Letters

  • Unabomber
  • I Am the Grass

    Unabomber

    Alston Chase ("Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber," June Atlantic) relies on inaccurate information, quotation out of context, and sheer speculation to suggest not only that Henry Murray's experiments had a sinister purpose but also that they were a "turning point" in the making of the Unabomber. Although he admits that there is no evidence that Murray used LSD in his research, Chase discusses Murray's interest in Timothy Leary's psilocybin research as if to establish guilt by association. In this connection he quotes Martin Lee and Bruce Schlain, the authors of Acid Dreams, who mistakenly refer to Murray as "chairman of the Department of Social Relations" at Harvard (although he had a role in its formation, Murray never served as chair of the department). Moreover, although Chase refers to Forrest Robinson's biography of Murray, he overlooks Robinson's discussions of Murray's interest in "dyadic" interactions.

    Chase's suggestion that Murray's dyadic studies may have had "a defense connection of some sort" lacks support (as he admits). However, he makes the suggestion seem plausible by tracing Murray's "multiform assessment" procedures to his work with the OSS during World War II, without mentioning that the OSS procedures were based on Murray's earlier work (see his classic 1938 book, Explorations in Personality). To support the suggestion that Murray's studies "would have had considerable utility for the defense establishment," perhaps as a means of "improv[ing] interrogation techniques," Chase claims that Murray seemed "reluctant to divulge" the purpose of the studies and that he "sometimes ... suggested that his research might have no value at all."

    As an illustration, Chase quotes Murray out of context, noting that he once referred to his results as "nothing but raw data, meaningless as such" and asked, "Cui bono? ... the question is what meaning, what intellectual news, can be extracted from them?" In the article Chase quotes, however, it is very clear that Murray's questions are rhetorical and that he sees his results as far from meaningless. The article (published in the American Psychologist, 1963) represents the text of Murray's 1961 address as a recipient of the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (hardly a context in which a researcher would dismiss his work as meaningless!). Before asking the rhetorical questions, Murray describes the purpose of his study, and in the remainder of the address he discusses several "methodological principles" and reports at length his analyses of the heart-rate data.

    Chase not only misrepresents Murray's work; he also holds Murray responsible for not recognizing that Theodore Kaczynski "must certainly have been among the most vulnerable" of the subjects in the Harvard studies and suggests that Murray's experiment was a "turning point" in the creation of the Unabomber. Yet Chase has argued at length that Kaczynski was "entirely sane" at the beginning of the experiment, supporting his claims with the opinion of Bertram Karon, "a psychological-testing expert," who evaluated Kaczynski's Thematic Apperception Test from the time of the study, and with other opinions regarding Kaczynski's "maturity." He also "speculate[s] that some of the students (including Kaczynski) did it for the money" and quotes several other participants to illustrate the prevailing "attitudes of anger, nihilism, and alienation" among the students.

    If Kaczynski was "entirely sane" and "mature" at the time of the experiment, and if the need for money and despairing attitudes were common among Murray's subjects, just how were Murray and his researchers to know that Kaczynski was "among the most vulnerable" of their subjects? Or, to put it differently, why didn't the rest of Murray's "youngest" and "poorest" subjects become serial murderers? Chase offers only speculations (such as those made after Kaczynski's arrest by a forensic psychologist and by his high school counselor) to support the suggestion that Murray's experiment was a turning point for Kaczynski. Although he mentions the possibility of a "dysfunctional family," he provides no information about other experiences that may have differentiated Kaczynski from his peers (who also experienced the Gen Ed curriculum and participated in Murray's research), contributing to his increasing distress at Harvard.

    Nicole B. Barenbaum

    Alston Chase grossly misrepresents the nature of Henry A. Murray's study of twenty-two undergraduates at Harvard College from 1959 to 1962.

    I was a participant in the study, and I find nothing in Chase's lengthy cover story to substantiate a credible link between Murray's experiments and Kaczynski's murders. First, and most important, the test that Chase labels "the centerpiece of [the] undertaking" lasted only a couple of hours. The study as a whole was of more than 200 hours in duration. Most of the time -- more than 99 percent, in point of fact -- was spent in a relaxed manner talking with affable and compassionate researchers, performing Thematic Apperception Tests, writing personal narratives, and even dining with Murray and others at his home.

