Kaczynski, Theodore "Ted" (The Unabomber)

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Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski (The Unabomber)

May 22, 1942

Chicago, Illinois

The Unabomber

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race… . The continued development of technology will … certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world."

O n April 3, 1996, a team of heavily armed federal agents arrested a man outside his one-room cabin in a Montana forest. The arrest ended a seventeen-year hunt for a terrorist known as the Unabomber, who had killed three people with a series of mail bombs. His name was Theodore Kaczynski, a Harvard graduate who had a Ph.D. in mathematics and once taught at the University of California in Berkeley.

A psychiatrist concluded that Kaczynski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a severe mental illness that seriously distorted his sense of reality and drove him to a lonely life in the woods—and to a career as America's most wanted terrorist. Kaczynski himself always denied that he was mentally ill.

Growing up

Theodore Kaczynski, called Ted, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 22, 1942. His father, Theodore Richard Kaczynski, worked in a sausage factory. His mother, Wanda, at first stayed at home; she later qualified for a teaching license and taught school for a few years. When he was seven, his parents had another son, David. The Kaczynski family lived in a modest neighborhood of working families. The father changed jobs several times, shifting from sausage making to working for companies that cut foam, like the kind used for furniture. For a while, the family lived in Iowa before moving back to a suburb of Chicago.

When Kaczynski was nine months old, he had an allergic reaction and spent five days in the hospital. No one thought much of it at the time, but many years later, his mother wondered whether this separation from his family caused him to become withdrawn and less responsive.

Wanda Kaczynski later remembered that her son tended to play alongside other children, rather than playing with them. She even briefly considered enrolling him in a psychological study on children suffering from autism. (Autism is a mental disorder beginning in infancy. Its symptoms include an inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, withdrawal from reality, and being absorbed in mental activities such as daydreams, fantasies, and delusions.)

Words to Know

a person who holds to the theory that society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations.
a mental disorder with symptoms including an inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, withdrawal from reality, and being absorbed in mental activities such as daydreams, fantasies, and delusions.
the study of how people and animals inherit their traits, such as eye and hair color.
a person who lives alone, away from civilization.
a statement of principles and ideas.
in mythology, a bird that burned to ashes only to be reborn.
a sudden realization of a new perception of reality.

Feeling isolated in school

In elementary school, Kaczynski seemed exceptionally bright. His mother had high hopes for her son, and she encouraged him to use a more adult way of speaking than the other children. Kaczynski remembered as an adult that by the time he was eight or nine years old, he did not feel accepted by other children. In the fifth grade, Kaczynski took an intelligence test and scored high enough that the school recommended he skip the sixth grade. Suddenly he was thrown into classes with older children, and he had an even greater sense of being a social outcast. Later in life, he remembered his classmates verbally abusing and teasing him.

Social isolation became a theme in Kaczynski's life. At Evergreen Park Community High School, he did not go out on dates or have close friends. He remembered the growing dislike of the other students. "By the time I left high school, I was definitely regarded as a freak by a large segment of the student body," he told Dr. Sally Johnson. But he did very well in his classes and skipped the eleventh grade as well. The school encouraged him to apply to Harvard University, which accepted him at age sixteen, two years earlier than most college students.

At Harvard, the first signs of mental illness

At Harvard, Kaczynski quickly realized that he was no longer smarter than everyone else. He did not make friends until his second year, and then only a few. Far from his family, Kaczynski's life was lonely until he graduated in June 1962, at the age of twenty. At Harvard he had daydreams about living alone in the woods or becoming a revolutionary and rousing mobs to violence.

After Harvard, Kaczynski entered the University of Michigan as a graduate student in mathematics. He spent five years there, earning master's and doctorate degrees. His academic work received high praise, but his social life was nonexistent. He lived alone in a rooming house. Kaczynski had no girl-friends, a fact that bothered him deeply. He once had fantasies of becoming a woman himself and visited a university health clinic to have the psychological evaluation required before having a sex-change operation. While waiting to see the psychiatrist, he suddenly felt ashamed and left.

