Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: The Story Continues

Disclaimer: the content below does not necessarily reflect, in whole or part, the feelings, thoughts or opinions of this writer.  In this, and  previous posts, I will recount the three main narratives of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan.  Each of these stories has problems in terms of factual accuracy, perspective, and logic.  The point of these posts is to give as accurate a summary of each account as I can without interruption.  The last is continued here.

I’m apologizing in advance for the length of this post.  In the future, I’ll try to keep them shorter.  Honest.

In August 2007, a blogger began a series of posts on Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan on his now-defunct page, Dreams End.   His views received considerable attention, mostly negative, in a number of online venues, including Rigorous Intuition, a page Duncan referred and linked to, and podcasts of The Blue Rose Report and Untamed Dimensions

As dreamsend explained to hosts SMiles Lewis and Adam Gorightly, his take on Blake and Duncan’s deaths was influenced by previous concerns about the potential use of alternate reality games (ARGs) in psychological operations.  While he didn’t think that ARGs in and of themselves were malicious, he noted that they could serve as conduits of disinformation because of their nature.  ARGs could very well constitute what US Navy employee Gary Whitley defined as gray propaganda–information from an unknown or questionable source that leads to differences in opinion as to the accuracy of the account.

When looking at Wit of the Staircase, dreamsend noted consistent thematic content that, when viewed in toto, yielded a comprehensive and coherent narrative, with a storyline that offered copious foreshadowing of the tale’s conclusion:  specifically, the suicides of Blake and Duncan.  This led him to consider the possibility that their saga, as expressed in Wit of the Staircase, was a fiction from beginning to end.  What, on the surface, seemed like a personal blog was in fact a collaborative effort.  As he explained to Gorightly in a podcast dated 4 October 2007:
I think that Theresa Duncan, herself, did not exist.  I think there was a person named Theresa Duncan.  But like all of us, like you and like me, you can’t judge who we are from the blog. And that blog has been substituted for Theresa Duncan.  I think the blog may have even been collectively written.  It certainly changed after her death–twice.  Once it was done openly:  a guy named Glenn O’Brien who writes for a fashion magazine (I’ve forgotten which one at the moment).  He’s got connections all the way back to the Andy Warhol crowd, which itself was something Theresa Duncan was fascinated with.  For some reason, early-Seventies she seemed to write about extensively, both in terms of occult, underground film, music–she was really into that era.

And so, they created this Theresa Duncan with this blog, and they removed her from the scene at just the right point, dramatically. And the two of them [i.e., the actors serving as the public face of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan], possibly, according to my theory, could still be alive, and have done this as a hoax, have done this—just sold out and introduced a huge new alternate reality game that’s coming, have done this because they had some real important political message to put out there that they did not think could get out any other way.  That’s sort of an interesting possibility in a sense that looks like there’s a larger picture being painted here, and our attention is being drawn, not just by discussion of Scientology, but also the whole idea of child exploitation and child trafficking.
While it was his belief that Blake and Duncan were fictional characters played by actors, dreamsend did a fair amount of legwork to determine the reality of the situation.  He spoke to an NYPD Officer, referred to only as Inspector George, to verify that they actually investigated Duncan’s death.  The policeman didn’t give him any information, but he also didn’t deny an investigation into the case.  dreamsend had better fortune when speaking to Ocean County Prosecutor’s Investigator Sandra Rodriguez, who confirmed that they pulled a body out of the ocean, and that a forensic dental examination matched the decedent’s teeth to those of Jeremy Blake.  He then spoke to the late-Dr. Haskell Askin, a forensic ordontologist who conducted Blake’s examination.  In his conversation with Detective Rodriguez, dreamsend discovered that she had a substantial knowledge of ARGs.  And curiously, during the course of their discussion, Dr. Askin mentioned a novel about a dentist who swaps dental records in order to fake a death.

The fact that there was at least one, and apparently two dead bodies involved led dreamsend to see “something darker” than your everyday, run-of-the-mill ARG.  And after further examination, he began to suspect that intelligence personnel played a key role in whatever this turned out to be.  Scrutinizing Wit of the Staircase in detail, along with previous works credited to Blake and Duncan, he found patterns that seemed to confirm his opinion.  While these are too numerous to go into extensive detail here, the following constitute some of the more salient points.

