Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner |
"I Don't Want To Live Long. I Would
Rather Get The Death Penalty Than
Spend The Rest Of My Life In Prison"
Ted Kaczynski talks about life in jail, his appeal plans and his brother
David, who still struggles over the decision to turn in the Unabomber
By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
October 18, 1999
There is probably never a good time to ask the question--Tell me, do you
consider yourself insane?--but when the time comes, Ted Kaczynski responds
without hesitation. "I'm confident that I'm sane, personally," he says. "I don't
get delusions and so on and so forth...I mean, I had very serious problems
with social adjustment in adolescence, and a lot of people would call this a
sickness. But it would have to be distinguished between an organic illness, like
schizophrenia or something like that."
He is sitting on a concrete stool in a concrete booth with windows made of
reinforced glass. When he was first led in, his wrists were handcuffed behind
his back. Facing forward, he squatted down so a guard could remove his cuffs
through a slot low in the door. This is how things are done at the federal
"Supermax" prison in Florence, Colo., where he has been since last spring and
may well remain for the rest of his life.
His voice is nasal and singsongy, full of flat Chicago vowels. He is 57, his hair
and beard trimmed close, and his upbeat manner hardly resembles that of the
man who three years ago was marched out of his tiny Montana cabin and into
infamy. He makes constant eye contact, laughs easily and often; when it's time
for a photograph, he jokingly pops out a fake front tooth, as if to parody the
deranged mountain-man image he inhabits in the public's mind. He is, for the
most part, affable, polite and sincere. It would almost be easy to forget that he
mailed or delivered at least 16 package bombs and then logged the results
with the glee of a little boy tearing the wings off a fly. Over the course of 18
years, the Unabomber killed three people and wounded 23 more.
When he was arrested, Kaczynski was widely assumed to be insane. But he
will not tolerate being called, as he puts it, "a nut," or "a lunatic" or "a sicko."
He says he pleaded guilty last year only to stop his lawyers from arguing he
was a paranoid schizophrenic, as had been the diagnosis by court-appointed
While the world might take some comfort in attributing Kaczynski's deeds to
illness rather than ill will, he is actively opposed to lending such comfort. He
has written a book, Truth Versus Lies (to be published by Context Books in
New York City), its chief aim is to assert his sanity. The book does not
address the Unabomber crimes (nor does Kaczynski in person, for he is
seeking a retrial and doesn't wish to damage his slim chances), but it is the
most thorough accounting of his life to date.
The book is also Kaczynski's counterattack against his brother David. It was
David, of course, who turned Ted in, at the urging of his wife, Linda Patrik, the
woman who had come between them years earlier. After Ted's arrest, David
was instantly lauded as a sort of moral superhero for sacrificing his beloved if
troubled brother. Not surprisingly, Ted finds fault with this scenario. David's
decision to turn him in, he says, was less a moral or lawful one than a way to
settle a perversely complicated sibling rivalry. Beneath David's love for him, he
argues, lay "a marked strain of resentment," and "jealousy over the fact that
our parents valued me more highly."
"It's quite true that he is troubled by guilt over what he's done," Ted writes,
"but I think his sense of guilt is outweighed by his satisfaction at having finally
gotten revenge on big brother."
There is, it should be said, a certain lack of perspective in Ted's writing. After
all, it was he, not David, who sent the bombs. Still, the original tale had been
so much neater: the evil, deranged brother and the righteous, heartbroken
brother who put a killer out of commission. As it turns out, the Kaczynski
tragedy is more Greek than American, a morally complicated tale in which
even the most righteous intentions have created shadows that will haunt all the
players for the rest of their lives.
