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

The Roots of the Unabomber

IN 1952, when Kaczynski was ten, his parents moved from Chicago to the suburban community of Evergreen Park -- in order, they later explained to Ted, to provide him with a better class of friends. The community into which the Kaczynskis moved would soon be in turmoil. Evergreen Park was a mixed neighborhood of Irish, Italians, Czechs, and Poles who now felt themselves under siege by yet another group of new arrivals.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregated schooling was unconstitutional. To many people in Evergreen Park this was tantamount to a declaration of war. Even before the Court's decision they had feared what they saw as black encroachment. African-American communities stood just next door, and black families came to town to shop and eat at Evergreen Park restaurants. Black teenagers hung around Evergreen Plaza.

This environment tended to isolate the Kaczynskis, who by several accounts were liberal on race matters. Aggravating their isolation was Evergreen Park's fragmented school system. Until 1955 the town had no public high school building, and students were bused to high schools in surrounding communities. Evergreen Park High School was not completed until 1955, and Ted Kaczynski, who became a member of the first class that spent all four years there, found himself in a school without cohesion or community, where few of the students knew one another. As Spencer Gilmore, a former science teacher, lamented, there was "no commonality in the student body." Howard Finkle, who was then a social-studies teacher, describes Evergreen Park in those years as a school for strangers. Soon the school was riven by cliques.

Despite this fractured environment, school administrators sought to push the students hard academically. "The fact to keep in mind about Evergreen Park," Kaczynski's algebra teacher, Paul Jenkins, told me, "is that Gene Howard [the principal of Evergreen Park High School at the time] enjoyed a big budget. He had combed the country for the best instructors he could find -- folks who would be teaching junior college in most places. Yet most of the kids were incredibly naive. Some had never even been to downtown Chicago. The faculty was presenting them with ideas they'd never encountered before. Some hated the experience; others loved it. And it blew the minds of some, including perhaps Ted." The students, according to Finkle, were asked to read books ordinarily used by college undergraduates. The intellectually ambitious, like Kaczynski, adapted readily to these demands, but in a school where the most popular boys carried cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeves of their T-shirts, excelling at academics meant social exile. What pressures did Kaczynski face among his family? Ted Kaczynski insists that the Kaczynski home was an unhappy one and that his social isolation came about because his parents pushed him too hard academically. David and Wanda say that theirs was a happy and normal home but that Ted had shown signs of extreme alienation since childhood. When family members squabble, it is almost impossible for anyone -- least of all an outsider -- to know who is right. And the Kaczynskis are squabblers.

The letters and other materials Kaczynski sent me in the course of our correspondence -- including his 1998 autobiography, containing quotations from doctors, teachers, and college advisers -- naturally support his version. Unfortunately, however, I am limited in my ability to use these, because Kaczynski has continually changed his mind about the terms and conditions for the use of his autobiography and other documents. Nevertheless, most of the people I interviewed tended to support most of his claims. I offer my own interpretation of his family relations, which is supported by interviews and infused with knowledge of documents that Kaczynski sent to me.

Kaczynski's father, Theodore R. "Turk" Kaczynski, was a self-educated freethinker living in a conventionally Catholic working-class community. In his autobiography Kaczynski claims, and a close friend of Turk's confirms, that Wanda tended to be fearful that their family would be perceived as different. Although nonconformist, the Kaczynskis wanted to be perceived as conforming. Thus, Kaczynski records, although the Kaczynskis were atheists, his parents instructed him to tell people they were Unitarians. The tension created by the family's efforts to look good to the neighbors increased significantly when, in the fifth grade, Kaczynski scored 167 on an IQ test. He skipped the sixth grade, leaving his friends behind to enter a new class as the smallest kid in the room.

From then on, according to Kaczynski and also according to others who knew the family, his parents valued his intellect as a trophy that gave the Kaczynskis special status. They began to push him to study, lecturing him if his report card showed any grade below an A. Meanwhile, Turk seemed -- to Kaczynski, at least -- to become increasingly cold, critical, and distant.

