In late 2009, during the Performa festival in New York, I went to a performance called “Talk Show,” in which a series of actors reenacted a scene seven, maybe eight times in a row. The conceit was that the “text” of the scene degraded each time: at the end of each round, the talk show guest would switch seats and become the talk show host. Then a new actor would step out of the audience and play the guest. That actor had no prepared script, only knowing what to say based on his or her memory of what the previous talk show guest had said. Since each new actor would have been out of the room for the other previous scenes, he or she would not know how the previous scenes had transpired, would not know how distorted the story had become by their turn.
The story being told by the talk show guest was a peculiar one: how I realized my estranged brother had become a mad recluse who was killing people by sending them bombs in the mail, and how I turned him in to the police.
It was a brilliant and exhilarating take off on the game of telephone, with one important twist: the first actor performing the role of the guest wasn’t a guest at all. Unbeknownst to the actors who followed him, he was Ted Kaczynski’s real brother, David.
The performance (there’s video here), organized by the artist Omer Fast, was in part a characteristic portrait on the mass media, and how all mediation distorts “the truth.” (For what it’s worth, I was distracted for some of the performance not only by the back of Laurie Anderson’s head — she was sitting in front of me — but by the incessant click of a camera, being used for promotional images by the festival organizers.)
By not mentioning the Unabomber or Kaczynski by name in the piece, Fast pointed at the mythos surrounding the man, a mythos already well established in the media, thanks in no small part to his infamous manifesto, parts of which were reprinted in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Not that the lengthy diatribe had many readers. Even if it did, complained Kaczynski, “most of these readers would soon have forgotten what they had read as their minds were flooded by the mass of material to which the media expose them. In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”
Today, the U.S. Marshals office is selling some of his possessions through an online auction. “We will use the technology that Kaczynski railed against in his various manifestos to sell artifacts of his life,” said U.S. Marshal Albert Nájera of the Eastern District of California in a press release. “The proceeds will go to his victims and, in a very small way, offset some of the hardships they have suffered.”
This isn’t just weird in and of itself, the selling of the trappings of a serial killer at auction, iconic possessions that immediately present a kind of caricature of the lone madman (knife, check; hatchets, check; grey hoodie, check). The selling of these artifacts is an attempt to compensate the victims, but it’s also the sort of pseudo event the Unabomber would appreciate and ridicule. The effects being auctioned and trotted out for the media present a bizarre kind of restitution. They’re artifacts in an ongoing online Unabomber exhibit, one that will perpetuate the myth long after the man himself, now in a supermax prison in Colorado, passes away.
When his cabin was once part of a real-life exhibit in the Newseum in Washington, DC, a showcase of the FBI’s relationship with the media called “G-Men and Journalists,”, Kaczynski himself wrote a letter to the Washington Post in protest, pointing out the pain that media attention can cause the victims’ families. “This has obvious relevance to the victims’ objection to publicity connected with the Unabom case,” he wrote. However ironic the use of technology here may seem to the Marshals — and however much money the auction may raise for the victims’ families — the real irony of the auction validates the Unabomber’s cause. For a terrorist bent on spreading his haunting message through a media he despised, it’s another kind of strange victory.
UPDATE: On June 2, Ted Kaczynski’s journals sold for $40,000, grossing the highest of any of his auctioned items. The typewriter, which he used to write the manifesto, went for $22,000; the famous hoodie and sunglasses, for $20,025.
Below is a video by the Newseum about the Unabomber’s cabin: