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Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber

In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments -- experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files

by Alston Chase

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

LIKE many Harvard alumni, I sometimes wander the neighborhood when I return to Cambridge, reminiscing about the old days and musing on how different my life has been from what I hoped and expected then. On a trip there last fall I found myself a few blocks north of Harvard Yard, on Divinity Avenue. Near the end of this dead-end street sits the Peabody Museum -- a giant Victorian structure attached to the Botanical Museum, where my mother had taken me as a young boy, in 1943, to view the spectacular exhibit of glass flowers. These left such a vivid impression that a decade later my recollection of them inspired me, then a senior in high school, to apply to Harvard.

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"Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men, 1941-1965," by Henry A. Murray
Henry A. Murray's abstract of the study to which he subjected Theodore Kaczynski and other Harvard students. Posted by the Henry A. Murray Research Center of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: Standing Trial? (January 16, 1998)
A transcript of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in which Elizabeth Farnsworth speaks with experts about Theodore Kaczynski, mental competency, and the law.

Unabomber
Comprehensive coverage of the Unabomber trial by the Sacramento Bee. Includes profiles of central figures, court transcripts and relevant documents, photos, video clips, an archive of articles, and more.

This time my return was prompted not by nostalgia but by curiosity. No. 7 Divinity Avenue is a modern multi-story academic building today, housing the university's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. In 1959 a comfortable old house stood on the site. Known as the Annex, it served as a laboratory in which staff members of the Department of Social Relations conducted research on human subjects. There, from the fall of 1959 through the spring of 1962, Harvard psychologists, led by Henry A. Murray, conducted a disturbing and what would now be seen as ethically indefensible experiment on twenty-two undergraduates. To preserve the anonymity of these student guinea pigs, experimenters referred to individuals by code name only. One of these students, whom they dubbed "Lawful," was Theodore John Kaczynski, who would one day be known as the Unabomber, and who would later mail or deliver sixteen package bombs to scientists, academicians, and others over seventeen years, killing three people and injuring twenty-three.

I HAD a special interest in Kaczynski. For many years he and I had lived parallel lives to some degree. Both of us had attended public high schools and had then gone on to Harvard, from which I graduated in 1957, he in 1962. At Harvard we took many of the same courses from the same professors. We were both graduate students and assistant professors in the 1960s. I studied at Oxford and received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton before joining the faculty at Ohio State and later serving as chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Macalester College, in Minnesota. Kaczynski earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Michigan in 1967 and then joined the Berkeley Department of Mathematics as an instructor. In the early 1970s, at roughly the same time, we separately fled civilization to the Montana wilderness.

In 1971 Kaczynski moved to Great Falls, Montana; that summer he began building a cabin near the town of Lincoln, eighty miles southwest of Great Falls, on a lot he and his brother, David, had bought. In 1972 my wife and I bought an old homestead fifty-five miles south of Great Falls. Three years later we gave up our teaching jobs to live in Montana full-time. Our place had neither telephone nor electricity; it was ten miles from the nearest neighbor. In winter we were snowbound for months at a time.

In our desire to leave civilization Kaczynski and I were not alone. Many others sought a similar escape. What, I wondered, had driven Kaczynski into the wilderness, and to murder? To what degree were his motives simply a more extreme form of the alienation that prompted so many of us to seek solace in the backwoods?

Most of us may believe we already know Ted Kaczynski. According to the conventional wisdom, Kaczynski, a brilliant former professor of mathematics turned Montana hermit and mail bomber, is, simply, mentally ill. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, and there is nothing more about him to interest us. But the conventional wisdom is mistaken. I came to discover that Kaczynski is neither the extreme loner he has been made out to be nor in any clinical sense mentally ill. He is an intellectual and a convicted murderer, and to understand the connections between these two facts we must revisit his time at Harvard.

I first heard of the Murray experiment from Kaczynski himself. We had begun corresponding in July of 1998, a couple of months after a federal court in Sacramento sentenced him to life without possibility of parole. Kaczynski, I quickly discovered, was an indefatigable correspondent. Sometimes his letters to me came so fast that it was difficult to answer one before the next arrived. The letters were written with great humor, intelligence, and care. And, I found, he was in his own way a charming correspondent. He has apparently carried on a similarly voluminous correspondence with many others, often developing close friendships with them through the mail.

Click here for a FREE Trial Issue of The Atlantic Kaczynski told me that the Henry A. Murray Research Center of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, although it released some raw data about him to his attorneys, had refused to share information about the Murray team's analysis of that data. Kaczynski hinted darkly that the Murray Center seemed to feel it had something to hide. One of his defense investigators, he said, reported that the center had told participating psychologists not to talk with his defense team.