Walking away from the clinic, Kaczynski had what seemed like a revelation, a sudden realization of a new perception of reality. Kaczynski told Johnson:

As I walked away from the building afterwards, I felt disgusted about what my uncontrolled sexual cravings had almost led me to do [undergo a sex-change operation], and I felt humiliated, and I violently hated the psychiatrist. Just then there came a major turning point in my life. Like a phoenix in mythology, a bird that burned to ashes only to be reborn, I burst from the ashes of my despair to a glorious new hope. I thought I wanted to kill that psychiatrist because the future looked utterly empty to me. I felt I wouldn't care if I died. And so I said to myself, why not really kill the psychiatrist and anyone else whom I hate? What is important is not the words that ran through my mind but the way I felt about them. What was entirely new was the fact that I really felt I could kill someone. My very hopelessness had liberated [freed] me because I no longer cared about death. I no longer cared about consequences, and I said to myself that I really could break out of my rut in life and do things that were daring, irresponsible or criminal.

Turning a corner

In the space of the short walk from the clinic, Kaczynski decided to go to Canada and live "off the country," alone in the woods. Before his visit to the psychiatrist, he had worried that he might be suffering from a mental illness. But on his walk he decided that his problems were all the fault of his family and the people around him. He began building a complicated explanation for his feelings. He blamed modern technology for his problems. Over time, he focused on genetics (the study of how people and animals inherit their traits, such as eye and hair color) and computers as specific technologies that were out to limit his freedom. He thought advertising was designed to control his mind. He also decided that he had been mistreated at home while he was growing up, although there has never been any outside evidence of this.

Years later, a psychiatrist used these stories as evidence that Kaczynski was suffering from paranoia, a mental condition that causes people to imagine that others are out to harm them. For example, in his rooming house, he sometimes heard people talking downstairs and imagined that there was a visitor for him. When no one knocked on his door, he became convinced the rooming house manager had said something negative about him and driven away his visitor. In fact, there was no evidence of this.

Moving into the woods

After receiving his doctorate degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan, Kaczynski took a job teaching mathematics at the University of California in Berkeley, a highly respected university, in order to save enough money so he could buy land and go live alone in the woods. "I would not fit into the present society in any case," he wrote at the time, "but that is not an intolerable unbearable situation." He continued:

What makes a situation intolerable is the fact that in all probability, the values that I detest [hate] will soon be achieved through science, an utterly complete and permanent victory throughout the whole world, with a total extrication [removal] of everything I value. Through super human computers and mind control there simply will be no place for a rebellious person to hide, and my kind of people will vanish forever from the earth. It's not merely the fact that I cannot fit into society that has induced [led] me to rebel as violently as I have, it is the fact that I can see society made possible by science inexorably [impossible to avoid] imposing on me.

Kaczynski taught at Berkeley from September 1967 until June 1969, and then quit. It was the end of his academic career. He spent the next two years looking for land in Canada, Alaska, and finally Montana. There, he bought 1.5 acres about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) outside the small town of Lincoln, Montana. With a little help from his brother David, Kaczynski built a one-room cabin measuring about 10 feet by 12 feet (about 2 meters by 3 meters). The cabin had no electricity, no telephone, and no indoor plumbing. He got drinking water from a nearby creek. It was to be his home for the next sixteen years.

In Montana, Kaczynski lived a dual life. To his neighbors, he was a hermit, a person who lives alone, away from civilization. He owned a car for a while, and later a pickup truck, but usually he used a bicycle or walked into town, and took a bus whenever he traveled. He received money from his parents and occasionally took a short-term job; he needed about $400 a year to live. He grew a vegetable garden, gathered plants from the nearby woods, and hunted game for food. He used the town's library, where he was friendly with the librarian and sometimes did chores. Residents of Lincoln got to know him and accepted his desire to live alone in the woods.

