My Brother was the Unabomber: “Only turning Ted in could stop the violence”
For some siblings, growing up in your brother’s shadow can be difficult. But what if your brother’s shadow was a dark and ominous wave of terror and death? We spoke to David Kaczynski, the man behind the capture of his older brother Ted, aka the ‘Unabomber’, who killed three people and injured a further 23 with 16 home made mail bombs, posted over a span of almost two decades. It has now been 20 years since Ted Kaczynski was handed a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He serves out his days in ADX Florence where inmates include the 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui as well as Ramzi Youself, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Centre attack.
What was Ted like as a brother?
Growing up he was definitely like a big brother. There was a kindness about him and also because he was so intelligent and seemingly inner-directed. I always looked up to him very much-I adored him. I wanted, actually, when I was an adolescent to be very much like my big brother, so I would say it was a warm and close relationship. There were times when I approached my mother or my father and asked if there was something wrong with Ted and this was mostly because of his lack of social interaction with other kids his age, or even sometimes when a family member would drive up to our house to visit, Ted would seem to get kind of nervous and he would go upstairs. I did have some sense that he was definitely different – but he was different in a positive way because he was so intelligent and maybe in a worrisome way because he was so withdrawn at times.
How does it feel to have such fond memories of someone who is a figure of hate and loss for other families?
I guess there’s a couple of emotions I feel, one is great sadness. There’s also a sense of, how did this happen? What is the explanation? I don’t know that there are any easy answers to that. Statistics show, and there is pretty good research that shows that other people with mental illness are not statistically more likely to become more violent than the population at large, so how did this happen to my brother? Why did he become someone who was capable of lashing out and killing people? I don’t have an answer to that. It’s very disturbing to think someone I love could have been capable of such heinous crimes.
Your wife Linda was the person who alerted you to the fact that your brother was the Unabomber, how did this affect your relationship with her?
Linda and I are closer than we’ve ever been, which is not to say that there wasn’t stress in the process. At first I didn’t believe her. I didn’t think it was possible that Ted could be this person – and then she urged me to read the manifesto. After I read the manifesto I thought, “Well maybe there’s a slight chance,” and we began investigating together. It was really a process of joint exploration that required both of us for objectivity and my knowledge of Ted and our discussions. These really consuming discussions on a daily basis of two fundamental questions: one, is my brother the Unabomber? And two, what can we do about it? Of course we looked for a way out of this dilemma and there didn’t seem like there was any way out, other than to do what was necessary to stop the violence, which meant turning Ted in.
What went through your mind that exact moment that you could no longer deny the possibility that this could be your brother?
I was self questioning, “am I projecting things here? Am I in denial with the theory?” You’re looking at evidence and then ultimately you have to look inwards into your own memories. Sometimes I thought it’s a little bit like waking up one day and finding oneself in a nightmare and thinking, hoping you’re going to wake up at some point, but you never did wake up. That’s kind of where it was when Ted was arrested and all of a sudden it was on the news and it was being reported that he was turned in by his own brother and the media are surrounding the house. Its like, oh my God life is going to be very different from now on, and not very happy.
What do you think would have happened had you not taken Linda’s suspicions seriously? Do you think there would have been more bombs or would he have kept his promise to cease the attacks?
One of the things that made it difficult to turn him in was that the Unabomber had written that if his manifesto was published, he would cease. He might still blow up physical buildings but he would not harm people. That’s how I understood it. So I’m thinking, are we looking to prevent something that’s not going to happen anyway? On the other hand my bother was really so unstable, so psychologically deranged, did he know his own mind well enough to be able to keep that promise? As you probably heard when he was arrested there was another live bomb wrapped in a package under his bed ready to be mailed to someone, so my suspicion is that if we hadn’t come forward, other people would have lost their lives.
Out of the whole ordeal, the inclination, the investigating, the arrest and the trial, what is the most harrowing memory?
