cover image HARVARD AND THE UNABOMBER: The Education of an American Terrorist

HARVARD AND THE UNABOMBER: The Education of an American Terrorist

Alston Chase, . . Norton, $26.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-393-02002-1

Chase adds an important element to our understanding of the infamous Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Part of what made Kaczynski an iconic figure after his arrest in 1996 for 16 mail bombings (resulting in three deaths) between 1978 and 1995 was his unusual background as a highly gifted, Harvard-educated mathematician. While the media found comfort in writing him off as a mental case, more remarkable was how seemingly typical Kaczynski was. Bucking the conventional wisdom, Chase (In a Dark Wood) identifies Kaczynski as a victim more of the anxious and contradictory Cold War 1950s than of the incendiary 1960s. With a background strikingly similar to Kaczynski's—including both a Harvard degree and self-imposed exile in Montana—Chase is in a unique position to probe the underlying tensions that led Kaczynski to commit dispassionate murder in the name of ideals. Chase persuasively isolates the turning point in his subject's years at Harvard, "where lasting human relations are more rare than championship football teams." In Cambridge he faced the typical Harvard pressures but, more importantly, was a subject of three years' worth of what many will agree were wildly irresponsible psychological experiments led by maverick psychology pioneer Henry A. Murray. While the conclusions Chase draws are unimpeachable, his description of the fateful experiments feels truncated, no doubt because some records remain sealed. Chase's disenchanted indictment of academia (represented here by Harvard) as lackey to the military-industrial complex is all the more compelling for the author's unruffled sense of perspective. With its unusual emphasis and sometimes surprisingly personal tone, this may become the definitive Kaczynski volume. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. Agent, Deborah Grosvenor. (Mar.)

Forecast: Chase's revelations about Murray's experiment could generate wide interest and controversy; no doubt this will be widely reviewed.