gives us who we are: the kind of people who can flick a switch, hear the furnace rumble faintly in the basement, and take reassurance from its promised warmth without a moment's hesitation over where the oil came from or how it got here or what will become of its smoke. The kind of people who know the answers to all these questions, but what are you going to do, freeze? Move to a cabin in the woods?
The manufacture of the Unabomber as a crazed killer is highly efficient. It applies the balm of explanation to terrible events. It maintains a comfortable distance between him and us. It erases the nagging but crucial public questions raised by the story of a man unable to withstand the dissonance with which all of us must live. And in their place it gives another nugget to be consumed on the way to the next, a story in a glossy or not-so-glossy magazine, written by someone who knows an opportunity when he sees one.
early May, I wrote Kaczynski to register my protest at his unauthorized
use of my paper. By then, a version of the ex-foreword, called "Diagnosis
and Dissent," was out for peer review, and I didn't think that its use in
his brief was going to be helpful to my cause, particularly since I hadn't
disclosed it to the editor. It might seem like I was trying to use an
academic journal as a platform for a Unabomber apologia, so I asked
Kaczynski to help me clarify the situation for the peer reviewers. And, I
told him, it rankled me that he was the one who spoke out of church; I
wanted an explanation.
Kaczynski apologized. Completely and unconditionally. In two separate letters. The first, signed, "With apologies," was about the logistical reasons that he had used my essay without permission. The personal part came in a second letter, signed with our familiar "Best regards," acknowledging that his betrayal was in response to mine.
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