    Chase's description of the session in which each of us was asked to defend his personal philosophy of life in no way corresponds with my memory of the event. He would have the reader emerge from his account horror-struck that an evil Murray and staff could have conducted a brutal assault on unwitting undergraduates. Some may have found the experience mildly discomforting, in that their cherished (and in my case, at least, sophomoric) philosophies were challenged in an aggressive manner quite foreign to them. But it was hardly an experience that would blight one for a week, let alone a life.

    By seeding his story with mention of hallucinogenic drugs, stress tests done years earlier for the Office of Strategic Services in a completely different context, and traumatic experiments having no connection with Murray's, Chase manages to convey a sense of sinister intent that does grave injustice to one of the most compassionate, thoughtful men it has been my privilege to know. Kaczynski may have begun his descent into the abyss while he was an undergraduate, but it is improbable in the extreme that Henry Murray was an agent in that dark process.

    Richard G. Adams

    Alston Chase's essay is full of nonsense, some of it potentially damaging. The nonsense arises from his attempt to show that Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, was "a brilliant but vulnerable boy" when he arrived at Harvard, in 1958, and a killer in all but deed when he left, four years later. Chase would have us believe that this grave transformation had two sources. First, it was brought on by Kaczynski's exposure to what is described as the "culture of despair," prevalent at the time "among intellectuals all over the Western world" but present in "a particularly concentrated form" in Harvard's undergraduate curriculum. Chase does little more to substantiate the existence of this corrupting intellectual climate than he does to account for Kaczynski's rather singular susceptibility to its influence. Were others similarly infected? Chase does not say. Nor does he offer evidence that Kaczynski was personally aware of the baleful effects of his Harvard education. Rather oddly, in light of the weight he attaches to the influence of educational experiences, Chase -- "speaking as a former college professor" -- allows that "most curricula have absolutely no effect on most students."

    Chase called me on two occasions with questions about Henry Murray, and I answered them as fully and honestly as I could. He did not inquire about the use of drugs in experiments, nor did he ask me about possible ties to the CIA. I suspect he avoided such matters because he knew my responses would be discouraging. He was right. In two decades of research on the life and work of Murray, involving more than a hundred interviews with my subject and those who knew him, and touching frequently on intimate personal experiences, I heard absolutely nothing that so much as hinted at the malign suggestions set out in Alston Chase's strange article. Nothing.

    Forrest G. Robinson

    Although Alston Chase and I both graduated from Harvard College in 1957, his institution and mine must have been in different universes. As a product of a public school education, I found the Gen Ed program of studies to be both liberating and exhilarating. In our first two years we were required to take survey courses in the humanities, the social sciences, and -- if we were not scientifically inclined -- the natural sciences. I was exposed to the great literature, the history, and the philosophy of Western thought. In "Hum 2" the famed classicist John Finlay introduced us to great epics and novels (the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, War and Peace). I visited times of tumult and revolution (the Dark Ages, the rise of capitalism from the ashes of feudalism, the Nazi and Russian revolutions) from original source material in Sam Beer's "Soc Sci 2." I remember the simplicity of Descartes's reducing all experience to "Cogito, ergo sum." I read Hobbes, argued with Freud, and, yes, even struggled with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Though not a science major, as a pre-med student I had a good grounding in the physical sciences.

    Despite the evil influence of Gen Ed posited by Chase, and my immersion in the sciences, I did not conclude that "all the accumulated nonscientific knowledge of the past ... had been at best merely an expression of 'cultural mores' and at worst nonsense; life had no purpose and morality no justification" or that "even as positivism preached progress ... it subliminally carried ... a more disturbing implication: that absolute reason leads to absolute despair." Rather, the program opened my provincial, barely post-adolescent mind to a panoply of books, works of art and music, thought, and scientific method that we call, for lack of a better term, a liberal-arts education.

