Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Make-Believe Bogeymen

Disclaimer: the content below does not necessarily reflect, in whole or part, the feelings, thoughts or opinions of this writer.  In this, and in later 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/or logic.  The point of this and subsequent posts is to give as faithful a summary of each account as I can, without interruption.  The first is depicted here.

A couple of articles and an episode of a popular television show have come to form the dominant narrative of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan.  “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy:  A Writer, Game Designer and Her Boyfriend Commit Suicide, and a Facade Falls Away,” by Kate Coe (left) of L.A. Weekly, and “Folie A Deux” by Laurie Winer of California Style both depict conspiracism and its resultant paranoia as major contributors to Blake and Duncan’s suicides.  These pieces constitute a portrait of madness unchecked by family, a dwindling number of friends, and objective reality.

Coe, who personally knew Duncan, stressed that Theresa lived in a self-imposed fantasy.  Moreover, Coe felt that when reality intruded upon this comprehensive make-believe world, Duncan could not live with the truth:
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.

But her image as a player in Hollywood, albeit one with powerful enemies, was at odds with the facts. Perhaps she got tired of patching the little fissures that threatened to destroy her carefully constructed fantasy. Maybe that is why, at 40, she decided not to go on.
Coe offered copious examples illustrating this point.  For starters, she mentioned that Duncan often lied about her age, claiming to have been born in 1968 when she was actually born in 1966.  Duncan also lied about her collegiate career, claiming to have graduated from the prestigious University of Michigan, when she had actually dropped out after her first semester at the Flint campus of Wayne State.*

At it’s heart, the fantasy consisted of Duncan’s inflation of her abilities and successes.  Coe reported that she often took credit for the works of others.  For instance, the initial idea for Chop Suey came from Monica Gesue.  But Duncan and Gesue had a falling out when, because of its racist humor, Monica backed out of Shoo-Fly Pie, a game originated by Theresa.  In later years. Duncan either minimized or omitted Gesue’s contribution to Chop Suey.  As Coe wrote, “In her ever-evolving public persona, Duncan had already obliterated Gesue from her new, official story.”

After getting fired from Magnet Interactive, Duncan found work designing games at a rival firm, Nicholson Interactive.  She produced her next game, Smartypants, by herself.  Critics consistently gave it a thumbs-up, but in general compared it unfavorably to Chop Suey

In another example of taking undue credit, Coe briefly delved into Duncan’s plagiarism of a blog post by Victoria Forlova.  Although admitting to unconsciously plagiarizing a sentence in the piece (“Eau de US Weekly”), Duncan felt that the criticism she received for it was excessive, writing, “...the woman acted like I had tried to murder her.”**

Coe also reported that Duncan inflated her actual accomplishments.  Duncan spoke of her talks with Fox Searchlight to direct a movie based on the Weetzie Bat novels of Francesca Lia Block, and of her direction of two short films for Oxygen Media. Coe characterized these items as so much shoo-fly-pie-in-the-sky:
But the reality was not nearly as glamorous as the image. Block’s agent, Lucy Stille at Paradigm, told the Weekly that Duncan was never formally attached to a Block project —— the Weetzie Bat “talks” were just that...

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. Hollywood journalist Nikki Finke (a columnist for the Weekly) says Hollywood ‘is littered with the bodies of people who came out here to make it big. There’s a big difference between those who have set deals —— someone’s going to make their movie —— and those who have shopping agreements.’
Winer described Duncan’s make believe world as a conspiracy-driven hell that started off innocently enough, but eventually drove her and Blake off the deep end.
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.

According to Winer, The Wit of the Staircase both encapsulated and chronicled the development of a psychotic fantasy, rife with grandiose conspiracies against Wit and Mr. Wit.  The Scientologists and “mind control-manufactured Monarch girlies” were in fact symptomatic of a serious mental illness, which began to alienate them from their friends.  She quoted one of these former associates, Dr. Reza Aslan at length, and he affirmed the notion that a certain craziness had begun to overtake the couple:
For a while, Theresa was just our ‘crazy’ friend...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.”
Both Winer and Coe described Dr. Aslan’s experience of getting “thrown out of” Blake and Duncan’s circle.  He complained that Duncan harassed him when he appeared on television, and sent him e-mails that he characterized as violent (he sent these to his attorney, because he felt someone else should see them). 

