The Trouble with Witty Flights: A Glamourous History Denied
In “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy” L.A. Weekly journalist Kate Coe wrote, “A version of Closet Cases can be seen on YouTube, but the authoritative IMDB has no record of either the Oxygen Media or VH1 project coming to fruition.”
Figure 1. “Closet Cases: The Dred Case”
As you can see in Figure 1, this episode of "Closet Cases" does in fact exist on YouTube. While Coe cited IMDB to support the idea that the project never materialized, one has to take into account a couple of things. First off, IMDB might be “authoritative.” But “authoritative” is not synonymous with “accurate.” An actor friend of mine, with a common name, intermittently finds his past roles listed on the credits of other men with the same name, and their credits on his page. It eventually gets straightened out, only to be confused again–and then straightened out again.
More to the point, IMDB is hardly complete. And this appears to be the case here, since we have ample evidence to show that Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan collaborated on this episode with James Dean Conklin, and that it actually aired. According to TV Guide, a fairly reputable source in these matters, “Closet Cases” was not the title of a show, but rather a regular segment of X-Chromosome, an animated series running from 2000-2002 which IMDB in fact lists.* Conk, whom no one appears to have dubbed a “fabulist” displays the item on his webpage, and credits Blake and Duncan as his collaborators,
The point here is that these types of innuendos marble “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy.” They tend to undermine what appear to be valid achievements in order to support the argument that Blake and Duncan drifted along in a world of imaginary successes.
Elsewhere, Coe mentioned the “probably nonexistent Lunar Society of Los Angeles.” The Lunar Society actually exists as the continuation of an eighteenth century organization of the same name that formed for the purpose of “[influencing] change through stimulating ideas, broadening debate and catalysing action.” One can apply for membership via e-mail, and even get a twenty-five quid fee for referring new members.
While it’s possible Blake and Duncan actually became members of the Lunar Society, there’s no evidence that they did other than the latter’s say-so on Wit of the Staircase. And if they did, the grand joke could be that she and Blake comprised the entire membership of the LA chapter. But there is reason to suspect that if they didn’t belong to the Lunar Society, Duncan used the organization as a metaphor for their work (more about that later). In any case, the specific qualification offered by “The Tragedy of Theresa Duncan,” (i.e., “probably non-existent [emphasis X. Dell]”) gives the impression that Coe didn’t actually delve very deeply to verify claims made by Duncan on Wit of the Staircase, (e.g., she could have written “Although there is a Lunar Society, there’s no proof that either Duncan or Blake formed an LA chapter”). Instead, the wording here, as well as in the previous example, hints at the application of a decision rule that any claim Duncan made on the site about her personal life was suspect, and therefore did not merit more than a perfunctory attempt at verification.
Coe, and for that matter California Style writer Laurie Winer, might have accurately reflected the legitimate and serious concerns of former friends regarding what they characterized as dangerously belligerent behavior. Dr. Reza Aslan related to both writers the extent of Duncan’s actions: that she left threatening messages for him when he appeared on TV; and that he felt so imperilled that he forwarded these missives to his attorneys.**
I certainly do not have, nor do I know of anyone else who does, evidence that contradicts Dr. Aslan and others in this regard. And just as such stories as Monica’s Gesue account of her final confrontation with Duncan at Magnet Interactive are fair game for a reporter writing about a public figure–if we could indeed regard Duncan as a public figure during the summer of 2007–the information given by Aslan and anonymous sources merit similar coverage, provided that they are true. But just as Gesue indicated that the scope of her information did not completely come through in “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy,” we cannot be sure of the context in which Dr. Aslan relayed this information to Winer and whoever interviewed him for L.A. Weekly. And, as Raymond Doherty’s observation pointed out, even if the statement accurately reflects the context of Aslan’s summary, it still represents only his side of events.
This is important because we have a conflict between how Dr. Aslan viewed his relationship to Duncan, and how Duncan viewed her relationship to Dr. Aslan. Aslan said that she was a friend, specifically, “our ‘crazy’ friend....You know, the friend with the conspiracy theories who thought [artist] Miranda July was going through her garbage.” Yet, in the comments to “The Trouble with Anna Gaskell,” Duncan characterized Aslan as someone she knew, but not all that well. Specifically, she said he was “a friend of a friend.”
Okay, perhaps Dr. Aslan’s depiction of the relationship is more accurate than Duncan. But, again, this reflects the assumption that Duncan is always incorrect. While it’s certainly okay to put what Duncan claimed on Wit of the Staircase under the microscope, the statements made by Aslan and anonymous friends were taken here at face value, with little indication that anyone scrutinized their words to a comparable degree, or made an attempt to verify them.
More important, this brings up the questions of just how well these informants, and Coe herself, actually knew Duncan, and whether or not they had any personal animosity towards her and/or Blake. Even though they had friends at the time of their deaths, Blake and Duncan, by many accounts, burned bridges behind them (one informant characterized it as “exploding bridges” behind them).
Most important, one could seriously question the overall premise of “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy” The notion that Duncan suddenly came to the realization that her life was a sham and she could not live with the truth reads like an urban legends approach to suicidal ideation, where one would expect to see a number of issues not addressed here. And I don't see good evidence that she saw herself as a failure.
The point here is not to disparage these informants, or Coe as professionals or human beings. Rather, it is to examine the validity and reliability of what would become an influential source with respect to public perception of Blake and Duncan. I certainly don’t believe many of the nasty rumors leveled against Coe in the wake of this article (e.g., that she was a closeted Scientologist), and I wouldn’t hesitate to acknowledge her writing skills, or for that matter be inclined to refute her professionalism as a journalist, judging from other articles by her that I have read.
At the same time, “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy” does come off as one-sided and sensationalistic. The information in it may not be false, and it certainly doesn’t meet the criteria for defamation. Nevertheless, it seems rather incomplete, and, as Doherty would put it, slanted. Sure, I can think of some individuals who, in an objective report on their lives, would merit only two positive statements on their behalf in a forty-three-paragraph article (e.g., Charles Manson). But even the simplest of us tend to be far more complex than the portrait offered. The picture that we have here is of a cartoonish “Theresa Dearest,” whom we can picture, wire hanger in hand, chasing Dr. Aslan around the shoals of Venice Beach. And that’s a problem for a piece that many regard as authoritative.
And it may very well be. But as someone once said, “authoritative” is not synonymous with “accurate.”
*Blake, Duncan and Conklin also collaborated on another episode of "Closet Cases," titled "A Slice of Bread."
If you click on the IMDB link, you’ll notice that it says that the series premiered in 1999. Because the TVGuide citation is more specific, I would guess that it is more accurate.
**Winer cited two anonymous sources that she described as “former friends” who, like Dr. Aslan, also sought help from attorneys after alleged harassment by Duncan. Neither Coe nor Winer reported on whether or not these friends and Dr. Aslan had also called police, seeing that the nature of these communications were “violent.”