Grinnell Magazine Wins National CASE Award
For the first time in its 40-year history, The Grinnell Magazine has been honored by the CASE Circle of Excellence Award program. The magazine won a silver award in the "Best Articles of the Year" category for "Campus Mystery: My Search for the Duclod Man," by freelance writer Sarah Aswell '04. Like a number of Grinnell students and alumni over the last 15 years, she received a disturbing anonymous letter from the "duclod man." Read the fascinating story of Aswell's search for the letter-writer through some of the darkest, most shadowy corners of the Internet.
As early as 1992, students at Grinnell College began receiving strange, anonymous letters in the mail. The letters contained homemade greeting cards with crudely drawn pictures -- men crawling, toilets and trash cans, twin closet doors -- and jokes that didn't make sense. Q: What would a duclod like about the land of the giants? A: Standing in two closets without touching either knob.
In one mysterious letter, the sender defined the made-up word duclod as the fusion of two words, dual and closeted, a person who hides his or her sexuality from both gay and straight people. Another letter described duclod as "bisexual, homophobic, heterophobic, confused."
The letters were sent in groups, four to seven cards reported at a time. They were postmarked from different, seemingly random parts of the country, and always sent during school breaks. Mostly, the letters targeted gay and bisexual seniors.
That's all anyone knew for 14 years.
I receive my duclod letter during spring break of my senior year. There's no return address, but it's postmarked Hartford, Conn. My address is scribbled in big, rough block letters. Inside the envelope is a piece of paper folded like a greeting card. Inside the greeting card are sheets of paper with photocopied text running crooked off the page. On one side, a strange message: "if you like shaving cats, try shaving crayons." On the facing side: "it takes two hands to handle a duclod."
I'm alone in my apartment. Reading the letter, my muscles tighten and my face heats up. I turn on the TV and all the lights.
I'm familiar with the duclod mystery -- it's Grinnell's rural legend. A few friends have received letters, and I tell myself they're probably nothing more than an elaborate, albeit malicious, joke.
The next morning I walk to the student affairs office. An administrator shakes her head and shows me the letters they have on file, from the crisp white letters of recent vintage to the aging, creased pages from the early '90s.
"These are just the ones reported," she tells me.
She fills me in on everything they know. Campus security has been investigating the case with no luck. The Grinnell police have been informed. She tries to take my letter for the file, but I hold on to it. It was sent to me; it's mine.
I call an old friend, Fred, who received a letter a few years ago (even though he's straight). He wrote an article about it for the school newspaper in February 2001. He tells me the letters were often sent from Boston and Worcester, Mass., and Memphis, Tenn. For years there has been duclod graffiti in the men's bathrooms on campus. "Duclods die twice," was scrawled on a wall in the library basement. Fred said everyone had pet theories. He had to be a student -- how else could he know who the bisexual students were? He had to be a Grinnell staff member -- he had been sending letters for more than a decade. "He" had to be a group of students, a sort of sick club, passing down the tradition as members graduated.
Fred also tells me I can find duclod jokes on the Internet -- someone named Chamo Howards posts them in random online forums and on message boards.
It takes me two years to find him.
"Chamo Howards" isn't his real name, of course. Neither is "Red Kuller," "Professor Xlhoip," or "D. Trapper." I track him through dozens of fake names and websites. Each new page reveals something darker about the man I am looking for. He is obsessed with bodily functions; his favorite drawing is a crude toilet seat with beans balanced on top.
I begin to recognize patterns -- the way he constructs sentences, his diction, the types of sites he visits, his calling cards. A picture of a jack-o'-lantern. Puns that don't quite work. Posts at 4 or 5 in the morning.
I've entered graduate school, but I haven't forgotten the letter I received before leaving Grinnell. A big break comes the day I find Red Kuller's home page.
When I click on the link, and my mail client automatically opens and tries to send a mass e-mail from my personal account. The heading reads, "The bad machine doesn't know it's a bad machine." I close the message without sending it, and a website pops up: Welcome to Desolation.
The website is full of conspiracy theories and ramblings. But in between the creepy gibberish, I find my first real insights into the person who sent my letter. He likes the Red Sox, linking him to Massachusetts. There's also a link to Camp Arrowhead, a small summer camp in Massachusetts. It's a tiny glimpse of normalcy. Did he work there?
