1959–1962: “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber”

Dr. Henry Murray, chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Social Relations had devised a screening test for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor of the CIA) to assess the suitability of applicants for the secret service; it tested an applicant’s ability to withstand harsh interrogation. In 1950, Murray led a Harvard team of psychologists in a series of 3-year experiments titled “Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men.” The experiments were conducted on twenty-two Harvard undergraduates; the intent was to measure how the students reacted under stress. One of the subjects in these exceedingly stressful, ethically indefensible confrontational experiments was 16-year old Theodore Kaczynski.

The future Unabomber’s code name in the experiment was “Lawful”; but the experiment was anything but lawful. In fact, it was sadistic. The intent of the experiment was to undermine the students’ sense of self-worth by subjecting them to intense aggressive verbal attack. Murray himself described the intensive interrogation the students were subjected to as ‘vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive’ attacks that assaulted the subjects’ egos and most cherished ideals and beliefs. (Alston Chase. The Atlantic, 2000)

In his follow-up book, Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist (2003), Dr. Alston Chase, an alumnus of Harvard with a Princeton doctorate in philosophy, whose college and graduate school education and early professorial career paralleled that of Ted Kaczynski with whom he corresponded in 1998, provides further details about Murray’s assaultive experiment which deliberately undermined the student’s psychological well-being. He writes that after his article in The Atlantic, the Harvard files regarding Henry Murray’s experiments were “permanently removed” from the Murray Research Center (named in his honor). However, Dr. Chase had already examined these files in preparation for his book.

The undergraduates were asked to write an autobiographical essay describing their most personal beliefs and aspirations, as well as their deepest sexual desires. They were taken individually to an interrogation room with a one-way mirror where they were strapped to a chair with electrodes attached to monitor their physiological responses. Each student was subjected to lengthy, abusive harangues by a law school student who had been given a detailed psychological battle plan by Murray. The students were deceived, ridiculed, and humiliated. In essence, students were put through a brutal “version of the third degree”, otherwise known as torture. Over the next three years, the volunteers were repeatedly humiliated, verbally assaulted and sexually debased. The entire proceeding was filmed from behind a one-way mirror, and each victim was required to relive his humiliation on film.

Chase concludes that Kaczynski and his classmates unwittingly served not only Murray’s debased research methods but also his “sadism, sexual fantasies, desire for power, anger, need to explode and cause pain.” Dr. Murray’s own interpersonal dynamics included a predilection to sadism. His long-term (40-year) sadomasochistic love affair with Christiana Morgan, his colleague and co-inventor of the Thematic Apperception Test, is documented.

Chase notes that many of the subjects in Murray’s experiments reported feelings of anger, nihilism, and alienation; and several remained haunted by the experience even 25 years later. He analyzes the Unabomber’s precepts and shows how these were an extension of his educational experience at Harvard. The mixture of brutal emasculation and ethical confusion that Dr. Kaczynski experienced at Harvard would have lifelong effects. Disillusioned with the scientific method, one lacking in ethical values and treated him as a guinea pig, coupled with his anger at his parents for pushing him into that vortex, generated a smoldering anger in Kaczynski which erupted in violence, ultimately turning him into the murderous vengeful “Unabomber.” Ted Kaczynski’s brother David concurs. In 2010, he wrote in the Times Union:

My brother was a victim before he victimized others — and in this he is hardly unique. Those who victimized him exercised cruelty with impunity. . . What was done to my brother at Harvard should never be allowed to happen again. Our best insurance against inflicting harm on others — as was done to Ted and by Ted — is to avoid objectifying human beings, and to approach others with compassion.