Emergence of the Unabomber

But there was another side to the hermit: a terrorist who planted bombs or sent them through the mail. The attacks were irregular; sometimes years would pass between

one bomb and the next. Over time, the bombs became more complicated and deadlier.

The first attack came on May 25, 1978, when a package was found in a parking lot at the University of Chicago. The package was addressed to a professor in Troy, New York, and the return address indicated it was from Professor Buckley Crist of Northwestern University in the nearby suburb of Evanston, Illinois. It was odd that a package from a professor at North western addressed to someone at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute should have landed in a parking lot at a third school. Nev ertheless, the package was sent to Crist, who became suspicious and called the campus police. A campus patrolman, Terry Marker, started to open the parcel, which exploded, injuring Marker's left hand. Other bombs followed:

  • May 1979: John Harris, a student at Northwestern, was injured when he opened a package left in a common room at Northwestern.
  • November 1979: A bomb being carried as air mail exploded in the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Smoke from the bomb forced the plane to make an emergency landing at Dallas, Texas. The bomb was in a wooden box, leading a U.S. Postal Service inspector to conclude that wooden boxes were the "signature" of the bomber.
  • June 1980: Percy Wood, the president of United Airlines, was injured by a bomb hidden in a hollowed-out book. Following this attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named its investigation "Unabomb"—standing for UNiversities and Airline BOMBings.
  • October 1981: A bomb was found at the University of Utah, similar to other attacks. This bomb was disarmed without hurting anyone.
  • May 1982 : A bomb was delivered to the office of Professor Patrick C. Fischer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His secretary, Janet Smith, was injured while opening the parcel.
  • July 1982: Professor Diogenes Angelakos at the University of California at Berkeley noticed a strange device in the faculty lounge used by engineering and computer professors. When he moved it, it exploded, seriously injuring Angelakos.
  • May 1985: Three years after the previous attack, also at Berkeley, a graduate student and Air Force pilot named John Hauser noticed a three-ring binder lying in a computer lab. When he opened the binder, it exploded, seriously injuring him.
  • June 1985: A Boeing Aircraft office in Auburn, Washington, received a bomb, but it was disarmed without anyone being injured.
  • November 1985: A professor at Kaczynski's old school, the University of Michigan, received a bomb disguised as a book. One of the professor's assistants was seriously injured in the explosion, and the professor's hearing was damaged.
  • December 1985: The Unabomber claimed his first fatality when Hugh Scrutton, owner of the RenTech Computer Company in Sacramento, California, went to move a block of wood with nails sticking out of it, which was lying in his parking lot. When he picked up the block, it exploded. A nail pierced Scrutton's heart, killing him.
  • February 20, 1987: A secretary at a computer company in Salt Lake City, Utah, noticed a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and aviator-style sunglasses putting something on the ground. A short while later, an executive with the company kicked aside a block of wood with nails in it, similar to the device found in Oakland. The block exploded, seriously injuring Gary Wright. But for the first time, investigators had a lead: the secretary's description of the man. Perhaps because he had been spotted, or perhaps for some other reason, the Unabomber stopped his campaign for the next six years.
  • June 1993: Two bombs were mailed within a day or two of each other. One was delivered to Charles Epstein, a geneticist (a scientist who studies genetics) in San Francisco, California, who was severely injured when he opened it. The other went to David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, who was also seriously injured.
  • December 1994: The Unabomber addressed a bomb to Thomas Mosser, an advertising executive in North Caldwell, New Jersey, whose name had been connected in a newspaper story to a major oil spill in Alaska. The powerful bomb exploded with full force, killing Mosser instantly.
  • April 1995: A bomb addressed to an official at the California Forestry Association—a group that represents companies in the business of cutting trees for lumber—killed Gilbert Murray instantly when it was opened. The bomb had actually been sent to the man Murray had recently replaced at the association.

