Below is a profile on Ted Kaczynski (May 22, 1942 – June 10, 2023) excerpted from Resisting Illegitimate Authority (AK Press, 2018) from the chapter “Violent Anti-Authoritarians.”
Of all the public figures I profile in this book, Ted Kaczynski’s story is, for me, the most tragic—tragic, of course, for his murder victims; tragically traumatizing for his injury victims and near-miss victims; tragic for the position that he put his family members in; tragic for enabling authoritarians to marginalize causes that many nonviolent anti-authoritarians care about; and tragic for him.
Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski’s bombs killed three people and injured 23 others. While some of his victims had positions of power in his hated “industrial society,” others did not (for example, a murdered computer store owner and an injured secretary and graduate student). And in an early failed attempt to blow up an airplane by placing a bomb in its cargo hold, anti-authoritarians who held his same views could well have been killed if the bomb had worked.
Ted Kaczynski placed his own family, especially his brother David, in a nightmarishly tragic position. Once David read what came to be called the “Unabomber Manifesto” (Industrial Society and Its Future), David realized that it was Ted’s work, and David had to decide between informing on his brother or complicity in further deaths. So David reported his brother to authorities. Once Ted Kaczynski was brought to trial, in order to save him from the death penalty, David and their mother Wanda helped portray Ted as being seriously mentally ill, which enraged Ted against them; as he knew that his political reasons for the bombings would now not be taken seriously.
Ted Kaczynski’s biographer Alston Chase reported that much of what the world heard about Kaczynski’s mental status was not true. Chase documents how Kaczynski was psychopathologized for two reasons: the concerns of his family, who wanted to spare him the death penalty; and to meet the needs of societal authorities who wanted to dismiss his societal critiques. Chase came to discover that “Kaczynski is neither the extreme loner he has been made out to be nor in any clinical sense mentally ill.”
Intelligence testing conducted on Ted in the fifth grade determined that he had a “genius” 167 IQ. As a result, he skipped the sixth grade, which made it difficult for him to socialize. Chase reported, “He would never be accepted by his new classmates, who were at least a year older. The bigger boys bullied and teased him.” But it is a myth that he was a complete social outcast. Robert McFadden reported in 1996 in the New York Times that in high school, Ted’s fellow math club member and his closest friend, Russell Mosny, played chess with him, and they talked about equations and physics in Ted’s attic bedroom. Mosny recalled, “He was just quiet and shy until you got to know him. Once he knew you, he could talk and talk.” Ted was accepted at Harvard, and at age 16 he began his freshman year.
Early on at Harvard, Kaczynski joined the Harvard band, played pickup basketball, and made a few friends. His housemate Gerald Burns recalled hanging out with Kaczynski at an all-night cafeteria and arguing about the philosophy of Kant. The Harvard health-services doctor who interviewed Kaczynski, as required for all freshmen, observed: “Good impression created. Attractive, mature for age, relaxed. . . . Talks easily, fluently and pleasantly . . . likes people and gets on well with them. . . . Exceedingly stable, well integrated and feels secure within himself.”
However, in Kaczynski’s sophomore year at Harvard, he fell victim to a disturbingly abusive experiment by one of the most renowned figures in the history of U.S. psychology, Henry Murray. Experimental subjects were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student; but instead, they were subjected to abusive personal attacks that were purposely brutalizing. Kaczynski and other subjects were instructed to write an essay detailing their personal beliefs and aspirations, and the essay was given to an attorney who would belittle them based on the disclosures they had made. This humiliation was filmed, and played back to the subjects. Thus, Kaczynski had personal reasons for rage and for distrust of the elites who managed society.
Kaczynski began his 1995 manifesto this way: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” He then discussed how the increasing growth and worship of technological and industrial systems have subverted individual freedom and destroyed our natural environment. The manifesto is approximately 35,000 words and covers many extraneous areas, and with respect to the tyranny of giant industrial-technological systems, for readers familiar with public intellectuals Kirkpatrick Sale and John Zerzan, Kaczynski’s work may be simplistic, unoriginal, and unenjoyable to read but not insane.
However, politics—not science—dictated that Ted Kaczynski be labeled insane. Against Kaczynski’s wishes, his defense attorneys launched a “mental illness” defense for him. Defense expert psychologist Karen Bronk Froming concluded that Kaczynski exhibited a “predisposition to schizophrenia,” citing his anti-technology views as having cemented her conclusion. Sally Johnson, a forensic psychiatrist with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, provisionally diagnosed Kaczynski with “Paranoid Type” schizophrenia, largely based on her view that he harbored “delusional beliefs” about the threats posed by technology.
In addition to Kaczynski’s views on technology, other so-called “evidence” for his mental illness included his personal habits and unkempt appearance living alone in a cabin in Montana. But as Chase—a former Harvard student, former professor, and Montana resident—points out, “His cabin was no messier than the offices of many college professors. The Montana wilds are filled with escapists like Kaczynski (and me). Celibacy and misanthropy are not diseases. Nor was Kaczynski really so much of a recluse.”
In the end, Kaczynski’s violent behaviors gave authoritarians ammunition to not only marginalize him as mentally ill, but to discredit as “Kaczynski-like” other critics of the authoritarian use of technology.
Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His most recent book is A Profession Without Reason: The Crisis of Contemporary Psychiatry—Untangled and Solved by Spinoza, Freethinking, and Radical Enlightenment (2022). His Web site is brucelevine.net