Winer quoted two mental health professionals who offered their opinions of Duncan, based primarily on her blog posts.  Dr. Ronald K. Siegel, a research psychologist who has worked at UCLA, Harvard and other prestigious universities, opined:
I’ve seen scores [of writing] just like this....Paranoia is so common it is difficult to consider a mental disorder.  Many people are totally functional with it....

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.
Although Dr. Siegel considered Duncan paranoid, he nevertheless saw her as possibly functional.  Moreover he expressed doubts about linking paranoia to her suicide.  Yet, Winer quoted another health care professional who made that link explicit:
USC-affiliated professor of social work [Dr.] 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 [characterized] 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 [Blake].’
These themes of self-destructive paranoia and obsession with outside demons, found expression in the works of Coe and Winer.  Their most prominent manifestation, however, was a Law and Order episode that fictionalized the deaths of Blake and Duncan in the show’s patented “ripped from the headlines” style.  Titled “Bogeyman,” the episode differs considerably from Duncan and Blake’s actual circumstances.  Here, the Duncan character is presumed to have shot herself in the driver’s seat of her car until detectives notice cupcakes in her backseat.  Figuring that no one would commit suicide before eating the cupcakes, they then look for a murderer.  The Blake character indicates that a cult--a thinly disguised version of Scientology–has hounded them for months because they accused the group of killing an infant, the son of a celebrity who was their friend and a cult member.  The Blake character blames the Scientology-like cult for overt and covert harassment, and for an attempt on his life.  As it turns out, the Blake character murdered the Duncan character because she dumped him; she realized that they were deluding themselves by blaming the cult for their professional and personal failures.***

Although the Law and Order episode departs from the facts of the case, its overriding themes are identical to those expressed by Coe and Winer.  Crassly put, Blake and Duncan were C-list talents with A-list egos, pretensions and aspirations.  They alienated friends to defend those pretensions against cognitive dissonance.  MONARCH and Scientology served as a crutch, a demented fairytale that rationalized their lack of success.  While Coe implied that Blake and Duncan equally shared the delusion, Winer would see Jeremy as more ensnared into Theresa’s madness.  Either way, Coe, Winer and the producers of Law and Order agree that Duncan and Blake self-destructed once their shared fantasy world came crashing down upon them.

That’s the first narrative of Blake and Duncan.  The second and third will not make very much sense without knowledge of the redacted post.  So before going into those other versions of this story, we’ll take a look at that very important, and yet very absent, item.

*According to Coe, Duncan admitted this to her at some point during their relationship. 

**Curiously, in a point that will loom larger in the third narrative of Blake and Duncan, Vladimir Nabakov appears to have unconsciously plagiarized Lolita from an obscure 1916 short story (also titled “Lolita”) written by Heinz von Eschwege. 

***In one scene, a judge examines several jurors who express their inability to be objective, but only after the trial has commenced.  One juror claims that she can’t reach a verdict that might damage the Scientology-like cult because she works in the theatre, and many actors and theatrical professionals belong to the group.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Fear and Loathing in Dianetics


The plot of Theresa Duncan’s 2001 screenplay Alice Underground involved the kidnapping of a rock star by a couple of prep school girls.  Their motive: to deprogram their beloved idol from the brainwashing of a powerful cult called Scientology.

When Fox Searchlight optioned the project, they then had to think about casting it–a process in which the screenwriter usually has some input.  Naturally, they had to find someone to play the rock star.  Duncan thought she had the perfect choice.

Real-life rock star and Scientologist Beck Hanson (Beck) got to know Duncan because of his professional collaborations with her boyfriend, Jeremy Blake.  All sources agree that Duncan wanted to attach Beck to the project.* Everything else related to Beck’s involvement with Alice Underground has become a source of debate.

According to Beck, he and Duncan never formally met to discuss attachment, although she did mention the script to him.  Moreover, Beck claimed to have “eventually” read and ultimately declined involvement in it.  In her Vanity Fair article, Nancy Jo Sales quoted him as saying, “I did explain to her [Duncan] I wasn’t looking to act right then...and with the album, tour schedule, and a baby on the way, it wouldn’t be feasible to do a film.”  Moreover, he characterized his relationship to Blake and Duncan as “a passing social acquaintance.”

