Q&A with Jamie Gehring, author of Madman in the Woods
By John ValeriApril 19, 2022
Jamie Gehring has the uniquely unsettling distinction of having grown up sharing a backyard with Ted Kaczynski in Lincoln, Montana—which she recounts in her new true crime memoir, Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber. The book is an expansion of the story she shared in Netflix’s popular mini-series, Unabomber—In His Own Words. Gehring earned a BA in visual communications and has since worked in financial advising and graphic design. She and her family make their home in Denver, Colorado.
Recently, Ms. Gehring generously recounted how the process of researching and writing her book allowed her to both contextualize her family’s true proximity to danger and reconcile her childhood memories with an adult understanding of those formative years and how they were shaped by the Madman in the Woods.
John Valeri: One of your motivations for writing this book was to (try to) reconcile your knowledge of Ted Kaczynski (“Teddy”) with the man the world came to know as the Unabomber. Why was this important to you–and do you feel like the process provided the closure you were looking for?
Jamie Gehring: I believe the process was important to me because I needed to reclaim memories that felt tarnished after the unveiling of the Unabomber. After Ted’s arrest, these interactions with the bomber felt confusing and I often questioned those “innocent” years. This process allowed me to recognize that the memories with Ted were much more layered than what appeared to me on the surface as a child. Writing this book also helped me to reinforce the idea that my later intuition about Kaczynski was correct, even though I was still just a child.
Valeri: In hindsight, you realized that your own impression(s) of Ted Kaczynski had changed throughout the years. In what ways did your adolescent view of him differ from your childhood view–and how did this awareness influence the lens through which you proceeded with your project?
Jamie Gehring: My childhood view of our neighbor was simply that he was our strange neighbor. His appearance was silly to me, his smell odd, and his choice to live alone in the woods, was definitely unique. But I wasn’t scared of him.
As I reached adolescence, I came to fear our interactions. Ted’s behavior changed over the years, his appearance worsened, and I personally was becoming more aware of the world in which I lived.
While writing about these times from childhood I really tried to place myself back into each time period and feel the emotions that our neighbor evoked, once again. I wrote from that place before dissecting the memories as an adult, with the knowledge I had amassed.
Valeri: In researching the case, you found that many of the books and materials available failed to fully satisfy your own curiosity. In a general sense, what did you find to be lacking–and how did you endeavor to rectify that with your own work?
Jamie Gehring: In a general sense, I needed to understand why Ted became the madman we all came to know. I read about his crimes, the investigation, and his thoughts on technology. But I wanted to see inside the mind of the hermit next door. I wanted to know exactly what he was doing and thinking in that ten-by-twelve cabin a quarter mile from our home. And ultimately, I needed to understand our family’s place in that.
Valeri: Speaking of your investigative process: You were able to get a range of opinions, both personal and professional in nature, on the man himself and the case at large. How did this help to inform your own understanding of Ted Kaczynski and his many complexities and contradictions–and, ultimately, your own proximity to this madness?
Jamie Gehring: This was definitely my favorite part of this project. Sitting down with Max Noel, the FBI agent that arrested Kaczynski, Ted’s brother, David, my family, and other neighbors affected by the terrorists acts of violence, gave this narrative the depth I desired.
I was able to listen to parts of this story that I wasn’t present for, from the people that actually experienced it firsthand. This offered invaluable context to the book, but also to my own personal understanding of the man and his crimes. These interviews brought forth feelings of grief for Ted’s victims, a better understanding of the “making of a murderer,” what it looked and felt like to hunt a serial killer, and finally, what incredible danger our family was in for the 25 years that Kaczynski lived next door.
Valeri: The book is also an exploration of a certain way of life–which is something you and Ted Kaczynski shared. How did growing up off the grid in Lincoln, Montana, allow you unique insight into his psyche and motivations? What aspect of that could you appreciate while still condemning his actions?
Jamie Gehring: Our family definitely lived in a rural environment, but we still enjoyed modern conveniences, unlike Ted.
That being said, the landscape of “The Last Best Place” as the locals refer to it, definitely shaped me. This way of life taught me about resilience, purpose, and character.
Sharing the same external environment with Ted, I believe helped me to better understand the internal workings of the man. I could appreciate his love for collecting mint, or “getting out of the social machine” as he would refer to his time in the wilds.
But in the next pages, I would read of him littering in the woods or professing that his violent attacks weren’t for “the greater good.”
This juxtaposition is a very common theme in my research and in the final book. I could identify with Ted’s love of the landscape and his grief at feeling like he was losing it, but I could never justify his violent behavior.
Valeri: There is often a collective sensationalization of criminals and criminal behaviors in contemporary culture. How would you hope that history remembers Ted Kaczynski, his crimes, and the numerous people they impacted?
Jamie Gehring: I would hope that history remembers Ted Kaczynski as a serial killer that referred to his victims as “experiments.” A methodical domestic terrorist that was fueled by anger and revenge.
He left children fatherless, wives to mourn husbands, and struck fear into the heart of a nation. I hope that we can collectively look at violence through this lens and remember the Unabomber as a man that destroyed lives. A man that may have suffered from mental illness and difficulties in his life, but a murderer, nonetheless. Nothing can change that, not even life in prison.