Sorry, Theresa

The story of Theresa Duncan has begun to take shape.

It’s the story of what happens to you after you die. What happens to your reputation when reporters think your corpse is sexy.

Theresa Duncan wrote a blog almost every day of the last two years of her life, a blog in which she left almost no clues to her pending suicide. But it’s being picked over anyway. The big assumption is that her death had something to do with her alleged delusions about being stalked. Apparently, she and her boyfriend, the notable artist Jeremy Blake, shunned some ex-friends who didn’t buy into their fears. According to a follow-up story by the LA Times’ Chris Lee:

Bradford Schlei, head of production for Muse Productions, optioned the rights to George Pelicanos’ “Nick’s Trip” that was to have been Blake’s feature film directing debut. The project stalled just before a deal with Paramount Vantage was being negotiated, however, when Blake accused Schlei’s then girlfriend and the project’s screenwriter of being Scientologists. (Schlei says neither he nor the other two are affiliated with the church.)

“It was complete and utter craziness,” Schlei said. “Theresa sent around e-mails, delusional things. They’d say, ‘You’re a Scientologist, your girlfriend’s a Scientologist, we don’t want to be involved with you.’

“The thing that ended our relationship was when Jeremy said [my girlfriend] was trying to ruin Theresa’s reputation. None of this ever had to do with Jeremy. It was always about Theresa and her film career.” Several other sources confirmed Schlei’s account, recalling that Duncan’s e-mails grew wilder toward the end of her life.

“There was a paranoia thing going on there,” he continued. “If you sat with them for a while, drinking the massive Manhattans they were always drinking, and smoking Shermans, it always got came back to Anna Gaskell.”

(Ms. Gaskell is a former girlfriend of Blake’s who Duncan, and perhaps Blake, saw as a participant in their persecution.)

Kate Coe, in LA Weekly, goes much deeper in her search of Duncan’s seemingly endless foibles. I’ve left all her links in this excerpt:

According to Nichols and other friends who spoke to the Weekly only off record, Duncan began blaming her lack of success on the Church of Scientology, saying that the church was influencing “the studios.” Duncan accused her skeptical friends of stealing hair from her hairbrush to send to the Scientology Center, Nichols says, and confided to Nichols, “I really don’t have any friends.”

Duncan’s paranoia began to hurt her professionally. Renee Tab, her agent, tells the Weekly that Duncan was advised to tone down the paranoid talk but called back later to say she had not given that advice to Duncan, but hoped or wished someone had. And two of Duncan’s acquaintances, who refused to be named, say they were so unsettled by Duncan’s campaigns by e-mail, where she accused them of trying to hurt her or Blake’s careers, that they contacted lawyers. Nichols says of Duncan and Blake, “They didn’t just burn their bridges, they exploded them.”

THE ILL-FATED COUPLE LEFT — some might argue fled — Los Angeles last fall. In New York, Blake took a full-time job at Rockstar Games and prepared for a big fall show at the Corcoran Gallery, where he was to be artist in residence. The stylish couple found the perfect apartment in a converted rectory at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.

By uncanny coincidence, activist Father Frank Morales, a controversial figure who probes conspiracy theories, was the pastor. Morales told the Weekly that “Theresa . . . manifested a penchant for looking at things in a dark way,” adding, “She came to [New York] with some hard feelings, some hurt, but she was a bright light.”

She and Jeremy Blake were photographed at New York social events, and she eagerly joined the St. Mark’s fund-raising community. In March, her short story “Topographers” was published in Bald Ego, the au courant magazine edited by Glenn O’Brien. But Duncan never shook off her fear and suspicion. On her blog on May 20, she wrote that author and USC research scholar Reza Aslan was a “Muslim American seeming Homeland Security agent,” and blamed Scientologists for graffiti and a dead cat in her old Venice neighborhood.

Aslan told the Weekly that whenever he appeared on TV, she contacted him with strange rants. He gave Duncan’s threatening messages to his lawyer because “I wanted someone else to know about this.” Aslan knew her for years, and “she had always said kind of crazy, paranoid things,” but “it just got worse and worse. She accused me of being an undercover CIA officer, of eavesdropping on her, of having her FBI file. The conversation she blogged about — about her FBI file — never came up; the whole conversation was completely fictional.

“She was losing her grip on reality, and Jeremy was so devoted to her that he would go along with it . . . It became impossible to ignore, and so my [girlfriend] and I began to extricate ourselves.”

