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Ted Kaczynski: Evil man, or tortured soul?

 

By Paul Ferguson
Special to CNN Interactive

In this story:

A loner from youth
Descent into anguish

It is a disturbing portrait of loneliness and secrecy, obsessions and contradictions.

Theodore John Kaczynski -- the man accused of being the Unabomber who bedeviled authorities during an 18-year-long spate of bombings -- graduated from Harvard University when he was 20. He could have had a dazzling academic career at one of the nation's top mathematics departments. But he chose to be a recluse who shunned family and friends.

After Kaczynski's arrest at his remote, book-filled Montana cabin, the suspect has remained as silent in his prison cell as he had been during his 25-year-long, self-imposed exile.

To the FBI, Kaczynski, 57, was the prize at the end of the nation's longest, most expensive hunt for a serial killer. Officials point to the mountain of evidence uncovered at the cabin -- including the master copy of the Unabomber manifesto and the typewriter used to create it. In the eyes of federal investigators, Kaczynski is a cold, calculating, evil man whose contempt for technological advances led him to mastermind the bombings that killed three and injured 29.

To his family, Kaczynski is a sad, tortured man -- a mathematical genius who swiftly climbed the academic ladder even as he became an emotional cripple. He had penetrated the mysteries of a complex science but never savored the simple joys of love and friendship.

The real Ted Kaczynski may forever remain an enigma, but to the brother who made the painful decision to turn him in, one memory from nearly a decade ago stands out: In an interview with The New York Times, David Kaczynski recollected the time when he came emotionally close to his only brother:

It was during a visit to the Montana cabin. David was sawing wood when the worktable collapsed, taking him down with it. Ted ran over, asking, "Are you OK?" David replied that he was concerned about the saw, one of his brother's few tools. "'The hell with the saw. Are you OK?'" David quoted his brother as saying.

"He touched my shoulders. It was incredible, and touching, and human."


A loner from youth

It looked like an allergic reaction, but the doctors weren't sure. The 6-month-old baby's tiny body was covered with hives. The doctors decided Baby Ted would have to be hospitalized.

He was pinned down in a spread-eagle position for an examination. Someone in the hospital took a photograph to record the baby's symptoms. It showed an infant's eyes brimming with terror.

His mother was not permitted to visit the sick baby, a standard hospital policy in 1943.
Baby Ted endured several more hospital stays over the following eight months.

His mother, a widow in upstate New York, says she dwells on Ted's early hospital stays constantly.

"Baby home from hospital and is healthy but quite unresponsive after his experience," she recorded in a baby book on March 12, 1943. She turned the book over to the FBI last year.

Speaking with a Washington Post reporter soon after Ted Kaczynski's 1996 arrest, his mother Wanda said that unresponsiveness eventually grew like a cancer that consumed her son's mind.

It was the first of what would become more than 50 years of occasional lapses into an eerie stillness from her son. As he grew older, the "shutdowns," as the family called them, were increasingly accompanied with rage.

Ted's father wanted to help the extraordinarily shy 10-year-old get out more and socialize with other children.

He took him to a Boy Scout troop meeting, but Ted went into a shutdown. The scoutmaster was sympathetic and said that it was probably better not to push the boy into doing something he apparently didn't want to do.

Despite his parent's encouragements to go out and play with others, he remained aloof and a loner.

A brilliant boy, he passed his time with books, tinkering and with his trombone. It was clear that he lived a life of the mind and approached his hobbies with tremendous intellectual rigor.

He composed music that he played with his father and David, his younger brother; dad played piano and David trumpet. His favorite composers were Bach, Vivaldi and Gabrieli.

The University of Chicago gave him a scholarship to take a summer course on Greek tragedy when he was 15.

In those early years, the Kaczynski family found him to be a myriad of contradictions. His personality could be pleasant and compassionate at one moment but flip into rudeness, gloom and unhappiness the next.

And then there were the shutdowns.

He was accepted to Harvard University, but the offer of a solid education filled his parents with as much anxiety as pride. If Ted had difficulties with the Boy Scouts, how would he do going away to college?

A trip to look at colleges set off a shutdown. How would he handle the new environment?
Interviews with his former roommates show that he didn't.

Many had trouble recalling him. One remembered that Ted would march past the others and head straight for his room.

Another recalled that Ted's room was often an unreasonable mess that included cartons of sour milk on the floor.

But he graduated and entered a top graduate program in mathematics.


Descent into anguish

Despite his moodiness and what his family called his occasional "shutdowns," Ted Kaczynski was making something of himself. His doctoral thesis was honored with a prestigious award, and a top school, the University of California at Berkeley, offered him a tenure-track job.

His sudden resignation from university life in 1969 was the point of departure that led the promising young academic to the life of a mountain hermit.

He moved back home with parents. "Well, I'm not going back," he explained about Berkeley. His family had not even known that he had been thinking of quitting.

He complained that many of the students planned to become engineers. Their work would destroy the environment, he said, and Kaczynski wanted no part of them.

His next job was in a mall as a gardener. It was the first of a string of low-paying jobs that he would take and then lose while he lived with his parents for two years.

He was waiting for an answer to an application he'd made for a plot of wilderness land in Canada. After two years of waiting, he received word that Canada rejected his land application. He fell into another shutdown.

Not long after, his mother heard him arise very early. She went downstairs to see he was just about to walk out the door.

There were no goodbyes with Ted, she recalled. He'd breeze in and out of their lives without ever having much to say.

He was leaving, he said. It would be easier if he didn't say goodbye. The note he left on a table, thanking his parents for everything they had given him over the years, was so stark that his father suspected it might be a suicide note. The note said he just had to leave.
But Ted was not going to kill himself. He was on his way to Montana.

Ted and David purchased a small plot of land for $2,100, though Ted was not completely happy with it. He had wanted something even more remote. He didn't want a neighbor within a two-hour walk. But he stayed and built a flimsy cabin. He lived without plumbing or electricity.

His years alone in the woods did not bring him peace, his mother said. It had the opposite effect. Ted grew angrier, more eccentric and difficult.

The first bomb that federal authorities attribute to Kaczynski exploded at a university in Chicago seven years after he purchased his Montana land.

Family members said he became increasingly moody and subject to more complete shutdowns. Visits were filled with anguish and disappointment. His inability to relate to other people became more debilitating.

He asked his relatives to stop writing to him and insisted that even postcards were not welcome. They stopped. But Ted continued with his own writing, now searching for a larger audience.

It was his writing, and his brother's recognition that eventually brought Kaczynski out of the woods.

Authorities arrested Kaczynski in April 1996 at his 13-by-13-foot cabin. Doctors subsequently determined he was mentally ill, and he pleaded guilty in January 1998 to avoid the death penalty. In return, the mathematical genius turned bomber received four life sentences with no possibility of parole.



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