After this intriguing start Kaczynski told me little more about the Murray experiment than what I could find in the published literature. Henry Murray's widow, Nina, was friendly and cooperative, but could provide few answers to my questions. Several of the research assistants I interviewed couldn't, or wouldn't, talk much about the study. Nor could the Murray Center be entirely forthcoming. After considering my application, its research committee approved my request to view the records of this experiment, the so-called data set, which referred to subjects by code names only. But because Kaczynski's alias was by then known to some journalists, I was not permitted to view his records.

Through research at the Murray Center and in the Harvard archives I found that, among its other purposes, Henry Murray's experiment was intended to measure how people react under stress. Murray subjected his unwitting students, including Kaczynski, to intensive interrogation -- what Murray himself called "vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive" attacks, assaulting his subjects' egos and most-cherished ideals and beliefs.

My quest was specific -- to determine what effects, if any, the experiment may have had on Kaczynski. This was a subset of a larger question: What effects had Harvard had on Kaczynski? In 1998, as he faced trial for murder, Kaczynski was examined by Sally Johnson, a forensic psychiatrist with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, at the order of a court. In her evaluation Johnson wrote that Kaczynski "has intertwined his two belief systems, that society is bad and he should rebel against it, and his intense anger at his family for his perceived injustices." The Unabomber was created when these two belief systems converged. And it was at Harvard, Johnson suggested, that they first surfaced and met. She wrote,

During his college years he had fantasies of living a primitive life and fantasized himself as "an agitator, rousing mobs to frenzies of revolutionary violence." He claims that during that time he started to think about breaking away from normal society.

It was at Harvard that Kaczynski first encountered the ideas about the evils of society that would provide a justification for and a focus to an anger he had felt since junior high school. It was at Harvard that he began to develop these ideas into his anti-technology ideology of revolution. It was at Harvard that Kaczynski began to have fantasies of revenge, began to dream of escaping into wilderness. And it was at Harvard, as far as can be determined, that he fixed on dualistic ideas of good and evil, and on a mathematical cognitive style that led him to think he could find absolute truth through the application of his own reason. Was the Unabomber -- "the most intellectual serial killer the nation has ever produced," as one criminologist has called him -- born at Harvard?

The Manifesto

THE story of Kaczynski's crimes began more than twenty-two years ago, but the chain of consequences they triggered has yet to run its course. Dubbed "the Unabomber" by the FBI because his early victims were associated with universities or airlines, Kaczynski conducted an increasingly lethal campaign of terrorism that began on May 26, 1978, when his first bomb slightly injured a Northwestern University public-safety officer, Terry Marker, and ended on April 24, 1995, when a bomb he had mailed killed the president of the California Forestry Association, Gilbert Murray. Yet until 1993 Kaczynski remained mute, and his intentions were entirely unknown.

By 1995 his explosives had taken a leap in sophistication; that year he suddenly became loquacious, writing letters to newspapers, magazines, targets, and a victim. Two years later The Washington Post, in conjunction with The New York Times, published copies of the 35,000-word essay that Kaczynski titled "Industrial Society and Its Future," and which the press called "The Manifesto."

Recognizing the manifesto as Kaczynski's writing, his brother, David, turned Kaczynski in to the FBI, which arrested him at his Montana cabin on April 3, 1996. Later that year Kaczynski was removed to California to stand trial for, among other crimes, two Unabomber murders committed in that state. On January 8, 1998, having failed to dissuade his attorneys from their intention of presenting an insanity defense, and having failed to persuade the presiding judge, Garland E. Burrell Jr., to allow him to choose a new attorney, Kaczynski asked the court for permission to represent himself. In response Burrell ordered Sally Johnson to examine Kaczynski, to determine if he was competent to direct his own defense. Johnson offered a "provisional" diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, but she concluded that Kaczynski was nevertheless competent to represent himself. Burrell refused to allow it. Faced with the prospect of a humiliating trial in which his attorneys would portray him as insane and his philosophy as the ravings of a madman, Kaczynski capitulated: in exchange for the government's agreement not to seek the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to thirteen federal bombing offenses that killed three men and seriously injured two others, and acknowledged responsibility for sixteen bombings from 1978 to 1995. On May 4, 1998, he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Driving these events from first bomb to plea bargain was Kaczynski's strong desire to have his ideas -- as described in the manifesto -- taken seriously.

