So, our copy of The Advocate came in the mail on Saturday, and part 2 of “The Duclod Man” really fascinated me.
My recap of the articles:
The story is about a bizarre mystery that had remained unsolved until now — college students in Iowa throughout the 1990s and up until recently have been receiving random creepy letters in the postal mail. The sender includes childlike jokes and drawings, and calls bisexuals “duclods” — dually closeted, sexually confused. "Actual tombstone inscription: DUCLODS DIE TWICE," the letters read. Strange duclod grafitti is carved into walls and bathroom stalls around campus — "If a duclod were an Eskimo, he would only go East and West".
The investigative article is written by Sarah Aswell, a student who receives such a duclod letter, and who decides to do some internet sleuthing to track down the sender. She finds an individual called "Chamo Howards" posting duclod jokes online, using multiple pseudonyms to post rants and strange jokes on message boards and guestbooks. Sarah tracks him to personal web pages containing rants, malicious software, electronic chain letters, and strange homemade DOS programs. His pages are titled "Welcome to Destruction" and filled with conspiracy theories and obsessions with strange subjects — numerology, domestic violence, concentration camps, anti-feminism, politics, toilet humor, Nazis, chemtrails, and time travel. He's fascinated with "unfunny jokes" and portmanteaus such as "garbmuts", humans transmuted into half-man half-dog creatures. "Q: What's more fun than throwing up? A: Throwing up on a garbmut while he drinks out of the toilet."
He displays disturbing behavior, posing as a 13-year-old girl in an autoerotic asphyxiation forum, and rants that parents should teach their sons to beat their future wives. When she finds a hidden link on one of his pages, Sarah finally discovers an abandoned homepage of Chamo's, and pulls up an old online resume for his real identity (whom she calls "Richard" in the articles). The first article ends with her mailing the duclod letter, originally sent anonymously to her, back to Richard at his home address, with the message, "Stop sending letters, Richard."
But he doesn't, and Sarah learns that he has continued to post duclod jokes online, even after she sent his letter back to him. The second article picks up as she decides to contact his family, and thus learns the truth of his condition — he’s highly intelligent, very technologically adept, but autistic, reclusive and in failing health. He has a history of psychosis, and was supposedly abused and injured during his childhood. The story ends with Richard being confronted by his family; he takes down his webpages and posts a personal (albeit bizarre) apology to Sarah and the others he offended.
I was really impressed with Sarah’s sleuthing work and with what she accomplished, but I wanted more information. After finishing the articles, I started poking around online to see if I could find some of the original posts from Richard. I did find quite a bit of information, but I kept coming across discrepancies between what I’d read in her articles and what I was seeing online.
To give her the benefit of the doubt: yes, it's quite possible that she's merely confused about several issues. However, if you're a journalist who has a personal and emotional involvement with your subject (as she so clearly does), and you get your facts wrong, you are opening yourself up to the questioning of your motives. It's expected that this type of follow-up should happen. One would hope so, for the sake of journalistic integrity.
After just a little bit of looking around, I found no less than nine factual problems with her articles. Some of them are substantial, and some of them are really trivial, but I included them all for the sake of completeness (outlined below).
I will mention that it’s clear that the individual she calls Richard does exist, he is responsible for sending bizarre letters, and he did apologize for it and take his webpages down. And I do understand what she was trying to do: stop Richard from sending his letters, and shield others from disturbing and potentially hurtful communications from an unbalanced individual. Which is admirable. If she had stopped there, and reported things the way they were, it still would have made for an interesting story.
But the upshot is this: Sarah was, at the very least, carelessly negligent with the details she was reporting. Which wouldn't matter all that much, except that these incorrect statements — "he’s posing as a teenage girl interested in autoerotic asphyxiation", "he’s ranting that you should teach your children to beat women", "he continued to post duclod jokes after he was asked to stop" — further demonize an autistic person with the emotional capacity of a 10-year old. In light of all this, the following quote from her first article is kind of disturbing:
I still don’t know what I expected to get from my search—recovery or revenge? … I wish I could have played a different game than the one he taught me …But my greatest desire isn’t so magnanimous. More than anything, I hope he had to turn on the TV and all the lights… I hope he’s scared of [me].