The Unabomber and Mental Illness

Dr. Sally Johnson, the psychiatrist who examined Theodore Kaczynski in January 1998, concluded that he suffered from "paranoid schizophrenia" and "paranoid personality disorder, with avoidant and antisocial features." He was mentally ill, but not "insane" from a legal viewpoint.

What is "insane from a legal viewpoint"?

The law says that a person who does not know the difference between right and wrong cannot be held responsible for his or her actions. Dr. Johnson concluded that the Unabomber knew that what he was doing was wrong but went ahead with his bombing campaign anyway. Kaczynski suffered from a mental illness, but he was still able to stand trial for his crimes.

What is paranoid schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia (pronounced skitsuh-FREE-nee-uh) is a severe disturbance of the brain's functioning that can sometimes be treated with drugs. Some experts have compared schizophrenia to a broken telephone system, in which calls are routed to the wrong number. Normally, the brain receives information from the eyes and ears (incoming phone calls) and responds with appropriate emotions and actions (replies to the incoming calls). In the case of someone suffering from schizophrenia, the reactions do not match the incoming data. There are different ways this can affect patients, which is why schizophrenia is divided into a number of different types.

Paranoid schizophrenia, which Kaczynski was diagnosed with, means the patient imagines people's words and actions are intended to be harmful. People with this mental illness may believe that people, including complete strangers, are plotting against them or controlling their thoughts in some way (though a secret radio broadcast, for example).

People suffering from schizophrenia often experience depression, a feeling that everything is hopeless. Depression can lead people to decide that they are unlovable or that they have ruined a relationship. It can also cause people to withdraw from contact with others.

Schizophrenia most often begins between the ages of fifteen and thirty. It may develop gradually or suddenly. Patients often experience a crisis episode, which can completely disable them for a short period of time, but behave normally at other times. Some sufferers have only an occasional episode; others may develop chronic schizophrenia, in which the altered thought processes are constant.

Although doctors cannot cure schizophrenia, drugs can help some symptoms. Occasionally symptoms go away on their own. After age forty the symptoms often become less frequent and less severe, making life easier for people suffering from schizophrenia.

What is a personality disorder?

Personality describes the general way a person acts and reacts, especially in social situations. Some people seem to be generally happy, or serious, or friendly. Those are traits of their personality. A personality disorder describes a set of traits that make it more difficult for a person to succeed or be happy in everyday life. A personality disorder is not just an occasional bad mood or outburst. It refers to fairly constant behavior that goes outside the range of what most people experience and that causes problems in a person's daily life and relationships with other people.

Personality disorders can range from mild to severe, and their impact on a person's life can be just inconvenient or very serious. There are several types of personality disorders, each with different characteristics. A paranoid personality disorder, such as Kaczynski is said to have, describes someone who is very distrustful of others and suspicious of their motives. People with this disorder tend to avoid close relationships and constantly search for hidden meanings in what others say or do. They tend to carry grudges for a long time.

An avoidant personality disorder refers to someone who worries about what will happen in social situations and tries to avoid them. An antisocial personality disorder refers to people who do not have a conscience about their actions. People with this disorder are aggressive and more concerned with their needs than with the needs of others.

These characteristics that Dr. Johnson found in Kaczynski are not unique to terrorists. They can be seen in many people. On the other hand, the Unabomber case raises a question about the degree to which psychological problems contribute to terrorism, as opposed to political principles or religious ideals.

Beginning of the end for the Unabomber

But well before the last two bombs, investigators had a strong clue provided by the Unabomber himself. At the same time he mailed the bombs to Epstein and Gelernter, the Unabomber sent a letter to the New York Times newspaper claiming that the bombs came from an anarchist group (one that

wanted to do away with government) named the Freedom Club (or FC, initials that had been etched on most of the bombs sent by the Unabomber). The letter threatened to continue even bigger bombing attacks, unless the New York Times agreed to publish the group's manifesto, its statement of principles and ideas. Similar letters were sent to the San Francisco Examiner and Penthouse magazine. The Unabomber promised to stop his campaign if his views were published.