1.  “The History of Glamour”*

∙    The story parallels Duncan’s life experience.  The protagonist is a wannabe blond-pigtailed androgynous entertainer (singer/model) from the fictional Rust Belt town of Antler, OH. 
∙    The protagonist participates in a Fashion Show titled “Play Dead,” for a clothier who has produced a wardrobe centering around death themes.  During this show, her job is to lie in an open casket.  Duncan’s funeral was open-casket.
∙    The protagonist’s mother is a wood carver, whose works include a hookah-smoking caterpillar, one of the characters of Alice in Wonderland.
∙    The protagonist comes to New York via a poppy field.  She refers to the Big Apple as Emerald City, an allusion to The Wizard of Oz.  According to those who claim to have undergone MONARCH programming, some handlers used the 1939 film and the novels of L. Frank Baum as indoctrination tools. Other handlers used Alice in Wonderland for the same purpose.
∙    A scene featuring a series of magazines contains a number of clues.  Their headlines read “Osage and Orange:  Life after Death” (dreamsend’s belief that Duncan’s death was a hoax),   Another headline reads “Eat Me!  Forty Pills that Will Rock Your World,” with a picture of a red pill. Duncan allegedly took Tylenol PMs on the day of her death, which are blue, but similar to Benadryl pills that are red (pink).** The magazines all cost $40.  Duncan died at the age of forty.
∙    The protagonist leaves New York and returns to Antler, whereupon she has a phone conversation with her former agent, who tells her not to worry because he has a new client, a twelve-year old kid who rides a bike.  While the agent thinks the kid has prospects, he rues that he’s “too old to play the [Limelight].”*** This is a clear reference to Johnny Gosch, the twelve-year old Iowa newspaper boy who disappeared in mid-route, and, as rumor has it, became ensnared in a pedophile sex-slave ring.  Duncan would later make a veiled accusation that Blake’s former associate, Jim Cownie (foster father of Jeremy’s then-girlfriend, Anna Gaskell), had something to do with Gosch’s disappearance.  In this regard, dreamsend noted that as publisher of the Des Moines alternative newspaper pointblank, Gaskell’s brother, Jon, published a story about Gosch’s kidnapping and the putative connection to the Franklin scandal.   It would turn out to be pointlank’s final publication.  In a later e-mail, Jon Gaskell would claim that the story was an April Fool’s joke.  
∙    dreamsend noted that after a complete absence from the Internet, “The History of Glamour” appeared on the Alterati website, which was hosted by Gray Lodge, an organization run by Joseph Matheny, the writer often credited as one of the main purveyors of ARGs.

2. References on the Wit of the Staircase to philosopher Jean Baudrillard

∙    Duncan referred to Baudrillard in two posts: “The Minds that Shaped Los Angeles, Vol 2,” and “‘L’ Is for Loser.”
∙    Baurdillard’s work, like that of contemporaries Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, centered on semiotics (or semiology), the study of symbols.  He viewed meaning as largely self-referential since all signifiers (i.e., things that can indicate meaning) exist in a constellation of other interconnected signifiers.  Simply put, this means that Duncan’s knowledge of Baudrillard’s philosophy indicated her awareness of how one can interpret, and thus change, the networks of meaning that constitute popular consciousness by changing the nature of a signifier’s relationship to others, or perhaps by adding new signifiers.  If The Wit of the Staircase were in fact an ARG, this could be at the root of its philosophical underpinnings.

3.  References to twins and mirrors

∙    The theme of twins and mirrors are evident on the blog.
∙    dreamsend felt that these references could indicate something fairly noteworthy in how this theme played out, especially when considering the physical similarities of Duncan, Dr. Sarah Hannah, and Anna Gaskell–all of whom had a connection to her through Blake:
The idea of “twins” will be prominent. As far as I can tell so far, the poet “Sarah Hannah ” was quite real. She has a lot more web presence, oddly, than Duncan, as far as things like funeral arrangements, memorial pages, etc. However, her suicide and physical appearance so resemble that of Duncan that seems likely to be a part of the storyline somehow. And Gaskell and Duncan are linked somehow as well. One or more of them will likely be revealed NOT to be the person we thought they were.****
Implied in this is the possibility that perhaps Dr. Hannah, or someone else, could have contributed to Wit of the Staircase.  The death of Dr. Hannah, a little over a month before Duncan, could have necessitated the termination of the blog, or the end of the storyline, if this were an ARG the professor contributed to.

4..  Suicide foreshadowing

∙    Allusions to suicides of people who had something in common with Duncan (e.g., this post) are also evident on the blog.
∙    Thirty-nine days before she died, Duncan posted an obituary of Dr. Hannah
∙    Early on in the blog, Duncan posted about writers who killed themselves.

