Harvard and the Unabomber: Review

I just finished reading Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, which I had begun and read about a third of when it came out and then set aside.

Ted Kaczynski was that odd math-major guy. He had an upbringing in which he couldn’t come up to his parents’ standards, was teased badly at school and left out, and was miserable a lot. He went to college, where he was a loner and withdrawn. Then he went to grad school and did really well, but wasn’t very happy. Then he became a professor of math, and then he moved to nowheresville, and then he started killing people with bombs. Wait, where’d that come in? There are enough tightly-wrapped smart kids, lonely outsiders in college, and crazy mathematicians around who don’t turn into terrorists.

Chase’s thesis is that Ted was driven into a state of permanent homicidal rage by psychological experiments done at Harvard by Charles Henry Murray. Ted was coaxed into joining a lengthy psychological study as a subject, and it apparently was no fun. For example, participants (who were chosen for their intelligence and sensitivity) were asked to write out a thorough explanation and defense of their philosophy of life, and then called in to a meeting in which a trained and prepared speaker demolished their ideas and attacked them as viciously as possible while they sat in a chair with EEG and blood pressure monitors on them and cameras pointed at them. Other participants in this program are bitter to this day about these experiences.

Murray was clearly a class A weirdo who had a lot of trouble separating his work from his personal life, and who enjoyed power over others way too much. He was also an ex OSS spook with a background in interrogations. Chase makes a lot of the CIA connection, and certainly Murray’s friends were dosing hapless victims with LSD and doing other grimy things at this time, and he was part of an academic alliance with intelligence agencies.

Chase was also an undergrad at Harvard around this time, and he spends about 100 pages attacking the school. The elitism, coldness, and anomie of the environment are described in detail. He also dissects the academic dogma of the time, which was despairing in the extreme: existential, tragic, and rigidly structuralist. The Universe was described essentially as a huge machine for grinding up the Soul.

After Harvard, Ted did go around telling people he wanted to move to a remote place and kill a lot of people. He was also full of rage against “The System”, but who wasn’t? But he didn’t participate in any of the Berkeley radicalism even when he was a young professor there in the late sixties. In fact, he left for Nowheresville in 1969.

Chase overstates his case all over the place, as monomaniacs do. Harvard and Murray are demonized to an unbelievable degree, as if poor Ted was a tabula rasa until he stepped inside the gates of Hell and met the Tempter himself. It’s pretty clear that Murray’s “research” was deeply fucked-up, though. It can’t have been good for a hypersensitive and socially withdrawn guy with critical parent issues to be screamed at and belittled over and over again with a bright light shining in his face. And it’s significant that this was done in the context of a psychological institute with government ties, part of a big university.

What Ted did later on was make war on industrial society. He wasn’t insane by any good definition; he was a terrorist. His stated aim was to bring down the entire structure of computer technology, big government control, the military, and big businesses. He also wanted to kill a Communist but I guess he couldn’t find one. He wasn’t an environmentalist or a hippie. He was, if anything, a revolutionary anarchist. Chase points out that a lot of his behavior and language seems drawn from a few books, one of which is Joseph Conrad’s meditation on anarchist violence The Secret Agent, which is also one of my favorites. Oddly Ted didn’t get the message about the pointless, tragic nature of this kind of violence. It reminds me of Tim McVeigh getting inspired by watching Robert DeNiro’s heroic A/C repairman blow up government buildings in Brazil, only a bit worse. Ted was highly intelligent and sophisticated about literature.

I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in terrorism, psychology, or this case in particular. A chunk of salt is recommended, since Chase is pretty clearly rehashing his own problems with Harvard and the America of 1962; there’s far too much generalization about generations and Big Ideas of the Time. I’d also not pay more than a few bucks for it, since it was expanded from a magazine article by dumping in a lot of filler, including an unnecessary forty page history of Western thought.

12 thoughts on “Harvard and the Unabomber: Review

  1. That was an awesome review.
    It would be interesting to see if later on down the line more people who came out of Murray’s experiments also had long term homicidal tendencies or just those who were already on their way to being social outcasts.
    I have known 2 kids I grew up with who were on their way to Teddy’s state of mind (pre-Murray.) One of them dropped out of Caltech because he was miserable, the other one ended up sodomizing a 14 year old kid in Barstow and is a registered sex-offender.
    But the similarities I can see behind Ted and my friend the sodomizer is that they used the negative energy that was pent up for years by terrorizing innocents in a cowardly manner. I mean terrorism in itself is cowardly, and if anything it’s a real tragedy that Ted was well educated.

  2. intarnet stalking
    I get pointed your way every now and then by , and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. I’ll probably continue checking your journal out. I figure it can’t hurt to let you know and give you a thumbs up.

  3. Yeah, except, it does suck there. And the kids there are just kids, only, conscious that everyone else hates them, and that the administration hates them, and that it’s impossible to vocalize a desire for change without having it snidely asided that the true genesis of the complaint is that one can’t hack it.
    A girl killed her roommate in my dorm, and then she killed herself, and the rest of America chuckled with glee at the freaks.
    When it comes to Harvard, every conceivable vantage is tainted with distortion and pettiness. Being there is lame, but it seems, sometimes, there’s no way to talk about it, no-one to talk about it to. No wonder the writing about it by its students tends toward the crabbed and weird.

    1. I definitely believe that Harvard has its own character and its own problems. It has an odd place in American culture. I wouldn’t mind going there for a good grad school but the undergrad program at a place like that gives me the willies.

      1. Long story short, you gotta make your own fun!
        I wouldn’t mind going there for a good grad school but the undergrad program at a place like that gives me the willies.
        I used to say that about some places, but then I actually went to grad school at one of those places, and hurrrrrrrr.
        That moved me to <a href=
        “http://use.perl.org/~TorgoX/journal/25454”
        >a more complex repentence, so now I think “The actual professors and students at a place like that give me the willies, but I wouldn’t mind using the library there.”
        Schooling and deep misanthropy are a difficult combination.

    2. Crabbed and weird
      «<a href=
      “http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/051010crat_atlarge”
      >What is this “Harvard” of which you Americans speak so reverently?»
      (via )

      1. Re: Crabbed and weird
        Thanks for this.
        As a kind of pointless aside – when I was there, there were a large number of people admitted from Southern California. Most of whom I watched try hastily to cover over the traces and concoct a new personal history, faking somehow, anyhow, that they were really from New York.

      2. Re: Crabbed and weird
        That’s such a weird phenomenon. worked with a woman who had studied in New York for one semester and affected a broad and very fake Brooklyn accent as a result. It was somewhere between annoying and diagnosably insane.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.