Background: In 1998, Gary Greenberg, a psychotherapist living in rural Connecticut, began a correspondence with Ted Kaczynski, the murderer known as the Unabomber. He and Kaczynski exchanged dozens of letters, with some of Kaczynski’s as long as 20 pages. In the letters, they discussed the insidious influence of technology, the preservation of wild nature, the dubious claims and conclusions of the psychiatric profession, the appetites and proclivities of the American media, Kaczynski’s life in prison, the choices made by Kaczynski’s family, and the lessons of Russian feudalism.
In a wide-ranging essay, Greenberg discusses the evolution and dissolution of his relationship with Kaczynski, along the way eviscerating the media that courted and then devoured the Unabomber, the judicial system that did everything possible to avoid another O.J. sort of trial, and the psychiatrists who muted Kaczynski’s principles by labeling them as paranoid schizophrenia.
Please note: a) This story is absolutely real; b) The excerpts being presented comprise only a portion of Mr. Greenberg’s article, which in its entirety is 23,000 words or so; c) The order of the excerpts is not necessarily the same as that in the print version.
Pimping For Kaczynski
At this point in our story, Greenberg has secured a contract with a national magazine he calls Glossy, and Kaczynski has indicated that he will give Greenberg an interview for the article. This will be the first interview Kaczynski gives.
If there was a moment when I understood what it might mean to secure my Unabomber franchise, it was when I spoke with Serena.
Serena wasn’t the first agent I’d had truck with. A young agent from a large New York agency had called me in September, having caught wind, through a mutual friend, of my bid for the Unabomber franchise. We’d gone to lunch at a swank Midtown place. He was a smart man who was interested in Kaczynski as a cultural phenomenon as well as a business opportunity. He didn’t glaze over when I talked about antimodernism and the Luddites and Thoreau, even countered with some thoughts of his own about the relationship between art and violence. Business only came up as the hovering waiter removed our empty plates. A book would be great. And, having heard the story of Kaczynski’s planned appeal, he suggested that an article for an outlet like The New York Times Magazine, about the problems of the plea bargain, would be an easy sell around the time the appeal was filed. He had only two caveats: this story had legs, but they wouldn’t run forever; and without face time, I didn’t really have anything an agent could sell.
He paid for lunch, 75 bucks or so. So far, that is the entire remuneration my Unabomber franchise has yielded. The food was delicious.
It turned out he couldn’t be my agent. His agency had a conflict. It represented a real reporter with an interest in the Unabomber story. Since it seemed that I had no need of an agent until I had secured an audience with Kaczynski, I decided to search no further. But just after I got my invitation, Glossy started to play its hand in a way that made me rethink this decision. My editor emailed me, using our shorthand for Kaczynski’s name.
As I’ve continued to think about this piece, I think I’ve hit upon a strategy that may work best for all parties involved: a straight, lengthy Q&A, bracketed by an intro and conclusion by you. I like this because it gives the reader what he/she really wants, which is to hear TK himself speak, and also because it will allow you to focus more of your attention on the conversation itself, drawing him out, letting him speak, and less on trying to come up with a narrative strategy. Of course, quite a bit depends on what TK says in the interview. But as we get closer to the event, let’s discuss this.
He may well have thought this strategy would truly serve all of us, or at least that his touch was deft. He may have thought I would be relieved not to have to trouble my pretty little head with narrative strategies, or at least that I wouldn’t detect the condescension of his email. But his meaning could not have been more clear: I was useful to Glossy only to the extent that I could get to see Ted Kaczynski on their nickel, and once I’d done that, my job was to stay out of the way.
I was in high dudgeon, not yet smart enough to realize that I had merely discovered gambling in Casablanca. Hadn’t I told them what I wanted to do? What about my long and thoughtful memoir? A Q&A indeed! They wanted me to pimp for the Unabomber! Of course, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. From the beginning, my editor had made his concerns clear. “I think we ought to start talking about the article,” he had said to me a month or so before he hit upon his strategy. “You know, get some sense of where you’re going to take this thing.”
