Drawing Life Unabomber Target Ponders Life Before, After Attack
Title: Drawing Life
Author: David Gelernter
Data: 160 pages, Free Press; $21
Rating: Three Stars
"Drawing Life" is a book written by one of the Unabomber's targets, David Gelernter. Having survived the Unabomber's attempt to blow him to smithereens, he tells the story of a man trying to live in the fog of the 20th century.
His pre-Unabomber life was not unlike that of most of us; he loved his work as a computer science professor at Yale, he loved his wife, and he loved reading to his children before they went to bed.
The title of his book, "Drawing Life," suggests a noble theme: that the good in life is possible in a culture that increasingly seeks to destroy the good—and that the good everywhere is under assault. He writes his life story with both bitterness and benevolence.
The theme occurred to him when he returned to his office at Yale for the first time after the bombing. His graduate students had meticulously organized the shattered remnants of his old office into a state of new order.
It was then Gelernter realized that "(if) you insert into this weird slot machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness tumble out."
The Unabomber sent his particular act of evil in the mail. "It was a book package with a plastic zip cord," Gelernter remembers. Opening it, his right hand was permanently damaged, his left hand broken, his eye seriously wounded, and his life changed forever.
After the accident
As a right-handed man, his signature, and the pleasure of writing without effort, were gone. Of course, he first became fully aware of his diminished autonomy in the hospital, feeling like he was "traveling all over creation flat on my back with no more control over my progress or destination than a log in a river."
As he ponders what happened to him, he wonders what's gone wrong in the world. His answer: philosophy.
It is an inescapable conclusion for an intended victim of the Unabomber. The Unabomber had murdered and maimed others, commanded The New York Times and Washington Post to print his manifesto (which they did) and managed to become a hero to some environmentalists.
Shortly after Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski was caught, a USA Today article revealed that the overwhelming response of intellectuals was not admonition but admiration for his idealism. The Unabomber was widely viewed as a misguided, idealistic intellectual gone mad. One editor wanted Gelernter to participate in a debate, using the Unabomber's manifesto, between a terrorist and his target.
As Gelernter pins the blame on university professors and those in the media, he never loses focus; his angry condemnation is woven into the intense psychological drama that, due to the mail bomb, had become his life.
Referring to his attacker as Hut Man, Gelernter wisely avoids speculation of why he was chosen as the representative of technology and capitalism that the Unabomber despises.
As a professor, Gelernter had questioned the proliferation of computers in the modern age. (Who wants to put the time and energy into reading a book when you can point, click and have fun with your brain on autopilot?) Instead, he notes that an especially good man represents to a wicked one the ultimate danger—the conscience and justice he hates and can never silence.
And regarding the Unabomber's idealism, Gelernter observes that his enemy has some sort of grudge against technology.
A victim's view
Gelernter reserves his deepest scorn for those who assume that a man who kills people must be mad rather than simply evil, which he pegs as an attempt to avoid being judgmental, a modern taboo which Gelernter sees as the evasion of rational thinking. For all the fuss about the elusive Unabomber, Gelernter points out: The bomber is merely mean and small. He had no ideas of consequence, killed at random, had no followers and reshaped nothing. And he finds repulsive the notion, thrust on him by the media, of being a victim.
"Count your blessings" is a kindergarten-level moral insight, but nowadays we teach children to nurse their grievances instead. Why? It's perverse. Gelernter's advice for a culture of victims is especially powerful coming from a man who was almost blown away by an ideological terrorist:
"Dwelling on your unluckiness is a waste of time, savoring your victimhood gets you nowhere—and if we had any sense, that's what we would teach our children. Take it for granted, we would tell them, that each and every one of you will be offered the opportunity one day to call yourself victim. When your big chance comes, turn it down."
As he challenges the philosophy of victimhood, those professors who decry making judgments about ideas, cultures and individuals, Gelernter raises serious, interesting and thought-provoking questions about the dominant ideas of the 20th century. He longs for a day in America when children are taught by educators who hire and promote based on merit, speak proper English, teach history honestly and are capable of looking us square in the face and saying the goal of art is beauty and truth without snickering. However, his questions beg for answers that he doesn't provide.
As a series of challenges, Gelernter's "Drawing Life" offers a bittersweet memoir for the next century of the melancholy of this one: a call for innocence, grace and beauty. Although he leaves the source of their goodness unaccounted for, his life—and his book—are less a warning than an attempt to honor better days in America. As he puts it: "Thank God the leaves turn and acorns plop and my boy walks beside me to get the paper in the morning, and a man doesn't have to think about bombs, crime and society full time. For I have to confess that the only society I care deeply about in the end is my family and a few friends, and I am not sure whether each man cultivating his garden is not our only shot at saving the world."
Originally published December 7, 1997 in Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)