In a number of e-mails and conversations, Blake and Duncan told a very different story.  They characterized the relationship in situ as an actual friendship.**  Moreover, she got the idea of casting him as the rock star after he confided to them both that he had become disenchanted with Scientology, and wanted to leave it.  Duncan thought that starring in an anti-Scientologist movie might be a step in the right direction.  According to her, Beck agreed, but then later backed out because of pressure brought on by Scientology brass.*** 

Whatever the case, what’s clear is that Blake and Duncan began to see their dealings with Beck as the starting point of unrelenting harassment by the Church of Scientology that continued for the last five years of their lives. 

As Fox Searchlight’s interest in Alice Underground began to wane, Blake and Duncan began to suspect that Scientology's legendary clout in Hollywood had something to do with it.  Although buoyed when Paramount optioned the script in 2005, they once again became suspicious as production on it languished there as well.  They were especially anxious about the power wielded at the company by actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise, and started to believe that he had pressured studio execs not to develop it.****

The harassment grew more personal, according to Blake and Duncan.  They believed they were under surveillance.  On the street, they would see people who seemed to be following or watching them.  They took special notice of suspicious-looking cars with Florida license plates.*****  They felt sure someone had wiretapped their telephone.  One former friend, art dealer Christine Nichols, told Kate Coe of L.A. Weekly that Duncan thought someone stole hairs from her brush to take back to Scientology headquarters.

Blake and Duncan told their friends about their concerns.  Many did not seem to believe them.  Fr. Frank Morales recalled an incident in which Duncan thought a car was following them.  His take on it was neither to believe nor disbelieve, but instead investigate.  Glenn O’Brien told Washington Times reporter David Segal, “I once heard her [Duncan] say something about Scientology that sounded sort of improbable to me, but I just sort of let it go. It was like a can of worms you didn't want to open.” 

Indeed, many quoted by the press depicted their fears as irrational.  As David Amsden wrote for New York magazine:
There was the cocktail party the couple threw in December 2005, for instance, a small gathering, only six people, which had begun like any other night at their house: good drink, better conversation, a fire going, the ashtray on the coffee table filling up. But then Blake, triggered by nothing in particular, spent 45 minutes talking about his relationship with Beck, about how the two grew close after working together on the album cover but ultimately had a falling-out because Beck was a practicing Scientologist, and Scientologists, Blake was confident, used networks of spies to watch over anyone they perceived as a threat to the church.
Blake and Duncan’s fears about Scientology had a sort of cascading effect, as they increasingly alienated some of the people around them.  Not knowing whom to trust, they reportedly made their remaining friends sign loyalty oaths.  As Nichols explained to Coe, “You were either in complete agreement with everything they said or you were an enemy.” 

Even those who signed the oaths indicated that Blake and Duncan continually demanded proof of loyalty.  Before its option expired, film producer Bradford Schlei had Blake, his friend and neighbor, in mind to direct a movie version of the George Pelecanos novel Nick’s Trip.  Nancy Jo Sales reported that the friendship between Schlei, Blake and Duncan hit the rocks when Theresa began to harass Bradford’s girlfriend, Katherine O’Brien.  According to Sales, they were evicted from their Venice apartment after the landlord received numerous complaints about them accusing the neighbors of being Scientologists, among them O’Brien.  In a written statement, Katherine described an incident occurring on 9 May 2006, in which she opened the door of her apartment to Duncan, who immediately said, “Jeremy and I have started a club where we’ve found a bunch of old men and we’re letting them fuck us in the ass, and we wanted to know if you wanted to be a part of it.” O’Brien initially thought Theresa was making a nasty comment about the age difference between herself and Schlei (sixteen years).  But after closing the door, she said that Duncan returned five or six times to accuse her of being a Scientologist.******