When Kaczynski was a sophomore, the Evergreen Park High School administration recommended that he skip his junior year. His band teacher and friend, James Oberto, remembers pleading with Kaczynski's father not to allow it. But Turk wouldn't listen. "Ted's success meant too much to him," Oberto says.

Two years younger than his classmates, and still small for his age, Kaczynski became even more of an outcast in school. There was "a gradual increasing amount of hostility I had to face from the other kids," Sally Johnson reports Kaczynski as admitting. "By the time I left high school, I was definitely regarded as a freak by a large segment of the student body."

Apparently caught between acrimony at home and rejection at school, Kaczynski countered with activity. He joined the chess, biology, German, and mathematics clubs. He collected coins. He read ravenously and widely, excelling in every field from drama and history to biology and mathematics. According to an account in The Washington Post, he explored the music of Bach, Vivaldi, and Gabrieli, studied music theory, and wrote musical compositions for a family trio -- David on the trumpet, Turk at the piano, and himself on the trombone. He played duets with Oberto.

These achievements made Kaczynski a favorite of his teachers. Virtually all those with whom I talked who knew him well in those years saw him as studious and a member of the lowest-ranking high school clique -- the so-called briefcase boys -- but otherwise entirely normal. His physics teacher, Robert Rippey, described him to me as "honest, ethical, and sociable." His American-government teacher, Philip Pemberton, said he had many friends and indeed seemed to be their "ringleader." Paul Jenkins used Kaczynski as a kind of teaching assistant, to help students who were having trouble in math. School reports regularly gave him high marks for neatness, "respect for others," "courtesy," "respect for law and order," and "self-discipline. "No one was more lavish in praise of Kaczynski than Lois Skillen, his high school counselor. "Of all the youngsters I have worked with at the college level," she wrote to Harvard,

I believe Ted has one of the greatest contributions to make to society. He is reflective, sensitive, and deeply conscious of his responsibilities to society.... His only drawback is a tendency to be rather quiet in his original meetings with people, but most adults on our staff, and many people in the community who are mature find him easy to talk to, and very challenging intellectually. He has a number of friends among high school students, and seems to influence them to think more seriously.

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

General Education and the Culture of Despair

ALL Harvard freshmen in the 1950s, including Kaczynski and me, were immersed in what the college described as "general education" and students called Gen Ed. This program of studies, which had been fully implemented by 1950, was part of a nationwide curricular reform that sought to inculcate a sense of "shared values" among undergraduates through instruction in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Unlike the usual departmental offerings, which focused on methodological issues within a discipline, Gen Ed courses were intended to be interdisciplinary, with material arranged for students historically (chronologically) rather than analytically. Required Gen Ed courses focused on science, literature, philosophy, history, and Western institutions. The undergraduate curriculum, therefore, was initially designed to be neatly divided into two categories, one general and one specialized, one emphasizing history and values, the other emphasizing the value-free methodologies employed by scholars in the various academic fields. This attempt at balance would give rise to a battle in the long war between humanism and positivism.

From the archives:

"Wanted: American Radicals," by James Bryant Conant (May 1943)
"In this country we must invoke our radical ancestors and with their spirit attack the problems of a stratified society, highly mechanized and forced to continue along the road of mass production."

"Education in the Western World," by James Bryant Conant (November 1957)
"I should like to approach the subject of education for the professions in the mood of the comparative educationalist. I should like to examine in particular the way the future members of the professions are recruited, selected, and educated in certain European nations and the United States."

The Gen Ed curriculum was born of a lofty impulse: to establish in higher education -- as President Harry Truman's Commission on Higher Education would later express it -- "a code of behavior based on ethical principles consistent with democratic ideals." Harvard's president, James B. Conant, in his charge to the committee that would design Gen Ed, wrote,
Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall far short of the ideal. The student in high school, in college and in graduate school must be concerned, in part at least, with the words "right" and "wrong" in both the ethical and mathematical sense.

