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A Path to Peace

In the 17 years since his testimony led to the arrest of his notorious brother, David Kaczynski has worked tirelessly as an advocate for alternatives to the death penalty. Now, he and his wife are moving on to a new, more tranquil phase of their lives

by Darryl McGrath on May 8, 2013

 

Tools to heal: Kaczynski is centered in a philosophy of non-violence. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Cloth Tibetan prayer flags flutter in bands of sun-faded color from lines strung around the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist monastery on a mountaintop overlooking Woodstock. The late April warmth and the distinct impression of being removed from the world below—the monastery is five miles up a twisting, steep road from the village—create an atmosphere of lulling calm.

David Kaczynski and his wife, Linda Patrik, radiate that same calm even as they talk about a phase of their lives they have just left behind, which was anything but relaxing: Kaczynski’s dozen years of intense, almost around-the-clock work on behalf of the anti-death-penalty movement.

A few years ago, when they first contemplated retirement—she from her longtime position as a philosophy professor at Union College, and he as executive director of the group originally known as New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, which evolved in name and mission to New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty—they envisioned a complete change. They thought of looking ahead, in a marriage in which so much of their time has been spent looking back at decisions that cannot be recalled. They thought of privacy, following 18 very public years in which Kaczynski has been expected to repeatedly share his family’s deeply painful story. And they thought of time together, after Kaczynski had been on the road so much for his work.

They own a cabin in western Texas, and considered even further simplifying a life that had long ago been built on the nonmaterialistic principles of Buddhism by selling their Schenectady home and moving to Texas. They did sell the New York property, but they instead ended up on this mountaintop, in a situation that has unexpectedly given them everything they sought and so much more. They have signed on for two and a half years as administrators in residence—Kaczynski as executive director, Patrik as director of operations. It is the perfect interlude for these two practicing Buddhists, whose life together has taken more than one surprising and poignant but ultimately meaningful turn.

David Kaczynski will forever be known as “The Brother of the Unabomber.” This is the context in which he is always identified when he is a guest speaker. It is this identity that led to his becoming one of the country’s foremost opponents of the death penalty and also an innovative thinker on creative approaches to nonviolence.

Kaczynski’s older brother, Ted, is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Colorado for a series of package bombings mailed over 17 years from the 1970s to the 1990s that killed three people and injured 23, eight seriously or permanently. Kaczynski turned his brother over to federal agents after a highly publicized sequence of events in the investigation led Patrik to suggest to her husband that Ted might be responsible. Before notifying authorities, the couple underwent a painstaking discernment in which Kaczynski concluded that his brilliant but hermit-like and deeply troubled older brother might indeed be the Unabomber, as the unknown bomber had become known for his apparent targeting of universities and airlines. Both Kaczynski and Patrik decided they had to take action to prevent any more deaths. In the end, it was Kaczynski’s decision, but one that he knew would forever reverberate for the Kaczynskis’ elderly mother, Wanda, and his wife. When the case broke in 1996 with the arrest of Ted Kaczynski in a cabin in Montana, an interview with David Kaczynski was the most sought-after coup in U.S. journalism. Now, so much time has passed that anyone under 40 is not likely to immediately know who the Unabomber was, much less David Kaczynski’s role in solving one of the FBI’s most famous cases.

 

Moving forward: (l-r) Patrik and Kaczynski find peace at a mountainside monastery. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

But out of that personal agony for David Kaczynski came an unexpected calling: his pioneering work in the anti-death-penalty movement, the seeds of which were sown when the federal government briefly considered trying Ted Kaczynski in a capital case. Public outrage fueled by compassion for David Kaczynski’s unimaginable grief and courage prompted the government to instead seek a life sentence. David Kaczynski has willingly told the story of how he and his wife handled that period more times than he can count. And if someone asks, he will also say—for perhaps the 500th time—that no, he doesn’t have any direct contact with his brother and no sure knowledge of how Ted is faring in prison. Ted Kaczynski, a schizophrenic and a genius, has forbidden authorities from releasing any information to his family. The brothers’ widowed mother, Wanda, died in 2011. She hadn’t seen Ted in decades.