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences," Kaczynski's manifesto begins, "have been a disaster for the human race." They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic, and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature. "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."

By forcing people to conform to machines rather than vice versa, the manifesto states, technology creates a sick society hostile to human potential. Because technology demands constant change, it destroys local, human-scale communities. Because it requires a high degree of social and economic organization, it encourages the growth of crowded and unlivable cities and of mega-states indifferent to the needs of citizens.

This evolution toward a civilization increasingly dominated by technology and the power structure serving technology, the manifesto argues, cannot be reversed on its own, because "technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom," and because "while technological progress AS A WHOLE continually narrows our sphere of freedom, each new technical advance CONSIDERED BY ITSELF appears to be desirable." Hence science and technology constitute "a mass power movement, and many scientists gratify their need for power through identification with this mass movement." Therefore "the technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown."

Because human beings must conform to the machine,

our society tends to regard as a "sickness" any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system, and this is plausible because when an individual doesn't fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a "cure" for a "sickness" and therefore as good.

This requirement, the manifesto continues, has given rise to a social infrastructure dedicated to modifying behavior. This infrastructure includes an array of government agencies with ever-expanding police powers, an out-of-control regulatory system that encourages the limitless multiplication of laws, an education establishment that stresses conformism, ubiquitous television networks whose fare is essentially an electronic form of Valium, and a medical and psychological establishment that promotes the indiscriminate use of mind-altering drugs.

Click here for a FREE Trial Issue of The Atlantic Since the system threatens humanity's survival and cannot be reformed, Kaczynski argued, it must be destroyed. Indeed, the system will probably collapse on its own, when the weight of human suffering it creates becomes unbearable. But the longer it persists, the more devastating will be the ultimate collapse. Hence "revolutionaries" like the Unabomber "by hastening the onset of the breakdown will be reducing the extent of the disaster."

"We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society," Kaczynski wrote. "Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society." But this movement does have a further goal. It is to protect "wild nature," which is the opposite of technology. Admittedly, "eliminating industrial society" may have some "negative consequences," but "well, you can't eat your cake and have it too."

THE Unabomber's manifesto was greeted in 1995 by many thoughtful people as a work of genius, or at least profundity, and as quite sane. In The New York Times the environmental writer Kirkpatrick Sale wrote that the Unabomber "is a rational man and his principal beliefs are, if hardly mainstream, entirely reasonable." In The Nation Sale declared that the manifesto's first sentence "is absolutely crucial for the American public to understand and ought to be on the forefront of the nation's political agenda." The science writer Robert Wright observed in Time magazine, "There's a little bit of the unabomber in most of us." An essay in The New Yorker by Cynthia Ozick described the Unabomber as America's "own Raskolnikov -- the appealing, appalling, and disturbingly visionary murderer of 'Crime and Punishment,' Dostoyevsky's masterwork of 1866." Ozick called the Unabomber a "philosophical criminal of exceptional intelligence and humanitarian purpose, who is driven to commit murder out of an uncompromising idealism." Sites devoted to the Unabomber multiplied on the Internet -- the Church of Euthanasia Freedom Club; Unapack, the Unabomber Political Action Committee; alt.fan.unabomber; Chuck's Unabomb Page; redacted.com; MetroActive; and Steve Hau's Rest Stop. The University of Colorado hosted a panel titled "The Unabomber Had a Point."

By 1997, however, when Kaczynski's trial opened, the view had shifted. Although psychiatrists for the prosecution continued to cite the manifesto as proof of Kaczynski's sanity, experts for the defense and many in the media now viewed it as a symptom and a product of severe mental illness. The document, they argued, revealed a paranoid mind. During the trial the press frequently quoted legal experts who attested to Kaczynski's insanity. Gerald Lefcourt, then the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the defendant was "obviously disturbed." Donald Heller, a former federal prosecutor, said, "This guy is not playing with a full deck." The writer Maggie Scarf suggested in The New Republic that Kaczynski suffered from "Narcissistic Personality Disorder."

Michael Mello, a professor at Vermont Law School, is the author of The United States of America vs. Theodore John Kaczynski. He and William Finnegan, a writer for The New Yorker, have suggested that Kaczynski's brother, David, his mother, Wanda, and their lawyer, Tony Bisceglie, along with Kaczynski's defense attorneys, persuaded many in the media to portray Kaczynski as a paranoid schizophrenic. To a degree this is true. Anxious to save Kaczynski from execution, David and Wanda gave a succession of interviews from 1996 onward to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Sixty Minutes, among other outlets, in which they sought to portray Kaczynski as mentally disturbed and pathologically antisocial since childhood. Meanwhile -- against his wishes and without his knowledge, Kaczynski insists -- his attorneys launched a mental-health defense for their client.

