My letter from the Unabomber

Sixteen years ago, I wrote to convicted serial killer Theodore Kaczynski seeking an interview. It wasn’t my proudest moment as a journalist, as I’ll explain below. But my interest in talking with the Unabomber was serious and heartfelt.

At the time, I was working for The Oregonian newspaper. I had just co-authored a multi-part series on ecoterrorism, a subject I knew would be near and dear to Kaczynski. His anarchistic manifesto on industrialized society heralded a wave of firebombings by the Earth Liberation Front and its like-minded cousins.

Last Thursday, I got an email from my former editor at The Oregonian with an intriguing subject line: “You have a letter here from Ted Kaczynski.”

I couldn’t imagine why the Unabomber had reached back in time to find me. I left my job at The Oregonian in December to write more books and magazine pieces. I thought perhaps Kaczynski had read The Spy’s Son and was writing to offer his thoughts about Jim Nicholson, one of his fellow inmates at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

I drove down to the newspaper on Friday to retrieve the letter. The envelope and its contents appeared to be the real thing. I noticed that the envelope had been mailed to The Oregonian’s old address at 1320 SW Broadway, in Portland, several blocks from the paper’s new newsroom overlooking the Willamette River.

Inside the envelope was a one-page letter, handwritten but photocopied from a sheet of lined notebook paper. Yes, it was a form letter from inmate #04475-046, dated April 4, 2016. And it opened thusly:

Dear Mr. Denson,

I am writing because I am ready to speak to someone from the media regarding my brother’s recent comments and to discuss how they are being used to torment me. I am granting one interview to one person. In order to determine who will get the interview, I am asking you to write me back affirming that you understand that I am not mentally ill, as my brother, Dave, would have you believe.

Kaczynski then writes that he has reached out to “a select few people” who wrote to him in the past and outlines how they should respond to gain his trust.

Before I explain how I replied to my letter from the Unabomber, let me set the stage.

Back in the late 1990s, Kaczynski had received a slew of pitch letters from journalists like me, all of us seeking an exclusive interview. Representatives of Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Larry King and others also wrote seeking the big get. America’s most notorious Luddite later turned over those letters to the University of Michigan library, and TheSmokingGun.com published them online.

My letter to Kaczynski started off fine, but closed with a pathetic recounting of “longing” to talk with him after having sat behind him at his arraignment in a federal courthouse in Helena, Montana. Yeah . . . ugh. I remember that I was trying to convey that my first-blush impression of this meek, frightened hermit was that he could not possibly have perpetrated the UNABOM killings (aaaand wrong I was), but I never got there. Instead, the letter closes with what a few of my scolding critics called a “mash note.” Yes, I waxed poetically about Thoreau and Walden interrupted. Yes, it was stupid. And yes, I really wanted that interview.

One of the few pundits to get in the proper spirit of things was Howard Kurtz, at The Washington Post, whose piece Dearest Unabomber opened with this line: “How many ways can esteemed journalists suck up to a serial killer?”

Kurtz examined a few embarrassing lines from my competitors, then rightly noted that my pitch letter went negative on the opposition:

"I suspect by now that every blow-dried TV phony in America has written to beg you for an interview. I won't beg. You will find my pitch to you very specific. I have no ulterior motives. I don't want to write a book, don't want to make a movie. I only want to talk with you for about two hours about the environment, the natural world, wild nature . . . deep ecology . . . the radical environmental movement . . . the urban anarchist movement."

Pundits took potshots at journalists like me caught sucking up to a serial killer. But how would they open a letter to Kaczynski? I don’t think “Dear Scumbag Serial Killer” gets the job done. Perhaps the opinion people have magic ways of talking notorious figures into an interview, but I suspect the bulk of them have never deigned to converse with a killer. 

Some of these pundits suggested it was unseemly to run through such hoops to interview a serial killer.

Yeah, whatever.

On Saturday, I crafted a very specific letter to Kaczynski. I pointed out that I was not in the habit of auditioning for interviews.

“Ted,” I wrote, “if any journalist in America writes back to you saying he or she can tell (from this side of the bars) that you are not mentally ill, he or she is a liar.”

The Oregonian is interested in hearing Kaczynski out. I am too. I hope he replies.

Stay tuned.