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The last word: Growing up with the Unabomber
Ted Kaczynski was an admired older brother before he became a notorious terrorist. In a new book, David Kaczynski describes his complex bond with the man he would later turn in to the FBI.
 

Ted Kaczynski was an admired older brother before he became a notorious terrorist. In a new book, David Kaczynski describes his complex bond with the man he would later turn in to the FBI.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware that my brother was special—a tricky word that can mean either above or below average or completely off the scale. Ted, seven and a half years older, was special because he was so intelligent.

In the Kaczynski family, being intelligent carried high value. But at the time of Sputnik and the space race, intelligence—especially technical and scientific intelligence—had a certain panache as well. Ted was a “brain” to school-age children in our working-class neighborhood, where the word conferred status as well as a predictable, vague stigma.

As a child beginning to gauge social perceptions, I sensed that adults contrasted me with my brother. I heard them describe me as charming, happy, and affectionate—as if those were unusual traits to discover in a child. But heck, anyone could be the way I was, since it required no effort. Not everyone, in my mind, could be like my big brother—smart, independent, and principled.

Ted also could be kind. When I was about 3 years old, our family moved from a dingy duplex in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood to a house in Evergreen Park, a new, working-class suburb on the city’s southwest side. It was our first house. When summer came, I used to delight in pushing open the screen door and going out to play in our spacious backyard. I was discovering a new world and having a ball. The only frustration came when I tried to re-enter the house, because I was too short to reach the door handle. I would often stand on the back patio—a tiny exile—calling for someone, Mom, Dad, or Ted, to let me in.

One day I saw Ted fiddling with something at the back door. He was about 10 or 11 years old at the time but an ingenious person already. He had taken a spool of thread from Mom’s sewing kit and a hammer and a nail from Dad’s tool kit in the basement. I watched as he removed the last remnant of thread from the spool, leaving only the bare spool. Then he inserted the nail through the hole in the center of the spool and hammered it onto the wooden screen door. When he was finished, he said, “Dave, see if this works!” Only then did I understand: He had crafted a makeshift door handle for me.

A few tender memories like this (and there were more than a few) soothe the stings that inevitably come in a sibling relationship. Growing up, I never doubted my brother’s fundamental loyalty and love.

But that is not to say that I always felt worthy in his presence. Sometimes I suspected Ted was judging me, even when he said nothing. Once when he caught me in a fib, he said, “You liar!” and stalked off in contempt. I worried that I had disappointed him terribly, perhaps beyond hope of redemption.

Although I placed Ted on a pedestal throughout my childhood—wanting to emulate his intellectual accomplishments, bragging to my fourth-grade buddies when he went to Harvard on a scholarship at 16—there was also a part of me that sensed early on that he was not completely okay. I was probably 7 or 8 when I first approached Mom with the question, “What’s wrong with Teddy?”

“What do you mean, David? There’s nothing wrong with your brother.”
“I mean, he doesn’t have any friends. Why’s that?”

“Well, you know, David, not everyone is the same. You have lots of friends because you like people and people like you. That’s wonderful! You’re a sociable person. But Teddy likes to spend more time by himself, reading and working on things. That’s wonderful, too. He’s different from you, but everyone doesn’t have to be the same. It’s okay to be different.”

“I know but … sometimes it seems he doesn’t like people.”

Mom must have sensed that I needed more than reassurance. “Sit down, David, I want to talk to you about something that happened before you were born.”

Mom and I sat down on our living room couch, the same place where she regularly read stories to me and taught me about life through her explanations. This story was about my brother’s early life.

“When Teddy was a little baby just 9 months old—before he was able to talk or understand us—he had to go to the hospital because of a rash that covered his little body. In those days, hospitals wouldn’t let parents stay with a sick baby, and we were only allowed to visit him every other day for a couple of hours. I remember how your brother screamed in terror when I had to hand him over to the nurse, who took him away to another room. They had to stick lots of needles in Teddy, who was much too young to understand that everything being done to him was for his own good. He was terribly afraid, and he thought Dad and I had abandoned him to cruel strangers. He probably thought we didn’t love him anymore and that we would never come back to bring him home again.”

I really can’t do justice to my mother’s capacity for drama. Mom had a way of entering into the emotions of the scenes she described. By the time she finished, there were tears rolling down my cheeks.

