In an announcement to the Northwestern community, Kathleen M. Hagerty, the university’s provost, did not say how van Alphen had died. She directed students, staff, and faculty members to counseling services. “I know this news will be shocking to many of you, and the loss of a Northwestern community member can impact people in many different ways,” Hagerty wrote. “Please do not hesitate to let others know when you need help.”
News of van Alphen’s secret identity had spread for months among his colleagues at Northwestern and among others in his field. Students had complained to the university’s Office of Equity, requesting that it intervene, and some felt frustrated that it seemed as if their concerns hadn’t prompted Northwestern to take action.
On Twitter, Dr Caveman had used the N-word and other racist terms toward Black people, like “gibsmedat.” He’d called President Donald J. Trump “Trumpenfuhrer” and expressed hope for “Generation Zyklon,” a term for young supporters of the far right and neo-Nazism. (Zyklon B, a cyanide-based insecticide, was used by Nazi Germany to kill Jews and others in gas chambers.) On another social-media platform, he’d called Islam a “pedophilia glorifying death cult,” and he had tweeted that Muslims “are either at your feet or at your throat.”
Some of his posts appeared to endorse violence. One tweet said Chicago could resolve its budget woes if city officials “guillotine every last member” of the teachers union. Another declared, “Free helicopter rides for antifa,” a reference to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s practice of killing political dissidents by dropping them from helicopters. He’d mused about giving the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik a gun and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, “a five minute head start.” And after a violent protest in Chicago, Dr Caveman tweeted that next time the police should “shoot the ponchos on sight.”
The Dr Caveman Twitter account had only a few hundred followers and had gone mostly unnoticed. That is, until October. On a Saturday night, Dr Caveman posted a photo of a crowd of people on a street, taken from many stories above, and wrote, “Small BLM protest in Evanston, apparently to get the police out of northwestern.” (Northwestern is in Evanston, Ill.)
Another Twitter user — who has declined to be identified — was searching the platform for “Evanston” news, clicked on the profile, and was appalled. At the time, Dr Caveman’s profile photo was from the 1993 thriller Falling Down — in which Michael Douglas’s nebbishy, frustrated character goes on a violent rampage — with the word “Soon” superimposed over the image.
The user was “freaked out” by the Twitter account. In an interview with The Chronicle by direct message, the user described sensing that Dr Caveman’s real name might be discoverable. The user started scrolling, narrowing down the field in which Dr Caveman seemed to work. In time, ample connections emerged between Dr Caveman and van Alphen.
Dr Caveman had revealed that he was a neuroscientist who studied “small animal brains” and had tweeted about the biological clock. He’d posted repeatedly about Northwestern, and in 2016 he tweeted an internal email from the university’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute about an anti-Semitic flier that had been printed out on a network printer. At the time, there was a wave of similar incidents at other colleges. A neo-Nazi hacker claimed credit. Dr Caveman screen-shot the email, tagged the hacker, and wrote, “Northwestern can be added as a scalp.”
Dr Caveman, too, had said he was on the academic job market. Both had also at some point cited the Great Emu War of 1932 (a wildlife-management operation in Australia), and both had posted tweets, seven minutes apart, with the phrase “Giuliani style law and order Republican,” referencing the former mayor of New York City.
The anonymous sleuth sent emails to the neurobiology department and to Allada, the chair, explaining some of the connections, but didn’t get a response, according to the direct-message interview. (Allada did not respond to The Chronicle’s interview request.)
So the sleuth went public, setting up a Twitter account — Bart_van_Caveman — and tweeting out examples of Dr Caveman’s dark worldview, and the evidence that he was really van Alphen.
Most conservatives I know only have two settings: 1) vote 2) shoot everything. The more histrionics from the left, the more likely that switch is going to be flipped.
A Northwestern Ph.D. student had also found Dr Caveman’s account when he tweeted about the Black Lives Matter protest in Evanston, and had fallen down her own rabbit hole. (The student, like others who have spoken out about the case, requested anonymity out of a concern for personal safety.) She discovered articles that Dr Caveman had written for the “manosphere” website Return of Kings, with headlines like “This Accidental Experiment Shows the Superiority of Patriarchy.” There he’d written under the pseudonym Nomen Nescio — Latin for “I do not know the name.” His bio said that he had been “born naked, screaming, and covered in someone else’s blood,” but he “overcame those odds, left his cave, and became a mercenary mad scientist, traveling the world and sampling its women.”
