FOLIE A DEUX
INTELLIGENT, ATTRACTIVE AND CREATIVE –THERESA DUNCAN AND JEREMY BLAKE SEEMED TO HAVE IT ALL. BUT BENEATH THE SURFACE LURKED TROUBLES THAT WOULD ONLY BE REVEALED BY THE COUPLES UNTIMELY DEATHS BY LAURIE WINER
OF THERESA DUNCAN’S once-close girlfriends, some wanted to talk about her suicide but refused to speak on record, thinking it unseemly. One of them immediately did some hard reporting and published a story in the L.A. Weekly. But–whether waiting and watching or aggressively asking questions–they all tried to figure out why.
Why would Theresa Duncan–lovely, smart and deeply in love–kill herself at age 40 by washing down a bottle of Tylenol PM with bourbon? And to add to the mystery, why did her lover of 12 years, the equally attractive 35-year-old Jeremy Blake, strip off his clothes and walk from Rockaway Beach in Queens into the Atlantic Ocean one week later? (His body was found on July 22.) Unlike Duncan, whose once promising career devolved into a string of disappointments, Blake was a star in the world of digital art; some even called him the best of his generation.
Online, these were the deaths that launched a thousand blogs. Picking up on the couple’s seemingly paranoid obsessions–they claimed Scientologists, former friends and total strangers were out to destoy them–bloggers wove elaborate theories on the who, what, where and why of the couple’s demise. Some questioned whether the pair had committed suicide; one, stangely enough, even doubted Duncan’s very existence.
Theresa Duncan had herself been a presence in the blogosphere since 2005. She had maintained her site–an ambitious and eccentric cultural journal, “The Wit of the Staircase”–with such regularity that one former friend sensed trouble when Duncan stopped posting for just two days.
In fact, she had taken her own life on the very day she posted her last entry, July 10. Blake found her body in the bedroom of their East Village apartment in New York that same day.
Duncan and Blake had moved back to Manhattan from Los Angeles only five months earlier. Their anxiety-fraught exit from L.A. contrasted sharply with their arrival here in 2002, when they believed Hollywood was the next logical step in their budding careers; they had one movie project almost in the can (Blake was designing the hallucinatory sequences in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love) and another on the way (Fox Searchlight was developing “Alice Underground,” Duncan’s screenplay).
They first met in 1995 and fast became inseparable. In 1998, they collaborated on an animated short called The History of GLamour. The film centers on a beautiful girl named Charles Valentine, whose ambition and talent prove too large for the small town of Antler, Ohio. With her pretty blonde hair and delicately shaped face, Charles bears more than a physical resemblance to Duncan, who was born in the equally small town of Lapeer, Michigan. Like Charles, she came to New York when she decided she was “going to be conspicuous.”
In the film, fame comes instantly for Charles; she becomes a star not only for her peculiar, limpid singing style but also for her insightful short stories and her cool ennui. Eventually, Charles gets bored with her success and goes back to Antler to pen a tome entitled The History of Glamour.
In real life, Duncan only returned to her hometown to be buried.
IT HAD ALL STARTED so well. The History of Glamour opened doors for Duncan, who was also making a name for herself creating computer games for teenaged girls. She encouraged Blake to leave his day job designing video graphics at Rockstar Games, creator of the “Grand Theft Auto” series. According to friends, she gave him the financial backing and emotional strength to devote himself full-time to his art. And he did just that, creating colorful often hypnotic digital videos that have been shown in major museums throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery planned a major exhibition of Blake’s works for this month and will still present his works–though Glitterbox, the 2006 work he had planned to complete in time for the show, remains unfinished.
One friend recalls meeting Duncan around that time, in 1998. “I was 22, a young writer, and she was 10 years older, quite beautiful. She was well spoken and smart. She was in psychoanalysis, talked about Freud. She had the great-looking boyfriend and a glamorous loft on Broome Street and threw a lot of parties. I like how her mind worked. She made a lot of wild connections between things you wouldn’t normally make.”
The couple moved from New York to L.A. in 2002. Renting a home in Venice, Duncan and Blake continued to entertain a circle of chic friends: journalist, artists, musicians and filmmakers. To acquaintances, they were indistinguishable from the kind of alluring and intellegent couples seen at Los Feliz dinner parties and Culver City gallery openings. But in between the drinking, the smoking and the stimulating discussions of arts and ideas, friends noticed something was off.
“At first, their closeness was very appealing,” recalls Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and former friend of the couple he dubbed “Theremy.” You’d think, ‘Wow, these two are absolutely devoted to each other, on each other’s side. That’s really nice.”
“For a while, Theresa was just our ‘crazy’ friend,” continues Aslan. “You know, the friend with the conspiracy theories who thought [artist] Miranda July was going through her garbage. Eventually, her theories became less entertaining and more frightening. There was no arguing with her. If you suggested her ideas were false, you were immediately thrown out of their circle, and you were part of the ‘conspiracy’ against them.”
It was around the spring of 2006 that Duncan began posting seemingly paranoid obsessions on her blog–which lives on in cyberspace. Initially, the elegant, stylish writer had attracted readers with riffs on pet topics ranging from perfume and philosophy to film and anything related to Kate Moss. Creeping in more and more in the year before her death, however, was a different Duncan: a troubled woman whose writings could be described as paranoid, hostile and even libelous.
And in actual reality, Duncan’s theories were getting her into real world trouble.
Her relationship with Aslan and his girlfriend (now fiancee) Amanda Fortini is a case in point. In March 2006, Duncan penned a piece about perfume for Fortini, who, at the time, was an editor at the online magazine Slate. After publishing Duncan’s piece, another editor there noticed that Duncan’s opening sentence was almost identical to one by a blogger named Victoria Frolova, who also frequently wrote about perfume. Duncan’s explanation: The Scientologists had pre-dated Frolova’s piece on the Internet to make Duncan and Blake look bad. At this point, Fortini and Aslan, like many who knew the couple, began to distance themselves.
