His Brother's Keeper

In a new memoir, the brother of the Unabomber tries to make sense of his own past in the context of acts of violence utterly disconnected from his own memories, writes Scott McLemee.

January 6, 2016

Until fairly recently, I had in my files a copy of the supplement to the Sept. 19, 1995, issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post containing “Industrial Society and Its Future,” better known as the Unabomber manifesto. “Unabomber” was the moniker the Federal Bureau of Investigation gave the person or persons responsible for a string of mail bombs primarily targeting people at universities and airlines, which killed three people and maimed 23 more between 1978 and 1995.

The carnage was vicious, but it also appeared pointless, at least until the manifesto became available. It is usually characterized as neo-Luddite -- a call to halt and reverse the self-perpetuating course of technology-dominated human history, which both fosters and feeds on profound alienation. (My copy went into the recycle bin once I downloaded the text to my ereader. So it goes.) Blowing up college professors and airline executives seemingly at random was hardly the most logical or effective way of transforming civilization. But by the mid-1990s American culture had spawned a number of strange and disturbing combinations of means and ends. “Industrial Society and Its Future” was the work of someone more intelligent than Timothy McVeigh and less manifestly delusional than the Branch Davidians or the Heaven’s Gate people. It read like a master’s thesis in anthropological theory that had, at some point, gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Publication of his treatise in a major national publication had been the Unabomber’s condition for ending the terror campaign. The FBI figured that conceding would at very least save lives and buy investigators time; it might also increase the chances of someone reading the text and having a hunch as to its authorship.

And that is just what happened -- although things very well might not have worked out that way. David Kaczynski’s reflective and resolutely unsensational memoir Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family (Duke University Press) reveals how difficult it was to accept even the possibility that his older brother, Theodore, might be a terrorist. The author is the executive director of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, N.Y., and (as testified in the afterword by James L. Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.) a tireless speaker and activist in the movement against the death penalty. It took weeks of agonizing discussion with his wife for David Kaczynski to reach the reluctant conclusion that the Unabomber might be his troubled older sibling -- identified in captions to family photos as “Teddy,” which somehow feels a little disconcerting.

By 1995 they had been out of touch for several years. The estrangement was not quite as bitter as the one between Ted and his parents, but the recriminations were one-sided in either case. The older sibling’s back-to-the-land yearning for self-sufficiency had metastasized over the years. Introversion and reclusiveness gave way to a seething hatred of everyone -- even of those closest to him, those able to give him unconditional love.

Especially those people, in fact. The burden of the memoirist here is not just to recount his own past but to make sense of it in the context of an act of violence otherwise utterly disconnected from his own memories. Seven years younger than his brother, the author recalls growing up happily in his shadow; they remained on affectionate terms long after Ted went off to Harvard University at age 16. “Growing up,” David writes, “I never doubted my brother’s fundamental loyalty and love or felt the slightest insecurity in his presence.” He characterizes their father as “a blue-collar intellectual” -- one who “didn’t have much formal education [but] was widely read and believed progress was possible through mankind’s rational pursuit of the greater good” -- and the description sounds like it would apply to their mother as well. “Discipline in our family was based on reason and dialogue,” the author says, “not authority and fear.”

There were worse ways to spend the 1950s, but an unfortunate turn as a Harvard undergraduate may have sent Ted Kaczynski’s retiring and cerebral personality off in a dangerously pathological direction. For three years, he served as a human guinea pig for a study on the effects of aggression and humiliation on bright college students -- one of various projects intended to add psychological weaponry to the Cold War arsenal. He survived and went on to do award-winning doctoral work in mathematics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, followed by an assistant professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. But by 1971, Kaczynski, still in his twenties, left academe to cultivate a small plot of land in Montana, where he could be alone with his thoughts.

What happened over the following 25 years is presumably documented among the papers removed from Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. Every Last Tie does not refer to this material, and it’s hard to blame the author if he did not burrow through it in search of an explanation. (He’s been through enough.) What he did see was the letters full of accusation that Ted sent to their parents as his mind wandered deeper into paranoia and rage.

Eventually, when David’s long-unrequited love for a girl he’d grown up with ended in marriage, it was the end of that family connection as well: Ted disowned his brother. The memoir is made up of essays focusing in turn on each member of David Kaczynski’s nuclear family and finally on his spouse, Linda, who was the first person to suspect that the brother-in-law she’d never met might be the Unabomber.

One effect of narrating the past this way is that the book as a whole is not linear. Events are recounted as moments in the author’s relationship with each individual. The effect is to underscore precisely the thing that Ted Kaczynski could not experience, or at least not endure: the intimacy of shared lives. And although they remain estranged, David does not disown his brother for the simple reason that he cannot:

“Ted’s cruelty stigmatizes my good name; but my reputation for goodness comes at his expense. Like all contrived opposites, we reinforce one another. The worst thing that he can do to me is to deny an opportunity for reconciliation. Hope of reconciliation is something I am bound to maintain, but it costs me little -- only the sneaking sense that some part of me is missing.”


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