After talking to the FBI, on September 19, 1995, the New York Times and the Washington Post decided to share the cost of publishing the manifesto. It appeared as an eight-page special insert in the Post. The long essay declared that the Industrial Revolution (the period of technological change that began in England in the second half of the eighteenth century) and development of computer technology had been a disaster for mankind. About his bombing, Kaczynski wrote in his manifesto: "In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we had to kill people." The "Unabomber Manifesto" was an extension of the theories that Kaczynski had begun developing to explain his mental illness at the University of Michigan. Many people thought the long essay was rambling and repetitive, but it did provide one critical clue.

The FBI had supported printing the manifesto in hopes that someone who read it would recognize the Unabomber's writing style. One reader noticed a particular phrase: "you can't eat your cake and have it too." Usually this expression is stated the other way around: "You can't have your cake and eat it too." David Kaczynski remembered that his mother had said it just the way the Unabomber wrote it, and he called the FBI.

After weeks of investigation and detailed planning, on April 3, 1996, the Unabomber task force surrounded Kaczynski's little cabin in Montana and arrested him. Inside the cabin were diaries and a written autobiography that confirmed they had found the Unabomber.

Trial and sentence

Kaczynski was formally charged with sending the bombs that killed three people. If found guilty, Kaczynski could have been sentenced to death. His trial was scheduled to begin in November 1997. The months leading up to the trial were filled with legal motions by Kaczynski's lawyers challenging the government's right to use evidence collected in Montana. His lawyers knew that the evidence was fatal to Kaczynski's case. These efforts were only partially successful.

Kaczynski's trial began on November 12, 1997, and was almost immediately thrown into chaos by the conflict between Kaczynski and his lawyers. His attorneys insisted on using an insanity defense (telling the court that Kaczynski was not responsible for his actions because he is insane), but Kaczynski refused to submit to psychological testing. His lawyers told him that pleading insanity was his best chance of avoiding a death sentence; Kaczynski did not want to be described as a madman. He asked U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell to assign him a new lawyer, which the judge refused. Then Kaczynski asked to serve as his own lawyer. The judge agreed to consider this request, but only if Kaczynski agreed to a psychiatric examination to prove that he was able to represent himself. Kaczynski agreed.

Kaczynski was examined by Dr. Sally Johnson, a psychiatrist who worked with the federal prison system. She interviewed Kaczynski at length, examined his diaries and other writings, and interviewed his family and other people who had known him. Her lengthy report provided a detailed picture of the Unabomber's life. She concluded that Kaczynski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and several other personality disorders (see box on pages 166–67), but nevertheless decided that he was competent to stand trial.

On January 22, 1998, Kaczynski suddenly pleaded guilty to all the charges against him. He had made a deal with the prosecution: he pleaded guilty in exchange for being sentenced to life in prison instead of being executed. Formal sentencing took place on May 4, 1998. Kaczynski was ordered to serve four consecutive life sentences (meaning one after the other) in a highly secure prison in Colorado, with no chance of being paroled, or released early from his sentence.

For More Information


Douglas, John, and Mark Olshaker. Unabomber: On the Trail of America's Most-Wanted Serial Killer. New York: Pocket Books, 1996.

Graysmith, Robert. Unabomber: A Desire to Kill. New York: Berkley Books, 1998.

Mello, Michael. The United States of America versus Theodore Kaczynski: Ethics, Power, and the Invention of the Unabomber. New York: Context Books, 1999.

Waits, Chris. Unabomber: The Secret Life of Ted Kaczynski. Helena, MT: Helena Independent Record: Montana Magazine, 1999.


Chase, Alston. "Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber." Atlantic Monthly, June 2000, p. 41.

Finnegan, William. "Defending the Unabomber." New Yorker, March 16, 1998, p. 52.

Scarf, Maggie. "The Mind of the Unabomber: Narcissism and its Discontents." New Republic, June 10, 1996, p. 20.