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I: The ‘Unknowable’ Episode 1

I: The ‘Unknowable’

· 16:10


CONTENT WARNING: This podcast contains description of murder, discussion on mass murder and terrorism, strong language, and discussion of discrimination against transgender individuals. Listener discretion is advised.

MMFW: What do you get when you mix Harvard, homemade bombs, and a deep-seated fear of technological advancement?

JKW: A serial killer. Or, an oversimplification. This is the story of a Harvard graduate. A serial bomber. And the audience that watched him.

MMFW: His name is Ted Kazcynski. The Unabomber.

JKW: I’m Jem Williams.

MMFW: And I’m Maya Wilson. And this is: The Man, The Myth, and The Manifesto.

JKW: Each story about Ted tries to trace the path from genius child to reclusive academic to domestic terrorist.

MMFW: His own parents start the story early, when Ted was a baby. He was born in Chicago in 1942 to working-class Polish American parents. His father was a sausage maker. At nine months old, Ted was hospitalized for a week. When he was finally discharged, his mother noticed that Ted seemed less happy than before — disengaged, unwilling to make eye contact. She worried he felt abandoned, and that he was developing a distrust of people. She tried to look for answers and spent long days and nights poring over studies about childhood psychological trauma from hospitalization.

MMFW: David was Ted’s younger brother. Of course, he put his big brother on a pedestal. First, when Ted skipped the sixth grade, then when he skipped the 11th. Even more so when he went off to Harvard at 16.

JKW: David has fond memories of playing music together with Ted and their parents.

“My father had some sheet music, or we would tend to sometimes play Ted’s compositions. Usually, it was my father on an alto recorder, I was on a soprano recorder. And Ted would have been on his trombone or piano. And every once in a while, my mother who had a beautiful singing voice would join us singing and there you see, gosh, the potential, you know, like this, golden moments still live for me in which the family was really together and in harmony.”

MMFW: Over the years, David and Ted would go on camping trips together. For David, camping with his brother was always different than camping with his friends.

“I went camping with this other friend and, you know, he pointed his tent in a certain direction, I pointed my tent in the opposite direction. He says, Why don't you point it toward my tent? I said, Oh, my brother and I always pointed our tents in opposite directions. So there was this real strong sense of yes, we are together. We are brothers, but we are separate also. I think you see that running through Ted’s personality a lot.”

JKW: David was the closest person to Ted, but their relationship was still fraught.

MMFW: That separation would only continue to grow, especially as Ted began to close himself off more and more.

“You know in some ways, as a brother, I feel like I should have been more awake to his suffering. Like he didn’t really talk about it, but I should have deduced it.”

After Ted graduated, he got his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. When he was just 25, he became a professor at UC Berkeley. He quit abruptly after two years, withdrew from society, and moved to a cabin in the woods of Montana.

JKW: But this timeline doesn’t tell us when things started to go wrong. The first bombing was in 1978, and they continued until 1995, just a few months after the Manifesto was published. Linda, David’s wife, thought the writing style sounded familiar. David was less sure.

“It was a lot of months, a couple of months of, you know, talking every night studying the manifesto, reading Ted’s letters constantly, pillow talk about what we should do.

MMFW: Later that year, they consulted a language specialist, who confirmed there was a reasonable chance Ted’s letters and the manifesto were written by the same person.

“I was finally convinced by Linda that we really needed to act.”

MMFW: They finally felt certain enough to turn Ted into the FBI.

We’d have blood on our hands if Ted ever hurt another person.”

JKW: Other stories, such as an article in the Atlantic and two books from Alston S. Chase ’57, focus more on his time at Harvard. Specifically, the notorious psychological study he enrolled in as a first year, ominously titled “Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men.” More on that in a moment.

MMFW: At Harvard, Ted lived in 8 Prescott — the designated dorm for the youngest and most gifted of the freshman class back in 1958. Like many of his housemates, Ted studied math, the kind of theoretical math we couldn’t even begin to explain. 8 Prescott was also known for being socially isolating; most of its freshmen lived in singles and interacted very little with each other, let alone the rest of the freshman class.

JKW: As the “reclusive intellectual” story goes, even after moving out of 8 Prescott and into upperclassman housing, his isolation continued. He moved into Eliot which — in the days of self-selected housing at Harvard — was the preppy house. Think students from New England private schools. Again, Ted had gone to public school in Chicago. He kept to himself.

MMFW: John V. Federico ’62, Ted’s classmate, didn’t know much about him. But he got a vague impression.

“He was younger and he was rather quiet. He seemed introverted.”

JKW: Federico says the extent of his interactions with Ted were sitting at the lunch table with him a few times. The way Federico saw it, Ted was not the kind of guy who would ever be spotted getting a few pints after class at Cronin’s, the undergraduate watering hole. After graduation, there weren’t many people who could say they knew Ted well.

MMFW: Though many narratives talk about his social isolation, Chase chose to center his story in the Atlantic on the General Education curriculum at Harvard. Chase, a Harvard alumnus himself, writes that, around the time, the Harvard faculty was divided between those who saw science as the future and those who saw it as a threat to Western social values. Chase writes:

FSZ: “It was part of a more generalized phenomenon among intellectuals all over the Western world. But it existed at Harvard in a particularly concentrated form.”

JKW: According to Chase, The academic landscape promoted the inevitable advancement of science and technology. But science also threatened to destabilize religion, morals, and philosophy — reducing any nonscientific discipline to nonsense. These conclusions were devastating for students.

MMFW: Harvard, science as the future, autonomy, Ted. Put a pin in that for a sec.

JKW: Others, including Chase, point to one man, and one experiment to explain how Ted became the Unabomber: Henry A. Murray, Class of 1915, and his psychological trial.

