A rank odor rises from the LA Times’ belated coverage of blogger/filmmaker Theresa Duncan’s death and the subsequent disappearance of her boyfriend, the artist Jeremy Blake. After rehashing what everyone else said days ago — the deaths were “confounding,” the art world is in shock — writer Chris Lee gropes in the dark for explanations that are clearly beyond the facts in his notebook, and in doing so, inflicts needless damage to their reputations.
If someone knows why two talented, popular people with the world on a string would kill themselves, they can choose to tell that story. When it comes to prominent people — and there’s no question Duncan and Blake courted attention — the trade-off between violating the privacy of the deceased and offering a coherent narrative to explain a senseless act tends to favor telling the story. But only if you have a story to tell. Lee doesn’t. He has a hodge-podge of disquieting details that add up to a big, contradictory blob of nothing that perhaps tells us more about Lee than his subjects.
According to Lee, Duncan and Blake believed they were being stalked and harassed by Scientologists, “according to several friends and art world peers.”
Actually, Lee didn’t need to go to unnamed sources for this news. Duncan herself wrote about the alleged harassment incidents at length on her blog, Wit of the Staircase. On LA Observed last night, Kevin Roderick pointed to this May 2007 entry, which is exhaustive. In it, Duncan draws a series of links between an old girlfriend of Blake’s, the old girlfriend’s wealthy adoptive father and his connections to the CIA and conservative think-tanks, the Church of Scientology, an FBI file about her own past work as a labor organizer, and some incidents of social-climbing bed-hopping in the art world. Duncan painted the ex-girlfriend as possible perpetrator of the harassment, but also possible unknowing victim of her adoptive father and the shady underworld of which he supposedly is a part.
In a comment to her own post, Duncan claimed that the harassment — “including a dead cat, grafitti on and near our property” — started when Blake worked with the indie singer Beck on an album cover. It is, frankly, hard to tell how much of what Duncan wrote is relevant to the harassment. Reading it over a few times, it strikes me that Duncan put all this out there in violation of Occam’s Razor (“the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible.”) It could simply have been that the ex-girlfriend carried a torch, and went overboard. Assuming the adoptive father is connected to high-level espionage and secret business, why would he want to risk exposure by having his operatives harass a couple of artists?
But, oddly, the Times’ reporter focuses on the aspect of this story that seems the least subject to challenge. He questions whether the harassment took place at all. He strongly implies it was a fantasy. His proof? Christine Nichols, an art world colleague of Duncan and Blake’s “did not see any evidence of that.” Did Ms. Nichols live with them? What was the extent of her involvement in their lives that would lead Lee to conclude that if Nichols didn’t see something, it probably didn’t happen?
(This story went through at least one editor, right? Neither Lee nor that editor saw the logical fallacy in using Nichols’ comments to prove a negative? Neither Lee nor that editor thought to call LAPD, which Duncan cited specifically in her blog? This is the kind of thing that enrages readers of the LA Times and makes us indifferent to its future, irrational as that might be.)
Then Lee reaches out to the rock star Beck who, through his manager, describes the professional relationship between Blake and himself as “very cordial.” Beck, I was stunned to find out, is a member of the Church of Scientology. The Beck Sea Change album on which Blake worked was acclaimed, and the graphics drew positive notices. Why would an uneventful and successful project that benefited a famous Scientology member lead to harassment by the Church of Scientology? Duncan never explains, nor does the Times.
But the Times does add, with an air of authority, an irrelevant comment from the NYPD that the Scientology angle is not being pursued. Why would it be pursued? These are “apparent suicides.” Despite Lee’s best efforts, he fails to draw any connection between the deaths and the harassment — which he cues us to doubt even took place.
Here’s what I think Lee wants to say, but can’t: Duncan and Blake’s paranoia about Scientology was a symptom that one or both of them were losing their grip on reality and going insane, and at the end of that road was suicide. That’s the clear impression he leaves with his floating chunks of data and oddly disconnected quotes. The second half of the story is all about how well their lives were going, and how attractive they both were to “the brainy, moneyed people who occupy the intersection of art and technology.” Lee betrays more than a little envy of both of them. Stuck with a story for which he has few worthwhile facts but a bellyful of jealousy, he tells the world in so many words that both of them were crazy.
This is a hit piece, disguised by the language of compassion. The Times’ speculative implications are completely meritless. The fact is, we don’t know their mental state, and because the police say they aren’t looking into the Scientology/harassment angle, we can assume they didn’t see evidence to justify a connection. Keep in mind the police have seen both suicide notes.
For all the artifacts and writings both artists left behind, we really don’t know them. We don’t know what transpired between them. We don’t know what mental or physical conditions they were dealing with. We don’t know about stresses in their lives. We hardly know anything. And based on the quotes from friends, their friends hardly knew anything either.
Another writer is on this case, however, and I will pay attention to what he has to say if he unearths anything.
Ron Rosenbaum, who currently blogs at Pajamas Media, writes for Slate and the New York Observer, is the author of fascinating books about William Shakespeare, and Adolf Hitler and has written essay/profiles about people ranging from Bill Gates to J.D. Salinger. His last three posts have been about the Duncan/Blake deaths.
Mostly, he quotes other news sources and contemplates the confounding nature of these deaths. But his last, brief post was both informative and suspenseful:
According to sources I checked with in the New York City Police Department and the City Medical Examiner’s Office, the death of Theresa Duncan (see posts below) which has been almost without exception called “a suicide” in the local papers has not yet been officially ruled a suicide. It may well still be. To my knowledge no evidence has come to light suggesting murder or accidental death. But the authorities aren’t commenting , awaiting, for one thing, toxicology reports on Duncan they say may not be available for at least two weeks.
A verdict “on the cause and manner of her death” is still “pending investigation” is all a spokesman for the Medical Examiner said she was authorized to say.
Meanwhile the body of Theresa Duncan’s boyfriend, Jeremy Blake—who reportedly committed suicide in the waters off Rockaway Beach because he was “despondent” over Theresa’s death—has still not been found.
I have some more information on Jeremy Blake’s death and other aspects of the case that I am checking out and hope to post soon.
Rosenbaum might not get anywhere with this. The story might just remain what it is now, an incoherent mystery, an obsession that slams against the walls of privacy until it slinks away, thwarted. But whatever Rosenbaum finds, he won’t stretch it to reflect his own biases and impulses as I believe the Times reporter did. His writing clearly delineates facts from speculation; and all imaginative leaps are clearly marked so we can enjoy them.
*Update, 7/25/07: Tonight Lee reports the discovery of a body in the Atlantic Ocean, 4 1/2 miles off Sea Girt, N.J. Police in New Jersey are asking for information — dental records, dental history — to help identify if the body is Blake’s.