One psychology expert for the defense, Karen Bronk Froming, concluded that Kaczynski exhibited a "predisposition to schizophrenia." Another, David Vernon Foster, saw "a clear and consistent picture of schizophrenia, paranoid type." Still another, Xavier F. Amador, described Kaczynski as "typical of the hundreds of patients with schizophrenia." How did the experts reach their conclusions? Although objective tests alone suggested to Froming only that Kaczynski's answers were "consistent with" schizophrenia, she told Finnegan it was Kaczynski's writings -- in particular his "anti-technology" views -- that cemented this conclusion for her. Foster, who met with Kaczynski a few times but never formally examined him, cited his "delusional themes" as evidence of sickness. Amador, who never met Kaczynski at all, based his judgment on the "delusional beliefs" he detected in Kaczynski's writing. And Sally Johnson's provisional diagnosis -- that Kaczynski suffered from "Paranoid Type" schizophrenia -- was largely based on her conviction that he harbored "delusional beliefs" about the threats posed by technology. The experts also found evidence of Kaczynski's insanity in his refusal to accept their diagnoses or to help them reach those diagnoses.

Most claims of mental illness rested on the diagnoses of experts whose judgments, therefore, derived largely from their opinions of Kaczynski's philosophy and his personal habits -- he was a recluse, a wild man in appearance, a slob of a housekeeper, a celibate -- and from his refusal to admit he was ill. Thus Froming cited Kaczynski's "unawareness of his disease" as an indication of illness. Foster complained of the defendant's "symptom-based failure to cooperate fully with psychiatric evaluation." Amador said that the defendant suffered "from severe deficits in awareness of illness."

But Kaczynski was no more unkempt than many other people on our streets. His cabin was no messier than the offices of many college professors. The Montana wilds are filled with escapists like Kaczynski (and me). Celibacy and misanthropy are not diseases. Nor was Kaczynski really so much of a recluse. Any reporter could quickly discover, as I did through interviews with scores of people who have known Kaczynski (classmates, teachers, neighbors), that he was not the extreme loner he has been made out to be. And, surely, a refusal to admit to being insane or to cooperate with people who are paid to pronounce one insane cannot be taken seriously as proof of insanity.

Why were the media and the public so ready to dismiss Kaczynski as crazy? Kaczynski kept voluminous journals, and in one entry, apparently from before the bombing started, he anticipated this question.

I intend to start killing people. If I am successful at this, it is possible that, when I am caught (not alive, I fervently hope!) there will be some speculation in the news media as to my motives for killing.... If some speculation occurs, they are bound to make me out to be a sickie, and to ascribe to me motives of a sordid or "sick" type. Of course, the term "sick" in such a context represents a value judgment.... the news media may have something to say about me when I am killed or caught. And they are bound to try to analyse my psychology and depict me as "sick." This powerful bias should be borne [in mind] in reading any attempts to analyse my psychology.

Michael Mello suggests that the public wished to see Kaczynski as insane because his ideas are too extreme for us to contemplate without discomfort. He challenges our most cherished beliefs. Mello writes,

The manifesto challenges the basic assumptions of virtually every interest group that was involved with the case: the lawyers, the mental health experts, the press and politics -- both left and right.... Kaczynski's defense team convinced the media and the public that Kaczynski was crazy, even in the absence of credible evidence ... [because] we needed to believe it.... They decided that the Unabomber was mentally ill, and his ideas were mad. Then they forgot about the man and his ideas, and created a curative tale.

Mello is only half right. It is true that many believed Kaczynski was insane because they needed to believe it. But the truly disturbing aspect of Kaczynski and his ideas is not that they are so foreign but that they are so familiar. The manifesto is the work of neither a genius nor a maniac. Except for its call to violence, the ideas it expresses are perfectly ordinary and unoriginal, shared by many Americans. Its pessimism over the direction of civilization and its rejection of the modern world are shared especially with the country's most highly educated. The manifesto is, in other words, an academic -- and popular -- clichˇ. And if concepts that many of us unreflectively accept can lead a person to commit serial murder, what does that say about us? We need to see Kaczynski as exceptional -- madman or genius -- because the alternative is so much more frightening.