5.  A prediction of Duncan’s Death on another site?

∙    In response to a post dated 8 June 2007 on the blog Rigorous Intuition, someone (presumably female) going by the handle Et in Arcadia Ego Eve (not to be confused with Et in Arcadia Ego, another regular of the RI forums), posted a comment that read in part:
Did you know that much wisdom can be found in anagrams? Shango showed me these riddles:

"A Lonely Wit - Aloha," or "A Holy Toenail Law

∙    Although ‘aloha’ can mean either goodbye or hello, the comment, without context, seems to indicate a farewell to a Wit (i.e., Duncan) who at the time of her death was lonely (because she and Blake alienated their friends with all the Scientology talk).

6,   A consciousness of artistic hoaxes evident on Wit of the Staircase

∙    Duncan wrote about such art/literary hoaxers as JT LeRoy (e.g., in the post “JT Leroy’s Funeral: A Dozen Youthful Disillusionments")
∙    LeRoy was the false identity assumed by novelist Laura Albert.  LeRoy was supposedly a reclusive, transgendered author of semi-autobiographical works, using as subject material the tales of his life as a child (and later adult) prostitute (which, of course, ties in with the story of Johnny Gosch).  As you can tell by the above New York magazine link, many literary critics thought that LeRoy was real, especially after seeing him in rare public appearances played by a woman, often identified as Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Albert's boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop.
∙    The case of LeRoy raises a number of issues consistent with ARGs.  First, there is the issue of identity and artistic (in this case literary) authenticity.  Second, there is a blurring of lines between reality and fiction.  Albert’s novels are no less real after exposure of the hoax than they were before.  But their value seems to have changed, in the mind of some critics.. 
∙    dreamsend also noted the absence of a well-known reality fiction that gained prominence during the first year of Wit of the Staircase.  The saga of Lonelygirl15 in many respects paralleled Wit of the Staircase in that it seemed like the normal, random YouTube postings that we’ve all become familiar with by now.  But after awhile, like WotS, Lonelygirl15's post developed a very discernable narrative that involved elements commonly found in conspiracy research.  As the project came closer to its reveal, the inferences became less ambiguous, just as the posts of WotS became increasingly explicit during the latter months of Duncan’s life, and contained elements commonly found in conspiracy research.

7.  The theme: sexual exploitation of minors

∙    Sexual exploitation of children is a very obvious theme on Wit of the Staircase, which focuses our attention on the problem through a number of devices (e.g., odd juxtapositions, such as ‘Nabokovian lepidopterist).
∙    In communication with L.A. Weekly journalist Kate Coe, dreamsend learned that Duncan was “really into Tuesday Weld.”  Her password was ‘Tuesday.’  Her dog’s name was Tuesday.  He realized that Duncan died on a Tuesday. Blake died the following Tuesday.  The connection between Tuesday Weld, the nymphet craze of the 1960s, and Weld’s probable sexual exploitation as an underage starlet seemed to provide simply more instances of meaningful recurrence. 
∙    dreamsend also pointed out a chilling passage of irony that Duncan penned for the liner notes of Baron von Luxury’s Sable Star album:*****
If you then whirled around to confront the maniac and the crazy logghoreac was an eye-searingly sexy sixteen year old runaway sporting satin hot pants, an Oakland Raiders t-shirt, a tin foil crown and a couple spurts of Amarige by Givenchy (which by the way is discontinued, what is this creature? A time traveler?) then you’ve found the mnemonic device to aurally recreate the subsequent days you spent with her roller skates parked outside your apartment door (don’t want to scratch the wood floors) and one eye peeled for the vice squad. How could something so bad feel so good? Like you even have to ask.

For dreamsend, the passage was bizarre, irony or no.  As he explained to Lewis:
I’m not saying that a woman couldn’t write like that sincerely, or couldn’t write like that ironically.  It just doesn’t seem to fit her character.  And what instead--it almost has the appearance of ‘I want to expose this to you.  But if I expose it to you directly, I’m gonna have trouble   So what I’m going to do instead is put this out here in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way and maybe someone will come along, and put the pieces together.’

