Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family by David Kaczynski

David Kaczynski’s contemplation of his brother’s life and crimes is sensitive and skillfully composed, with broad appeal.

every last tie

David Kaczynski is a poet, a former English teacher, an impassioned opponent of the death penalty and the younger brother of Ted Kaczynski, better known to the world as the Unabomber. In Every Last Tie, he contemplates “loving memories and painful outcomes,” hoping to illuminate his brother’s and his own experiences.

Some of David’s message involves correcting misconceptions. For example, he says it was not his heroism but his wife Linda’s compassionate and principled actions that identified the Unabomber. He relates the process of recognizing Ted’s voice in the Unabomber’s manifesto: Linda’s concern, David’s denial, the careful considerations they conducted together and the final decision–betrayal of his brother or betrayal of yet more innocent lives. David often contemplates such difficult questions as how to explain Ted Kaczynski’s illness and actions, coming from a family that David portrays as caring, close and committed to education and integrity. He characterizes Ted as a loving older brother increasingly withdrawn from society, a tortured genius and, finally, a mentally ill man David no longer understands. The decision to identify his brother still prickles. “Ted’s cruelty stigmatizes my good name; but my reputation for goodness comes at his expense. Like all contrived opposites, we reinforce one another.”

Every Last Tie is beautifully written, searingly honest, in no way the sensational tell-all it might have been, but a careful exercise–sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual–in self-examination. David clearly wants to pile praise on his beloved parents, but chooses to consider their complexities, seeking truth over comfort. The result contains a certain amount of psychological analysis (especially in a thorough afterword by James L. Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist who has both studied Ted Kaczynski’s case and come to know David well), but the book is also a meditation on notions of family, “the premise that a brother shows you who you are–and who you are not.” David struggles to reconcile the brother he loved and the serial killer he turned in, but does not belabor the point, choosing instead to remember and share what he knows, and acknowledge the mystery. Knoll’s afterword makes a more pointed criticism of the United States’ “nonsystem” of mental health care.

This slim, intriguing book is the story of a family whose two sons lead different lives. David Kaczynski’s voice is quietly thoughtful, and his writing is lovely; he ranges from family anecdote to psychological puzzle to philosophical musing while retaining an even tone. Every Last Tie is both a straightforward story and a complex consideration of an extremely difficult one.

This review originally ran in the January 26, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 letters.

One Response

  1. […] struggled between four titles and settled on The Song Poet. (Runners up were The Girls in My Town, Every Last Tie, and The Narrow Door.) I skipped the categories for poetry, criticism, biography, and […]

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