In the wake of the Unabomber's arrest, as David simultaneously lobbied for
Ted's life and reached out to Ted's victims, he and Linda struck me as
extraordinary. They seemed to have stumbled into an impossible situation and
acted honorably at every turn. Several months ago, I contacted them to talk
about the price of morality--that is, the cost they have paid for committing a
deeply difficult act. Because they have sold the book and film rights to their
story (the money, they say, will largely go to a fund for bombing victims),
certain aspects of their lives are off limits, but otherwise they were forthcoming
As publication of Ted's book neared, however, what became even more
intriguing than the consequences of their moral act were the motivations behind
it. So in August, I wrote to Ted; I wanted his take on the tortured dynamic
between the two brothers and the woman who has played such a catalytic,
though overlooked, role in their story. (David and Linda were upset when the
article shifted in this direction, and eventually stopped participating.)
Ted, as it turned out, was more than eager to talk about David. And about
pretty much everything. The life of a notorious prisoner, he admits, has its
advantages. He lives on "Celebrity Row," a group of eight cells protected from
the prison's general population. His cell is equipped with a television set (he
says he rarely watches) and a light switch, which allows him to stay up at night
reading (he has gift subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times, the New York
Review of Books, the New Yorker and National Geographic) or writing
(answering letters or preparing legal papers). He goes to bed around 10 p.m.
and wakes up before 6 a.m., when breakfast is delivered. "The food here,
believe it or not, is pretty good," he says. He showers only every other day ("I
have sensitive skin") and several days a week is allowed a 90-minute
recreation period--the only time he has contact with the other "celebrity"
prisoners. "These people are not what you would think of as criminal types,"
he says. "I mean, they don't seem to be very angry people. They're
considerate of others. Some of them are quite intelligent."
Among them, he says, are Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the World Trade
Center bombing, and Timothy McVeigh. One can only imagine this bombing
trio's conversations. Kaczynski says McVeigh (who has recently been
transferred to another prison) lent him one of the most interesting books he's
read lately, Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab, by
John F. Kelly and Phillip K. Wearne. "I mean, I knew from my own
experience that they were crooked and incompetent," Kaczynski says, shaking
his head and laughing. "But according to this book, they're even worse than
what I thought."
Contacting the FBI, he says, was only the beginning of his brother's betrayal.
By arguing that Ted should not be sentenced to death on account of mental
illness, David committed a dual sin: labeling Ted crazy and dooming him to an
utterly unnatural existence. "He knows very well that imprisonment is to me an
unspeakable humiliation," Ted writes in Truth Versus Lies, "and that I would
unhesitatingly choose death over incarceration."
At one point, I ask Ted what he would have done had their roles been
reversed, had Ted suspected David of being the Unabomber.
"I would have kept it to myself," he says.
"Is that what you feel he should have done?"
When I ask Ted what he would say to David if he were in the room now, he
answers, "Nothing. I just wouldn't talk to him. I would just turn my back and
wouldn't talk to him."
David, who lives in upstate New York and works as a counselor at a
teenage-runaway shelter, says he still loves his brother. He has written him
repeatedly, offering at least one apology, but Ted has not answered. In order
to gain forgiveness, Ted writes, David must renounce the "lies" he has told
about Ted, leave his wife and remove himself from modern society. "If he does
not redeem himself," Ted adds, "then as far as I am concerned he is the lowest
sort of scum, and the sooner he dies, the better."
It is as awkward to face the gulf between these two brothers as it is difficult to
overestimate the depth of feeling that once passed between them. Ted's life
was steeped in rejection, isolation and anger; through it all, his younger brother
was the only person ever to connect with him.
David's feelings for Ted, in fact, bordered on worship. He was particularly
smitten by Ted's belief that modern man was being corrupted by society in
general and technology in particular. "Knowing him as I do," Ted writes, "I am
certain that if Dave had known of the Unabomber before 1989"--the year
David moved in with Linda Patrik--"he would have regarded him as a hero."
