The FBI Thought William Vollmann Was the Unabomber

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 22 2013 2:21 PM

How the FBI's Poor Reading Skills Led It to Suspect an Acclaimed Author Was the Unabomber

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William Vollmann poses on June 2, 2012 in Lyon, central eastern France

Photo by Philippe Merle/AFP/GettyImages

William Vollmann is a widely-acclaimed American writer, best known for his National Book Award-winning novel Europe Central and for his powerful writing about violence and war. Within the FBI, however, he was once better known as the man who could be the Unabomber. Or the anthrax mailer. Or a terrorist training with the Afghan mujahideen.

Jennifer Lai Jennifer Lai

Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate.

The fact that the FBI seems to have been convinced that Vollmann was up to something is one of the big takeaways from Vollmann's new essay in the latest issue of Harper's, in which he writes at length about the portion of his secret government file compiled by the FBI and CIA that was turned over to him thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. (The power of FOIA, and the need for it, are among the other takeaways from the piece.)

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In the essay—titled "Life As a Terrorist"—Vollman details how the FBI launched their decades-long investigation into his personal life — and how, even today, his international mail often arrives opened. The Washington Post describes the piece as "spiked with sarcasm directed at what [Vollmann] sees as the agencies’ arrogance, presumptuousness and ineptitude," as well as "inflamed with moral outrage at the systemic violation of his privacy."

And that's not surprising, given that Vollmann discovered that someone originally turned him in to the authorities as a possible Unabomber suspect because of the content of his fiction. In one published excerpt of his file, the government declares:

"UNAMBOMBER's moniker FC may correlate with title of VOLLMANN's largest work, novel Fathers and Crows. That novel reportedly best exemplifies VOLLMANN's anti-progress, anti-industrialist themes/beliefs/value system and VOLLMANN, himself, has described it as his most difficult work. ... UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN, has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing."

That's pretty ludicrous—and enraging. As the Atlantic Wire notes, "That kind of literary criticism wouldn't pass muster in a late afternoon high school English class." Vollmann, meanwhile, writes: "I ought to forgive them, since the word 'reportedly' implies that they, like many readers before them, never made it through Fathers and Crows." (Of course, the same may prove true for his latest essay given Harper's digital paywall.)

For those with digital subscriptions to Harper's, you can read the full piece here. Those without will need to head to their local newsstand.

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