David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, talks with Yale Professor David Gelernter about his experiences and his book, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber.
DAVID GERGEN: David, June, 1993, you walk into your office at Yale one morning and your life changes forever. Tell us what happened.
DAVID GELERNTER, Author, Drawing Life: Well, letís see. We had been out of town for a few days, and mail accumulates naturally when Iím away, while Iím away. Among the stack of stuff was a book package, a very normal-looking book package. It looked like it had a Ph.D. dissertation in it, which students are always sending around to people in the field. I blew--I opened it, and it blew up in my face. There was a hiss of smoke, followed by a terrific flash. I was badly hurt. This was clear immediately. It was a big explosion. Shrapnel ripped through steel file cabinets. I tend to get to work pretty early by academic standards. It was 8, a quarter after 8, something like that. So the building was empty, and I needed to come up quickly with a strategy for not dying. And it struck me that I probably shouldnít wait for a ride. The way the campus is laid out the health building is near my office, so I was able to make my way down to ground five flights or thereabouts.
DAVID GERGEN: You staggered down.
DAVID GELERNTER: Yes. I walked down. I figured I shouldnít wait for the elevator, which is kind of unreliable in our building anyway. The--I staggered down to ground. I made it across a parking lot and up a shallow hill and across a street and into the health building and soon after wound up in an ambulance and so forth and emerged after many, many operations and many weeks later somewhat transformed.
DAVID GERGEN: The doctors felt you almost didnít make it.
DAVID GELERNTER: Yes. They told me afterwards it was good I decided to walk. I would likely have bled to death otherwise. The claim was that my measurable blood pressure was zero at the point I arrived at the clinic.
DAVID GERGEN: George Will has read your book and says that youíve emerged physically damaged but that youíve been strengthened in spirit.
DAVID GELERNTER: It was nice of him to say. And that is certainly the way Iíd like to think about it. I--any man whoís seen a blast like this up close and survived it, for one thing, thinks of himself the rest of his life as the luckiest guy on the face of the earth, as I believe I am. I also could have been hurt much worse than I was.
DAVID GERGEN: You found great solace in music, Beethoven quartets I think you said, and the poetry you learned as a child.
DAVID GELERNTER: It turns out I know a lot of poetry by heart, which is something I didnít realize until I wound up in the hospital with both hands bandaged and out of play and unable to hold a book. My wife spent many hours reading to me and other members of my family as well, but the fact that I had words to listen to in mind was tremendously valuable and the fact that they were great words, the fact that they were true words and beautiful words meant a lot clinically. Great art has enormous clinical value, and our refusal nowadays so often to teach this to our children, even to admit that there is such a thing as great art, is a current point of view in some academic circles--is a tragedy. I mean, I can tell you that this material helps. The late Beethoven quartets are probably the spiritually deepest of all human utterances--strengthened me and inspired me, as they have millions of people and as--will go on happening through centuries and millennia to come.
DAVID GERGEN: Yet, even as you were inspired by beauty and the truth of poetry, an anger seemed to build up--not just at the Unabomber, whom you didnít know, but at what was happening inside society, and it seemed--your anger seemed to start with the press.
DAVID GELERNTER: Yes. I donít know that Iím, per se, angry at the Unabomber at all. I think of him with revulsion, with contempt. I donít really have a personal sense of anger. I am angry at the press, and not the entire press. The press is not a monolithic entity. There were first rate reporters, I thought, who did excellent work on my case anyway. But there was an attitude in the press that was so striking and so astonishing that it brought me up short. And I think anybody who saw what I saw from the vantage point that I saw it would have been forced to ask what is going on in this country, how could the press behave this way, where does this come from.
DAVID GERGEN: In what way?
DAVID GELERNTER: I was approached repeatedly and relentlessly to speak as a victim. People asked me to come forward and talk about victimhood, speak up for victims, represent the victims of America, claim my fare share of victimhood. I donít know any man--no man in his right man would fail to be revolted by such an offer. No man wants to think of himself as a victim. When a person has been hurt and knocked down, he wants to stand up and get on with his life and as best he can, without denying whatís happened to him. But the idea that you would enjoy wallowing in victimhood--and this is--itís difficult to overstate how relentless this obsession is in the press. Itís not a word that comes up once or twice but something you hear again and again.
DAVID GERGEN: But with regard to the Unabomber and the attitude toward the Unabomber.
DAVID GELERNTER: And I think, even more important, it is--itís natural to be fascinated with violent crime and violent criminals, and itís not that I fault people for wanting to read about this case and hear about the man who didnít understand him. Itís natural, but so much of what was written and appeared in the press came morals free, without any moral framework. This evil, cowardly, cold-blooded murderer, squalid cutthroat, described by "People" Magazine as one of the most fascinating men of the year, described by major "News Weekly" as a "mad genius"--there is no evidence that heís mad. He may be, but thereís certainly no evidence that I know of or they know of, or they adduced. The idea that heís a genius is preposterous. To have a major newspaper print my alleged views of technology side by side with his with a respectful "hands off" neutrality, as if this were a gentlemanly debate, the press seemed to be willing to do anything to avoid hinting that this was an issue of evil and that an actual crime had been committed.
DAVID GERGEN: Youíve thought a lot about where this kind of attitude comes from in the press, and you concluded in your months of recovery that intellectuals have taken over the elite, and thatís changed the framework in which we look at things. Tell us a little bit about that.
DAVID GELERNTER: Yes. Itís kind of a sweeping hypothesis and compressed into a sentence it certainly--it requires some qualifications, nuances; however, here is the question I face. Why do we go around telling each other donít be judgmental? Itís a bizarre thing to say. Itís contrary to every moral instinct we have. My most important goal in rearing our children is that they should be judgmental; they should learn how to be judgmental, learn how to judge right from wrong and good from evil, and true from false, and beautiful from ugly. I have to ask myself, where did we get this craziness of discouraging our moral facility, and where did this come from? And we know where it came from. I mean, this approach towards morality, this liking for a plaintive sophistication that seems to transcend piddling, small potatoes distinctions like that between good and evil is a pose that intellectuals have struck for generations, not all of them, of course. I mean, the intelligentsia know more than the presses is monolithic.
But if you look at the nature of life among the intellectuals since the turn of the century, you see foreshadowed in the intelligentsia all sorts of attitudes that used to be miles away from mainstream in this country and now are mainstream: The unwillingness to judge or be judgmental, the belief in tolerance not merely as a virtue--I believe it is a virtue--but as "the" absolute virtue, trumping all over virtues, including justice and common decency; the casual contempt for traditional family, for traditional sex roles, for the military, for authority in general. These attitudes for religion, for organized religion, for traditional religion, the intelligentsia has gone about its business feeling and thinking this way for many generations. And itís only recently that theyíve become mainstream, as today I think they are, certainly where I come from.
DAVID GERGEN: David Gelernter, thank you. Youíve packed a great deal in this--in your book.
DAVID GELERNTER: Thank you.