The Unabomber

The Genius Mathematician 


One example of mad behavior with no evidence of genetic predisposition for madness or neurological impairments is Theodore John Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who had an IQ of 170 and was a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1971, at the age of 29, he resigned from the university, moved to a remote cabin with no electricity or running water and began living a hermetic lifestyle. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski sent 16 letter bombs to various locations, including to universities and airlines, killing three and injuring 23. Kaczynski sent a letter to the New York Times on April 24, 1995, and promised to desist from the bombings he claimed were necessary to attract attention to the erosion of the human freedom cause by modern technologies. The Unabomber was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and although he could have pleaded insanity, and thus avoid the death penalty, he vigorously resisted this option. He unsuccessfully tried to fire his court-appointed lawyers who did not adhere to his seemingly irrational request (Graysmith, 1996).

    Amador and Paul-Odoard (2000), based on evidence that schizophrenics typically deny their illness, as well as studies indicating that poor insight is linked to frontal lobe dysfunction, arrived at the conclusion that the Unabomber must have suffered from brain damage. Not only is there no direct evidence to support this claim, the authors also overlooked factors mentioned by other researchers as possible causes for the Unabomber's behavior. These include: 1) Severe lack of social competence caused by inadequate socialization; 2) Inability to communicate with females, which according to his confession caused an "Acute sexual starvation;" and 3) A deep sense of inferiority and severe levels of depression (e.g., Leeper,  CarwilIn conclusionIn conclusionIn conclusionIn conclusione, & Huber, 2002; Magid, 2009; Zuk & Zuk, 2000). Furthermore, denial is not limited to schizophrenia, but is also seen in neurotic disorders, such as anorexia nervosa (e.g., (Bruch, 1978; Gottheil, Backup, & Corneilson, 1969; Vandereycken, 2006a), and certain forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (e.g., compulsive cleaners, see Foa, 1979; Kozak & Foa, 1994; Rachman & Hodgson, 1980). Moreover, this phenomenon can be explained by rational processes without assuming neurological impairments (Rofé, 2000, 2010, 2016, 2017).  

    An additional fundamental problem that is unexplainable by medical models concerns the variability In conclusionIn conclusionof the symptoms. Even if they would be able to demonstrate neurological impairments, they still would have been required to explain which specific impairment could cause the Unabomber's delusion regarding the corruption of the industrial society and his criminal inanity. It seems unlikely that such complicated behaviors could have been caused by neurological impairments, which led Magid (2009) to claim that Kaczynski's transformation into the Unabomber resulted from "conscious choices" rather than from a brain disorder. "Kaczynski extensively planned, prepared, and pondered before engaging in specific attacks, suggesting heightened culpability. His crime was the product of careful deliberation, not uncontrollable impulse or delusion" (p. 20). However, while it is not easy to dismiss evidence suggesting that Kaczynski's criminal behaviors was fully intentional, it is equally difficult to accept Magid's claim that these actions were normal criminal behavior. Conscious deliberate behavior also characterizes other bizarre criminal incidences, such as Charles Cullen, a hospital nurse who confessed to murdering as many as 40 patients over 16 years by injecting them with overdoses of insulin (Yorker, Kizer, Lampe, Forrest et al., 2006). Yet, these behaviors seem senseless which requires different explanations than common criminal acts.

    It appears that PBT provides the most adequate explanation of the Unabomber's case. First, unlike medical models, which lack objective criteria to classify this case as a mental illness, PBT's five diagnostic criteria enable us to diagnose it as psychosis. The Unabomber's  delusion and his criminal behaviors intensively preoccupied his attention and severely disrupted his daily functioning (criterion 1); The onset of his radical behavioral change was in the absence of a specific observable event that is uniquely associated with and can accounts for this effect (criterion 2); Not only  was the patient unaware of the underlying cause of his behavior but he was also unaware that his behavior was abnormal (criterion 3); His delusion and criminal behaviors are extremely rare (criterion 4); His behavior was stigmatized as crazy or reflection of illness by psychiatric diagnostic system (criterion 5).

