Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: A Glamourous History out of Context*

I knew her, and I knew that much of what she wrote about her world was an elaborate tale, taken as fact by the uninitiated. Duncan blogged daily on her elegant Web site, The Wit of the Staircase, about her bohemian-chic cottage on a Venice canal, meetings of the slightly sinister and probably nonexistent Lunar Society of Los Angeles, and the turbulent love life of Kate Moss.

–Kate Coe, “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy:  A Writer, Game Designer and Her Boyfriend Commit Suicide, and a Facade Falls Away” (L.A. Weekly, 1 August 2007)

In “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy,” journalist Kate Coe presented herself as an insider, who knew Duncan (from the tone of the piece one would presume well, although she did not say that).  She insisted that those who put any credence in the words of Wit of the Staircase were simply the “uninitiated” who swallowed whole the tall tale of Duncan’s life, as depicted on her blog.   Coe stressed that although Duncan projected a glamourous image, Theresa was decidedly less than the legend she created of herself.  To this end, Coe gave a number of examples illustrating the myth-making that Duncan engaged in to make herself larger than life.  

“The Theresa Duncan Tragedy” leaves the reader with a very unflattering impression of Duncan as a plagiarist, a racist, a paranoid, and if not a pathological liar, close to it.** Not surprisingly, there were others in Duncan’s inner-orbit who saw the piece as a smear, and they openly expressed their dissatisfaction with what Coe had written. 

In a post dated 9 August 2007,  Duncan’s ex-boyfriend, and former Magnet Interactive colleague, Raymond Doherty felt it necessary to come to Theresa’s defense, writing:
It is unfortunate you turn Theresa Duncan's tragic story into a gossipy tale (LA Weekly, 8/1/07) about her ‘dark side,’ painting a distorted picture of the person I knew well.

It is so slanted that I feel compelled to address your account as thoroughly as I can, both for truth's sake, and as part of my own attempt to come to terms with and understand what has happened. By telling an account that is so off the mark, you have, ironically, helped that process.
Doherty cited examples of what he saw as bias.  For starters, there was the plagiarism charge.  In an article titled “Eau de Us Weekly,” published on Slate (22 March 2006), Duncan opened, “When did we start wanting to smell like celebrities? Browsing the perfume aisles at Sephora these days is like flipping through an issue of Hello!” 

The second sentence was remarkably similar to the opening of an item posted by Victoria Frolova, on 2 November 2005 at her site, Bois de Jasmin, titled “Scent of Fame: Celebrity Fragrance Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Others”: “Walking through the fragrance aisles of Sephora makes me feel as if I am browsing through a Hello magazine with the names like Britney Spears, J.Lo, Paris Hilton, and Kimora Lee Simmons popping before my eyes.”

Coe reported the online “abuzz” that followed the publication of Duncan’s plagiarism, and further commented,  “Duncan wasn’t all that sorry, writing on her blog that the blogger she plagiarized ‘acted like I had tried to murder her.’” Here, Coe characterized Duncan’s state of mind as defiantly arrogant, with an inflated sense of entitlement.  But reading the actual post (“Plagiarism, Cont’d”) in context , one gets the sense that Duncan was more defensive than defiant.**** Moreover, Coe only wrote that Duncan had “lifted words” from the Frolova post, without specifying the extent of the plagiarism, thus possibly giving the impression that Duncan stole Frolova’s entire piece.   

Coe is quite correct in her assertion that Duncan plagiarized Frolova’s opening sentence.  And I agree with Coe’s implication that Duncan’s plagiarism was morally wrong and serious.  But there’s plagiarism, and then there’s plagiarism.***** That’s not to say that Coe is wrong, but rather that the charge is out of context.  As someone who taught undergrads for over a decade, I can tell you that they can have a hard time ferreting out what constitutes plagiarism and what does not.  Indeed, professionals have difficulty with it, sometimes.  The fact that Duncan was, to a significant extent, self-educated is something to consider when determining how malevolent or delusional her intent was.  Moreover, one can argue that there’s a fundamental difference between a malicious attempt to steal the thoughts and words of another, unconscious plagiarism, and ignorance about what constitutes word theft.  And as her editor, quoted by Coe, said, “...she [Duncan] was upset and confused” by the allegation.******  