Each discovery of a new fake word or new fake name leads to more pages, jokes, fake words, and names. I've learned to navigate the Internet's maze, the forgotten pages in ancient HTML, the boarded-up houses of the World Wide Web. I've trolled joke sites no one has visited since 1996. I've lurked in guest books no longer connected to home pages. But none of it links to a real person.
I've formed him completely in my mind. He's male, middle-aged, awkward-looking. He's single, outwardly quiet and polite. He grew up in Massachusetts and has family in Memphis. Too many letters came from these two places for it to be otherwise. He is, I decided, bisexual. He is a duclod.
I don't have any solid evidence to back up that last point, but I feel the truth in it. He sends the letters to shame, to out, to accuse, but the issues seem personal.
A duclod joke is found scrawled in a bathroom at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Fred forwards me an e-mail from a student at the University of Kansas who received a letter and had no idea what it was about. Chamo is widening his field.
I begin to collect the dozens of e-mail addresses Chamo leaves in his wake. I write to them from a fake address I've created, calling myself "Maggie Pie" or "Maggpie." "What is your real name?" "Answer me." My e-mails don't bounce back, but he never responds.
My next break comes in February. It's 3 a.m. and I'm on one of Chamo's many webpages. As with the Red Kuller site, my e-mail client opens, and Chamo attempts to e-mail people from my account. I scroll through the addresses that automatically appear, as I have a hundred times before. This time I notice one address that is always, always on the list. I nervously type the address into Google, and a single page pops up. Her name is Melanie Owings, and she lives in western Massachusetts. I have the real name of a real person.
I Google her full name, and what I find scares me. Melanie is mentioned in many of Chamo's strange forum postings. He writes hidden messages about her, matching the color of the font to the color of the background -- when I highlight the pages, the messages pop out. "My name is Melanie," he writes, and I know he's lying.
I e-mail her. "I'm looking for someone who wrote me an anonymous letter," I write vaguely. "I know this is strange, but please write back."
She writes that she doesn't know anyone connected to Grinnell College. I write back, stupidly, "Are you sure?" She doesn't answer. I wish I had asked her about Memphis, about Camp Arrowhead, about any shy, awkward middle-aged men she might know.
Suddenly I realize what I've been doing -- e-mailing strangers from an anonymous, fake address and harassing them. My big break is a dead end and a wake-up call. I'm no better than Red Kuller.
Early Spring 2006
I find him on a Friday. Chamo's newest character, "Pilldown Man," leads me to the home page of "Chillee UmGum." I highlight the page and find a secret message. It's a link that says, "This is my maker." I hold my breath and click.
His name is Richard. He likes to farm, and his real-life webpage is about organic farming. The image at the top of the home page is the jack-o'-lantern I've seen so many times. I click on the "résumé" link, and his life pops up before me.
His picture: an awkward-looking, overweight, middle-aged man with glasses. He lives in Memphis. He went to college in western Massachusetts. He grew up in Lawrence, Kan. His father had taught at the University of Kansas, where the latest duclod letter had been sent. He links to Camp Arrowhead. I look at the web address and see the term "shavescats." I remember well the strange message in my own letter.
I have my guy. And he loves gardening.
I had thought finding him would satisfy me, but almost immediately I'm thinking about what to do next. I now have his name, address, phone number, and real e-mail address. I want to out him somehow.
I call Grinnell College and talk to the administrator again. She's intrigued, but points to an obvious flaw -- I can't connect Richard to Grinnell College. He doesn't mention it on his home page, and he isn't an alumnus or a former employee.
I call him. I don't plan on saying anything; I just want to hear his voice, either in person or on his answering machine. But when the machine picks up, it's just an automated female voice.
I e-mail him. I use my alias because I'm still scared and because Chamo has taught me how to act like him. More and more I want to conceal and confuse; I want to find out about him without him finding anything out about me. I write him three times: "Are you Chamo?" "Why do you do this?"
He is silent.
