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

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.


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. 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.

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In