"Exceedingly Stable"

NO. 8 Prescott Street in Cambridge is a well-preserved three-story Victorian frame house, standing just outside Harvard Yard. Today it houses Harvard's expository-writing program. But in September of 1958, when Ted Kaczynski, just sixteen, arrived at Harvard, 8 Prescott Street was a more unusual place, a sort of incubator.

Click here for a FREE Trial Issue of The Atlantic Earlier that year F. Skiddy von Stade Jr., Harvard's dean of freshmen, had decided to use the house as living accommodations for the brightest, youngest freshmen. Von Stade's well-intentioned idea was to provide these boys with a nurturing, intimate environment, so that they wouldn't feel lost, as they might in the larger, less personal dorms. But in so doing he isolated the overly studious and less-mature boys from their classmates. He inadvertently created a ghetto for grinds, making social adjustment for them more, rather than less, difficult.

"I lived at Prescott Street that year too," Michael Stucki told me recently. "And like Kaczynski, I was majoring in mathematics. Yet I swear I never ever even saw the guy." Stucki, who recently retired after a career in computers, lived alone on the top floor, far from Kaczynski's ground-floor room. In the unsocial society of 8 Prescott, that was a big distance. "It was not unusual to spend all one's time in one's room and then rush out the door to library or class," Stucki said.

Francis Murphy, the Prescott Street proctor, was a graduate student who had studied for the Catholic priesthood, and to Kaczynski it seemed the house was intended to be run more like a monastery than a dorm. Whereas other freshmen lived in suites with one or two roommates, six of the sixteen students of Prescott Street, including Kaczynski, lived in single rooms. All but seven intended to major in a mathematical science. All but three came from high schools outside New England, and therefore knew few people in Massachusetts. They were, in Murphy's words, "a serious, quiet bunch."

Much has been made of Kaczynski's being a "loner" and of his having been further isolated by Harvard's famed snobbism. Snobbism was indeed pervasive at Harvard back then. A single false sartorial step could brand one an outcast. And Kaczynski looked shabby. He owned just two pairs of slacks and only a few shirts. Although he washed these each week in the coin-operated machine in the basement of the house next door to 8 Prescott, they became increasingly ragtag.

But it is a mistake to exaggerate Kaczynski's isolation. Most public high schoolers at Harvard in those days, including Kaczynski, viewed the tweedy in-crowd as so many buttoned-down buffoons who did not realize how ridiculous they looked. And the evidence is that Kaczynski was neither exceptionally a loner nor, at least in his early years at Harvard, alienated from the school or his peers.

Harvard was a "tremendous thing for me," Kaczynski wrote in an unpublished autobiography that he completed in 1998 and showed to me. "I got something that I had been needing all along without knowing it, namely, hard work requiring self-discipline and strenuous exercise of my abilities. I threw myself into this.... I thrived on it.... Feeling the strength of my own will, I became enthusiastic about will power."

Freshmen were required to participate in sports, so Kaczynski took up swimming and then wrestling. He played the trombone, as he had in high school, even joining the Harvard band (which he quit almost as soon as he learned that he would have to attend drill sessions). He played pickup basketball. He made a few friends. One of his housemates, Gerald Burns, remembers sitting with Kaczynski in an all-night cafeteria, arguing about the philosophy of Kant. After Kaczynski's arrest Burns wrote to the anarchist journal Fifth Estate that Kaczynski "was as normal as I am now: it was [just] harder on him because he was much younger than his classmates." And indeed, most reports of his teachers, his academic adviser, his housemaster, and the health-services staff suggest that Kaczynski was in his first year at Harvard entirely balanced, although tending to be a loner. The health-services doctor who interviewed Kaczynski as part of the medical examination Harvard required for all freshmen observed,

Good impression created. Attractive, mature for age, relaxed.... Talks easily, fluently and pleasantly.... likes people and gets on well with them. May have many acquaintances but makes his friends carefully. Prefers to be by himself part of the time at least. May be slightly shy.... Essentially a practical and realistic planner and an efficient worker.... Exceedingly stable, well integrated and feels secure within himself. Usually very adaptable. May have many achievements and satisfactions.

The doctor further described Kaczynski thus: "Pleasant young man who is below usual college entrance age. Apparently a good mathematician but seems to be gifted in this direction only. Plans not crystallized yet but this is to be expected at his age. Is slightly shy and retiring but not to any abnormal extent. Should be [a] steady worker."

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)


Alston Chase is the author of Playing God in Yellowstone (1986) and In a Dark Wood (1995). He is at work on a book about Theodore Kaczynski.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 41-65.

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