The harrowing memory is the day Ted was arrested. A number of things were happening all at the same time. One was something that had actually happened… it wasn’t just an idea we were discussing with the FBI, it was all of a sudden very real. It was the worry about Ted and his frame of mind, how he was being treated and how he was taking all of this. It was a shock to realise that someone, apparently in the justice department or the FBI had broken their promise, or broken the agency’s promise and my identity was part of a national release and that was all over the news. Linda and I rushed over to my mother’s house and we were watching all of this transpire on TV. The media came and surrounded her apartment and camped out on the parking lot below. It almost seemed like the end of the world as we knew it, it was hard to see any way of emerging from that. I thought ‘oh my gosh will we have friends anymore? Will people shun us because of what our family member did?’ And second, because there’s quite a stigma about informing them (The FBI) of your own family members, I wasn’t sure how people would look at that.
Do you think that any of the stigma has been lifted from the family name in the last two decades?
I think in some ways the fact that we had taken action to turn in a family member inoculated us from some of the stigma of the crimes itself. What Ted did does not define the values of this family we had an opportunity to separate ourselves from those actions and show how much we disapproved of them. Many families, they have no idea that something is going to happen until the news, they’re surrounded and they never have the opportunity to show their own values. So I think in some ways we’re fortunate. I think the stigma is less on us than many other families in worse situations.
Why do you think Ted ignores your letters despite your mother’s concerns that he craves physical attachment and fear of abandonment?
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my brother by asking the question: “What would I be feeling if I had behaved this way?” Trying to reason it out, and I think in some sense because of his illness there’s a limitation to what you can understand through trying to reason or rationalise the behaviour of someone as sick as my brother is. Never the less, I could take a stab at it and say something like ‘I’m not sure he has the emotional equipment to be able to deal with it. I’m not sure he has the wherewithal to entirely face up to what he’s done.’
In what way do you feel that the psychological experiment your brother took part in, changed him?
The experiments that he was involved in when he was at Harvard were clearly abusive, it’s a kind of experiment that would never be allowed today, at least not in a major university like Harvard, where he was humiliated and degraded and his views were challenged. I do remember one time when he was home – it might have been after he graduated from Harvard or perhaps after his junior year so he’d been involved in these experiments for a long time – and I remember at this point I was growing into an adolescent. I’m getting interested in school and I’m talking about books I’ve read and I found I was really taken aback, because Ted’s response to my ideas, instead of listening as he might have done earlier, seemed quite aggressive and I hadn’t seen that in him before. I was kind of shocked.
Do you feel that with the psychological advances in understanding mental illness in the last 20 years that Ted’s case would have been treated differently had it happened more recently?
I would like to say yes, I think we’re still facing a couple of problems. One is many people like my brother, especially those who are diagnosed with schizophrenia that don’t know that they’re sick. We live in a world where, thankfully there are civil liberties and it takes a great deal to commit someone involuntarily to treatment. So I’m not sure, given that barrier, that Ted would receive the treatment he would have needed. One thing is clear, the experiment that he was in at Harvard would not have been allowed today so that stress would have been removed from his life. I learned that at some point in the late 1980s when he was living in the small cabin in Montana he wrote a letter to the mental health service of the county in which he lived asking if he could receive therapy through the mail and he was told he couldn’t. We now have what they call mental health courts where the sentence might be treatment instead of jail.
What are your feelings towards Ted now?
I hope that he is not suffering tremendously. He loves nature and in his own mind he was doing this to defend wild nature and human freedom and he has very little of either one. He’s in a very foreboding prison. I’m not sure he often even sees the sky and of course his daily routine is entirely regulated so in one sense I wonder about that how he’s doing and hope its not torturable. I think for someone like my brother there is no true happiness without atonement and I haven’t seen any indication that he has expressed remorse or apologized for anything he’s done. I don’t know how he could have been so blind to have done it in the first place and then afterwards to not process the immensity of what he did.