This all started when somebody mailed me an anonymous letter containing strange jokes and the word duclod—“dually closeted.” I found out that the Duclod Man had been sending these odd, vaguely threatening letters for years to gay and bisexual students at Grinnell College in Iowa, where I was a student. I decided one of us should fight back.
I know his name is Richard. It took me two years of sleepless nights to track him down through hundreds of online forums and homemade Web pages. Then I sent his own anonymous letter back to him—at his home address. I hoped that would scare him into stopping.
But the letters didn’t stop. A senior at Grinnell received one over Christmas break this year. It was postmarked Memphis, Tenn., and had all of the telltale signs—an odd joke and childish yet disturbing illustrations. More jokes were posted in abandoned Internet guest books: If a duclod was an Eskimo, he’d only go east and west.
It enraged me that he was still harassing people; this sick, bored man was going out of his way to make other people’s lives worse. The sinister words he’d used in my letter haunted me: Duclods die twice. What if he went further than the letters?
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. Now I wanted to understand him.
First I found the Duclod Man’s father, or rather, I found 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. The 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 to myself over a year ago off the Duclod Man’s envelopes.
I called his mother in Memphis. I didn’t know what to say. She was elderly and a little confused. She didn’t ask why I was calling. She told me that he lived alone and I could call him at work—a doughnut shop. I balked, thanked her, and hung up. This horrible man worked in 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 shocked and surprised as I thought they’d be.
Richard was autistic, the sisters explained. Or, they added, he had a mixture of problems that might be indefinable. He grew up in the 1950s, before anyone knew much about such disorders. 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 communicating through writing than through conversation. He liked numbers and making up words. He was, she said simply, odd.
Elaine was a little more descriptive concerning her brother-in-law’s mental health: He 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 on the coffee table. 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 other pieces of the puzzle in place. Richard’s connection to Grinnell, which had remained a nagging mystery to me, 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 to snag a campus directory.
Learning about Richard was a strange process. The more information I collected, the deeper I delved into his family history. Half of what I had assumed about Richard became clearer and easier to take; the other half complicated what I already knew. Yes, he’s autistic, and that explained his behavior. But there are plenty of autistic people who don’t spend years harassing others.
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 the stories that his family told me 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 as a dishwasher—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 has worn through the carpet, through the floor, and polished the concrete with his rocking, and the image stays with me. As I read about autism, I learned that rocking is a classic, comforting behavior.
This is Rick: He doesn’t quite understand or accept change. When he was growing up, Rick’s mom had a rule that no one in the family could spend more than $2 on Christmas or birthday gifts. Four decades later Janis, Allen, and Elaine all say he still doesn’t spend more than the $2 limit.
Janis insisted that it wouldn’t be appropriate or helpful for me to speak with Rick. As much as I felt I needed to hear his voice and ask him questions, everything I learned told me that Rick wasn’t in control of his actions or his words and that his slow, stumbling speech wasn’t a true representation of who he was. At the same time, I could see them protecting him from me and the consequences of his actions.
They showed me Rick, and I tried to show them the person I had been tracking for the last three years: Richard, the Duclod Man. I sent them links to his Web pages where he wrote as Red Kuller, Chillee Ugum, and Professor Xlhoip. All three family members said the same thing: I would have never guessed that he would write these things, but I can tell it’s definitely him. All three are convinced that 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, to tell him to stop what he was doing. I couldn’t wait to hear what he told her, but when she called back she didn’t have much to report. He denied sending the letters, but she could tell he was lying from his body language. He admitted to coining the word duclod and confirmed its meaning—bisexual, closeted, confused. She told him to take down his Web sites, and he agreed.
Rick did what she asked, kind of. He posted an apology, then took it down and added some disturbing links—one to a conspiracy Web site about concentration camps. It’s as if he can’t help it.
When I read the apology I was thrown back to the starting line emotionally. Here, in this 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 reincarnation. 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.” And later, “You’ll be happy to know that I just GOT RAPED in the buttocks not far from my house by someone wearing a Nazi uniform before he told me ‘Welcome to the world of AIDS.’ ”
This is Richard: paranoid, mischievous, scared.
I called Janis about the apology. 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 characteristically went a bit deeper, alluding to a family history of mental illness and social difficulties, and also explaining 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 that with the fact that your child has a disability?
Janis also told me that Rick was sent to a state hospital for two weeks when he was 13. No one can quite remember why he was sent or knows 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. They were used to him, and on the surface he lived a quiet life. Even now, Janis worries that therapy would be a disruptive change 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 ’50s— comes down to a lack of understanding.
Now I can imagine Rick biking down some quiet street, 40 years ago, being teased and not understanding why he was different, and his mother not understanding, to this day, that 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 Web pages for years until he learned to make his own, writing hateful things in strange letters that he dropped in the mail while 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 brother, his sister and sister-in-law, his mother strangely makes me hopeful. If my Duclod Man had been sane and reasonable and still filled with hate, that would have been hopeless. Rick is simply someone who doesn’t have the tools to understand his fears or his dark places but who 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.