For the moment, I’m not going to comment on how crazy--or how justified--Blake and Duncan’s fear of Scientology really was.  For now, suffice it to say that the fear was real and palpable. They began to connect Scientology with the suspected MONARCH experiences of someone formerly close to Blake. They began to see Scientology as a front of US Intel, controlled by the same CIA responsible for allegedly turning little kids into sex spies and assassins.  In a piece she posted on The Wit of the Staircase ten days before her death, Duncan declared,“Scientology and other religious cults were fomented by the CIA's MK ULTRA and other covert ‘brain war’ programs to undermine democracy globally, whether their blank-eyed followers realize it or not.”  Five days later, she posted “Citizen Wit and Project Monarch” which explicitly tied Scientology, MOCKINGBIRD and MONARCH together with Intel:
Mind control and psychological warfare are the primary weapons that led to our current Monarch Moment. Cults like Scientology and mind control-manufactured Monarch girlies and Operation Mockingbird are the fungus among us that has been eating away at the foundations of democracy for decades....  
In terms of social drama, a number of people following this story contested the meaning and validity of Blake and Duncan’s Scientology and MONARCH claims.  In the next few posts, we’ll look at these conflicting narratives, their conclusions, their merits and their problems.  We'll also note their ultimate absorption (or lack thereof) into the mainstream of public thought.


*When trying to get a movie made, it’s typical practice to find a famous person to agree to participate in it, or in other words attach a star to the script.  This vastly improves a movie’s chances of getting the final go-ahead for production.

**Duncan once attached a photo of her and Blake hanging out with Beck and his wife Marissa Ribisi on a local beach to a missive she e-mailed other friends in affirmation of their closeness to the celebrity couple. 

***In reply to Blake and Duncan’s claims, Sales quotes Beck as saying, “That’s ridiculous. Totally false...Had we been closer and discussed anything as personal as religion, I would have only had positive things to say about Scientology.”

I should point out here that although he apparently had a long-standing involvement with Scientology, Beck publically confirmed his status with the church in 2005, a year after his last contact with Blake and Duncan. 

****Paramount Pictures co-President of Production Alli Shearmur was an ardent supporter of Alice Underground.  As her husband, Ed Shearmur, told Vanity Fair, “Theresa took it very personally that the project didn’t go forward despite everything that Alli did to foster it.”  Some have cited budgetary concerns as the main reason Alice Underground didn’t get produced.

Cruise, meanwhile, parted company with Paramount in 2006 after a falling out over a number of issues, among them the large percentage of profit he earned from ancillary sales of his films, his increasing autonomy as a producer, and his diminishing value as a star due to what many saw as strange behavior (e.g., jumping on a couch during a taping of the Oprah Winfrey Show; and his diatribe against Brooke Shields and psychiatry, during which he argued with NBC newsman Matt Lauer).  Cruised signed a deal with United Artists later that year as an in-house producer.

*****The Church of Scientology calls Clearwater, FL its “spiritual headquarters.”  According to many, they have a lot of local political clout in that town.

******The reason why Duncan and Blake left the apartment near Schlei and O’Brien is also a matter of dispute.  Some former friends told Amsden that the couple just wanted to scale back their lifestyle, and left that apartment for a more modest one in another section of Venice.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Essence

It’s damn near impossible to describe a blog without writing something as long as the blog itself.  In order to get a better sense of The Wit of the Staircase, you might want to make your own trek over there.

There you'll find the usual features: archives, links–mostly to artsy sites and, and blogs.*  The Wit of the Staircase touches upon a variety of topics: from spirituality to the history of electricity. 