While the pieces have some overlap (both Frolova and Duncan thought highly of the Alan Cumming perfume, and neither seemed too thrilled about the packaging of celebrity brands–leading Frolova to quip that one wears the perfume, not the bottle), they are clearly different articles in terms of their scope, style and intent.  Frolova’s account chronicles her personal experimentation with celebrity scents.  Duncan has an appraisal of perfumes too, but it's more detached, and she profiles scents not mentioned in the Frolova post.  Duncan also includes some analysis of the perfume industry which Frolova did not.  Note, that doesn’t make Duncan’s sentence any less an example of plagiarism.  But by not specifying the nature of the plagiarism, “The Tragedy of Theresa Duncan” seems to have overstated the extent of the offense.

Coe’s description of Duncan’s departure from Magnet Interactive, and her insinuation that Duncan was racist really irked Doherty:
The low point in your [Coe’s] reporting is your account of what happened early in Theresa's career at Magnet Interactive (as you say, ‘long before the career downturns and aborted projects piled up in Los Angeles’), where you recount Theresa's creative partner's version of events without apparently making more than a token gesture toward fact-checking. Having been working at Magnet and dating Theresa at the time, the story you tell, which you refer to as Theresa’s ‘Shoo-fly Pie meltdown,’ is very different from what I remember.  What I do remember clearly is our shock when her partner, without Theresa's knowledge, requested a meeting with Magnet's owner and senior creative director where she made the wild accusation that the game Theresa had written was ‘racist.’  And I remember thinking how crazy that claim was, for I had read all the drafts of the game treatment. Indeed, Shoo-fly Pie was as sweet and whimsical as all of Theresa's other games would prove to be.
In the comments section, the “creative partner” in question, Monica Gesue, put the matter of her relationship with Duncan and her conversation with Coe for “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy” into a different context.  Gesue confirmed that Duncan indeed “...turned on me, and it was frightening,” and carefully detailed the actions that led to the dissolution of their friendship, and Duncan’s dismissal by Magnet.  But whereas Coe said that Gesue “thought the humor [of Shoo-Fly Pie] was racist,” Gesue gave Doherty a somewhat different story:
At that meeting, I was asked about my reservations concerning ‘Shoo-Fly Pie.’ I, all along, was uncomfortable telling a story about the deep South--I didn't feel like it was my story to tell. I might have used the word ‘racist’ but not implying that Theresa was racist, or that the story was intentionally racist.
Although she characterized Coe as “...a lovely person and is the only reporter whom I've spoken with, and I truly think she tried to write something that would get to the essence of why this tragedy happened,” Gesue nevertheless noted that Coe’s usage of her information did not reflect the context in which she gave it, writing:
I realize that in Kate's shortened excerpt of what I spoke to her about, it may seem that I was attacking Theresa. Mostly I talked to her about the good things about her--how funny she was and how much I cared about her.
In other words, Gesue gave what she considered to be a fair assessment of Duncan that consisted of mostly positive remembrances, but didn’t shrink away from negative ones.  Yet, if Gesue spoke anything well of Duncan, then it’s not reflected anywhere in “The Tragedy of Theresa Duncan”--unless Gesue’s statements served as the source of the final two paragraphs (and that’s not clear). 

Doherty had this to say in response to Gesue’s comment.
Monica, this is really about the breakup of a close relationship the two of you had, and I don't believe it was as one-sided as you describe. I'm sure T did not handle it well, but neither did you. And whatever happened, it is really unfortunate that you would take this opportunity to tell the world how 'horrible' she was to you. I could only imagine how mortified you were when you saw your words in print. Apparently that wasn't the case. And all this is beside the point, which is that Kate Coe's portrayal of Theresa was trash journalism at it's [sic] worst and grossly unfair.
Doherty’s response here brings up a couple of issues.  First, even if Coe or any other reporter had accurately reflected what informants said regarding Duncan, then it would still only represent the informant’s recollection of events.  Gesue’s recollection is definitely not the same as Doherty’s, and most likely isn’t that of Duncan--although, we can only speculate about that, since Duncan is no longer around to give her side of the story.  Moreover, the piece did not cite utterances that could have offered counterbalance to the assertions attributed to some former friends, thus giving the impression that those who knew Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan had formed a consensus about who the couple was, and what they did.  Yet, Doherty’s statement here gives us an indication that Blake and Duncan’s inner circle had not, in fact, formed a consensus.