8.  Intelligence connections to ARGs

∙    dreamsend stated that he learned a great deal about ARGs from a fellow forum poster.  Tracking down the poster’s IP address he discovered that the computer, which this forum mate operated, belonged to Crane Aviation, a defense and intelligence contractor.
∙    In an episode of The Blue Rose Report, host Lewis mentioned a connection between Matheny and Intel, discovering in the process a company called mediaEdge, a subsidiary of Exceptional Software, Inc.  Exceptional Software, on its website, had a pdf brochure that said it had created an ARG to train intelligence personnel
∙    Theresa’s mother, political theorist Dr. Mary Duncan, wrote a dissertation titled “The Language of Liberation: A Semiotic Reading of Emory Douglas and the Art of the Black Panther Party.”  As a white leftist who had researched the Panthers in depth, Dr. Duncan would have been quite aware of the political pressure and subterfuge they became subjected to in such counterintelligence ops as Cointelpro and MERRIMAC. 
∙    Dr. Duncan also served as the Associate Director for Research Compliance at Wayne State University.  Also teaching at Wayne State was Dr. Christopher Green, formerly an analyst for the CIA’s Office of Science and Weapons Intelligence.  While some researchers have likened Dr. Green to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, dreamsend saw his actions more in the vein of the Cancer Man, a figure who seems to have made a career out of disseminating gray propaganda to conspiracy researchers.  dreamsend felt that Green and Duncan would have had to have had some contact at Wayne State because of his backgrounds in medicine and neurophysiology, disciplines where candidates would have to have reviews of research projects done by a human subjects committee, such as the one Dr. Duncan worked for.  dreamsend also seemed to be a bit concerned about a fellow conspiracy researcher's outreach efforts to Dr. Green.

As he had said on his blog and in his podcast interviews, dreamsend published his thoughts as they evolved so that readers could understand the thought processes that went into his opinions.  What he thinks of the case now would be a matter of speculation, since the blog went off the air in 2011.  But in summary, his take on this seems to be that (1)  Wit of the Staircase represented a collaborative effort, a Team Duncan if you will, which possibly included a woman actually named Theresa Duncan; (2) there were actual deaths involved; (3) the blog was carefully constructed to tell a specific story, and (4) there could be an Intelligence collection behind whatever was happening on that page.

That’s the last of the three narratives that comprised the social drama that I witnessed in 2008, as the story gained more traction online and in the mainstream public.  Next up: an examination of each of these, beginning with the suicide angle.
*I have not seen “History of Glamour” other than the brief clip which I embedded previously.  It doesn’t seem to be on the web, although it was at one time (see above). Consequently, I cannot verify the descriptions of the above, which come from dreamsend.

**According to Tylenol, there is one key difference between their product and Benedryl: the former has an added 500 milligrams of acetaminophen.

***I capitalized ‘limelight” here because this reads to me as a double entendre.  The Limelight was an infamous Manhattan nightclub located in a converted stone church.  By the mid-1980s, it had become the in-place for cutting-edge indie rock, designer drugs, and (staged and impromptu) sex shows.  To hear my former students talk about it, The Limelight sounded like a perpetual porno/kink open-mic night.  Police shut down the club a number of times during the 1990s.  After a name change, the nightclub closed permanently in 2007.  A marketplace currently operates in that space.

****From “Alice Underground: The Theresa Duncan ARG” posted 6 August 2007

*****Sable Starr was a legendary groupie of the 1970s, who had sex with some of the biggest names of the day, despite the fact that she was in her early teens.

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  • At 2:38 AM, Blogger Roxanne Galpin said…

    A lot to take in. I look forward to your examination of the narratives.

  • At 1:27 PM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said…

    My head is spinning pretty wildly at the moment.

  • At 12:37 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Roxanne, it is a lot. I didn't want to play this out over a ton of posts, so I dumped it all in one.

    Charles, as a neuropsychologist, you have the tools to handle spinning head syndrome, I'm sure.

  • At 7:35 AM, Blogger diana said…

    It is a lot to take in. For some reason, faking a death and switching out teeth sticks out .... I suppose it's possibly happened before, it has at least in fiction as youve mentioned and movies (that movie with Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis). It will be interesting to see how you finish this series.

  • At 9:25 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Diana, maybe I should have separated this into two posts.

  • At 2:51 PM, Blogger Chris Benjamin said…

    As someone who has enough trouble keeping my real life, and my various roles within it straight, I'm perplexed and fascinated by ARGs. I'm hooked as usual, X.

  • At 10:41 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Thanks, Chris. I hear you. Me, I like to keep things simple. I came across the concept a couple of years ago when reading a book about hoaxes. But I only really started to pay attention to it when researching Blake and Duncan in earnest.

  • At 11:11 AM, Blogger ELFIS said…

    Hey X, what book might that be that refs ARGs and hoaxes?

  • At 5:34 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Hi Elfis. Not exactly highbrow material, it's a little volume titled Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. by Museum of Hoaxes curator Alex Boese (2006: New York: Harcourt). Pg. 105 introduces a section on "The Alternate Reality Game," starting with the infamous


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