Unabomber News History

Copyright 2000 Guardian Newspapers Limited

The Guardian (London)

June 22, 2000

SECTION: Guardian Features Pages, Pg. 2

LENGTH: 2480 words

HEADLINE: A lesson in hate: In 1958, a brilliant but socially inept 15-year-old began his studies at Harvard. Like many of his peers, he volunteered for a number of personality tests in return for a small fee. Only these were no ordinary tests. And the student was Ted Kaczynski - now better known as the Unabomber

BYLINE: Alston Chase


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. Last fall, my return there was prompted not by nostalgia but by curiosity.

I found myself a few blocks north of Harvard Yard, on Divinity Avenue. 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 professor Henry A Murray, conducted a disturbing and what would now be seen as ethically indefensible experiment on 22 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 16 package bombs to scientists, academics, and others over 17 years, killing three people and injuring 23.

I first heard of the Murray experiment from Kaczynski himself. We had begun corresponding in July 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. He hinted darkly that the Murray Center seemed to feel it had something to hide. One of his defence investigators, he said, reported that the center had told participating psychologists not to talk with his defence team.

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.

Kaczynski was accepted by Harvard in the spring of 1958; he was not yet 16 years old. One friend remembers urging Kaczynski's father, Turk, not to let the boy go, arguing, "He's too young, too immature, and Harvard too impersonal." But Turk wouldn't listen. "Ted's going to Harvard was an ego trip for him," the friend recalls.

Murray, a wealthy and blue-blooded New Yorker, was both a scientist and a humanist. Before the war he had been the director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic; during it, he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, helping develop psychological screening tests for applicants and monitoring military experiments on brainwashing.

After the war Murray returned to Harvard, where he continued to refine techniques of personality assessment. By 1950 he had resumed studies on Harvard undergraduates that he had begun, in rudimentary form, before the war, titled Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men. The experiment in which Kaczynski participated was the last and most elaborate of these. In their postwar form these experiments focused on stressful interpersonal relations, designing confrontations akin to those mock interrogations he had helped to orchestrate for the OSS.

Kaczynski has said that he was "pressured into participating". His hesitation turned out to be sensible. Researchers gave the volunteers almost no information about the experiment in which they would participate. Each was simply asked to answer yes to the following question: "Would you be willing to contribute to the solution of certain psychological problems (parts of an on-going program of research in the development of personality), by serving as a subject in a series of experiments or taking a number of tests (average about 2 hours a week) through the academic year (at the current College rate per hour)?"

In fact it would never be clear what the "certain psychological problems" were. And the test that served as the centrepiece for this undertaking appears remarkably similar to the old OSS stress test. Students would be given the third degree. But whereas the OSS applicants must have known that enduring unpleasant interrogations could be part of their job, these students did not. The intent was to catch them by surprise, to deceive them, and to brutalise them. The students were led to believe that they would debate their philosophy of life with another student like themselves. In fact they were confronted by a well-prepared "stooge" - a lawyer.

When the subject arrived, he was escorted to a "brilliantly lighted room" and seated in front of a one-way mirror. A motion-picture camera recorded his every move and facial expression through a hole in the wall. Electrodes leading to machines that recorded his heart and respiratory rates were attached to his body.

Forrest Robinson, the author of a biography of Murray, has described what happened next.

"As instructed, the unwitting subject attempted to represent and to defend his personal philosophy of life. Invariably, however, he was frustrated, and finally brought to expressions of real anger, by the withering assault of his older, more sophisticated opponent . . . while fluctuations in the subject's pulse and respiration were measured."

Not surprisingly, most participants found this highly unpleasant, even traumatic. "We were led into the room with bright lights, very bright," one of them, code-named Cringle, recalled afterward. "(I) had a sensation somewhat akin to someone being strapped on the electric chair with these electrodes . . . I really started getting hit real hard . . . Wham, wham, wham! And me get ting hotter and more irritated and my heartbeat going up . . . and sweating terribly . . ."

"Right away," said another, code-named Trump, describing his experience afterward, "I didn't like (the interrogator).

"(Dr G) . . . came waltzing over and he put on those electrodes but in that process, while he was doing that, kind of whistling . . . And then (Mr R) . . . who was bubbling over, dancing around, started to talk to me about he liked my suit . . . the buzzer would ring or something like that, we were supposed to begin . . . he was being sarcastic or pretty much of a wise guy . . . And the first thing that entered my mind was to get up and ask him outside immediately . . . but that was out of the question, because the electrodes and the movie and all that . . . I kind of sat there and began to fume and then he went on and he got my goat and I couldn't think of what to say . . . And then they came along and they took my electrodes off."

During the last year of the experiment Murray made the students available to his graduate-student assistants, to serve as guinea pigs for their own research projects. By graduation, as Kenneth Keniston, one of these researchers, summarised the process later, "each student had spent approximately 200 hours in the research, and had provided hundreds of pages of information about himself, his beliefs, his past life, his family, his college life and development, his fantasies, his hopes and dreams."