After the first article came out, Richard apologizes:
I now fail to see the value of being human. I always got told the same things time after time and I just can't see any meaning to it. 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, and I'm sorry for the pain I caused to others including Sarah Aswell (not sure I spelled it right) by going postal the way I did. Very remorseful. I was hurting people more than I realized. Don't blame my parents for all of this because I don't.
My health is now failing and I don't have much longer to live anyway. I just don't get over things ... In case anybody is thinking of doing me in, if we meet, I want to save him the trouble by doing it myself. I could easily do it with all the pills I have. I would also rather be dead than to go to any kind of prison. I may have Hell to pay, but even in the
Although she changed “Richard”’s name for the article, she left enough real information in there for anyone who cares to look to find his real name, along with his picture, phone number, and address. It’s since been posted and reposted in various places, with reports of individuals emailing him, prank-calling him, or mentioning things like "think I should swing by his place to have a chat?", "I am aware of your location ... I am coming for you", "Thousands of people who sort of hate you know exactly where you live ... I hope someone does something with that address ", and "Consider yourself dead, my friend".
Which is wonderful. Looks like you got your revenge, Sarah; he may need to turn on all his lights afterall. Not because of some imagined threat, but because of some very real ones. Also, does The Advocate not have a fact-checker on staff? Are they so preoccupied with selling magazines that they're no longer worried about wrongfully persecuting a reclusive (albeit mischievous) autistic man who's ostensibly bisexual, part of the community they supposedly serve? Maybe I should cancel my subscription.
The following irony doesn't escape me: I became almost as obsessed with uncovering the truth of Sarah's article as Sarah became with uncovering Chamo Howards. I followed down all the same garden pathways that she did, but I came to a slightly different conclusion. I don't think she expected anybody to do that. She's obviously a very intelligent and talented individual, but I wish she'd put her MA in Creative Writing to good use in something that's not billed as nonfiction.
Serious Factual Problems
- Claim: He poses as a 13-year-old girl named “Sunflower” in a forum about autoerotic asphyxiation.
Firstly: no, he didn’t. One of his pseudonyms, Proctor Zhloip, posts directly above a person calling herself Chrissy (email@example.com) on a forum called “The Choking Game”. He posts there to provide a link to his webpage about other strange fads. But there’s obviously no reason to suspect that Chrissy and Proctor Zhloip are the same person. The posts are hours apart, and Chrissy doesn’t exhibit any of Richard’s oddities.
Secondly, and incidentally: the forum isn't about autoerotic asphyxiation, it's a forum promoting concern and awareness for a schoolyard activity involving the inducement of near unconsciousness by restriction of the supply of oxygen to the brain to promote a "high".
Thirdly, Sarah apparently pulled "13-year-old" out of thin air; the post doesn't mention Chrissy's age or grade level, it merely says that she's "doing a research essay for her english class". In fact, if the "88" in her email refers to her birth year, and when you subtract it from 2005, the date of the article posting, then you get 17, not 13.
Finally, and most disturbingly: out of all Richard's fake names in her article, "Proctor Zhloip" is the only pseudonym Sarah renames (to something close — "Proctor" becomes "Professor", and "Zhloip" becomes "Xlhoip"). This renaming would prevent a fact-checker or one of her readers from easily googling “zhloip sunflower” to uncover the fact that Richard never "posed as a 13-year-old girl in an autoerotic asphyxiation forum". Why'd you do that, Sarah?
Reference URL: http://space.moonagewebdream.com/2005/07/1
- Claim: More jokes were posted in abandoned Internet guest books: If a duclod was an Eskimo, he’d only go east and west.