MMFW: Though it wasn’t, and still isn’t, out of the ordinary for students to enroll in psychological experiments, Ted’s situation was not above board. There wasn’t a clear code of ethics. Or informed consent. And Murray was a man with no formal education in the field of psychology. But he did manage to gain quite a bit of respect for his work. He helped develop the entrance test for people looking to join the Office of Strategic Services (which was the precursor to the CIA). It was a test with a notorious — and psychologically brutal — interrogation portion.

MMFW: It went like this: the facilitator, disguised as a fellow participant, would launch into an attack on the real participant’s core values. On and on. Attack after attack. It was meant to break them. But Ted didn’t cower. By the end of the interview tapes, Ted was fighting back against his facilitator.

JKW: So it’s no surprise that, in hindsight, people suspected that something was off with the Murray experiment. But it’s an oversimplification to say this experiment altered Ted in any significant way. Ted himself agreed as much.

MMFW: In a letter published in the 2022 book “Madman in the Woods” by Jamie Gehring (Ted’s neighbor in Montana), Ted wrote:

Recreation of TK: “The truth is that in the course of the Murray study there was one and only one unpleasant experience. It lasted about half an hour and could not have been described as ‘torture’ even in the loosest sense of the word.”

JKW: Ted described the experiment as consisting mainly of “interviews and the filling-out of pencil-and-paper personality tests.”

MMFW: But here’s where the story diverges. David’s recollection is different.

JKW: As David remembers it, the trials went on for three years. When David asked him why he continued going back to the lab, week after week, his response was simple. Ted told his brother, “I wanted to prove that I could take it, that I couldn’t be broken,” David recounts this in his memoir, “Every Last Tie.”

MMFW: The Murray experiment was the perfect just-so story to explain why Ted went down the path he did. So with the introduction of this narrative thread, Harvard was forever tied to the genesis of the Unabomber.

JKW: Jamie Gehring was a little girl growing up in the cabin next door to Ted in Montana. She, too, came face-to-face with the media’s Murray fixation. During research for her book on Ted, she asked the FBI for pointers.

“There were some things that it was more like, maybe don’t put emphasis on this particularly. “And that the Harvard experiments have definitely been, as the FBI stated, very blown up by the media.”

“I think the Murray experiment one, I think is a little bit convenient.”

JKW: That’s Benson again. Remember him from the Project Unabomb podcast?

“It’s definitely an oversimplification. And it’s kind of tying it into a neat, tidy story about American militarism and capitalism and placing those kinds of social forces maybe a little higher than this one man’s individual journey as a person, which I think had more to do with who he became.”

MMFW: These stories look for the moment the man became a monster. For an explanation that doesn’t exist. Not in childhood, not at Harvard, not even just within his own mind.

“You want to find the reason that this really bad thing happened. And to me, it is ultimately kind of unknowable.”

JKW: David had a lot to say about people’s impulse to spin these stories and oversimplifications. He doesn’t point to any specific moment in his brother’s life. He’s more caught up on one of Ted’s most closely-held beliefs: individual autonomy. David believes it was seeded, in part, at Harvard. Remember that whole Harvard story with the fear of science and the Gen Ed curriculum? Unpin that.

“Ted was very, very stuck on the idea of personal autonomy.”

“People, I think, expected, you know, to have a sort of real grasp of how Ted became the Unabomber. And I have to admit, I'm still struggling with that question.” “It's so many causes and conditions — innumerable — as it is for all of us, I guess, but I can't clearly put it together in any sort of formula.”

MMFW: In 1998, after he was caught, Ted requested that he defend himself in court, frustrated that his lawyers tried to use a partial mental illness defense, which he vehemently rejected. After a psychiatric evaluation, Ted was determined unfit to represent himself, though he could stand trial. The evaluation was made public, and part of it discloses that while Ted was at the University of Michigan, before he disappeared into the woods, he sought a consultation for sex reassignment surgery.

JKW: David was shocked. He tells us about his childhood impressions of what it meant to be masculine — namely, to avoid expressions of traditional femininity.

“I think I was captured by that. My belief was that Ted also was captured by it, I thought he was a sort of macho guy.”

MMFW: David also wonders if there was a connection with Ted’s fixation on autonomy.

“Did Ted struggle with that, you know, what he was? Did he feel self-judgment? And want to assert masculinity through this idea of autonomy? To the very extreme of violent revenge against society? I don't know.”

JKW: But even this, the notion that Ted’s ideas on autonomy can explain his violent crimes and his attempted sex reassignment, plays into yet another narrative. After that 1998 trial, the media found another just-so story. They folded their incomplete idea of Ted’s gender identity into the model of a sexually repressed, mentally unstable killer.

JKW: One Washington Post headline published that year reads: “GENDER CONFUSION, SEX CHANGE IDEA FUELED KACZYNSKI’S RAGE, REPORT SAYS”


JKW: But here are the facts: Being transgender is not a mental illness. It is not an explanation for violence. Transgender people are not using their identity as a means to an end. These articles only reduce the deeply personal conversation Ted was having with himself about his gender identity.

MMFW: The tendency to conflate transgender people with criminal activity is not new. A Washington Post article, this one from just a few weeks ago, reads: “The right exploits Nashville shooting to escalate anti-trans rhetoric.” This rhetoric continues to put the lives and rights of trans people in danger.

If Ted did struggle with his gender identity, why would that have anything to do with his expression of rage at modernization and environmental degradation?

JKW: The truth is, making conjectures about the “real” reason Ted did what he did doesn’t help anyone. Even the man who grew up with the Unabomber doesn’t claim to understand him.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re the person who knew him best.’ It just adds to this immense mystery that my brother has become to me. Sometimes I feel like the closer I look, the more I remember, the more things that come out, the less I know.”

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