So what’s a nice guy like me doing with the Unabomber for a pen pal? If, as Kaczynski himself once asked me, I objected to his diagnosis, why not just write a paper for some professional journal and be done with it? Why cultivate a relationship with him? These questions should come up with any journalistic foray into another person’s life, but because Kaczynski is a killer, they require answers. One answer is that we had some common interests: we’d both lived in cabins without modern conveniences, shaken our fists at airplanes, and read Jacques Ellul. That’s what I explained in my first letter to Kaczynski. But there was something else we had in common, something I’d left unsaid: Both of us wanted to get published.
Is this too glib? Perhaps, but surely there’s no author or aspiring author who didn’t recognize Kaczynski’s wish to be heard and resonate with its desperation. No over-the-transom prayers or letters to agents or walls plastered with terse rejections. He got what hardly anyone gets, let alone someone who lives in the woods: a virtual power lunch with Katharine Graham and Arthur Sulzberger. It’s a comment on many things other than Ted Kaczynski’s character that a person goes to such great lengths to achieve such ends.
But more was at work here than a grudging respect, something more personal: he’d run some serious interference for me, clearing an opening at exactly the time I was figuring out how the game was played. Just before his trial began, and before I sent my first letter to Kaczynski, my own book proposal, submitted in the normal way, had been rejected. The book was going to be called either Is Your Bathroom Breeding Drug Users? or Oxygen Was My Gateway Drug. My plan was to report on the cultural side of the drug war, all those Just Say No posters, D.A.R.E. classrooms, and drug-free workplace initiatives deployed in the battle to convince the citizenry that it’s in their best interests to stay off drugs other than nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and Prozac. I was going to go behind enemy lines, as it were, talk about how this war machine looked to one of its targets. A major publishing house agreed to consider it.
My agent delivered the news. “They think it’s a really good idea. But the first thing someone is going to do in a bookstore is look at the cover and say, ‘Who is this guy? Why should I listen to him?’ Gary, You just don’t have a name.”
“But that’s the point,” I said. “The book is about what happens when a guy no one knows starts to poke around in big things. It’s an Everyman thing. Think,” I said, imagining how a real writer would pitch it, “Michael Moore on drugs.” I winced at the inadvertent (and unappealing) double entendre, and decided to tack.
“Well, what do I do to get a name?”
“Just get an article published in Rolling Stone or somewhere like that. The Wall Street Journal, Playboy — anywhere really. Except High Times. Don’t get published in High Times.”
The funny thing is that she was serious. I hung up. And I swear this really happened: the words came to my mouth. “You want a name?” I said to the phone. “How about Ted Kaczynski?”
Stanley Elkin, who never quite got himself a name, wrote a novel called The Franchiser about a man who gains a strange inheritance from his wealthy godfather. He is given the right to borrow money at the prime rate in perpetuity. This lucky legatee, Ben Flesh by name, uses the leverage to buy franchises: Burger Kings, Travel Inns, Texaco service stations, all the roadside’s hideous familiarity. He spends his days driving from one franchise to another, a man with nothing but names, none of which is his own and all of which he owns. It’s a Great American Novel.
Elkin recognized the peculiar genius of franchising: you don’t buy anything but a name, and then you are simultaneously made someone and freed from the burdens of actually being anyone. So when Michael Jordan, announcing his retirement, referred to himself as “Michael Jordan,” or when Bob Dole, running for President, referred to himself as “Bob Dole,” it wasn’t some kind of identity problem or rhetorical affectation; it was the exercise of the franchisee’s greatest privilege: to trumpet a name that means so much to so many.
So I was going to try to get a name like Elkin’s franchiser did: by going out into the marketplace and procuring one, which in this case meant convincing the owner to sell it.