Harvard and the Unabomber

Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist
Original title: A Mind for Murder
© 2003 Alston Chase
352 pages


Ted Kaczynski was hunted fruitlessly by the FBI for eighteen years, until finally being done in by his own need to spread his message.  However exceptional his mind, however, Alston Chase argues here that Kaczynski’s philosophy was one espoused by many of his generation —  that it was one fomented by the educational culture that Kaczynski’s cohort were immersed in at Harvard.  Subtitled The Education of an American Terrorist,  Chase’s work is an outstanding and thorough review of not only Kacynski’s life but of the intellectual and cultural currents that exacerbated his alienation — as well of the brutal psychological experiments, funded by the CIA, that no doubt galvanized him into violent reprisal against ‘the system’.

Chase opens with the FBI’s investigation of the UNABOMB case, then shifts to Kaczynski’s background as the son of working-class intellectuals who pushed their son to excel, heedless of the consequences. The better he performed in school, the more of a social misfit he became — especially after he skipped grades and entered college two years early.   At home, he’d been pushed in opposite directions — his parents demanded academic achievement, which isolated him, and yet chided him for being estranged socially. At Harvard, his isolation did not improve;   he was placed in a residence for especially gifted minds, but he and his housemates all lived solitary lives, and were separated from campus life on the whole.

His university studies offered no hope of a meaningful life; the general studies curriculum which had been drafted to ground and strengthen students in the western tradition was instead used to subvert it.  Instead of understanding the US government as being based on natural law, for instance, students were taught that the government rested merely on power;  that only statements which could be independently verified held any meaning, making beauty and much of the human condition irrelevant.  Everything that  students had previously taken for granted — morality, religion, culture, the rule of law — was  being actively dismantled. Although the tools of science were being used to render everything else meaningless, there was little hope to be found in science itself, for the students were being steeped in Cold War dread that technology would destroy the world. The growth of ecology indicated that even if the world did not end in a bang, it would end with a whimper as  human activity disrupted every natural system which sustained it.

Kaczynski is not the only subject of Harvard and the Unabomber, however, for Chase also introduces us to the strange figure of Henry Murray,  a scientist associated with the OSS/CIA and Harvard, a man fascinated by sex and violence (especially together), who called for volunteers to participate in philosophical discussions, and then subjected them to experiments that haunted the memories of many of its subjects years later.  What Harvard allowed its students to be subjected by a professorial spook under its aegis is so embarrassing and incriminating that they sealed their records after Chase began his review of them.  The section on the CIA’s obsession with mind control — and its contributions to the drug eruption of the sixties — is fascinating and  indicates how long that particular organization has been dominated by the dark side of power. (Stephen Kinzer recently produced a history on this particular episode in CIA History: Poisoner in Chief.)

Kaczynski’s treatment in the MKULTRA program left him psychologically troubled, increasingly fixated on revenge against ‘the system’, especially the psychologists who purposed to find ways to better manipulate people within society to conform. His course was already set before he began teaching professionally;  that job he engaged in only to raise funds for buying land to escape society.   Montana did not offer him peace, however;  instead Kaczynski was steeped further in rage against airplanes,  loggers, snowmobilers, and the like, and began looking for relief in striking back.   His ‘environmentalism’, Chase suggests, was a spin tactic;  the budding propagandist against the industrial system wanted public support, and going green struck him as an approach consistent with both his criticism and the student movements of the seventies.

Harvard and the Unabomber is a fascinating cultural and intellectual history of the late fifties and early sixties, a time when social unrest was beginning to simmer.  Chase and Kaczynski lived parallel lives — attending Harvard around the same time, and then lived in rural retreats — so his insight into the culture that Kacynski was immersed in is particularly helpful.   Although understanding what Kaczynski different is the most valuable contribution made by this book, it’s also generally helpful in putting into perspective the usual narrative lies about Kaczynski — that he was a mental case early on,  for instance, and that he had isolated himself in the middle of nowhere.  Reporters on the Unabomber case talked to people who barely knew Kaczynski, not his friends; when Chase began doing his own interviews, he found that the ‘rural recluse’ lived four miles from town,  right off a main road, and was favorably remembered at the local library.

Harvard and the Unabomber is impressive work, a serious evaluation of Kaczynski, his work, and his times which  offers insight into what really destabilized an otherwise brilliant mind.




About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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6 Responses to Harvard and the Unabomber

  1. An unhappy student in one of my classes when I taught English composition blurted out loudly in the classroom when he received his graded essay: where is the Unabomber when we need him!

  2. I read a really good NetGalley ARC in a while back called Hunting the Unabomber by Lis Wiehl. I can’t remember if we talked about it, but it was a great read that you might enjoy also. I added this one to my TBR.

  3. I’ll take a look…I wonder if that one inspired the Netflix series? I watched it a few weeks back and it made me interested in the experiments he underwent — hence this book.

  4. Pingback: Return of the Primitive | Reading Freely

  5. Pingback: When Harry Became Sally | Reading Freely

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