It felt great to be part of something bigger than myself. Especially when I didn’t have a great sense of who I was. Staying busy kept me from having to ponder that question too deeply, and besides, I was doing so much all the time–surely some of it had to be good?
Perhaps that memory of my past self was why watching “Ted K” unsettled me. The film dramatizes the life of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, to whom the FBI eventually traced 16 bombs—only two of which were identified in time to prevent their explosion. Kaczynski ultimately killed 3 people and injured 23.
The documentary is largely from his first-person point of view as he lives alone in a Montana cabin built by him and his brother. Ted lives completely alone and in a sense, so does the audience. We watch Ted go through his daily rustic life, living off the grid with no electricity or running water. But we receive few details about his few relationships, instead filling in the gaps through his rare interactions with others and with what’s known about him offscreen.
We see green grass, vivid trees, and a clear, unpolluted sky. A view of a river, rushing against the rocks. The film emphasizes the world through Ted’s eyes–nature is beautiful and technology is loud, disruptive, and ugly, consuming all that it touches. At first, Ted resists the encroaching development around his cabin by axing a power line and even shooting at planes overhead. But soon, that’s not enough for him.
We witness Ted’s first attempts at bomb-making and how he perfects his technique over time. The film highlights only a few of his 16 bombings carried out between 1978 to 1995 but the impact is clear. And so is Kaczynski’s lack of remorse throughout.
Ironically, Ted first disguises his identity by signing his bombs and letters from the “Freedom Club.” He’s shown as delighting in the words and justification for his deeds, especially when he threatens to send a life-threatening bomb to an undisclosed location if a national newspaper doesn’t publish his manifesto. The newspaper does so.
There are three reminders the viewers stand to gain from this film:
Your desire to do good doesn’t outweigh your need for accountability and community.
Ted fantasizes about a relationship where he’s seen as he wants to be, instead of confronting the reality of who he actually is. His possible mental illness and neurodivergence contribute to his awkward real life interactions, but his purposeful isolation keeps him from accepting who he is and what he needs to thrive.
Forcing change is different than advocating for change.
At one point in the film, Ted attends an extreme environmentalist meeting that calls for violent action to make people take notice of them. He one ups them, instead using their handouts to find more bombing targets. Both believe they can force change instead of engaging the slow, often frustrating work of advocacy that hears from many perspectives and brings about better solutions than reactive quick fixes to large social problems.
Grounding your identity in vigilantism is harmful for you and the people around you.
Ted’s family is only shown through one-sided phone calls, where we hear him become easily frustrated with his mother and brother, even as he asks them for financial support to live alone and apart. His stalwart vigilantism takes what might be points worth hearing about how much of a role technology should play in our lives and its effect on society and transforms them into the manifestos of a domestic terrorist, who took lives instead of seeking to change them for the better.
The film’s ending is a reminder that to effect lasting change, we need accountability in community, the endurance to advocate for change, and an identity formed with close ties to others. And that your intentions and actions matter as much as your cause.