Second, as Gesue’s account implies, anything positive said about Duncan–by Monica or any of the informants cited in “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy”–could very well not have made it into print if it challenged or qualified the overall narrative of a narcissistic “fabulist.”  Doherty assumed that Coe quoted Gesue contrary to context, and Gesue indicated that this was true, despite her defense of Coe.  One can understand if after reading this and other articles, Blake and Duncan’s friends and family were somewhat reluctant to speak to the press at all.  If they gave an honest account of the two, warts and all, they could fear that they would only see the warts in print.  If their views diverged even slightly from the dominant narrative of the dangerous, conspiracy-crazed couple, they might very well feel that their opinions wouldn’t find a voice.

And yet, there are additional issues in “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy” and other writings that merit attention.  We’ll examine these In the next post.

I would have examined them in this one, but I promised to make these entries shorter.
*The term ‘glamour’ itself is derived from the Scottish word ‘gramarye’ which in turn is a variant of the English word ‘grammar.’  Traditionally, the concept of glamour entails learnedness, especially of the occult variety, and was often used to denote a specific type of magic:  an enchantment spell.  When you cast glamour, the legend is that other people would see you differently than what you actually were. 

**Out of the forty-three paragraphs that comprise “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy,” only the final two say something positive about Duncan.  But even these are tempered with what one could construe as stingers.  In the penultimate paragraph, Coe wrote “Theresa Duncan was undeniably a creative force...” tempered by “...infuriating and inspiring in equal measure.”  The last paragraph begins “Many read Duncan’s words online, and most thought she was glamorous, brilliant, brave, bold, erudite. She was all those things--but those attributes didn’t win in the end.”  Also, Coe quoted Fr. Frank Morales describing Duncan as “a bright light,” but that too is tempered by his preceding comment: “Theresa ...manifested a penchant for looking at things in a dark way”

***“A Letter to Kate Coe: How You Got the Theresa Duncan Story–Wrong,” /R.  Comments by Doherty and Gesue can be found here, at

****Duncan admitted that she might have unconsciously plagiarized the sentence, writing, “I probably did see her blog last fall when she wrote the line.”

*****Over the years, I’ve found others taking articles from The X-Spot and slapping their name to things I’ve written here.  This was simply an easy-to-find example that’s still extant.  When finding it through a Google search, the link credits the author as Eric Kilmer, something that isn’t apparent on the post itself.  Since I don’t have a commercial purpose for writing The X-Spot, I’d just as soon let Mr. Kilmer be, although I am somewhat worried that someone, someday, might accuse me of plagiarizing my own article

Frolova obviously has every right to protect her work from copyright violations .  And because she sells advertising on her site, she has more compelling and legitimate reasons than I to aggressively defend her blog against this and other acts of plagiarism. 

******Posters on Theresa Duncan Central, a blog very critical of Duncan by and for self-styled “Duncanologists” (?), cites several other instances of plagiarism (from Wikipedia), and characterize them as blatant and numerous. 

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  • At 10:18 PM, Blogger Roxanne Galpin said…

    I read the Kate Coe article. and it does paint Duncan in a bad light.

  • At 10:23 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Roxanne, my concern here isn't whether Coe painted Duncan in a bad light, per se. I'm concerned about the reliability of this particular version of events, since it seems to be a really incomplete picture of who she was, and what happened to her.

  • At 10:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    One mystery to me was always why Duncan got so much public hate after she died. I mean, it is one thing to do an unflattering article after death on some well known figure who had a darkside, but why go after Duncan? And TDC...same question. Does make you wonder if it was a Scilon smear campaign.

  • At 10:49 PM, Anonymous Birdmadgirl said…

    I think it's worthwhile thinking about Theresa's Wit of the Staircase "plagiarism" (notwithstanding the perfume article, which is another matter altogether) in terms of postmodernist strategies of collage: appropriating others' material and juxtaposing it in evocative ways. Granted, there are issues of copyright and fair use, etc. involved, but as an aesthetic choice it has a long, distinguished lineage.

  • At 9:01 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Hello, Anonymous. Welcome to The X-Spot.

    You're obviously familiar with the online aftermath of Blake and Duncan's passing. I can only speculate as to why so much venom got hurled their way. Perhaps it was something akin to schadenfreude, where people took a vicarious thrill in seeing two people who were so "it" get taken down a peg. And people can be pretty envious at times. As to whether or not someone deliberately stirred up hate, I'm afraid that would be a matter of even wilder speculation.