Very misleading. Yes, one more joke was posted, but obviously not by Richard (and not in abandoned guestbooks, by the way). This joke about duclod Eskimos was posted by someone – almost certainly not Richard — who had come across duclod graffiti at Grinell years ago, and was commenting on it in the somethingawful forum (which is what Sarah was certainly referring to, because it appears nowhere else).
Worryingly, Sarah's particular wording here in the passive voice ("more jokes were posted") avoids the issue of whether or not it was actually Richard who posted the joke. Again — why, Sarah?
Reference URL: http://archives.somethingawful.com/showt
- Claim: In a forum for battered women he writes a long treatise on how men should teach their sons to hit their future wives.
No, he didn't. In fact, the opposite is true. As the URL below shows, Richard was responding to the misogynistic "treatise" with the following comment:
I hope that you have just done this for effect if not i suggest that you get some help very soon you sad, evil messed up individual - people like you are dangerous and should be taken out of our society.
It's shameful that Richard is being accused of writing this treatise when he was actually condemning it.
Reference URL: http://web.archive.org/web/2002112115494
- Claim: I close the message without sending it, and a Web site pops up, titled Welcome to Destruction.
Destruction? Oops. As the URL below shows, it’s not Welcome to Destruction, it’s Welcome to Desolation. Changing “Desolation” to “Destruction” makes him sound less like a depressed loner, and more like a sinister psychopath.
Even though Richard's websites had been taken down by the time the second article came out, fortunately, they are still archived at archive.org (below).
Reference URL: http://web.archive.org/web/2005041208144
- Claim: I type “Xlhoip” into his words-to-numbers calculator and “666” pops up ... my e-mail client opens, and Xlhoip attempts to e-mail people from my account.
It did? Wow, this is starting to remind me of The DaVinci Code! The calculator that Sarah is referring to is a DOS executable Richard wrote in Visual Basic or qbasic. It simply takes text string or numerical inputs and converts them back and forth using ASCII values. It doesn’t pop up your email client when you enter secret words.
Reference URL: http://maddox.xmission.com/duclod/digg.h
- Claim: ...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.
Wouldn't that be cool if it were true? While it's certainly not as interesting and dramatic as what she wrote in the article, the link she's talking about on the Chilee Umgum page doesn’t require highlighting; it’s not a “secret message”. It’s a regular old link, in a big blue underlined centered 16-point font. Pretty hard to miss, actually.
Reference URL: http://web.archive.org/web/2002101018500
- Claim: I e-mail him again, taking a different tack. I write him something I think he will like. Q: What does a duclod do on Sunday morning? A: A boy, then a girl.
Her article nowhere mentions that she was emailing multiple individuals, which the below URL makes clear. The information that she emailed that joke out to an unknown number of people and he happened to be the one that responded changes the story a bit, since the fact that he writes back "Pretty funny" is her big smoking gun.
Reference URL: http://www.metafilter.com/50185/Countess-D
- Claim: I click on the link, and my mail client automatically opens and tries to send a mass e-mail from my personal account. … He worked at the IT desk at Grinnell. … That explains his interest in computers and his ability to open my mail client and send e-mails from my account.
Yes, this piece of code on his page is very annoying, and arguably semi-malicious. However (and this is semantics), a website coder does not have the ability to "send e-mails from your account". What happens when you load his page depends on how you have your computer configured; and, in the vast majority of cases, you must actually confirm that you want the email sent (usually by pressing a “Send” button, or similar) before any actual mailing happens.
- Claim: “I tell 3.5 lies a day,” he writes in one post, and I know it’s my guy.
Sarah meant that he wrote, “I only tell 3.5 lies per week”.
Changing “only 3.5 lies per week” to “3.5 lies per day” is seemingly trivial, but increases Richard’s dishonesty by a factor of seven. It’s really not that hard to copy and paste an exact quote from a web page, Sarah.
Reference URL: http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-11474-0.h
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Post script: I've emailed Sarah Aswell with a link to this writing, and if she responds, I'll post her reply and amend any information she sheds some light on. As of 5/17/07, she hasn't written back.