David adamantly disputes this--he deplores violence, he says--but he doesn't
seem surprised to hear Ted say it. "I think every person is a mystery, and it's
strange to me that a person I grew up with and was very close with remains
one of the biggest mysteries of all." David's manner is as gentle as Ted's is
brisk, and he speaks with a great earnestness. (The teenagers he counsels call
him Mr. Rogers.) When he talks about his brother, however, his voice is full of
resignation, the sort felt by someone who has watched a relationship curdle
The Boys Together
Ted and David's parents, Wanda and Theodore R. Kaczynski, were atheists,
working-class intellectuals who valued education and dearly wanted their sons
to succeed on a higher plane.
Ted proved to be exceptionally bright from an early age. He was generally
happy, he writes, until he was about 11. That was when he skipped the first of
two grades in school, which led to his entering Harvard at the age of 16. At
school he was painfully awkward around his older classmates. At home he
sulked, and his parents, he says, railed against his antisocial behavior, calling
him "sick" and "a creep." He began to despise them, especially Wanda, who
he felt treated him more like a trophy than a son. "I hate you, and I will never
forgive you, because the harm you did me can never be undone," he would
write her more than 30 years later. (Through David, Wanda declined to be
interviewed for this article.)
David Kaczynski, seven years younger, had an easier time of things. He too
was bright--he would go on to study literature at Columbia University--and he
was far more socially adept.
The brothers got along fairly well, although Ted admits to taking out his
teenage frustrations on David. Nevertheless, it was Ted whom David most
admired, especially as Ted began to speak about abandoning civilization to live
in the wilderness. The boys' father often took them on hikes outside Chicago,
and Ted read extensively about nature, wondering what it might be like to live
beyond the reach of the modern world.
At Harvard, Ted felt socially isolated by other students. He recalls that "their
speech, manners, and dress were so much more 'cultured' than mine." There
was an even greater unease in Ted's life; he suffered from what he calls "acute
sexual starvation." Sexual references run throughout his book, and although he
never ties them into a knot, one cannot help wondering if sexual frustration was
his main despair. As an adolescent, he recalls, "my attempts to make advances
to girls had such humiliating results that for many years afterward, even until
after the age of 30, I found it excruciatingly difficult--almost impossible--to
make advances to women... At the age of 19 to 20, I had a girlfriend; the only
one I ever had, I regret to say." According to a psychiatric report compiled
before his trial, Ted, while in graduate school at the University of Michigan,
experienced "several weeks of intense and persistent sexual excitement
involving fantasies of being a female. During that time period, he became
convinced that he should undergo sex-change surgery."
In the face of such constant sadness and humiliation, Ted Kaczynski eventually
decided he would live out his life alone in the wilderness. His retreat to the
Montana mountains could simply be viewed as an embrace of a desire he
harbored much of his life. Or it could be viewed as a rejection of the world
that had rejected him--a world full of purposeful academics and scientists, of
happily married couples, of people who weren't humiliated by daily social
interaction--and that would someday pay for its ease.
When asked about the fondest memories he holds of David, Ted cites a day in
the early 1970s in Great Falls, Mont. David had moved there first, after
college, and was working as a copper smelter. Ted was building his cabin on
land the brothers had bought together outside Lincoln. One day, Ted recalls,
they took their baseball gloves to a park. "We were as far apart as we could
get and still reach each other with the ball," Ted says, smiling, as if lost in the
moment. "We were throwing that ball as hard as we could, and as far as we
could... And so we were making these running, leaping catches. We made
more fantastic catches that day than I think we did in all the rest of our years
Their bond now was perhaps as strong as it would ever be. They were a pair
of anti-careerist Ivy League grads united by their love of the outdoors--and
also, frankly, by their failure at romantic love. David had been only slightly
more successful with women than Ted. He had already decided that there was
only one woman he could ever love--her name was Linda Patrik--and though
they had a few dates during college, things didn't work out.