    Ronald Weintraub, M.D.

    Whatever the torments of Ted Kaczynski's childhood, or of Henry Murray's awful experiments, the notion that Harvard's curriculum was conducive to terrorism is ridiculous.

    Todd Gitlin

    To Nicole Barenbaum: Although some tests given Ted Kaczynski do date back to Explorations in Personality, the "stressful dyadic proceeding" was not among them. Its first use at Harvard came after the war, as part of a study of members of the classes of 1951 and 1952. I suggested that Kaczynski was immature at the time of the experiment, not that he was mature. I did not suggest that the Murray experiment alone transformed Kaczynski into the Unabomber, and I never suggested a deterministic link between his youthful experiences and later crimes. As the Perry study that I cite makes clear, however, the Harvard educational experience did have an unfortunate effect on a significant number of undergraduates.

    I'm glad that Richard Adams remembers Dr. Murray's experiment fondly. But as I wrote, people react differently to such experiences, and judging from the data sets, several had distinctly unpleasant memories of the Murray experiment. My primary intention in mentioning hallucinogenic drugs was to scotch the rumor that Murray may have given them to research subjects.

    I am at a loss to understand why Forrest Robinson would say that I've done little to substantiate my claim that the Harvard undergraduate curriculum in the 1950s promoted a culture of despair, when my article devoted 2,000 words to supporting this contention. I also provided plenty of evidence (such as Kaczynski's family background, immaturity, the Perry study, and the Unabomber's manifesto itself) that Harvard may have affected Kaczynski.

    I am surprised that Professor Robinson should raise doubts about my interviews with him, especially since I never cited him on the points he mentions. I asked him both about Murray's use of LSD and about the funding of Murray's experiments. Robinson was, however, only one among many written and oral sources -- some of which conflicted with his answers -- on which I based my conclusions.

    I, too, read the books that Ronald Weintraub mentions while I was at Harvard. But I'm surprised that he does not also recall encountering Dostoevski, Spengler, H. G. Wells, Mumford, Erich Fromm, Thorstein Veblen, Norman Cousins, Norbert Wiener, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, among others -- all of whom were represented in the curriculum then and many of whose works conveyed bleak views of the human condition or expressed fears that technology threatened civilization. The malaise to which I refer was not limited to Harvard. The Cold War climate of those times affected curricula across the country, creating both an increased reliance on technology and concerns that it would destroy human values and trigger a thermonuclear holocaust. Finally, if Dr. Weintraub has forgotten that positivism considers judgments of morality and religion meaningless, I urge him to reread A. J. Ayer's 1936 defense of positivism, Language, Truth and Logic (very popular among Harvard faculty members in the 1950s), which calls religious and ethical beliefs "pseudo-concepts."

    I Am the Grass

    As a Vietnam veteran, I was very pleased to read Daly Walker's short story "I Am the Grass" (June Atlantic).

    Although I thought some of the author's portrayal of the war was perhaps intended for shock effect, he seemed to paint a picture that evoked the country and indicated firsthand knowledge. In one instance, though, I felt that he might have slipped up. Walker cited memories of traveling Highway One in convoys of tanks and half-tracks. Well, oops -- "half-tracks" were definitely not a common feature of the Vietnam experience. There may have been a few left over somewhere from the French or others, but there were none in the American arsenal during those years. The armored vehicle that took the place of the half-track and would have been in convoy with tanks was the armored personnel carrier M-113, a fully tracked vehicle.

    Felix E. Westwood

    Although events and characters in the story are fictional, "I Am the Grass"is based on my firsthand knowledge of Vietnam, both the country and the war. I served as an officer of the U.S. Army in Vietnam for a year that spanned 1967 and 1968. I returned to Vietnam in 1992 on a medical mission, to work as a surgeon in a provincial hospital.

    Felix Westwood is correct in pointing out that half-tracks would very likely not have been part of a U.S. Army convoy in the Vietnam War. The vehicle that I remembered but improperly named was, as he suggests, the fully tracked M-113 A-1 armored personnel carrier.


    The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Letters - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 6-9.

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