Part I:

Please forgive my intrusion into your life.

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The first time I got a letter from the Unabomber, I had my wife open it.

I was at work, the letter had come to my house, and neither of us wanted to wait to see what Ted Kaczynski, whose outgoing mail was by then inspected by the United States Bureau of Prisons, had to say. Sealed in a #10 envelope, the letter was addressed in the careful block capitals that the post office says will guarantee maximum efficiency. He even put his return address, in the same frank print, in just the right spot. No fool, Kaczynski knows that the mails will only work for you if you work with them.

The first letter, which arrived in mid-June of last year, had not come unbidden. Six months earlier, just after he’d pleaded guilty to the Unabom crimes, I’d written Kaczynski a letter. Although I had paid close attention to his case for nearly three years, from his emergence as a composite sketch demanding space for his manuscript in a national publication to his arrest, incarceration, and abortive trial, my letter wasn’t fan mail. Instead, it was a pitch. Here’s how it began:

January 24, 1998

Dear Mr. Kaczynski:
Please forgive my intrusion into your life. I am not sure if this letter will gain a sympathetic reading, or any reading for that matter. But after thinking long and hard about writing it, I’m taking the chance.

I would like you to consider allowing me to write a biography of you. I am sure you have had many requests from other people to do this, and for all I know you are already working with someone. Or, for that matter, you may be opposed in principle to the very idea. In the event, however, that neither of these are the case, I hope you’ll read on and think about my request.

When he read on, Kaczynski found out that I thought I was suited for the job for many reasons. I explained that I was a psychologist with a research interest in the misuses of psychiatry, of which I believed his recent diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic (and his ensuing mass-media portrayal as a lunatic) was a perfect case. I told him that I was well acquainted with the tradition of antimodern, antitechnology protest, and that I believed his life story fit squarely within that tradition. And I ended by saying that all of this coupled with the fact that I had lived off the grid in a cabin in the woods for a number if years meant that I could give him as sympathetic a treatment as he was likely to get. I invited him to write me back if he was interested, and then I waited.

My prospective subject was sufficiently intrigued to ask, through his lawyer, for more information about me. So, during the spring, I wrote Kaczynski a short autobiography. I told him about my therapy practice and my teaching, even a little about my personal life, and I sent him some of my academic writings — two articles and a book. I heard nothing directly, and in mid-May, 1998, after he’d been sent to the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, I sent him a gentle reminder of my existence. His first letter came in response.

Kaczynski couldn’t know that he had written this letter on my 41st birthday, but despite myself, I allowed the coincidence to take on some meaning. Midlife had left me wondering about my professional craft, hard-pressed to fulfill therapy’s promised miracle — not the offer of quick cures for psychic suffering, but the extension of a hope as American as Plymouth Rock: that with honest hard work, some weeping here and some soul-searching there, anyone can pursue and find happiness. The miracle embedded in this promise is that it keeps alive the possibility of a good life amid the execrable social order that Ted Kaczynski wanted to destroy.

The first letter itself wasn’t much: a four-page, single-spaced document, handwritten with pencil. There were no signs of erasures or corrections. The prose didn’t so much flow as march steadily from the beginning of an idea to its end, with nary a false logical step in the parade. Above all else, the letter conveyed a calm rationality, a sharp intellect, and a distinct courtliness. Kaczynski had detected my impatience to hear from him and explained, without complaint or self-pity, the restrictions under which he labored, the difficulty in getting money for stamps, the necessity of submitting letters to prison officials, the fact that he did not get my book because, according to some inscrutable prison regulations, he was not allowed hardcover editions. He informed me, out of fairness he said, that he was probably going to write an autobiography, but he allowed that a book by someone else would still be a worthwhile addition to the knowledge about him. He seemed accustomed to thinking of himself as a historic figure.

And then he asked me a question, based on the articles I had sent him: Did I really believe, he wondered, that there was no such thing as objective truth? After all, he said, a nuclear bomb’s effects are predictable and deadly regardless of the culture in whose midst it explodes. He wanted to know how my relativism, which he’d detected in my critique of psychiatric practice, could encompass this fact.

I wanted to know why he chose that particular example.

Even more, I wanted to know how the person who had fashioned this note, with its politeness and sensitivity, its levelheaded clarity, its measured expression of frustration — how this person had spent 17 years of his life perfecting a technique for building bombs and delivering them to people he didn’t know.

But most of all, I was taken with the queer quiddity of it, the fact that I was holding in my hands a letter from the Unabomber. I don’t have much sense of the allure of the artifact. I’ve stood in Monticello’s preserved rooms, passed in front of the Liberty Bell, trod the ground at Gettysburg, paid due respect to the cause or the person or the event without hearing history speak or feeling the moment. But holding this letter, I glimpsed the engine that drives the history buff, the collector of autographs, the high bidder at auctions of John F. Kennedy’s clothing. I wasn’t finding my place in the flow of history, in the great unfolding of human events. None of that matters anymore anyway. All that’s left is spectacle, and I had something spectacular in my hands: a letter from a man whose name everyone knew. Ted Kaczynski had written me a letter — by hand, no less. He wanted to know what I thought about heady philosophical matters. I felt hooked up, plugged in, reached out and touched. I went out and rented a safe deposit box.