In Great Falls, Ted often spent the night at David's apartment. One day, while
David was not at home, Ted came across some letters from Linda, whom Ted
had never heard David mention. "They were in a drawer," Ted writes, "not
lying out in the open, and I knew that he would not want me to read them, but
I read them anyway... Why did I do it? I was full of contempt for him, and
when you have contempt for someone you tend to be disregardful of his
Ted thrived on his brother's adulation but was also "disgusted" by it, he writes.
While they shared a disdain for materialism and an "oversocialized" lifestyle,
Ted considered David undisciplined, physically and intellectually lazy. He also
felt David was prone to manipulation, especially by women--as Linda Patrik's
letters seemed to illustrate. "The letters were not very informative," he writes,
"but they did make this much clear about Dave's relationship with Linda Patrik:
He had a long-term crush on her; his relationship to her was servile." Ted saw
David, derisively, as more companion than mate to Linda, "a shoulder for her
to cry on."
David and Linda had grown up together in Chicago, and he had never given
up on her. They kept in touch while David lived in Montana, and throughout
the 1970s, as he taught high school English in Iowa, wrote an unpublished
novel and drove a commuter bus near Chicago. But Linda eventually married
another man. Faced with this reality, David slipped off to the
wilderness--interestingly, not to Ted's Montana mountain area but to the Big
Bend desert region of western Texas. He had $40,000 in savings and, like
Ted, a vague plan to spend the rest of his years alone.
He lived in a fortified hole in the ground called a pit house, with no plumbing or
electricity. He kept writing but was mainly, according to a friend, "a lost,
searching, unhappy soul." He and Ted wrote each other frequently, extremely
tender at times but just as often engaged in brittle clashes of ego. "If that story
is typical of your previous writing," Ted wrote after David sent him some of his
fiction, "then it's obvious why no one wants to publish your stuff--it's just plain
bad, by anyone's standard."
In 1982 Ted broke off communication with his parents. Given his brand of
terrorism, the breakup's "proximate cause," as he puts it, was ironic: he was
annoyed by the packages of food and reading material his mother mailed him.
For several years, David was Ted's only link to the family and seemingly the
only person in a position to mediate his growing anger. Today David will not
say when he began to suspect that Ted was mentally ill, only that "clearly he
has had very serious mental and emotional problems."
In September 1989, David wrote Ted to say he was leaving the desert. Linda
Patrik had divorced, and after she visited him in Texas, David decided to
move with her to Schenectady, N.Y., where she taught philosophy at Union
Ted's response had the tone of a scorned lover, or a deposed guru. "If you
don't irritate or disgust me in one way," he wrote, "then you do so in another...
And now, to top off my disgust, you're going to leave the desert and shack up
with this woman who's been keeping you on a string for the past 20 years." He
continued, "I can pretty well guess who the dominant member of that couple is
going to be. It's just disgusting. Let me know your neck size--I'd like to get
you a dog collar next Christmas."
He added that he wanted nothing more to do with David, ever, then signed off
with a typically manipulative flourish: "But remember--you still have my love
and loyalty, and if you're ever in serious need of my help, you can call on me."
It is tempting to interpret Ted's anger as a reaction not specifically against
Linda--he had never met her--but against his acolyte's attainment of something
he had spent his life without: a woman.
The following summer, David and Linda were married in a Buddhist ceremony
in their backyard. Ted did not attend. Two months later, David's father
became ill with late-stage lung cancer. David returned to Chicago; driving
home from the hospital after a radiation treatment, father and son had a long,
cleansing talk. That night Theodore R. Kaczynski gave David his gold watch;
the next day he shot himself.
Ted did not attend his father's funeral either. By this point, Linda Patrik, having
read Ted's letters to David, recognized that her brother-in-law was trouble.