This last paragraph is the developing conventional wisdom: Theresa went crazy and dragged Jeremy down with her. Jeremy had the “real” art career, but was hobbled by his strange symbiotic relationship with a crazy person. His suicide was, in effect, crazy Theresa’s final grasp at him from the grave.

David Segal of the Washington Post — he’s their music critic and in that role he’s good — takes a step back from this horror-movie cliche, and tries a more psychological approach:

Duncan and Blake didn’t just fall for each other; they grew so close they all but intertwined. “When you called, they were always both on the phone,” said Jason Meadows, an artist and friend. “When you e-mailed, they’d take turns writing back. At some point, I realized it doesn’t matter which of them I’m communicating with. They were that tight.”

One of their shared passions, friends said, was a distressingly paranoid view of the world. The two would describe plots by the government, plots by Scientologists, people tailing them, breaking into their home. All of it sounded so far-fetched that it was easy to think occasionally that they were kidding. They weren’t.

“It was like a Tom Clancy novel,” said Meadows, “except that was very real to them. And if you said, ‘This can’t be true,’ there’d be a lot of anger and you’d be exiled. That happened to me several times and I had to work to regain their friendship.”

Gradually they seemed to slip into some sort of shared psychosis, and they had each other to reinforce delusions that friends were powerless to talk them out of. Many of those friends bailed out, frustrated and bewildered. But for all the tumult, the pair remained focused and Blake, at least, was applying himself to work, said Binstock. Duncan could be prickly and acerbic and sometimes one would say something loopy, friends said, but the couple generally kept it together.

“Obviously there was much more going on than any of us realized, but he never said anything that suggested there was a problem,” said Anne Schwartz Delibert, Blake’s mother, who lives in Takoma Park. “He was devoted to her. He was a loyal caretaker.”

The last comment from Blake’s mother refutes everything that came before it, though, doesn’t it?  His own mother never detected a problem?  How does that fit into a diagnosis of “shared psychosis…a distressingly paranoid view of the world…?”

See, that’s my problem with virtually all of the journalism published since the pair’s death.  There was too much going on in both of their lives for anyone to say, or even suggest, what caused these deaths.  The reporters know this.  So they dig up stuff about both of them — Duncan especially — and put it out there.  It’s salacious. It’s embarrassing.  It’s suggestive, but suggestive of what they won’t say, because they don’t know.   But because it’s a mystery, there is no end to the investigation and revelation of every stupid, unkind, ill-considered or even “paranoid” thing they might have done or said in their combined 75 years on Earth.

Is there anyone whom you couldn’t portray in a extremely negative light by choosing, say, five anecdotes from two lifetimes — three of them reported anonymously?

And neither of them can respond. “There are two sides to every story,” is a truism from kindergarten, but the way events have unfolded, we’re only getting one side of each tale, and the tales are accumulating and solidifying into a reputation, a kind of pseudo-truth that will mestatisize in the vacuum of the real truth.   Which is none of our business anyway.

You can think about this:

At some point, you will die.  Maybe you’ll die before your time, in a sensational fashion.  At whatever point, your life will become a story, but it won’t be your story, it’ll be the story that your survivors will try to piece together.  If you happen to be prominent, or if your death is determined to be sexy, the media will assist with this process, whether they have a right to or not.

Everything you ever said or did that anyone remembers or can document will float to the surface, like old bobbins released from under a rock.  They will all appear to have the same weight — the good, the bad, the funny, the weird, the selfish, the selfless; something you did for ten minutes, something you did for ten years.  All of it floating on the surface, waiting for others to find patterns in it, patterns more revelatory of their own minds than of yours.

Ron Rosenbaum, a good writer with an interesting blog is obviously fascinated by Duncan/Blake, and has begun some kind of investigative study.  Compared with Lee, Coe and Segal, however, Rosenbaum is relatively modest in his claims to understand anything based on these fragments — yet.

Unlike Coe and Lee, Rosenbaum lets his readers comment.  I think this commenter, Mike Payne, is reacting to all the news coverage of his friends, but takes it out on Rosenbaum because he provides an outlet:

Theresa’s blog was read around the world,in her wake she is praised for her dynamic personality and intelligence-one webblog event submits that this is all ARG, a game-Theresa would be flattered,certainly capable of masterminding such a concept.The fact is her real life is as hyperdynamic as it reads.
The people who discount Theresa and Jeremy’s claims-who needs the CIA and CoS (Church of Scientology) with friends like them.You tell people the real shit going down in your life and they degrade you,how many times do I get to read GLenn O’Brien’s disregard of Theresa’s concerns as improbable-he never said this to her face-otherwise his word would for sure not be the last post on Staircase.I bet the emails you ‘ve read would confirm this in terms of how T & J react to feeling betrayed.
I don’t believe she killed herself-I’m sure I’ve lost you all now-I fucking knew her-I was even able to give her the benefit of the doubt,from her note reading she was at peace-it’s not gloom and doom it’s just exactly what she writes-she is at peace so let her rest,her personal reasons are her own damn business to quote her film THE HISTORY OF GLAMOUR-the people who made this most excellent bit of film,were not done living,even if they did make it years ago.

