The Ripple Effect of Someone's Violence: A Jamie Gehring Book Review

by - August 18, 2022

While Jamie Gehring was writing her memoir, Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber, she never once identified the book as part of the true crime genre.

Gehring grew up in Lincoln, Mont. next to a self-sustaining hermit that she only knew as Ted. Despite his odd behavior, Ted was the man that gave her painted rocks, stayed over for dinner and even held her as a baby. Imagine her surprise when, 17 years later, her neighbor was identified as Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

“It's such an interesting, outside perspective to have experienced something like that,” Gehring said. “For me, personally, it just really motivated and pushed me to not only really understand our interactions and our lives and how they intersected but also knowing him and wanting to really understand what created him.”

Although her book was originally laid out as a set of short stories, Gehring knew she wanted to make it much more personal. More than five years later, she had researched every aspect of Kaczynski’s life, including illness as a baby, advancements in school and isolation he chose throughout his childhood and teenage years. Much like an actor immersing themselves in a role, Gehring immersed herself in the life of Ted and his family to get a better understanding of how the man behind the monster came to be.

There were a few instances where she would take a 24-hour period of time to lock herself in a hotel room and fully immerse herself, allowing her to feel not only Kaczynski’s pain but the pain his family had to endure. Her empathy is present in the book, because as a mother and as a sibling, she can understand what it felt like to be related to someone who was lacking that same kind of empathy.

“It was a rollercoaster of emotion because I would write something particularly in that scene with [Kaczynski’s mother] Wanda and her baby and having to leave him in the hospital, and then a couple of months later I would write a scene about the additional research I had done finding out that he poisoned my dog,” Gehring said. “I'm feeling empathy and then I'm feeling this intense anger as well.”

Gehring was able to develop a strong relationship with Ted’s brother, David Kaczynski, who she first met during the production of the Netflix documentary, “Unabomber - In His Own Words”. She was transparent with him from their first email interaction, saying that she was writing about how her childhood was affected by Ted and how she’s learning to cope with that as an adult. He was transparent with her in return, offering her reference material and stories of his own as well as reading the first draft of her memoir.

“He really thanked me for trying to connect with Wanda because her voice can no longer be heard; she's passed away and for me to spend the time really trying to tell her story as well was really important and was very appreciated by David,” she said. “He was so incredibly supportive and complimentary, not only of my writing style, but also of the story I was telling. Getting his approval, somebody who's this close to the story, was a huge moment for me as a new author.”

Despite getting the approval of those closest to the story, there were still a thousand moments of thinking ‘never mind’ while writing Madman in the Woods. Not only did it take a lot of emotional energy to write about several disturbing topics, but having to learn just how close it was to the safety of her own family was hard to fully grasp. There was also the thought in the back of her mind that there would probably come a time when Ted would read the book and have something to say about it.

The most important aspect of the book is the conversation it starts. For true crime fans, this is much more than some previously unknown facts about the man that went from mathematics professor to domestic terrorist. This is about those that knew him and were also affected by his actions.

“It makes you realize the ripple effect of somebody's violence,” Gehring said. “Because of the duration of his violence, so many lives were affected. The nation was terrorized for 17 years.”

Gehring feels like the finished product of Madman in the Woods is everything she wanted it to be. It is much more than a true crime story; it has nature writing, complex themes of grief and connection, and personal essays of life outside of being Kaczynski’s neighbor.

There is one takeaway she hopes readers get, especially those who have similar stories.

“That is one thing that I really do find empowering and appreciate about the process, that I've been able to give more voice to my experience,” she said. “There's plenty of other people out there that have experienced some type of violence and it's affected their lives, and maybe that will inspire them to tell their own story, whatever that looks like.”

Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber is available here.

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