The committee's report, General Education in a Free Society (1945), was known, for the color of its cover, as the Redbook. The solution that the Redbook committee offered was a program of instruction that, in the words of the education historian Frederick Rudolph, called for "a submersion in tradition and heritage and some sense of common bond strong enough to bring unbridled ego and ambition under control." The Redbook's program of reform caught the imagination of educators across the country. By the mid-1950s more than half the colleges in America were offering programs of general education modeled along the same lines.

Although at Harvard the name caught on, the philosophy behind it did not. Gen Ed was doomed from the start.

By 1950 the Harvard faculty was divided between those who, chastened by their experience in World War II and especially by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saw science and technology as a threat to Western values and even human survival and those -- a majority -- who saw science as a liberator from superstition and an avenue to progress. Both these views found their way into the Gen Ed curriculum. The dominant faction had little sympathy for the Redbook's resolve to inculcate Judeo-Christian ethics. Because of the majority's resistance, many Redbook-committee recommendations were never fully implemented. And those recommendations that were incorporated into the curriculum were quickly subverted by many of the people expected to teach it. These professors in fact emphasized the opposite of the lesson Conant intended. Rather than inculcate traditional values, they sought to undermine them. Soon "Thou shalt not utter a value judgment" became the mantra for Harvard freshmen, in dorm bull sessions as well as in term papers. Positivism triumphed.

Superficially, the positivist message appeared to be an optimistic one, concerning the perfectibility of science and the inevitability of progress. It taught that reason was a liberating force and faith mere superstition; the advance of science would eventually produce a complete understanding of nature. But positivism also taught that all the accumulated nonscientific knowledge of the past, including the great religions and philosophies, had been at best merely an expression of "cultural mores" and at worst nonsense; life had no purpose and morality no justification.

Even as positivism preached progress, therefore, it subliminally carried -- quite in contradiction to the intent of Gen Ed's framers -- a more disturbing implication: that absolute reason leads to absolute despair. G. K. Chesterton wrote, "Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad ... mathematicians go mad." Hence Gen Ed delivered to those of us who were undergraduates during this time a double whammy of pessimism. From the humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there was no hope. Gen Ed had created at Harvard a culture of despair. This culture of despair was not, of course, confined to Harvard -- it was part of a more generalized phenomenon among intellectuals all over the Western world. But it existed at Harvard in a particularly concentrated form, and Harvard was the place where Kaczynski and I found ourselves.

Although I cannot say exactly what Kaczynski read, he must have absorbed a good measure of the Gen Ed readings that infused the intellectual and emotional climate on campus. Gen Ed courses in social science and philosophy quickly introduced us to the relativity of morals and the irrationality of religion. To establish that ethical standards were merely expressions of Western cultural mores, we were assigned to read works by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa) and Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture). In Humanities 5, or "Ideas of Man and the World in Western Thought," we read Sigmund Freud's polemic against religious faith, The Future of an Illusion, which dismisses the belief that life has purpose as a mere expression of infantile desires and as confirming that "man is a creature of weak intelligence who is governed by his instinctual wishes."

In expository writing we encountered Thorstein Veblen's prediction that "so long as the machine process continues to hold its dominant place as a disciplinary factor in modern culture, so long must the spiritual and intellectual life of this cultural era maintain the character which the machine process gives it." We read Norbert Wiener, who warned that unless human nature changes, the "new industrial revolution ... [makes it] practically certain that we shall have to face a decade or more of ruin and despair."

And Lewis Mumford told us,

Western man has exhausted the dream of mechanical power which so long dominated his imagination.... he can no longer let himself remain spellbound in that dream: he must attach himself to more humane purposes than those he has given to the machine. We can no longer live, with the illusions of success, in a world given over to devitalized mechanisms, desocialized organisms, and depersonalized societies: a world that had lost its sense of the ultimate dignity of the person.

