Jamie Gehring’s new book, The Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber (Diversion Books, 2022),combines classic elements of memoir and true crime in the latest take on the Unabomber and his crimes.
The text focuses primarily on Jamie Gehring’s personal experiences with Ted Kaczynski, more prominently known as the Unabomber. Gehring grew up as Kaczynski’s nearest neighbour and has many memories of him on the periphery of her life as a child. Some of these memories are endearing, and some incredibly dark. More than a general account of his crimes, the book consists of Gehring’s specific memories and interactions with Kaczynski, the social climate of the area in which they lived, and her family members’ specific relationships with him. Further, as an adult, Gehring attempts to reconcile her childhood experiences, beliefs, and biases with her own feelings of loss and grief as her family life drastically changes. She wonders if Kaczynski was more complex than she initially believed, and how her own experiences might inform her knowledge of the person she knew as a child.
There are aspects of this book that are deeply interesting; excerpts from various interviews, letters, and writings on the Unabomber case are quoted throughout, and the tension between Gehring’s timeline of events and the timeline of the Unabomber crimes makes for chilling comparison. Gehring paints a picture of the area where she and Kaczynski lived, and it is certainly a vivid one. Through the various character sketches of the people who lived/are still living nearby, one got a clear sense of the people and the interconnectedness of the area, which was a fascinating aspect of the text. The book ends with an exchange that stood out as the best part for me, and it brought to life the people involved in this case in a very immediate way.
Overall, this book falls victim to one thing out of its control: we are too saturated by content about the Unabomber. Content authored by Kaczynski himself and by others. This book reads as a text that sets Kaczynski’s crimes against the backdrop of one woman’s experience, and while that has become more and more common for true crime, it was not necessarily compelling in this context. Gehring’s experiences with Kaczynski are certainly harrowing, and there were moments where I was really drawn in, but overall, I was not riveted by this book. The memoir aspects seemed to attempt to draw connections with Kaczynski’s life or experiences, but the pacing moved backward and forward in time in a way that confused me as a reader when I hoped for a carefully woven tale.
The Madman in the Woods makes for good, insightful reading, but might be more suited to those interested in memoir over true crime. In a world saturated with Unabomber material, this book had a hard time standing out for me.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.