I  add this not to validate the alleged “conspiracy” — I’m in no position to do that — but to illustrate that some people apparently believed them, some people didn’t find them irrational, or if they did, never said anything until their deaths gave them the opportunity.

I’ll close with two comments from another Washington Post writer, an in-house blogger named Joel Achenbach:

Forensic psychoanalysis on the dead is never wise.

An entirely praiseworthy position, which he undercuts with his next word: “But…”

I forgive him, however, because he closes with this even more praiseworthy comment:

I hope no movie studio decides it’s a great romantic story, Shakespearean and ripe for the screen.

It’s just sad.



12 thoughts on “Sorry, Theresa

  1. If people had been just 100th as interested in Jeremy and Theresa when they were alive as they are now when they are dead this would not have happened.

    We all need friends and real friends stick around to help when times get bad..

  2. I have no desire to psychoanalize Duncan. However, what I think is worth analyzing is the media’s labeling of her as “brilliant.” Have you read her blog?. First of all, it consists mainly of links to stuff from There’s little of her own commentary. When she does write, it’s convoluted and sophomoric. Much has been made of Duncan’s interest in “the history of electricity.” It turns out only 6 posts on her ENTIRE blog have that label. Two are throwaway posts. (Nothing of substance.) It turns out that three of the remaining four posts on the history of electricity appear to be plagiarized. (For details, see my site.)

  3. Many of the people I know who raved about her blog didn’t get that much of the “wonderful writing” was in quotes, attributed to other sources. Mind you when Duncan did write cultural commentary it was enjoyable until it went haywire, and then it became frightening.

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  6. Marys captures it — much of the wonder writing was just quotes, but she always linked her source, even when sloppy with quotation marks. So all this shows poor reading contributing to the hasty judgments, rather than poor or exclusively lifted writing.

    Since many of Duncan’s recent published pieces were on arts and culture, one would expect her to immerse herself into such topics — she didn’t link much to if I recall correctly, but she did note early this year that the art world has now attached itself like a barnacle to pop culture, and that much of the interesting social criticism now occurs in the fashion world. Was she echoing other writers in this, or simply believing her own eyes?

    Many of us out there — mostly Jane and Joes who have just an interest rather than a stake in the arts are concerned that little of quality or note has been publicized and is therefore impossible to find. What we do find is disappointing and just as derivative as Duncan is accused of being, but without the criticism her work (just a blog, not the Old Testament) has been generating. But this situation would be even more troubling to those who attempt to produce quality, honest work, and I wondered if that were the cause when I first heard about this case as a possible double suicide.

    But all I did was wonder – I didn’t decide to make their deaths a case of the effects of marginalizing artists because I didn’t know. What I was waiting to hear is what they had to say about why they took their own lives, viewpoints still missing from this and seemingly left behind in the race of agendas that erupted in the wake of the story.

    But as bad as those are, few were worse than the “journalists” who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us why were are interested and why we feel as we do about this case. I am not, as Swati Pandey insists, one of Theresa Duncan’s children and I am not, as she tells us in the “supportive” tone of a self-appointed referee, hoping to see anything of myself in the circumstances of those sudden deaths. What I did see, and what made me look into this situation more than I might normally, were all these people suddenly arriving to, first, anonymously post in various groups and forums that Duncan was troubled, crazy, and mean, and then repeating these characterizations in published reports where it became clear that not only art, but journalism has been co-opted by those who now operate less from standards of quality. It is a cheap ploy of pandering to emotions most of us do not have to cover up a cannibalistic sense of entitlement when circling, like hyenas, the reputations of the dead

  7. It’s so obvious now that there is a dedicated smear campaign against Duncan and Blake, founded by jealousy and vengence. Just more of the same propaganda intended to silence them.
    Here’s the latest proof:
    Rev. John Carmichael, Church of Scientology14 Aug 2007 by Jen Carlson
    John Carmichael is the President of the Church of Scientology in New York. We recently asked him a few questions about his church, New York Gothamist –

    If you want to read more facts, heres a recent article quoting Fr. Frank Morales, who met up with Blake a few mins after he found Duncan.
    He spent enough time with them to know their mental states.
    “Artists’ double suicide casts a pall at St. Mark’s”

    ps: Not only would she know if they were paranoid but Anne Schwartz Delibert, Jeremy Blake’s mother, is a family and marriage mental health counselor in the MD DC area.

