When Ted Kaczynski, a domestic terrorist known as “The Unabomber,” was arrested in his Lincoln cabin in 1996, Jamie Gehring had just turned 16 and was staying with her mother in Atascadero, California.
She and her high school boyfriend were driving his sports car when the sound of Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” was interrupted by a breaking news broadcast announcing that “The Unabomber” had been apprehended outside his Lincoln cabin.
“My heart sank and the breath left my body,” Gehring wrote of that day. “My boyfriend and I looked at each other in disbelief.”
Gehring’s shock was caused by the fact that she knew Ted Kaczynski, sometimes known in her family as Teddy, or “the hermit.” Kaczynski was her neighbor in Lincoln, Montana, where she grew up, and spent most of her summers after her parents separated. By the time he was arrested, Kaczynski had killed three people and injured 23 others.
In her new book “Madman In The Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber,” Gehring describes her efforts to tackle Kaczynski’s heinous crimes, and the way her own family’s story is intertwined, including the ways in which her father, the local sawmill owner and former Green Beret Butch Gehring helped the FBI capture Kaczynski.
The story is told through a mix of Jamie Gehring’s own memories of Kaczynski, as well as interviews with family members, local residents, archival research, and correspondence with people including FBI investigators, Kaczynski’s brother David, and Ted Kaczynski himself.
Gehring takes readers along and gives them a glimpse into her research and writing process, noting in the text of some chapters the conversations she had with sources she was allowed to review her writings and the comments they made. She also grapples with the horrors of what Kaczynski has done from her own perspective of a mother of three.
“There’s definitely more content in this book, but I really think it’s a change of perspective that sets it apart,” Gehring said by phone from Denver, where she now lives.
Kaczynski bought his package from Gehring’s family and Jamie Gehring has early memories of him, including when he gifted her a handmade cup. At one point, he also asked her to hold her when she was a baby, something that happened during a brief stint when Kaczynski was invited to eat with her family and even play cards after dinner. Later he would show up and just ask for the time and day, which started to annoy her more and more. In the book, Gehring also makes clear why she thinks Kaczynski was probably behind the death of her beloved childhood dog, as well as other local dogs, from the use of strychnine poison.
The book makes an effort to understand what could have set Kaczysnki on such a violent path, going so far as to explore a serious illness that led to him being hospitalized and separated from his family, as well as a controversial study he attended at Harvard. She writes about his clumsiness with other people, and his unease as a Harvard University student after graduating early from high school. The book also discusses his failures with women, and the contradictions between his anti-technology manifesto, his deeds and his diaries.
It took about five years to finish the book, and Gehring said she initially conceived it as a book of short stories. “It just felt like it wasn’t personal enough,” she said. “I really wanted to find out how living next to Ted changed me and our lives, and how our lives intersect with his — what that looked like and how that evolved over the years.”
She continued, saying that writing the book allowed her to write about childhood memories in a way that felt powerful to her and gave her a sense of control over what she’d been through in the decades she’d tried to understand Kaczynski and what, if any, effect her and her family had on his actions.
“When I was four and he handed me gifts, I trusted that he was a strange hermit, yet a neighbor capable of tenderness. If my soft emotions toward Ted in those early years could be explained by his change in behavior and direction, could I restore that little piece of my childhood innocence I lost when the truth about our neighbor came out?” writes Gehring. “Yes, I wanted a solution to the mystery of the seemingly quiet time in a murderer’s life, but I now also understood what sparked my personal curiosity. I wanted to reclaim and justify my own blissful innocence from early childhood. How innocent were those years?”
In a chapter titled “Couldn’t Be Ted,” Gehring goes from a deep dive into Kaczynski’s psychology to a powerful memory of her father Butch who died of cancer. The chapter then shifts to a look at how Kaczynski dealt with the death of his own father, and how Ted’s brother David Kaczynski dealt with loss.
There’s also a chapter where sympathy for Kaczynski and his ideas fades amid a parade of victim impact statements that Gehring assessed around Christmas 2019, then excerpted for the book.
One of Kaczynski’s victims was Thomas Mosser, who opened a bomb package in his home in 1994. He had a wife and four children. During his trial, Mosser’s wife Susan spoke in court about the pain Kaczynski had caused her family by killing her husband.
“It was the worst day of my life, but just the beginning of the nightmare that is the Unabomber. My children are bleeding from their souls. Sometimes it’s a pinprick. Sometimes it’s bleeding. Losing your father like this is unfathomable. And even three and a half years later, we are still processing this horror. If processed in one go, you would jump off a bridge. Every holiday hurts, every Father’s Day, every birthday, every graduation, every award. Everything everything.”
“The experience Susan shared here tore my heart and soul,” Gehring writes. I felt every trace of leniency fade for my former neighbor.”