Another graduate student, who worked in the same building as van Alphen, decided to report him to the Office of Equity after reading one particular tweet: “Where liberals have a whole spectrum of gradually increasing outrage,” Dr Caveman wrote in August, “most conservatives I know only have two settings: 1) vote 2) shoot everything. The more histrionics from the left, the more likely that switch is going to be flipped.”
The student said she had reported to the office in mid-October but didn’t speak with an employee until several days after the presidential election, in November. The person was very sympathetic, she said, but she got the impression that the office was limited in what it could do.
Another graduate student continued working alongside van Alphen, over Zoom. The second-year Ph.D. student was a teaching assistant for a course in which van Alphen was a teaching fellow. He’d been nice to her, she said. Once, when she tweeted about being stressed out, he sent her a message letting her know he was available if she wanted to talk.
So it took a little while for her to come to terms with his Dr Caveman identity. She, too, reported to the equity office, but it seemed, she said, as if she’d gotten lost in the system.
She talked to the professor of the course about her concerns over van Alphen, and the professor said she’d understand if the student didn’t want to attend sessions. But “it was my job, and I would be leaving her alone in the situation,” said the student. So the student, a Hispanic woman, continued working with van Alphen, who, as Dr Caveman, had once written on Gab, “Juan by Juan, the only way to deport them all.”
“It was hard to keep trying to do my best job when somebody I was working with literally didn’t see me as like a human being,” the student said. She felt less motivated to participate, she said, which wasn’t fair to the undergraduates. And she lost “a little bit of faith” in academe.
A Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience program said he had spoken with a senior equity specialist in November, and felt as if he’d gotten canned responses. He was most concerned for the students over whom van Alphen was in a position of authority. As Dr Caveman, van Alphen had written on Gab that part of the “challenge” in academe is “to train Asians from a rote learning culture into creative, effective scientists.” The vast majority “are only good to use as technicians,” he wrote. “They lack the spark to take risks and be wrong.”
In labs, the candidate noted, more-senior postdocs hold certain power. They’re often called upon to teach techniques and will sometimes mentor greener researchers. On the Allada Lab’s website, undergraduates who were interested in research experience were told to contact van Alphen. (That paragraph, which was still there as recently as last month, has since been removed.)
As time passed, and more students complained, their disappointment grew. The university’s silence, said the Ph.D. student who had uncovered the Return of Kings articles, was noticeable, and frustrating.
That frustration seeped out into the larger scientific community. A group of drosophilists — scientists who use the fruit fly to study genetics and other subjects — got wind of the Dr Caveman persona and were alarmed that he was in their field and was seeking a faculty post.
They circulated a letter, signed by more than 120 scholars, calling on Northwestern to take steps to protect trainees and students. “If your behavior causes your co-workers to be terrified to come to work … that’s not appropriate,” said Josh Dubnau, one of the drosophilists and director of the Center for Developmental Genetics at Stony Brook University, who spoke to The Chronicle before van Alphen’s death. “It’s a hostile work environment.” (In an email, Dubnau said he was saddened to hear of van Alphen’s passing, adding that there was a “missed opportunity” for some kind of intervention in the months since October.)
In a statement, sent to The Chronicle before van Alphen’s death, Northwestern said that it was “aware of concerns” about him, and that all of them “were reported to the appropriate university office for follow-up.” Northwestern had taken steps to address the concerns that had been raised, said Jon Yates, the university’s assistant vice president for communications, in an email.
Views expressed by Dr Caveman are “racist, offensive, and inappropriate, and run counter to the university’s values,” Yates added, but Northwestern could not “silence someone based on abhorrent views alone.”
Before he died, van Alphen confessed to others in his field that Dr Caveman’s Twitter account was his. In an email late Monday afternoon that a scholar forwarded to The Chronicle, van Alphen said that he had tweeted “many offensive statements” and had participated in a subculture that “traffics in dark, cynical humor and deliberate attempts to be as offensive as possible.”
“These tweets do not reflect my personal beliefs,” he wrote, “and I deeply apologize for the distress, fear, and anger they have caused.” He maintained that he had always treated his colleagues “with the utmost respect and have done my best to help them succeed, whether they are faculty, postdocs, graduate students, or undergraduates.”
In the email, van Alphen said that he was not violent or an extremist. He was not a Nazi or a racist, though he acknowledged that those words might “sound hollow in light of recent events.” He said that he wanted to begin mitigating the damage. “I don’t expect the matter to be closed with an apology,” but “I hope it is a first step.”
And his email, he wrote, was not an attempt to salvage his career: “That part of my life is over.”