Why were the students willing to endure this ongoing stress and probing into their private lives? Some who had assisted Murray in the experiment confessed to me that they wondered about this themselves. But they - and we - can only speculate that some of the students (including Kaczynski) did it for the money, that some (again, probably including Kaczynski) had doubts about their own psychic health and were seeking reassurance about it, that some, suffering from Harvard's well-known anomie, were lonely and needed someone to talk to, and that some simply had an interest in helping to advance scientific knowledge. But in truth we do not know. Alden E Wessman, a former research associate of Murray who has long been bothered by the unethical dimension of this study, said to me recently, "Later, I thought: 'We took and took and used them and what did we give them in return?' "

What was the purpose of the experiment? Keniston told me that he wasn't sure what the goals were. "Murray was not the most systematic scientist," he explained.

Murray himself gave curiously equivocal answers. Sometimes he suggested that his research might have no value at all. "Cui bono?" he once asked. "As (the data) stand they are nothing but raw data, meaningless as such; and the question is what meaning, what intellectual news, can be extracted from them?" In another context he asked, "Are the costs in man-hours incurred by our elaborate, multiple procedures far greater than any possible gains in knowledge?"

Such equivocation prompts one to ask if the experiment could have had a purpose that Murray was reluctant to divulge. Was the multiform-assessments project intended, at least in part, to help the CIA determine how to test, or break down, an individual's ability to withstand interrogation? The writer Alexander Cockburn has asked whether the students might have been given the hallucinogenic drug LSD without their knowledge, possibly at the request of the CIA. By the late 50s, according to some, Murray had become quite interested in hallucinogenics, including LSD and psilocybin. And soon after Murray's experiments on Kaczynski and his classmates were under way, in 1960, Timothy Leary returned to Harvard and, with Murray's blessing, began his experiments with psilocybin.

In his autobiography, Leary, who would dedicate the rest of his life to promoting hallucinogenic drugs, described Murray as "the wizard of personality assessment who, as OSS chief psychologist, had monitored military experiments on brainwashing and sodium amytal interrogation. Murray expressed great interest in our drug-research project and offered his support."

It is clear that Murray's experiment deeply affected at least some of its subjects. Even 25 years later some recalled the unpleasantness. In 1987 Cringle remembered the "anger and embarrassment . . . the glass partition . . . the electrodes and wires running up our sleeves."

Likewise, 25 years later Drill still had "very vivid general memories of the experience . . . I remember someone putting electrodes and blood pressure counter on my arm just before the filming . . . (I) was startled by (my interlocutor's) venom . . . I remember responding with unabating rage."

And 25 years later, Locust wrote: "I remember appearing one afternoon for a 'debate' and being hooked up to electrodes and sat in a chair with bright lights and being told a movie was being made . . . I remember him attacking me, even insulting me, for my values, or for opinions I had expressed in my written material . . . I remember being shocked by the severity of the attack, and I remember feeling helpless to respond . . . What is the point of this? They have deceived me, telling me there was going to be a discussion, when in fact there was an attack."

We don't know what effect this experiment may have had on Kaczynski. I did not have access to his records, and therefore cannot attest to his degree of alienation then. Kaczynski must certainly have been among the most vulnerable of Murray's experimental subjects - a point that the researchers seem to have missed. He was among the youngest and the poorest of the group. He may have come from a dysfunctional home.

As Kaczynski's college life continued, outwardly he seemed to be adjusting to Harvard. But inwardly he increasingly seethed. According to Sally Johnson, the forensic psychiatrist who examined Kaczynski, he began worrying about his health. He began having terrible nightmares. He started having fantasies about taking revenge against a society that he increasingly viewed as an evil force obsessed with imposing conformism through psychological controls.

These thoughts upset Kaczynski all the more because they exposed his ineffectuality. Johnson reported that he would become horribly angry with himself because he could not express this fury openly. "I never attempted to put any such fantasies into effect," she quoted from his writings, "because I was too strongly conditioned . . . against any defiance of authority . . . I could not have committed a crime of revenge, even a relatively minor crime, because . . . my fear of being caught and punished was all out of proportion to the actual danger of being caught."

Kaczynski felt that justice demanded that he take revenge on society. But he lacked the personal resources at that time to do so. He was - had always been - a good boy. Instead he would seek escape. He began to dream about breaking away from society and living a primitive life. According to Johnson, he "began to study information about wild edible plants" and to spend time learning about the wilderness. And like many American intellectuals before him he began to form a plan to seek personal renewal in nature.

Today, society would not tolerate the deceptions inherent in the Murray experiments. But different standards prevailed then, and its ethics were definitely acceptable in their day. But the ethics of the day were wrong. And they framed Kaczynski's first encounter with a reckless scientific value system that elevated the pursuit of scientific truth above human rights.

When, soon after, Kaczynski began to worry about the possibility of mind control, he was not giving vent to paranoid delusions. In view of Murray's experiment, he was not only rational but right. The university and the psychiatric establishment had been willing accomplices in an experiment that had treated human beings as guinea pigs, and had treated them brutally. Here is a powerful logical foundation for Kaczynski's latterly expressed conviction that academics, in particular scientists, were thoroughly compromised servants of "the system", employed in the development of techniques for the behavioral control of populations.

It was the confluence of two streams of development that transformed Kaczynski into the Unabomber. One stream was personal, fed by his anger toward his family and those who he felt had slighted or hurt him, in high school and college. The other derived from his philosophical critique of society and its institutions, and reflected the culture of despair he encountered at Harvard and later. The Murray experiment, containing both psychological and philosophical components, may well have fed both streams.

A longer version of this article appears in this month's issue of Atlantic Monthly.