They nevertheless continued to hear from Duncan, usually after Aslan had made a public appearance on radio or television. Her emails to him became increasingly “violent,” he says. “She developed a complex theory about how I was an undercover CIA agent posing as a writer and scholar and that I had somehow gotten my hands on her FBI file and was part of a conspiracy to destroy her, and that she was going to destroy me first.”
Aslan and Fortini never spoke to her again.
Duncan also poisoned relationships with people who had direct influence on Blake’s career. Journalist-turned-curator Kristine McKenna first met Blake after he approached her through a mutual friend. He was a fan of McKenna’s 2005 Santa Monica Museum of Art show, “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & his Circle.” Sometime in late 2006, McKenna went to Blake’s Venice studio for a visit. “I remember being impressed by the range of stuff he had: noir novels, movies from Fellini to Peckinpah,” recalls McKenna. “He seemed really smart and a little bit fragile. Theresa’s name came up frequently. It was clear to me he really respected and admired her.”
Blake immediately told McKenna his problems in the art world started at the opening of his acclaimed “Winchester” show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That evening, he and Duncan dined with curators Lawrence Rinder, Ralph Rugoff and a young woman (one of Rugoff’s students). According to Blake, Rugoff said something inappropriate to Duncan, and “Theresa really put Ralph down,” McKenna remembers. Soon after, Rinder, Duncan and Blake left. After that, Blake insisted Rugoff spread rumors of the three of them going off for a menage a trois, and doors in the art world started to close.
McKenna went back to Blake’s studio to see more of his work, and he launched again into his story of the Rugoff conspiracy. “He told me he and Theresa had hired a private detective to hack into Ralph’s computer and find the emails Ralph was sending about them,” recalls McKenna. “He was totally confident of his opinions and felt his judgement was absolutely correct.”
Duncan and Blake came to McKenna’s next show at Santa Monica’s Track 16 in December, 2006. “They looked sweet and happy. That was the last time I saw them,” she says.
But Duncan and Blake weren’t only worried about Aslan, Rugoff and the Scientologists. In one blog entry titled, “The Trouble with Anna Gaskell,” Duncan lays out an almost impenetrably vast, dense and complicated plot.
Duncan’s tale begins in the Midwest in the 1960s, when a businessman named Jim Cownie takes legal guardianship of future artist Anna Gaskell and her three siblings after their father dies, for which Duncan implies Cownie is responsible (as well as the death of their mother). In actuality, Duncan’s only link to the Cownie/Gaskell clan, which she believed was instrumental in the U.S. government’s campaign against her, was that Blake had dated Anna Gaskell sometime before Duncan met him.
There’s more, much more to Duncan’s theories. Ronald K. Siegel, UCLA-affiliated psychologist and author of Whispers: The Voices of Paranoia, was struck both by the elegance of Duncan’s writing and the commoness of what he calls her paranoia. “I’ve seen scores [of writing] just like this,” he says. “Paranoia is so common it is difficult to consider a mental disorder. Many people are totally functional with it.”
Siegal doubts Duncan was driven to suicide by the terror of her perceived persecutors. Had it gone another way, she could have turned her fantasies into art, as do many writers of science fiction, he says. “She’s not as fearful as she is in love with her own writing about her fears,” he says. “She’s a very good writer, and you can see her antenna out there, reaching and grasping for these conspiratorial elements in the way screenwriters and novelists do. Paranoia really only means looking below the surface for details.”
USC-affiliated professor of social work John Brekke, who has long worked with the mentally ill, offers a slightly more acute diagnosis (though, of course, one based solely on Duncan’s writings). “These were not benign delusions,” he posits. “This is an undiagnosed mental illness charaterized by non-bizarre paranoid delusions. It’s a serious psychosis–a disease in which being bright and creative can actually hurt you.” Brekke suspects Duncan’s paranoid delusions merged with her real-life disappointments in a way that was unbearable. “Who knows if she had a moment of clarity in which she said, “Oh god, i destroyed myself and this man.”
Siegel, the paranoia expert, tends to agree: “She probably suffered from a tremendous amount of guilt and humiliation. She was caught plagiarizing and made up a story. She tells people she’s working on a movie that doesn’t exist. She hadn’t learned how to deal with setbacks, and her excuse is always to blame other people. Part of her recognized she was destroying herself.”
A close friend of Duncan views her unraveling in a similar fashion. “She had burned so many bridges for herself and for Jeremy that he was forced to take his old job back at Rockstar,” she says. “I knew Jeremy when he first worked there; he was thrilled to leave that job. It had to be really hard for them to go back to New York, to the scene of their former glory. I think Theresa must have felt badly about what she had done to Jeremy’s career and didn’t see anywhere for herself to go.”
Blake’s suicide, meanwhile, remains the more perplexing one. Certainly, he was caught up in Duncan’s theories: Last October, he had prepared a 27-page brief in preparation for a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology. Reportedly, in that brief, he named Tom Cruise, Miranda July, Paul Thomas Anderson, Beck and former Viacom CEO Tom Freston as players in the “conspiracy” against Duncan and himself. Whatever he may have believed in the end is not known. One thing is clear: Life without Theresa was not one he desired.
Duncan’s last blog entry, on the day of her death, shows a blurry photo of a woman putting on a mask. She quotes writer Reynolds Price: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens–second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.”
In the end, it seems Duncan was unable to construct a story with which she could live.
Source: California Style-October 2007-Contributer: Laurie Winer