  8. Father Morales’ reaction seems eminently human and trustworthy. I’m sorry, Mary, that I can’t join you in the notion of a conspiracy to silence them, however. They both had tremendous access to channels of communication over which they exerted significant control. Blake was near the top of the contemporary art pyramid. Duncan might have been frustrated about filmmaking, but her blog was totally unfettered and had lots of loyal readers.

    The bizarre journalistic response to their deaths has more to do with the writers of these vulgar, speculative pieces than it has to do with Blake and Duncan’s work. The “why” of their suicides might never be known, so all this rumor-mongering and character assault is filling the vacuum.

  9. There has been so much disrespect for the recently dead in this affair; it’s just not the time to be digging into padded resumes, emotional outbursts that occurred a decade ago, ect. However, for all the conspiracy theorists out there: Why hasn’t anyone stepped forward to say, “Yep, this couple was being harrassed. I saw it.”? Evidence of gangstalking and a smear campaign against them should be popping up all around, but it isn’t. Quite the contrary, we’re seeing evidence that their conclusions about the alleged harassment were not warranted (naming Miranda July as a Scientologist, for instance). As the granddaughter of a paranoid schizophrenic, I know that people suffering paranoia are able to function perfectly well. They can be intelligent, erudite, educated, succesful…and completely mistaken.

  10. What they discribe is a standard Cointelpro opperation, and this is a good example of what happens when you can not speak for yourselves any longer or provide proof to defend yourself. Although I doubt they would ever have been able to proove thier allegations.

    Being followed out in public
    Apartment break in’s
    Reputation smears

    The things that they are talking about are standard Cointelpro stuff that has happened to others and is happening to many. Just like them most can’t proove.

  11. [quote]Why hasn’t anyone stepped forward to say, “Yep, this couple was being harrassed. I saw it.”? Evidence of gangstalking and a smear campaign against them should be popping up all around, but it isn’t. [/quote]

    It never is. The people that are being stalked know it. Just like John Lennon knew it and said if anything happened to him it would be no accident?

    Who is going to come forward? Who is going to get stalked the same way, and ostracised from society? What is ongoing is systemic. I don’t think she was paranoid, but I do believe she will be written off that way.

    I have no way of varifying if people she was accusing of being scientologist were scientologist. What I do believe is they had her focus on this aspect of it, so she did not catch the bigger picture. It happens with other targets who are told it’s Masons, or gangs or religous groups, or right wing groups following them, it’s whatever is the most handy, and yes many in our controlled society are aware of this, and just like those national security letters, are just not saying anything, or outright lying.

    The few times targets do find proof, it’s rare, but if you meet enough targets, you do find the occasional slip up by these people. Gang Stalking or this modern day Cointelpro is all about making the targets look and sound paranoid. Because so many people do take part.

    She will be smeared in death, and because they are both gone, none will be able to defend them, I am just still surprised that this even made the headlines, most times they just get written off as paranoids, Emotionally disturbed. We are sorry your family member was more disturbed than we realised, while the whole time people’s friends, families, coworkers are busy taking parts in these little campaigns.

    The sad part, it’s nothing new, it’s how society is, and until we kill the silence, this sickness will not end. Sad.

    Anyways continue with the whatever it is you were doing before I got here.

  12. I have been disturbed and haunted by this tragic story ever since I read about it. I will withhold judgment on TD and JB as people, because I, like so many, never met them. I do want to go on record saying that I think Theresa was a very poetic, talented writer, exemplified by her description of a Santa Ana perfume and “The Ghost Ship of Los Angeles” piece. Intelligent, highly imaginative and haunting.
    I think it’s a shame she didn’t make a (great) feature film, because there are sooo many schmucks who survive and thrive in the industry who don’t have an ounce of her poetic, Romantic soul.
    Of course, it’s a shame about both of them. I could write a lot about the two of them, but I won’t out of respect. (Whoever’s writing a script should be publicly flogged).
    Can anyone listen to Beck’s Sea Change again, without being completely saddened and….creeped out?
    May they rest in peace.

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