In "German R" ("Intermediate German With Review of Fundamentals"), which both Kaczynski and I took, we encountered a whole corpus of pessimistic writers, from Friedrich Nietzsche ("God is dead," "Morality is the herd instinct of the individual," "The thought of suicide is a great source of comfort") to Oswald Spengler ("This machine-technics will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten -- our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon").

In several courses we studied Joseph Conrad, who would later become one of Kaczynski's favorite writers, and whose description of the villain in Heart of Darkness could have been applied to Kaczynski himself: "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.... " He was "a gifted creature.... He was a universal genius." Conrad's The Secret Agent, a satire about bomb-wielding anarchists who declare war on science (and whose intentional irony Kaczynski may have missed), presages the Unabomber manifesto. "Science," one of the plotters suggests, "is the sacrosanct fetish."

All the damned professors are radicals at heart. Let them know that their great panjandrum has got to go, too.... The demonstration must be against learning -- science.... The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.... I have always dreamed of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity -- that's what I would have liked to see.

WHAT impact did this reading have on us? Speaking as a former college professor, I can say that most curricula have absolutely no effect on most students. But readings can have profound effects on some students, especially the brightest, most conscientious, and least mature. Certainly the intellectual climate generated by Gen Ed informed Kaczynski's developing views. The Unabomber philosophy bears a striking resemblance to many parts of Harvard's Gen Ed syllabus. Its anti-technology message and its despairing depiction of the sinister forces that lie beneath the surface of civilization, its emphasis on the alienation of the individual and on the threat that science poses to human values -- all these were in the readings. And these kinds of ideas did not affect Kaczynski alone -- they reached an entire generation, and beyond.

Gen Ed had more than an intellectual impact. According to a study of Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates that included Kaczynski's class of 1962, conducted by William G. Perry Jr., the director of the university's Bureau of Study Counsel, the undergraduate curriculum had a profound impact on the emotions, the attitudes, and even the health of some students.

According to Perry, intellectual development for Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates typically encompassed a progression from a simplistic, "dualistic" view of reality to an increasingly relativistic and "contingent" one. Entering freshmen tend to favor simple over complex solutions and to divide the world into truth and falsehood, good and bad, friend and foe. Yet in most of their college courses, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, they are taught that truth is relative. Most accept this, but a number cannot. They react against relativism by clinging more fiercely to an absolute view of the world. To some of these students, in Perry's words, "science and mathematics still seem to offer hope."

Nevertheless, Perry wrote, "regression into dualism" is not a happy development, for it "calls for an enemy." Dualists in a relativistic environment tend to see themselves as surrounded; they become increasingly lonely and alienated. This attitude "requires an equally absolutistic rejection of any 'establishment'" and "can call forth in its defense hate, projection, and denial of all distinctions but one," Perry wrote. "The tendency ... is toward paranoia."

As is evident in his writings, Kaczynski rejected the complexity and relativism he found in the humanities and the social sciences. He embraced both the dualistic cognitive style of mathematics and Gen Ed's anti-technology message. And perhaps most important, he absorbed the message of positivism, which demanded value-neutral reasoning and preached that (as Kaczynski would later express it in his journal) "there was no logical justification for morality."

After he graduated from Harvard, Kaczynski encountered a book by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1954). Its message was that mankind no longer saw technology as merely a tool but now pursued its advancement as an end in itself. Society served technology, not vice versa. Individuals were valued only insofar as they served this end. Their education and the structure of their institutions were shaped solely for the purpose of technological progress.

By the time he encountered Ellul, Kaczynski recalled in 1998, "I had already developed at least 50% of the ideas of that book on my own, and ... when I read the book for the first time, I was delighted, because I thought, 'Here is someone who is saying what I have already been thinking.'"