According to the Journal of Family Life, a small Albany, N.Y., publication,
Linda forbade David ever to let Ted into their house; she went so far as to
warn her father in Chicago that if for some reason Ted were to come to his
door, he was to be turned away. She took some of his letters to a psychiatrist,
who judged Ted to be paranoid and possibly dangerous. She and David
inquired about having him institutionalized, but were told that would be
impossible unless Ted were to volunteer. Or unless he had committed acts of
He had done so, of course, and would continue. But David had no
inkling--and, as Ted's still reverent little brother, no desire to have an
inkling--that Ted might be the Unabomber. It was Linda who first raised the
possibility. In September 1995, when the Washington Post and the New York
Times published the Una-bomber's "manifesto," she cajoled David into reading
it. After negotiating with the FBI and deliberating with Linda (one keenly
senses she herself might have turned Ted in, had David refused), David told
the authorities where they would find his brother.
Life After the Decision
Linda and David still live in Schenectady. They bought their handsome,
low-ceilinged, blood-red house--built in 1720--just before the Unabomber
was unveiled. Linda now wishes they could live outside the city, away from
curiosity seekers who want to see the home of the Unabomber's brother. On
the summer weekend I visited, most of their things were still in boxes. They
had just returned from sabbatical and were soon heading out to a monthlong
Linda, 49, and David, 50, have both gone gray since the 60 Minutes interview
in which they pleaded that Ted's life be spared and announced they would
take no money, reward or otherwise, generated by this case. Their marriage
has grown stronger these past years, they both say, but when asked about
Unabomber-induced tensions, Linda promptly ticks off items on her list. While
she was the catalyst for capturing the Unabomber, for instance, most reporters
wanted to speak only to David. "Then I get to feel envious," she says, "and
David gets credit for turning in his brother, and I don't." She was also jealous
of how some journalists, especially those young and female, regarded her
husband, "gazing at him with puppy-dog eyes and hanging on every word."
Did her philosophy students ever question her about the moral dimensions of
her dilemma? "No, no, no. They come to me and say, 'Oh, your husband's so
wonderful, you're so lucky to be married to such an ethical man.'" She sticks a
finger down her throat and pretends to gag. David laughs uncomfortably. As
she speaks, he listens, careful not to interrupt; when it is his turn, he seems to
I had expected, I must admit, a more united front. Only now do I realize their
desire to turn Ted in may not have been unilateral: Linda was afraid of this man
she had never met, while David loved at least a part of him. That their marriage
could survive such pressure--even before the media wave--says a lot about it.
Alone, David is looser. He plays baseball in an over-30 league, and one
morning he took me to his game. (He played first base and pitched, batting
two for four.) Baseball, he says, is the one thing that allows him to forget the
ordeal, if only for a few hours. On the drive home, he spoke passionately
about his love of nature, literature and philosophy. Before long, though, his
mind returned to the Unabomber. Soon after his brother's arrest, he says, "I
had a depressive realization that I don't know if I'll ever really feel carefree
again, ever come upon those moods where you just feel unalloyed delight and
joy." Before his discovery that Ted was the Unabomber, he adds, "ethical
questions weren't that important to me. I was more interested in trying to
break through and find the transcendental. But now I have all kinds of
questions about other things. I thought I knew the difference between right and
wrong." Clearly, that difference has been forever muddied--for his decision to
turn in the Unabomber was the right thing to do, as wrong as it feels to have
imprisoned his brother.
And now comes Ted's book, charging that David's decision was in some part
based on resentment. "I think he's wrong there," David says, while
acknowledging that "there have been times when I felt some resentment of
Ted" and that Ted sometimes made him "very angry."
David, it seems likely, will forever wrestle with the horrible bind his murderous
brother put him in. Balancing his devotion to Ted with a devotion to the
aftermath of Ted's actions, he is the opposite of a kid who begs his parents for
a puppy and then abandons all custodial duties. Last year, for instance, he
spent months lobbying Congress (unsuccessfully) to exempt the Unabomber
reward from taxes so the bulk of it could go to the victims' fund he and Linda
established. Yet David's life, oddly, may be richer now than it has ever been.
