The Unabomber and the Poet

Fortunately, I don’t suffer from fears of serial killers. They come and they go from the news without my learning their names. But years ago one did fascinate me, that rare case covered by The Nation as well as the tabloids: the Unabomber. In the mid-1990s when he rode high in the news, I was an environmental journalist intrigued by the radical view that, contrary to popular wisdom, human beings were not inherently driven to progress, were not born curious and destined to invent the Internet and other marvels of technology, but were, instead, creatures that had evolved for the vast majority of our time on Earth to be hunter gathers, until, in recent millennia, we’ve undergone drastic transitions into agriculture and now industry that have left us disoriented and disconnected from nature and ourselves. The Unabom Manifesto, which I first tried to read in tiny print in The New York Times, makes an argument along these lines, though I found it turgid, dogmatic, hostile, and pretty quickly unreadable. Yet the bad writing didn’t dim the dark charisma of the madman behind it, a character out of Dostoevsky, it seemed, or Thomas Pynchon. Whomever he was, the Unabomber was the thinking man’s serial killer.

Then Theodore Kaczynski got busted. My intellectual fascination suddenly turned personal. At the time, I was preparing to live out my fantasy of quitting city life for a Catskills log cabin. Naively, perhaps, I assumed that countless Americans shared this Thoreauvian dream. It was my good fortune as a freelance writer without a family or an office to tie me down to move into what looked like a tree fort perched on a hemlock hillside above a trout stream. But to read the accounts of Kaczynski’s arrest in Montana was to sense that in the popular media mind his cabin was proof of his madness. “It was a hermit’s nut house, a psychopath’s tool shed, a Walden gone mad,” I later wrote in an essay. In fact, his defense attorneys had the place loaded onto a flat bed and trucked to Sacramento to introduce as evidence in his insanity defense. This popular condemnation made me wonder if I suffered from my own dark side.

Yet in the summer of 1996 as I settled into my cabin—news frenzy be damned—another person lived through a much greater personal crisis. That would be David Kaczynski, the younger brother who’d read the manifesto in the papers and realized whom the killer must be. At the time he worked in an Albany youth shelter; nowadays, he’s a public advocate against the death penalty. What I didn’t know until recently was that in 1996 he began to write poetry. Our publisher for Walking Woodstock also did his collection A Dream Named You which appeared last year.

None of the poems mention the Unabom case. If not for the Kaczynski name on the cover, you’d never guess the extraordinary circumstances behind this book in which poetry arrived, once again, to serve a human soul in need of expression. “I aspire to help/pacify winds of anger,/the craving for suspect/love, to heal faces/collapsed in hard knowledge,” Kaczynski writes in “Aspiration,” one of his most explicit statements of hope. Elsewhere, the poems are more meditative, more conflicted about this tough world. Certainly, none traffic in easy sentiments. They’re clear, heartfelt, well crafted poems of the sort many of us write to find our way forward. Several first appeared in literary journals. Here’s one about a mother and a bird, a subject always close to my heart.


Envy of my friends,
I caught the little bird,
but Mother wasn’t so happy
with the prize, her face a
gray reservation as we locked it
in the screen box in our dim
basement where—at times—
I imagined holocaust fires.

Returning from play,
we remembered to take it out
(my privilege), but I wasn’t so
proud when I noticed tiny bugs
milling under the limp feathers.
“It’s sick,” Mother commented.
“Go wash your hands.”

Later that night, she wrapped
the dead bird in soft tissue and
placed it on the furnace coals.
A bird isn’t a person: somehow
it escaped Mother’s care,
my sympathy, our need to survive.
“Mom, the bird,” I reminded her.
“It didn’t suffer,” she replied.

The furnace kept the bird for weeks.
The coal ashes were gray feathers.
The iron door swung open on sacred fire,
slumbering light. Mother was keeper
of the bird’s immortality, with mine.

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