These days, David Kaczynski is most likely to tell the story of his brother to children far too young to have ever known who the Unabomber was, but more than old enough to understand the harsh codes and divided loyalties of street culture. For the past year, David has been working with Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney on a program known as “Limits of Loyalty” in Schenectady’s public schools. Kaczynski, Carney and other panelists who have struggled with how to discern and then act upon the morally correct path spend 10 minutes each telling their story, and then open the presentation to questions from students. Each of the panelists has either experienced or witnessed situations in which people were unwittingly drawn into a criminal investigation, through their personal connection to a suspect or their knowledge of the incident; each talks about the difficult choices that must be made in an effort to prevent further violence or loss of life.

Carney and Kaczynski presented this talk 14 times last year to Schenectady students ranging from 6th to 10th grade, and have continued this year. The students almost always understand the traditional meaning of “snitching,” Carney says—when a participant in a crime then cooperates with investigators against his or her accomplices. But the definition of snitching has expanded, Carney says, to also refer to someone who did not participate in a crime but who has information critical to the investigation—a witness, a friend, a family member—and who then assists authorities.

As many times as Carney and Kaczynski have participated in Limits of Loyalty, they remain astonished by the reactions of the students.

“It is the responses of the kids when they open up. . . . They tell some heartbreaking stories, but also some amazing stories of resilience,” Carney says.

Says Kaczynski, “It’s been my favorite piece of all the work I’ve done.”

Working in the anti-death-penalty movement is exhausting. Laura Porter, director of Campaigns and Strategy at Equal Justice USA, knows this from long experience.

Equal Justice USA, based in New York City, works with coalitions trying to abolish the death penalty. So far, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New Mexico have ended their death penalties, either by legislative action or court decisions—as with New York, where there is no political will to rewrite a law that technically is still on the books. Before Porter worked with Equal Justice, she was deputy director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty for five years during David Kaczynski’s tenure.

This is emotionally demanding work that requires the willingness to be on call nearly around the clock. Porter traveled to Maryland last week for the signing of the law that repealed the death penalty there. She devoted much of the last two years working with a coalition in Connecticut that eventually attained the repeal there. That effort failed on the first round because the collective public attention in Connecticut was riveted by a horrific murder case that was playing out in state court in 2011 and 2012. The case, known as the “Cheshire home invasion,” occurred in a small town 20 minutes north of New Haven. Two men entered a home at night, beat the husband nearly to death, raped his wife and one of his daughters, strangled the wife and then set fire to the house, killing the daughters. The husband escaped. The crime was opportunistic; neither assailant knew the family. Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012, but the law is not retroactive and the two convicts in the Cheshire home invasion are on death row.

Given the nature of the work, Porter says, “I don’t know how long I’ll last, to be honest. I think it’s just the drive that doing nothing is unacceptable.”

She credits David Kaczynski with teaching her how to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences between opponents and supporters of the death penalty, by seeking common ground that addresses creative solutions to violence.

“I learned from him that we all have a commonality in wanting to have less violence,” she says.

That quality in Kaczynski’s perspective on anti-violence work was evident even before he was hired by NYADP, says Johnathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, a nonprofit resource center for public defenders. Gradess chaired the screening committee that interviewed candidates for the position when Kacyznski applied.

“We knew we wanted him,” Gradess recalls. “What was amazing to us, and was why we knew we wanted to hire him, was he had this healing quality in terms of what he wanted to do in terms of abolition. It was very healing and very kind.”

Kaczynski says his wife instilled those values in him. She has been a practicing Buddhist for most of her adult life, and the two have known each other since they were adolescents. They have been married for 23 years; Kaczynski describes Patrik as “the ethical compass of my family.” They are not yet sure where they will go from this interlude, but envision themselves continuing to study Buddhist teachings that address healing and nonviolence. They both hope to continue working with young people and continuing the message of nonviolence. They do not expect to leave the past 18 years behind, but they also believe they can turn to the next phase of their life in peace, and with a sense of purpose.

“Buddhism takes as its starting point that suffering is inevitable, but that there is a path beyond suffering,” David Kaczynski explains. His wife adds, “And, a way to eliminate it.”