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Jamie Gehring grew up in a small town in Montana in the 1980s and '90s. It was remote, surrounded by nature – the kind of environment that could be considered a paradise for an outdoor-inclined kid. But there was a darker element at play too: her family was the nearest neighbors to Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber whose string of mail bomb attacks between 1978 and 1995 left three people dead and 23 hurt across the U.S.
In Gehring’s new book “Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber,” published by Diversion Books and available Tuesday, she recounts her years growing up, her disturbing run-ins with the notorious technophobe, and some discoveries about Kaczynski's case that she only recently made, like how her father was the “eyes and ears” of the investigation for the FBI. She also learned that Kaczynski had allegedly pondered killing her sister and stepmother. She had previously alleged that he had killed her dog.
Gehring lived next to the domestic terrorist for 16 years, prior to this 1996 arrest. While Kaczynski started off being close with Gehring’s family, he soon grew weary of her dad Butch Gehring and his small sawmill; Kaczynski infamously hated technology and as Gehring told Oxygen.com in an interview, any “reminder” of industry made his “blood boil.”
In her book, Gehring writes about her childhood memories of Kaczynski as she explores his own troubled past. But she also writes about how her childhood intuition was right: there was danger nearby. More than that, she learned that her father heroically helped bring down the Unabomber.
Oxygen.com: In your book, you wrote that you only discovered recently that your father was highly involved in the case, how he basically worked as an informant for the FBI and updated them on Kaczynski's activity. Your discussions with former FBI agent Max Noel showed that he was actually pivotal to the investigation. Why do you think that your dad was so quiet about how much he helped with Kaczynski's arrest when he was alive?
I think it’s a combination. He was just a pretty quiet, humble person and in addition to that, I think he took Max Noel's words very seriously during the case and the investigation, the level of security that it required. I think that generated through even after the arrest. It was incredibly surprising when Max told me that my dad had such a huge role in the investigation. When I first found out, right after Ted's arrest, I had talked to my dad about it but I always knew there was more to the story.
Years later when I was able to sit down with Max and hear just what my own father did and how videotaping the terrain and even the funny stories my dad had about a 'Plan B' to arrest Ted, it was shocking because my dad didn’t share those things with me.
Do you feel like Kaczynski wouldn’t have been arrested without your dad’s help?
Max Noel had said that without my dad's help they would have had a very difficult time taking Ted in. I don't think that they wouldn't have solved the case or arrested Ted but I do believe that my dad’s involvement in it did ensure that it was a safe capture.
How did you feel when you discovered through Kaczynski's writings that he actually considered killing your younger sister and stepmother?
When I discovered that, it was a really difficult thing to process. After Ted’s arrest, I had felt this initial relief that my little sister was out of harm’s way in her toddler years around Ted. When I found that out I was definitely enraged. I was full of anger toward Ted for even being able to think that way and it was also really heartbreaking at the same time to see that person in a different light and know that he was truly contemplating the end of life of my little sister and stepmother, but it was just too close to home.
You wrote about a lot of incidents in which you came across Kaczynski as a child, inducing bad gut feelings. Was learning about his dark intentions toward your family while researching the book validating at all?
It helped me reconcile my childhood and those moments that seemed as a kid so innocent but were layered and more than they appear on the surface. There were times when I was a little kid and I’d hear noises out my window. I knew how I felt and I knew how I felt later when I ran into him in the woods and it just helped validate those emotions for me personally. I was right. I knew something wasn’t right. I knew that there was danger but I doubted myself because I was a kid. I have now developed a much stronger trust in my gut.
Do you feel that Kaczynski hated your family because of the sawmill or something deeper?
Any reminder of industry would just make his blood boil and remind him that he just couldn't escape society so I'm sure between direct altercation between him and my father and the noise that was produced around his property [from her family’s sawmill.] It was the perfect combo to create this anger inside Ted toward our family.
In recent years when you corresponded with Kaczynski for this book, did he talk about animosity toward your family?
He did not really address anything personal except something like that it was nice to hear from people he knew from the past. I did not expect Ted to have an emotional response to my letter.
What are some of the themes of this book?
When I wrote this, my intent was to truly connect with people. I speak to grief to human connection to truly understanding that everyone has a story and not excusing violence or what they have become but still understanding where someone has come from and what created them.
Did you feel any empathy for Ted as you were researching his childhood and other tragic elements of his life?
I definitely felt some compassion, for sure, for what he went through and being separated from his mother as a baby. But understanding him and forgiving him have been completely different things. It has helped me to understand his mind a little bit but I still to this day when I think about what he did to our family and what he’s done on a national level, killing innocent people and injuring innocent people, it still conjures up anger and so understanding him has not eliminated that but it has def helped me process and compartmentalize it.
What have you learned through writing this about yourself?
I’ve always known that I’m an understanding person and that I have compassion but just after discovering that he did kill my dog, that he thought about killing my stepmother and sister, knowing that I was able to tell his story in a compassionate way [...] I learned really how much I care about the connection we have with one another and finding the kernel of good in a story that is so on the surface so incredibly tragic.
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