Amid Shared Pain, Signs of Healing


Every time he looks at his three mangled fingers, every time his damaged hearing forces him to say, “Please speak up,” Charles Epstein must think again of the man who forever changed his life.

“There is no perfect system of justice,” said Epstein--famed as a geneticist, more famous as a bombing victim--as he reflected on a “coward” named Theodore Kaczynski.

“But you have to distinguish between what’s justice and what, somehow, repairs the injury. The injury can never be repaired,” he said. “To my point of view, justice is done.”


Wife at his side and family behind him, Epstein broke his silence for the first time Friday, to tell the world what it was like to survive Bomb No. 13 in the Unabomber’s 18-year reign of terror.

He spoke of luck and love, courage and cowardice--just 24 hours after Kaczynski pleaded guilty to 13 counts of mayhem and murder.

“Pure luck,” he said, saved him from being killed by the bomb that landed in his Tiburon mailbox on a late June day nearly five years ago. Had he held the small Manila package--plain on the outside, lethal within--just a few degrees to the left, Epstein said, it would have torn a hole through his chest instead of his arm.

The love of his family helped him heal. Courage? Well, that belongs to David and Wanda Kaczynski, the confessed Unabomber’s brother and mother, to whom “the whole world” owes a debt of gratitude.

“David Kaczynski and his mother have done perhaps the most difficult thing anyone could do--to literally turn in your brother and son knowing there was a high probability that he would be executed,” said Epstein, 60, in an emotional hourlong news conference.

“Were it not for them, we might all--and I really mean all--still be living in terror of opening the next package that showed up in the mail, of getting on an airplane, or of picking up a seemingly innocent piece of lumber,” he said.


And cowardice? That one’s easy. So what if Kaczynski is mentally ill. He is also “the personification of evil . . . and he is a coward,” Epstein said.

“His crimes were carried out surreptitiously and by stealth from a safe distance, and, when the chips were down, the man who sought to take the life of so many innocent people to make some kind of a statement about his view of society struck a plea bargain to save his own life,” Epstein said.

The UC San Francisco geneticist is comfortable with the plea agreement and the way prosecutors consulted the victims about the fate of Kaczynski, who killed three and injured 29. Epstein said a federal prison cell is the best place for the “coldblooded killer.”

What he still cannot seem to let go of, more than four years after his peace was shattered, is the damage that Kaczynski did to the very word “victim.”

“Somehow in all of the rhetoric surrounding the trial, the true situation of the victims seems to have been lost sight of,” Epstein said in bitterness and wonderment, after a reverent listing of those who died at Kaczynski’s hand: Hugh Scrutton, Gilbert Murray, Thomas Mosser.

“Rather, in what to me is the most remarkable perversion of logic, Kaczynski emerged as the victim--the victim of attorneys who wouldn’t represent him as he wished . . . the victim of his own mental state,” Epstein continued.


“In all this, the concept of what it really is to be a victim--to be blown up by a bomb sent to kill you and anyone else who might happen to be in the neighborhood--was, if not forgotten, certainly ignored.”

Had Kaczynski not pleaded guilty and halted his troubled trial, Epstein would probably have told this tale anyway Friday--in a different city, to a different audience.

Instead of facing a thicket of cameras in a conference room at the university where he plies his trade, Epstein and daughter Joanna, 22, would likely have testified in Sacramento about an envelope the size of a videocassette.

Joanna, one of Epstein’s four children, said she tries hard not to think about the day that she picked up the mail from the family’s mailbox and deposited it on the kitchen table.

“The moment, in fact, was not very special,” said Joanna, a Brown University senior. “You open the mail like any other day. It looked like a boring package. I put it on the kitchen table. I didn’t think then that when I came home that day my street would be roped off and the FBI would be waiting.”

The blast sent Epstein to the hospital for five weeks, and regaining the use of his hand took more than three years. The part of his right arm where a chunk of flesh was blown away has been repaired.


He can no longer hear high frequencies because of nerve damage from Kaczynski’s bomb. He, his wife and children still eye the daily mail warily.

But he is back to work at the university, where one of his research projects explores whether the genetic anomalies associated with Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease could be linked. Actually, he said Friday, he came back to work too soon.

“You think [that] because you feel well and you can walk around that you’re in great shape,” he said. “But I wasn’t in great shape. It took a long time to recover.”

On the other hand, the last four years have been filled with travel, research and the love of family members. They supported him on this day also, as he relived the horror and the healing.

The rush to live these blessed days to their fullest, Epstein said, is “I think, perhaps, the reaction to having gone through a life-threatening event. You want to be able to take full advantage of the life you have and the time you have.”