     Second, this case also confirms PBT's second hypothesis that mad behaviors develop in response to stress. Clinical observations indicate that the Unabomber was extremely lonely, which was mainly the result of poor social skills. Dr. Sally C. Johnson, who diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, cited "an almost total absence of interpersonal relationships". Although he gained impressive academic success, he was, in fact, a miserable person. Due to his notable deficit in social skills, he could not maintain a functioning relationship with members of the opposite sex or satisfy his intense sexual desires, leaving him in a constant state of frustration. While genetic factors may be involved in affecting personality tendencies (e.g., Horwitz, Luong, & Charles, 2008; Kandler, 2013; Lukaszewski & Roney, 2013), it seems that the major variable behind the development of the Unabomber's handicapped personality was his social environment. His mother fixated on the advancement of his intellectual abilities while neglecting to promote development of his social skills. The Unabomber and his brother were not seen outside playing with other children, as their mother kept them inside and encouraged them to study (Leeper et al., 2002). "His parents focused on developing his intellectual and academic abilities at the expense of normal childhood… By the age eight or nine, it was apparent that Kaczynski was not socially accepted by other children of his age. Moreover, his family relocated several times, only compounding the problem" (Magid, 2009, p. 7). Often, schools compensate for parents' mistakes in this respect as they provide a social environment where the individuals can develop adequate social skills. However, the Unabomber missed these social opportunities because his school allowed him to skip the sixth and eleventh grade without taking into consideration the severe negative impact this would have on his social development. Thus, he was deprived of the opportunity to acquire adequate social skills at school and instead learned with much older students who had no interest in him, especially when he was enrolled at Harvard University at the young age of 16. He experienced a deep sense of inferiority and severe levels of depression (e.g., Leeper, Carwile, & Huber, 2002; Magid, 2009; Zuk & Zuk, 2000).

     Hence, in terms of social competence, he was a "complete failure," and as revealed by various research (e.g., Uhrlass, Schofield, & Cole, 2009; Williams & Galliher, 2006; Zaitsoff, Fehon, & Grilo, 2009), and case studies (e.g., Derossett, 2013; Rodger, 2014), this factor can severely damage one's self-esteem, lead to depression, and often precede the onset of psychosis and suicide. The Unabomber's grandiose delusion that he could change industrial society and modern civilization provided him with imaginary control over the society he felt had rejected him (see Magid, 2009, p. 8). Simultaneously, it boosted his self-esteem and reduced his likelihood of committing suicide. Zuk and Zuk (2000) noted that the Unabomber felt he had a messianic mission to share with the world.


                     It seems reasonable that he assumed the message was one that was legitimate, somewhat messianic, one that would have the support and endorsement of a deity. If it was necessary to threaten the destruction of individuals in pursuit of his messianic mission, he probably felt he had an entitlement. If in the course of effort to inform the world he would be captured and perhaps put to death for murder, he was prepared because his demise would promote a presumed wish to become a martyr (p. 334).


   Third, in accordance with PBT, the Unabomber's schizophrenic symptoms served two major psychological functions. His continuous engagement in building homemade bombs and planning his next "mission" without being caught, served as powerful repressive tool. These bizarre behaviors were also intuitively chosen because they enhanced his controllability over the stress of a deep sense of incompetence by boosting his self-esteem. Hence, in terms of cost-benefit, the Unabomber's schizophrenic symptoms were beneficial as they reduced his unbearable levels of depression. The Unabomber also enjoyed celebrity status and thrived on the attention he received in media, typically seen with serial killers (Haggerty, 2009).

     His refusal to confess that he suffered from mental illness, despite the risk of receiving death penalty, can reflect the high benefit which the symptoms yielded. It appears that the Unabomber's denial of his "illness" is due to the high emotional cost that he would have to pay if he confessed that he was mentally sick, as proposed by his lawyers. This would mean not only the abandonment of his coping mechanism and re-exposure to the original unbearable stress, but also an additional blow to his self-esteem, which might have motivated him to commit suicide. Thus, contrary to Amador and Paul-Odoard's (2000) interpretation of the Unabomber's denial, according to PB this was quite rational decision.

      The effect of the principle of availability is reflected by his unique personal experience. One experience was his familiarity with the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, particularly his book, The Technological Society, which the Unabomber read six times. Ellul's ideas captivated him, and he became convinced that continued scientific and technical progress would inevitably result in the extinction of the individual's liberty and threaten people's well-being. The second experience, which apparently was affected by Ellul's attitude toward modernity, was his decision to move to a secluded place and become self-sufficient, thereby distancing himself from the modern society that rejected him. He soon realized he could not live that way because industrial development had destroyed the wild land around him. However, "the ultimate catalyst which drove him to begin his campaign of bombings was when he went out for a walk to one of his favorite wild spots, only to find that it had been destroyed and replaced with a road". As noted by the Unabomber:


      The best place, to me, was the largest remnant of this plateau that dates from the tertiary age. It's kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply into cliff-like drop-offs and there was even a waterfall there. It was about a two days hike from my cabin. That was the best spot until the summer of 1983. That summer there were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace. I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it... You just can't imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge (see Kaczynski, 1999).  


     Another significant experience that might have contributed to his specific choice was witnessing numerous riots and protests, such as the People's Park Riot of May 1969, an extremely violent event at which police officers shot students (Carley, 2013).