As a man who has long existed in the shadow of someone else--first his
brother, then his wife--he at last finds himself at the center of things. There are
humanitarian awards to accept, anti-death penalty interviews to give,
victims'-rights speeches to deliver. He has even considered a lecture tour with
one of Ted's victims.
Might he even leave his counseling job for a life of public speaking and
advocacy? "Yes," he says, "but I'm leery of making money or celebrity out of
this terrible tragedy. On the other hand, it's an amazing opportunity to be
listened to... Obviously, I'm not immune to flattery, and it feels good to get
those kinds of strokes from people."
Asked whether he feels guilty for having turned Ted in, David says, "Guilt
suggests a very clear conviction of wrongdoing, and certainly I don't feel that I
did wrong. On the other hand, there are tremendously complicated feelings not
just about the decision itself but a lifetime of a relationship in which one brother
failed to help protect another." Even now, he hopes Ted will one day agree to
see him, but when asked whether he has envisioned their reconciliation, he
grows quiet. "No, I don't think it would be helpful," he says after a time. "The
future never meets us in the ways we imagine."
Ted Looks to the Future
Ted Kaczynski too enjoys a certain amount of attention these days. He
receives mail from sympathizers and admirers. He has accepted an offer to
donate his personal papers to a major university's library of anarchist materials.
He wrote a parable for a literary magazine at another university. Speaking with
him, one is struck not by the burning anger that characterized his Una-bomber
campaign but by a satisfaction that the world, at long last, is treating him like a
valuable human being.
His spirits don't seem particularly low--not nearly as low as the relatives of his
victims might like them to be. To me, in fact, he seems optimistic about life in
"Well, obviously I'm not optimistic about life in general," he says. "If I were,
then maybe you would have a case for concluding that I was mentally ill.
"Let me try to explain it this way," he continues. "When I was living in the
woods, there was sort of an undertone, an underlying feeling that things were
basically right with my life. That is, I might have a bad day, I might screw
something up, I might break my ax handle and do something else and
everything would go wrong. But...I was able to fall back on the fact that I was
a free man in the mountains, surrounded by forests and wild animals and so
"Here it's the other way around. I'm not depressed or downcast, and I have
things I can do that I consider productive, like working on getting out this
book. And yet the knowledge that I'm locked up here and likely to remain so
for the rest of my life--it ruins it. And I don't want to live long. I would rather
get the death penalty than spend the rest of my life in prison."
To get the death penalty, Kaczynski will first have to gain a retrial, which he
knows is improbable. At a new trial, he would represent himself, but he won't
discuss the strategy he might employ.
What would seem most likely is for him to argue that, essentially, desperate
disease requires a desperate cure. As the Unabomber manifesto put it, "The
Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human
race." In the Unabomber's mind, society was in desperate need of a brave and
brazen savior who wouldn't let murder stand in his way. "Well, let me put it this
way," Kaczynski says. "I don't know if violence is ever the best solution, but
there are certain circumstances in which it may be the only solution."
To anarchists who advocate violence, Kaczynski has become a hero. He is
flattered but notes that "a lot of these people are just irrational." What
Kaczynski wants is a true movement, "people who are reasonably rational and
self controlled and are seriously dedicated to getting rid of the technological
system. And if I could be a catalyst for the formation of such a movement, I
would like to do that."
Ted Kaczynski, king of the anarchists. It is a measure of his
self-importance--and cruelty--that he envisions such a role as his reward for
blowing people up.
Toward the end of our interview, I ask Kaczynski what he would do if, against
all odds, he should someday get out of prison. He mentions an anarchist in
Oregon with whom he has corresponded. "He has given some talks at colleges
about technology and about the Unabomb case," Kaczynski says, "and he's
had a very positive response. And if he can get an audience, I could get one
much more easily, now that I've been publicized."
And what, I ask Kaczynski, would he tell people, so they wouldn't worry
about the Unabomber's being at large?
He laughs at the question and shoots me a look: You just don't get it, do you?
"Well, I don't know that I would have to relax them," he says. "Just let them