“David, your brother doesn’t remember what happened to him, I’m sure,” Mom continued. “He was much too young. But that hospital experience hurt him deeply, and the hurt never went away completely. One thing you must always remember is never to abandon your brother, because that’s what he fears the most.”

I promised.

In many ways, the decade or so that followed my high school graduation were the years when Ted and I were closest. We spent a month one summer camping together on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We spent another summer traveling western Canada, looking for a piece of land for Ted to homestead after he abruptly quit his professor’s job at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969. In 1971, Ted followed me to Montana, where I had migrated after college. He suggested that we pool our resources to buy a parcel of land, which turned out to be the 1.4-acre plot where he built his now-iconic 10-by-12-foot cabin and where he lived a seemingly inoffensive hermit’s life for the next 25 years.

Once, invoking his vision of an ideal society, he described to me hunter-gatherer communities based on reciprocity and trust, “you know … like our family.” If someone had told me that in another five years Ted would be writing letters of bitter recrimination to our parents, I would have been surprised, to say the least. As late as the late 1970s, he invited me to join him in a quest for remote land in the Canadian wilderness where we might live together far from the bane of civilization. By then, however, it was clear to me I would be quite unhappy with my life shrunk to one relationship, with my civilization-hating brother.

Ted’s angry—well, blistering—letters to our parents started arriving in the late 1970s. The gist was that he was unhappy all his life because Mom and Dad had never truly loved him. They pushed him academically to feed their own egos. They never taught him appropriate social skills because they didn’t care about his happiness. These letters were not an invitation to talk but an indictment, filled with highly dramatized and—in my view—distorted memories. Yet Ted’s conclusion, in his own mind, was as rock solid as a mathematical proof.

At first, I thought he had simply lost his temper. After all, he was emotionally intense and spent nearly all his time alone. But when I wrote to Ted, hoping he would appreciate the pain his letter had caused our parents, I received a series of increasingly disturbed replies that convinced me that every recrimination he’d flung at Mom and Dad was based in a fixed belief system. I was surely Ted’s closest human contact, yet I’d never seen any of this coming. And now, nothing I said could shake Ted’s judgment of Mom and Dad in the slightest. At one point he warned me that if I continued defending Mom and Dad, he’d cut me out of his life as well. Once he did so, he said, it would be forever.

My marriage, in 1990, was, for Ted, the proverbial last straw. Perhaps he understood the implications of bringing another fresh, intelligent mind into the family. In any case, it was my wife, Linda, who made me confront the growing evidence that my brother was suffering from a mental disorder. “But that’s the way he thinks!” I protested at first. I remember her then pointing to a bizarre passage in a letter I’d just received. “David, read this. People who are healthy in their minds don’t think like this.”

My feelings toward Ted shifted after I read the “Unabomber’s Manifesto” in The Washington Post and began coming to grips with the horrific possibility that Ted might be the long-sought serial bomber. Again, it was Linda who pried open my mind; she had urged me to read the manifesto. I had never considered Ted capable of violence. In fact, my only fear along those lines was the haunting worry that he might someday kill himself.

Suddenly, it felt as if my brother and I were central characters in a grandiose tragedy. I began to discern a frightening symmetry in our lives that led me to the terrible dilemma that Linda and I then faced: Do nothing and run the risk that Ted might kill again, or turn him in and accept the likelihood that he would be executed for his crimes.

The alternatives looked too stark to be true, more like literature than life. Suddenly, I felt trapped inside the narrative of my life, my identity forever defined by the fate of being Ted Kaczynski’s brother. I wanted out of that role. I wanted to make my own choices in life, not have them foisted upon me. And yet to choose to do nothing was itself a choice. I chose to contact the FBI.

It has occurred to me in the years since that Ted and I are like disowned parts of each other. Ted the Unabomber represents the pessimism that I have considered, then rejected. David, the putative “moral hero,” represents, for Ted, the inauthenticity of hope in a world gone fundamentally awry. Ted’s cruelty stigmatizes my good name, but my reputation for goodness comes at his expense. Like all contrived opposites, we reinforce one another.

The worst thing he can do to me now is to deny me any opportunity for reconciliation. But hope of reconciliation is something I am bound to maintain. That hope costs me little, I’ll admit. It costs me only the sneaking intuition that an important part of me is missing.
 
From the new book Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry, edited by Andrew Blauner. The complete essay was originally published in the March issue of Playboy. ©2009 by Andrew Blauner. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

 

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