Unabomber News History

Copyright 1996 Times Mirror Company

Los Angeles Times

April 11, 1996, Thursday, Home Edition

SECTION: Part A; Page 14; National Desk

LENGTH: 1192 words




They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but to scientists trying to peer into the mind of the Unabomber, words have painted a revealing picture of this most intellectual of killers.

In his 35,000-word manifesto, the killer not only laid out his frustration with high-tech modern society, he also left a trail of linguistic clues that told word specialists a great deal about him.

"That manuscript was as lovingly crafted as his bombs," said forensic psychologist Richard Ault, for years a behavioral specialist at the FBI. "Writing is a form of behavior," he said, and so can be used as surely as other evidence to pin down the identity of a suspect.

"We reveal ourselves through language," said forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill, director of the New York Forensic Mental Health Group.

Experts agree that little of scientific value can be gleaned merely by looking at the loops and flourishes of an individual's handwriting. But the words and paragraphs themselves speak volumes about who a person is, how he thinks and where he comes from.

For those who know how to look under the surface, everything from geography to age to emotional state to identity lies buried in the words.

Not all specialists agree that personality or emotional state can be read into a person's words. Psychologists who work with law enforcement, like Ault and Berrill, tend to be more optimistic about their ability to find these hidden layers of meaning.

People like the Unabomber, said Berrill, reveal themselves in writing as people who are very disconnected from society.

"You don't see them incorporating others into their world view," he said. "They live in their heads. Nowhere is there warmth, or empathy or connection with others. These are the night watchmen, the people who live alone in single rooms."

Linguists, on the other hand, concentrate on stylistic idiosyncrasies, often as individual as fingerprints, that can be used to identify the writer from a group of suspects.

The first few pages of the Unabomber manifesto revealed a number of these quirks, said linguist Gerald McMenamin of Cal State Fresno, who analyzed parts of the manifesto for The Times.

For example, the Unabomber always writes "pre-industrial" with a hyphen, but the compound word "smallscale" without a hyphen. He begins many sentences with "Thus," and inserts strings of lowercase x's throughout the text.

The experts generally agree that writing style can link people to distinctive groups, based on gender, ethnic background, age, locale or even time period.

"Individuals develop idiosyncratic linguistic styles that are identifiable," said McMenamin. "It's much like DNA fingerprinting."

Instead of comparing strands of genetic material, word experts analyze telltale literary quirks. And while many people might share one of the same quirks, it's highly unlikely that they would share three or more.

"You and I may have trouble spelling "ie" words, or leave a space after opening a parenthesis," said McMenamin. "But even if we share two, we wouldn't share three, and we certainly wouldn't share 20."

Any word usage that stands out can be used to identify an author. "I was at the doctor's office yesterday," said McMenamin, "and the nurse told me to roll over on my tummy. I'm a grown man, 52 years old." The word "tummy" would be out of place in that context, he said. "I notice these anomalies."

Once the analyst compiles a list of linguistic markers from a certain piece of writing, he can compare the list to another piece of writing from a suspect.

McMenamin frequently gets called in to analyze letters written by disgruntled employees. He'll compare the letters to a known sample of the person's writings and look for those characteristic verbal tics that give people away.

"Teenage girls who put little hearts over their i's, that's obvious, but what about someone who capitalizes all the letters in the first word of every sentence?" Or whose language shows traces of a first language that isn't English?

"You look for those little skip jumps," said Ault, "like malapropisms: 'He died of neurosis of the liver.' Or hyperbole: 'That dastardly perfidious manager.' "

University of Seattle psychologist Elizabeth Loftus looks at what she calls "suspicious" use of language. "If someone says, 'The wallpaper was green, the color of mint juleps,' we have books that can tell you the normal frequency of mint juleps in language." If the use of "mint juleps" is far more frequent than usual, it might indicate that the author is from the South.

Highly educated people tend to share a common writing style, which makes them harder to identify, said McMenamin, because they are schooled in a common culture.

With a well-educated author like the Unabomber, it could take 100 pages or more to draw any firm conclusions. Like many schooled authors, the Unabomber's text was strung together with complex sentences and crammed with clauses.

More subtle kinds of analyses can be done with what linguists call "function words," such as "the" "and" "but," that one would leave out in a telegram if paying by the word. Linguists look at the way people string these words together in groups of two or three ("if only" or "and if") and use the frequency as markers that can be as accurate as fingerprints.

Experts part company, however, when it comes to reading someone's state of mind from the words they write or speak. Forensic psychologists like Ault have more faith than linguists in the process.

An author who strings together clauses like Christmas lights, says Ault, is likely to feel passionate about his cause. "Sometimes it's quadruple compounds with hyphenated clauses, because they want to cram everything in."

Passions also come through in the way writers begin letters, he said. "If he's angry or impatient, he starts in mid-thought. A letter carefully addressed to the CEO of a company might start: 'You know John is NOT the sort of person who . . .' It assumes the CEO is familiar with the case."

Underlying layers of meaning can spill out between the lines even in spoken words.

In a recent case, Berrill took a deposition from a woman who described the horror of a dental procedure gone wrong. She used graphic terms, such as "scraping out my insides." That suggested to Berrill that she was really remembering the horror of a recent abortion. "I would suspect this person is Roman Catholic and very conflicted."

In his manifesto, the Unabomber wrote about people who are "frustrated" and want "peace and quiet," and people who "spend their lives leaning on the rails." This is a classic case, said Ault, of what psychologists call projective thinking--or projecting one's own feelings onto someone else.

"He was ostensibly writing about other people," said Ault, "but he was clearly talking about himself."

Still, even Ault cautions that reading personality into writing style is more an art than a science. "There are word counts you can do, and you can put it in a computer, but what it boils down to is human interpretation. You lick your thumb and you feel where the wind's coming from."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Sketch of suspected Unabomber is based on witness description of 1987 Salt Lake City incident. PHOTOGRAPHER: Associated Press PHOTO: CLUES: In his 35,000-word manifesto, above, the Unabomber left a trail of linguistic clues that told word specialists a lot about him. PHOTOGRAPHER: Agence France-Presse