So I gave him that day’s riff on the Unabomber, which was all the strange symmetry in his life. Kaczynski’s worst nightmare wasn’t getting caught; it was getting caught and then called a nutcase, which is exactly what happened. And then the fact that he’d predicted it, through some fairly sophisticated analysis of the psychiatric profession, became more evidence that he was crazy. He hated technology, and the prison he ended up in is the most technologically advanced prison ever built, not to mention that his cell is about the same size as his shack in the woods. There’s something vicious about all this self-fulfilling prophecy, I told the editor, vicious like Blake’s Tyger.
He was silent for a moment. But he wasn’t mulling over Blake. “You know, I’ve been thinking about this piece too. And I keep remembering Tom Snyder’s interview of Charles Manson. All I really wanted to see was Manson, you know, what was he like and all that. And this asshole with a good haircut kept getting in the way. It was like he thought he was more important than Manson. We really want to avoid that kind of a situation.”
So I guess I should have known they weren’t terribly interested in what I had to say. More to the point, and speaking of fearful symmetries, I suppose shouldn’t have expected to reap anything other than what I sowed. They hadn’t, after all, responded to my query because it was well-written.
I took out my contract. What really worried me was the part about how they had “the right to adapt, crop, enhance, change, and edit the Work.” Did this mean they could reassemble my words as they saw fit, to make sure the article gave the readers what they really wanted?
I called a lawyer, a New York lawyer. “You signed a contract?” he said, graciously leaving off his suffix: “You fucking moron.” I read him the clause in question. He told me he’d have to see the whole thing to be sure, but that they probably had more latitude than I wanted them to have. His advice was either to give Glossy what they wanted or something they couldn’t use at all, and then go on to write the article I was interested in for someone else.
That seemed like good counsel, but it also worried me. What if Glossy did such a hatchet job that they destroyed my connection with Kaczynski? What would happen to my franchise then? $10,000 was a lot of money to me, but it was chump change to anyone else. And it would be a shame if all the fruit of my labor were a Q&A with my byline squeezed into the corner of Kaczynski’s beard.
Enter Serena. She was the agent of a friend of mine. She spared me the lawyer’s tact. “Look,” she said. “If you let Glossy publish this, it’s just going to hurt you. They’re not even a top-tier magazine, and they’re trying to squeeze you out. Anyone can see that. Fuck Glossy.”
“But the contract.”
“Fuck the contract, too. You’ve got something here. So this is what you do. Put together a book proposal. Doesn’t matter who writes the thing – you can, or I can find someone else to. Then a month before the book comes out you put an excerpt in Vanity Fair. $20,000. Then when the book comes out, you’ve got a bestseller. You can’t let some second- or third-tier magazine — and they’re not even at the top of their tier – blow this for you.”
Oh, Serena! Sweet co-conspirator, blowing bestseller kisses into my ears and spanking me at the very same time. Fucking Glossy with me, a menage-a-trois. Concupiscence made me weak in the knees. I mean that literally — the part about my knees going weak. When Serena unveiled her plans for me, I swooned for a moment. This was my big chance. Serena was going to show me how it was done, New York style.
In the movie version of this story, I say to Serena, “But, darling, how do we know this is a bestseller when it isn’t even written yet? And what happens when I decide I don’t like my contract with you?” and ride off into the sunset with principle between my knees. Real life being what it is, however, I told Serena I’d have to think about all this. “Well, if you like,” she said, obviously exasperated with my dithering at such a critical time.
It wasn’t so much the prospect of dishonoring my contract with Glossy that worried me. I could probably have justified that. The more disturbing thing was the prospect of becoming the person Serena thought I should be: the kind who lets someone else write his book proposals, who types his book with one eye on his bank account and the other on The New York Times bestseller list, who writes in disregard of all the assurances he’s given his subject (and himself) about exploitation and pandering.
Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have liked to see my name on the Bestseller List. There were just things I couldn’t do to get there, or so I thought. But I’ll never know how much of a scoundrel I really am. Because not long after I decided that I really couldn’t be the kind of person Serena wanted me to be, and before I could reconsider that decision, matters were taken out of my hands.