I e-mail him again, taking a different tack. I write him something I think he will like. I make sure it's nonsensical, make sure it's not actually funny. I wonder if this completes my transformation into Chamo.
He writes back within the hour: "Pretty funny." I write him back two more times: "How are you connected with Grinnell?" "Why do you do this to people? Are you a duclod?" He never writes back.
Grinnell's spring break ends in a week, and I imagine letters trickling in from some strange corner of the country. If even one of the recipients feels shame for who they are, did I fail?
I take my duclod letter out of its worn envelope. I write across it, big: "This is Maggpie. Stop sending letters, Richard." I put my duclod letter in a new envelope with Richard's address on it. I mail it to him.
The letters didn't stop. A senior at Grinnell received one over Christmas break, postmarked Memphis, Tenn. It had all of the telltale signs -- an odd joke and childish, disturbing illustrations. More jokes were posted in abandoned Internet guest books.
Revisiting Richard, I felt like an alcoholic who makes any excuse for another drink. I told myself I'd stop after I found his name. Then I told myself I'd stop after I sent him back the letter. Now I wanted to talk to him.
First I found the Duclod Man's father, or rather, his obituary. He was a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas, the only other school that received a significant number of letters. The obit listed his surviving relatives. Duclod Man had a sister, Janis, in Memphis, and a brother, Allen, in Albuquerque. His mother, Mary, lived in Memphis, and his stepmother, Catherine, in Bennington, Vt. The locations matched the postmarks I had scribbled down more than a year ago off the Duclod Man's envelopes.
I called his mother. I didn't know what to say. She was elderly and didn't ask why I was calling. He lived alone, she said, and I could call him at work -- a doughnut shop. I thanked her and hung up. A doughnut shop?
I called his sister-in-law, Elaine, and his sister, Janis. This time I was able to stammer out my story. They were shocked and surprised, but perhaps not as much as I expected.
Richard was autistic, they explained, or a mixture of problems, possibly indefinable. He grew up in the 1950s, before anyone knew much about such conditions. They hadn't even heard about autism until Richard was in his 20s. He was intellectually normal, Janis said, maybe even above average, but emotionally he functioned like a 10-year-old. He was much better at written communication than conversation. He liked numbers and making up words. He was, she said simply, odd.
Elaine was a little more descriptive about his mental health: Richard spent his days watching black-and-white science fiction movies, tinkering on his computer, and possibly drinking too much. He didn't quite know how to take care of himself -- you had to tell him to bathe and change his clothes. He probably shouldn't live alone, she said, but his mother had always been in denial about his mental health. We have our own families and careers, Elaine said, and we're all used to the way he is. Most of the time we leave him alone.
I looked through letters -- borrowed from a Grinnell student affairs file -- spread out in front of me. I was searching for anything from Albuquerque, where Elaine and Richard's brother, Allen, lived. There were two postmarked in late November. Did Richard ever visit for Thanksgiving? Yes, said Elaine, a number of times.
The family helped me put together other pieces of the puzzle. Richard's connection to Grinnell, which had remained a nagging mystery, stretched back almost 100 years. His grandfather had been an organic chemistry professor there and raised his family in town. Richard's mother and aunts attended Grinnell. Over the years, his mother had taken him to summer reunions to visit friends and family, which gave him the chance to write duclod graffiti on campus and perhaps snag a campus directory.
I told the family what I knew, and they told me what they knew. First of all, they said, he's not Richard. He's Rick. I had to repeat it to myself: he's Rick. For hours on the phone, I listened to their stories and watched their Rick come to life while my Richard dissolved into the background.
This is Rick: his one true love is organic gardening, and, Elaine explained, he's extremely talented. As his small house disappears under years of unopened mail, his backyard thrives. What does he do with the excess vegetables? The same thing he does with the leftover doughnuts from his job -- he takes them to a food bank.
This is Rick: he spends much of his time rocking in an old rocking chair. The slats are broken from overuse. Rick's rocking has worn through the carpet, through the floor, and polished the concrete. The image stays with me. As I read about autism, I learned that rocking is a classic comforting behavior.
