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When Your Family Member Does The Unthinkable

Wanda Kaczynski and her son David Kaczynski (right background) are escorted to their car by defense lawyers after Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski pleaded guilty Jan. 22, 1998, in Sacramento, Calif.
John G. Mabanglo
AFP/Getty Images
Wanda Kaczynski and her son David Kaczynski (right background) are escorted to their car by defense lawyers after Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski pleaded guilty Jan. 22, 1998, in Sacramento, Calif.

At 5:45 a.m. on Friday, July 20, Arlene Holmes woke to the sound of the telephone. On the line was a man from ABC News. There had been a shooting in Aurora, Colo., the man explained. Her 24-year-old son, James, was the suspect. Did she have a comment?

In the wake of a tragedy like the Colorado shooting, the families of victims must navigate a complicated emotional landscape. But so, too, must the families of those charged with the crimes, as they suddenly face all kinds of deeply disturbing questions.

"Is there something wrong with us that this could emerge from us? That someone capable of murder could emerge from our family?"

That, says David Kaczynski, was the question that hung over his family after his brother, Ted, was arrested as the Unabomber.

David had actually played a role in his brother's arrest. In 1996, he went to the FBI with his suspicion that his brother and the Unabomber might be the same man.

For months he and his wife, Linda, worked with them in secret; no other family member knew. And then came the moment that David Kaczynski dreaded, the moment he had to introduce to his mother the incredible idea that her oldest son could be a killer.

Kaczynski remembers driving to his mother's apartment in Schenectady, N.Y., and knocking on the apartment door. He remembers the way the look of happiness on her face slowly gave way to a look of concern, and then, several minutes into his rambling, elliptical explanation, a look of horror.

When he had finally finished, Kaczynski says, his mother got up from her chair, put her arms around his neck and lightly kissed him on the cheek. Then, he says, she told him three things: That she knew this must be hard for him. That she knew he was a good man who loved his brother. That she knew David was wrong. She knew her oldest son, Ted, knew how fragile he was, and she knew Ted wasn't capable of murder. When the FBI really looks into all this, she explained to Kaczynski, they would see the same thing.

"They're going to investigate this, and they're going to find out that Ted is completely innocent," Kaczynski remembers her saying. "This is all going to go away like a bad dream."

But it didn't.

'Beyond Words'

About a week after Kaczynski's mother sweetly kissed his cheek and explained that he was wrong, he and his mother found themselves sitting in a house surrounded by television camers, watching Ted's arrest on the news.

"My wife, Linda, my mother, Wanda, and I are in our house," Kaczynski says. "Paradoxically, we're kind of the focus of the world's attention, but you couldn't have felt more isolated than we felt at that moment."

To protect themselves from the media, the family had disconnected the phone and covered the windows with blankets. They were totally alone, had no idea if they would lose their jobs, if their friends would abandon them, if they would have to move and change their identities. Their most basic sense of themselves as a good and decent family had been shaken.

And so inside the house, Kaczynski says, instead of conversation there was mostly silence. "To some extent, what had happened was beyond words," he says.

This undated family photo shows brothers David (left) and Ted Kaczynski (center) in a sandbox with neighbors.
/ AP
This undated family photo shows brothers David (left) and Ted Kaczynski (center) in a sandbox with neighbors.

For the eight days that his family was essentially under this media siege, and for many years after, Kaczynski says his family was plagued by a question — the same question that many of us find ourselves asking every time a mass murder occurs. Is it possible for such a terrible act to emerge from a normal family? Or does evil come from evil? That's the issue quietly being raised every time a family like this opens their mouths. Are you responsible, in some way, for unspeakable horror?

'We ... The Parents Of A Mass Murderer'

In 1982, Larry Robison brutally killed five people. The crime was incredibly ugly. One victim was an 11-year-old boy; another was maimed and decapitated.

At the time, his mother, Lois Robison, was a school teacher; so was her husband, Ken. She remembers talking to her husband the night of her son's arrest — how clear it was to him that the life they'd built toegether was now gone.

"He said, 'We will no longer be Lois and Ken Robison, the school teachers,' " Lois Robison says her husband told her. " 'We will be Lois and Ken Robison, the parents of a mass murderer.' "

But this was not a title that Lois Robison felt her family deserved. If the question these families face is — Are you responsible for evil? — from the perspective of Lois Robison, the answer was clearly no.

"If there was anything you could do to keep it from happening, we did it," she says. "We were in church every time the doors were open. We took our kids to Sunday school from the time they were born. Larry was in Scouts, the girls were in Scouts. Ken was a Scout leader."

And when, as a young man, her son Larry started having mental health problems, Robison says, she did everything she could to help him.

She had him hospitalized several times for his problems, but the institutions, she says, would never hold him longer than 30 days.

"I fought the state of Texas, I fought the county, I fought everybody to get him help," Lois Robison says.

At trial the state of Texas rejected the insanity defense, and Larry Robison was eventually put to death. But from Lois Robison's perspective, it was the mental illness, and not her son, that was responsible for those crimes. And this belief both neutralized her guilt and shaped her feelings about what it was that she should do next.

"We can crawl into a cave and pull a rock in after us," she says, "and just, you know, hibernate and stay away from the world. ... Or we can be up front and tell the truth and hope that it helps somebody in the future."

And so after her son was arrested, Robison started advocating for mental health issues. She went all over the country talking about access to care. "If I hadn't done that," she says, "I would have laid down and died."

For Most Families, A Silent Struggle

David Kaczynski made a similar choice. He didn't turn away; he stepped forward. His professional life is now defined by what happened with his brother. And while he says he's heartbroken about the pain his brother Ted caused, like Robison, he views the murderer in his family as mentally ill — schizophrenic — not evil.

A former social worker, Kaczynski speaks frequently about mental health issues and is executive director of a group that fights against the death penalty.

But most families who've found themselves in a similar position don't seem to settle the question that way. For whatever reason they turn in, not out, to struggle with the issue of whether they bear any responsibility for the crimes of their kin.

Kaczynski understands this struggle in a unique way; over the years he's made a habit of reaching out to other families in similar circumstances. Last year, after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, he contacted the lawyer for the family of Jared Lee Loughner. He says he also contacted the Cho family after their son, Seung-Hui, went on a rampage at Virginia Tech.

"I left a phone message for the sister, I think, some years ago," he says. "And Linda and I have talked about writing to the Holmes family as well, so we'll probably send them a letter, just to let them know that if they need someone to talk to, we're open to that."

Just days after the shooting, a lawyer for the Holmes family stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and, after reminding everyone that James Holmes had not yet been convicted of a crime, asked that the media respect the family's privacy.

Sixteen years ago, a lawyer for the Kaczynski family stood in front of a bank of microphones and essentially said the same thing. A little while later, David Kaczynski emerged from his house for the first time. The media was finally gone.

But the problem of guilt? Of what to think of yourself? Of what to do? It was only beginning.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: August 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier Web version of this story, as well as the audio, included an incorrect age for one of Larry Robison's victims. The boy was 11, not 6.
Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

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