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: There’s no singular goal for a project like this, a project that seeks to chronicle a figure of any kind. A production company is concerned about quality, views, and profit. The producers and directors each have their own motivations — even if it’s just paying the mortgage. And the sources have their own motives for participating, or opting not to. These projects have had varying degrees of success at either capturing the honest nuance of the Unabomber’s story, or, on the other hand, capturing the attention of their rapt audiences.
MMFW: David’s identity was supposed to be kept anonymous by the FBI. For good reason, he didn’t want the world to know he was both the brother of the serial killer and the one who turned him in. But the news got leaked. Initially, David did not want to speak to the media. He told us how his experience with the media changed over time:
“I guess it felt like the decision and the relationship and everything was so complex, there was two things: it was too complex for words, at least the kind of words that the media wanted to hear and it was like sacred space for me. So on a very personal level I was thinking, ‘I will never talk to the media.’”
JKW: David and Linda had hired an attorney, Tony Bisceglie, to advise and represent them. He was the one who eventually got through to David, convincing him that in the long run, he would be happier if he spoke for himself. Otherwise, Ted was at greater risk of being sentenced to death.
“He said,‘David, I think you should speak to the New York Times.’ And I say, you know, I said no way, no way. His argument was this: that if our families pardon, this word wasn’t told, if my picture and description of my brother wasn’t presented, the only description that would be out there would be the description made by the prosecutors. And of course, they had an agenda, they would want to put Ted to death.”
“So he said, look, the chances of saving your brother's life are very, very much reduced unless your voice is heard.”
MMFW: David went from thinking he would never talk to the New York Times to becoming a central narrator of this whole chronicle, including being the centerpiece interview for “Unabomber: In His Own Words,” Mick Grogan’s Netflix documentary. David’s narration grounds the four-part series, and he is given the last word.
“As painful as parts of it were for me, I thought it was a real honest attempt and that my voice was not distorted in any way.”
JKW : However, the Discovery Channel’s “Manhunt” dramatization was a different story. David was played by an actor. He wasn’t involved in the production. And the online Kaczynski enthusiasts loved it. They’ve made entire TikTok montages out of the clips.
“I never saw that one called ‘Manhunt,’ the dramatization. I’d heard enough about it to be very suspicious. I decided not to watch it.”
JKW: What is the role of the media in all of this? They’re the people that make the information public: his crimes, his ideas. Even if it means potentially giving ideas to copycats. Graham grappled with the same issue while deciding whether or not to publish the Manifesto. If it had explicitly advocated for violence, he wouldn’t have published it. The risk of more violence would have outweighed the reward of catching Ted.
MMFW: It’s the reason Macklin and Farrell-Molloy warned us against linking to any unnecessary material in this piece. They didn’t want people going down the same rabbit holes of ecofascist research they go down themselves. Didn’t want more people to get sucked into these dark spaces.
JKW: Benson believes exposure to these things is inevitable.
“I don't think there’d be a way to suppress or a reason to suppress why he did these things. And I don’t think we do that with anyone. You know, like al-Qaida has a political program, we didn’t suppress the news about why Osama bin Laden blew up the World Trade Center.”
MMFW: So is it simply the news? Is it possible to report on the facts and not take responsibility for what individuals do? Say, publish a manifesto from a known killer, risk more violence, and leave it at that? Maybe the blame is lessened in hindsight once everything has been made public. But what about in the moment, in real-time reporting, as the violence is unfolding? Is it subject to the same guidelines? When, and for what, are we responsible?
JKW: Days before the morning of Wednesday, April 3, 1996, CBS News learned, anonymously, that Ted was the prime suspect in the case. The FBI was still racing to acquire a warrant to search his cabin and arrest him. If this had gotten out, they feared Ted would have fled into the woods, turning their sting operation into a search for a needle in a haystack. So, at the last minute, the FBI met with executives at CBS News, and they agreed not to run the story … yet. In exchange, CBS News got the first scoop when the story became public.
MMFW: That was the day the Unabomber was given a face, but by then he already had a character in the minds of the populace. He was the anonymous threat in the postal system. He was the bumbling intellectual behind the Manifesto. He was a myth before he was a man.
JKW: Is this myth the result of true-crime-fueled fascination? Was Ted a mystery we’re trying to solve? The less we know about him, the more we think about him.
MMFW: We theorize. It’s a tendency that’s seen in narratives — the reduction of a person, their life, and their actions to a simple moral punchline: villain, recluse, genius, hero. To look for something to learn from it all. It’s impossible to tell a story with every single detail. It’s unreasonable to expect every single detail. So when you line up to tackle a story like the Unabomber’s, a story that big, and that violent, it’s natural that people prioritize certain parts over others. We’re doing it ourselves right now. And at the end of this process, we’re left wondering what we should be walking away with.
JKW: David has a remarkable capacity to see the silver lining.
“All these levels of non-ego-based cooperation that really went into getting the best result possible in a very tragic situation, I think is worth talking about. And the same was so definitely true, I mean, with Ted’s defense team, and our attorney Tony Bisceglie, our interactions with the media — I mean, if we hadn’t turned in Ted, irony is, as much as I resented being sort of outed as the person who turned in his brother. It gave me a voice, you know, so that and Tony did his best to amplify that voice and to make it skillful and help people realize, hey, you know, even this criminal has a whole, has a family that loves him. But a good family that did the right thing, you know, when they were really forced to do something. So all of that, I think, as I look back on this whole thing, the people who played a role, honestly and honorably and without a lot of ego involvement, but trying to do the right thing really impresses me.”
MMFW: David has learned many times over that there’s no real way to maintain control of the stories we spin, and the myths we create.
JKW: So we’ll leave you with a question: What should we be walking away with?
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