It wouldn't be appropriate or helpful for me to speak with Rick, Janis insisted. As much as I felt I needed to hear his voice and ask him questions, everything I learned told me Rick wasn't in control of his actions or his words, and his slow, stumbling speech wasn't a true representation of who he was. At the same time, I saw them protecting him.
They showed me Rick, and I tried to show them Richard, the Duclod Man. I sent them links to the webpages where he wrote as Red Kuller, Chillee Ugum, and Professor Xlhoip. All three family members said the same thing: I would have never guessed he would write these things, but I can tell it's him. All three are convinced he's harmless. His health is failing. He's obese. He has heart, cholesterol, and sleep apnea problems.
Regardless, I want the letters to stop.
Janis agreed to talk to Rick and tell him to stop what he was doing. I couldn't wait to hear what he said, but when she called back she didn't have much to report. He denied sending the letters, but his body language told her otherwise. He admitted to coining the word duclod and confirmed its meaning -- bisexual, closeted, confused. She told him to take down his websites, and he agreed.
Rick did what she asked, kind of. He posted an apology, then took it down and added some disturbing links. It's as if he can't help it.
When I read the apology, I was thrown back to the starting line emotionally. In a long letter titled "I Went Postal" (a pun and a perfect calling card for Richard), he tries to explain himself. I see the man I spent years searching for, but I also see the sadness and the complexity of living with a mental illness. He talked about his deep fear of dogs. He talked about his struggle with Christianity. He talked about a cousin who killed her mother.
The letter wove in and out of reality, between Richard and Rick.
For a moment Rick peeked out. "My father told me I was born with autism, a disease for which the prognosis is never very good, but my mother told me that when I was a few months old, my father flung me across the room like a rag doll and I landed on my head," he wrote. "I have always been one to lose it easily, and I was on the psychiatrist's couch from age 5 to 12 for this. My mother told me time after time 'get well,' 'get well,' 'stop thinking sick thoughts.'" Rick seems aware of his issues.
Then Richard appeared in the letter: "Once I signed my fate in blood over to the Tabular Turtle, a turtle with a tail at both ends and no head, I knew I was not a Christian."
This is Richard: paranoid, mischievous, scared.
I called Janis, and she confirmed some of it. Their cousin Alice smothered her mother to death during a paranoid schizophrenic episode; their own mother sometimes blamed Rick's condition on a childhood accident, sometimes on a difficult two-day labor. Elaine alluded to a family history of mental illness and social difficulties, and explained that Rick's mother is a Christian Scientist. In that faith, when you're sick it's your fault, she said, so how can you reconcile the fact that your child has a disability?
Janis also told me Rick was sent to a state hospital for two weeks when he was 13. No one can quite remember why or what happened to him there. But being sent back, Allen told me, is Rick's biggest fear.
As the years passed, all three agree, it was easier for everyone to let Rick be. On the surface he lived a quiet life. Even now, Janis worries therapy would be disruptive for him. But the more I read about autism, the more I'm convinced he'll sink deeper into his disturbed world if he continues to go untreated.
For me, everything over the last three years of my search -- and everything back to Rick growing up with autism in the 1950s -- comes down to a lack of understanding.
I can imagine Rick biking down some quiet street, 40 years ago, being teased and not understanding why he was different, and his mother still not understanding there are better options for him. "I now fail to see the value of being human," Rick wrote in his apology. "Some have told me I would never become a man. I always looked for others to feel superior to and really thought I could build myself up by putting others down, but it just doesn't work that way over the long haul."
This is Rick becoming Richard -- reading conspiracy theory webpages for years until he learned to make his own, writing hateful things in strange letters he dropped in the mail genuinely not knowing why, his mental illness left untended and undefined, his self-esteem low, and his sci-fi tapes in meticulous order.
My hatred for Richard ended when his anonymity did. Talking to his family strangely makes me hopeful. If my Duclod Man had been sane and reasonable and still filled with hate, I would feel hopeless. Rick simply doesn't have the tools to understand his dark places, but perhaps now has the opportunity to find some peace.
And this is a good place for me to leave him -- not on the Internet and not with a letter, but with his newly aware family hopefully taking some new steps with him, his rocking chair, and his garden.
Editor's Note: Names and places in this story have been changed. A longer version of this story originally appeared in The Advocate.