The Murray Experiment

PERHAPS no figure at Harvard at this time better embodied the ongoing war between science and humanism than Henry A. "Harry" Murray, a professor in Harvard's Department of Social Relations. A wealthy and blue-blooded New Yorker, Murray was both a scientist and a humanist, and he was one of Lewis Mumford's best friends. He feared for the future of civilization in an age of nuclear weapons, and advocated implementing the agenda of the World Federalist Association, which called for a single world government. The atomic bomb, Murray wrote in a letter to Mumford, "is the logical & predictable result of the course we have been madly pursuing for a hundred years." The choice now facing humanity, he added, was "One World or No World." Yet unlike Mumford, Murray maintained a deep faith in science. He saw it as offering a solution by helping to transform the human personality. "The kind of behavior that is required by the present threat," Murray wrote Mumford, "involves transformations of personality such as never occurred quickly in human history; one transformation being that of National Man into World Man." Crucial to achieving this change was learning the secret of successful relationships between people, communities, and nations. And coming to understand these "unusually successful relations" was the object of Murray's particular research: the interplay between two individuals, which he called the "dyad."

The concept of the dyad was, in a sense, Murray's attempt to build a bridge between psychology and sociology. Rather than follow Freud and Jung by identifying the individual as the fundamental atom in the psychological universe, Murray chose the dyad -- the smallest social unit -- and in this way sought to unite psychiatry, which studied the psyches of individuals, and sociology, which studied social relations. This kind of research, he apparently hoped, might (as he put it in a 1947 paper) promote "the survival and further evaluation of Modern Man, "by encouraging the emergence of the new "world man" and making world peace more likely.

Murray's interest in the dyad, however, may have been more than merely academic. The curiosity of this complex man appears to have been impelled by two motives -- one idealistic and the other somewhat less so. He lent his talents to national aims during World War II. Forrest Robinson, the author of a 1992 biography of Murray, wrote that during this period he "flourished as a leader in the global crusade of good against evil." He was also an advocate of world government. Murray saw understanding the dyad, it seems, as a practical tool in the service of the great crusade in both its hot and cold phases. (He had long shown interest, for example, in the whole subject of brainwashing.) During the war Murray served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, helping to develop psychological screening tests for applicants and (according to Timothy Leary) monitoring military experiments on brainwashing. In his book The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate" (1979), John Marks reported that General "Wild Bill" Donovan, the OSS director, "called in Harvard psychology professor Henry 'Harry' Murray" to devise a system for testing the suitability of applicants to the OSS. Murray and his colleagues "put together an assessment system ... [that] tested a recruit's ability to stand up under pressure, to be a leader, to hold liquor, to lie skillfully, and to read a person's character by the nature of his clothing.... Murray's system became a fixture in the OSS."

One of the tests that Murray devised for the OSS was intended to determine how well applicants withstood interrogations. As he and his colleagues described it in their 1948 report "Selection of Personnel for Clandestine Operations -- Assessment of Men,"

The candidate immediately went downstairs to the basement room. A voice from within commanded him to enter, and on complying he found himself facing a spotlight strong enough to blind him for a moment. The room was otherwise dark. Behind the spotlight sat a scarcely discernible board of inquisitors.... The interrogator gruffly ordered the candidate to sit down. When he did so, he discovered that the chair in which he sat was so arranged that the full strength of the beam was focused directly on his face....

At first the questions were asked in a quiet, sympathetic, conciliatory manner, to invite confidence.... After a few minutes, however, the examiner worked up to a crescendo in a dramatic fashion.... When an inconsistency appeared, he raised his voice and lashed out at the candidate, often with sharp sarcasm. He might even roar, "You're a liar."

Even anticipation of this test was enough to cause some applicants to fall apart. The authors wrote that one person "insisted he could not go through with the test." They continued, "A little later the director ... found the candidate in his bedroom, sitting on the edge of his cot, sobbing."

Before the war Murray had been the director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic. After the war Murray returned to Harvard, where he continued to refine techniques of personality assessment. In 1948 he sent a grant application to the Rockefeller Foundation proposing "the development of a system of procedures for testing the suitability of officer candidates for the navy." 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 in the series. In their postwar form these experiments focused on stressful dyadic relations, designing confrontations akin to those mock interrogations he had helped to orchestrate for the OSS.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, 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 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 6; page 41-65.