    As to the Scientology smear; one would certainly have to concede that Scientology takes a rather active interest in maintaining its image and engaging in PR. But since Coe insists that she isn't a Scientologist, I'm inclined to take her at her word. There was, however, another article, whose influence is equal to, and may ultimately eclipse this one's. There's indication of Scientology involvement in that one, and I'll address that later in this series.

    Hello, Birdmadgirl. Welcome to The X-Spot.

    Your point is valid, and well-taken. This is something that Duncan herself alluded to in the post "Plagiarism, Cont'd."

    I'm not certain that had anything to do with the Slate article; and one could possibly view this tact as finding justification for an action after the fact (I do read the post as defensive, but I could be wrong). I don't believe that Duncan had any malicious intent in this matter. I think she just goofed--an honest mistake, nothing more.

    You're also correct that this indeed has a long lineage. In fact, it's the basis of folk culture. Woody Guthrie's songbooks often had a line that read (and I can't remember the quote exactly, but I'll give it a try) "Anyone who steals this song, or uses it without our consent we reckon is a friend of ours, 'cause chances are, we probably stole it from somebody else."

    I also see your point in terms of the philosophical nature of ideas. Who really owns a thought, especially since we're educated within specific traditions? Or how can an original thought exist without the existence of others that came before it--even if it's purpose is to trash the old paradigm. But, as you say, there are issues of copyright and fair usage that come into play when somebody is relying on their efforts, in whole or part, to support themselves. As a freelancer myself, I understand that.

  • At 10:14 AM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said…

    Schadenfreude is one of the pillars of human cognitive functioning I think, and far more important than it is generally considered to be. It's part of the social pecking order aspects of humanity. Scary stuff.

  • At 11:58 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Interesting, Charles. That brings up the question whether our relationship to power has anything to do with it. If we see someone who exudes, for example, a regal air, would we be more act to stomp on them while they're down, because it was too risky for us to do it in real life?

  • At 4:35 PM, Blogger Ray Palm (Ray X) said…

    OK, it took a bit of doing but I did find your article under someone else's name after I typed in the name Eric Kilmer and the article's title. I disagree with you that what he did is a lesser case of plagiarism because your blog is non-commercial. Outside of accidental plagiarism -- i.e., someone forgets something they read and then repeats the same points in the same manner -- I don't tolerate plagiarism in any form. Even when money isn't involved, someone else is still gaining from your work.

    I hate parasites, no-talented people who use others and take credit, especially in the case of a boss exploiting his employees. That happened to me at a local TV station.

    That's why I chuckled when I read about an editor at a comic book company many years ago who had this scam going. A writer would come in with a story proposal and the editor would turn it down flat. Let's say the proposal was Superhero fights mad inventor with an earthquake generator. Another writer would enter the editor's office and offer a different plot idea. The editor would say that plot sucked but then he told the writer to do a story about Superhero fights mad inventor with an earthquake generator. When a third writer came in, the editor would reject his plot, saying ti sucked, but then assign him the plot offered by the second writer. The editor would claim that he had to come up with plot ideas because his writers weren't that imaginative.

    I see you're trying to keep your posts shorter, making it easier to digest all the details and points. I'm still printing out each one because it's easier to follow and also go back and re-read certain parts. As I mentioned before, the structure of each series lends itself more to a longer form like an e-book. Maybe they could be re-formatted later into a book format. Just a thought.

  • At 8:09 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Ray, I thank you for seeing it in that light, even though I still don't have much interest in going after Kilmer.

    The editor you wrote about reminds me of some of the stories I've heard about screenwriting. Very similar concept actually to concentrate control of the artistic product at the top.

    I have thought about doing the series in e-book form just so I make the archives easier to read. Perhaps if I have another assignment similar to the one that sucked my writing brain earlier this year, I'll do that.

  • At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Cathy Seipp didn't marry Dennis Seipp! She was married to and divorced from Jerry Lazar--Seipp was her "maiden" name. If you're going to do this, please try checking the facts.

  • At 11:36 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Okay, Anonymous. But realize these aren't my facts that I'm posting. They belong to someone else, whom I've cited. I'm posting them here to critique them.


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