The posts tend to be quite short, with little original writing from Theresa Duncan.  The bulk consist of a paragraph or so from another source, sometimes with opening remarks from the poster.  A link to the article, or a citation to the original work, usually follows. Duncan’s comments typically summarized her reaction to the linked material.  The posts she wrote in full tended to be much longer, and demonstrated a sincere passion for the subject at hand. For example, when describing a perfume's fragrance her prose sometimes bordered on poetry:
Limen means door, and twilight-time dissolves the ink on any known map, heaves even the cemetery gates wide open. This hour is prone to ghosts, and in late June this fetching, this flattering light called Wit forth at the height of all her neither/nor states too. Here comes the tipsy, the ever ready for her close up, the not quite woman, the Teenage Theresa.**
Many bloggers, especially when starting out, wonder what they will post from day to day. Thus, there is a certain randomness to the topics covered.  And Duncan appeared to have thought the same thing.  Her posts range on so many subjects, with copious literary, philosophical, artistic and personal references, that they appear to be as random as any other blogger. If you read Wit of the Staircase long enough, however, you begin to sense a certain rhythm to it.   While not one to systematically (or ploddingly) examine a subject within a series of posts, Duncan set forth a number of recurring items that marble the blog, with intermittent, sometimes coded, allusions to them here and there.  Only on occasion did she devote an entire post to one of these mini-themes, one of which was the consumption of goodies, especially of the alcoholic kind.  Another is the repeated mention of the mysterious Los Angeles chapter of the Lunar Society:
With this in mind, we have been searching for six months for a large enough supply of absinthe for the Los Angeles Lunar Society Christmas party, which will take place on the night of the full moon, Thursday, December 15th at our Malibu clubhouse.***
For our purposes here, the theme I most want to highlight is conspiracy.  Duncan sometimes wrote about conspiracy in general, such as in her interview with Fr. Frank Morales.  She often linked to and occasionally wrote about Rigorous Intuition, a blog (and now forum) created and maintained by fellow conspiracy researcher Jeff Wells:
Well, that leaves the ingenious satirical site Rigorous Intuition to write the legendary crazy screeds stitching the whole awful global web of parapolitics together.

Paranoia seems to us an absolute patriotic duty at the moment, and Rigorous Intuition is like the incredibly symbolically twisted and bizarre dream you wake up from to realize that the scenario thrown up from the unconscious is actually the expression of some very simple truth you had been desperate to avoid facing.  Mom always liked you best; [George W.] Bush is using his father’s CIA (or ‘contractors’ from the Federal intelligence community, like the ones now passing around an FBI file from when I was 19 and a ‘communist’ in Detroit) for a soft(ish) domestic fascist coup, etc.
Duncan focused on three specific conspiracies that she felt directly involved Jeremy Blake and/or her.  The first was Operation MOCKINGBIRD, a reported CIA domestic activity that infiltrated the press and Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s in order to influence public opinion.***** In her 2012 book The CIA in Hollywood:  How the Agency Shapes Film and Television, Dr. Tricia Jenkins (University of Texas) wrote about how Deputy Director of Plans, Frank Wisner, established the Office of Policy Coordination in 1952.  The OPC, which in reality operated as a think tank, thought it necessary for the Agency to engage in public relations.  Wisner networked with numerous media professionals in the press and in Hollywood, among them columnist Jack Anderson, director John Ford, actor John Wayne, and producers Darryl Zanuck, Luigi Luraschi, and Cecil B. DeMille.   Dr. Jenkins further stated that the Agency’s active engagement in Hollywood began to wane during the 1960s, but stirred up again in the 1990s under direction of the Public Affairs Office.  The impetus to re-infiltrate Hollywood stemmed from increasingly negative media portrayals of the Agency during the 1980s. 

One might suspect that Duncan’s unsuccessful attempts to bring Alice Underground to the silver screen drew her to the subject of MOCKINGBIRD.  But in this regard, she mainly focused on two art critics, Roberta Smith of the New York Times, and her husband, Jerry Saltz of the New Yorker.  She took both to task, but concentrated mostly on Smith because of the poor reviews she gave Blake’s work.  Although Duncan’s linking of Smith and Saltz to MOCKINGBIRD seems tongue-in-cheek, one gets the sense that there is candor in her jest.
We of Wit were completely prepared to finger them here as the charmless bureacratic [sic] tools of Operation Mockingbird, but alas, the creepy twosome have never evidenced any loyalty to anything other than their own zombie-like continuation past their Totally Awesome Eighties expiration dates.”******
The main conspiracy theme is so marbled into the text of The Wit of the Staircase that it is easy to miss–especially now; after her death, someone deleted the post that explicitly tied all of these subtle and cryptic references together.  Recurrence of these themes exists primarily as brief asides in posts seemingly about other subjects.   The persistent appearance of “Nabakov,” “Poe,” “Anne Sexton,” “Tuesday Weld,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “butterfly” and other cryptic phrases point to a specific conspiracy theory.  For example, in a post about a strange dream, brought on by house shopping in Topanga Canyon, she wrote:
If you enjoy interpreting this stuff like I do (I'm a Nabokovian lepidopterist in this way, and I leave each luminescent linguistic specimen posted on a pin in some curator's fancy of cross-category cataloging) the discomfort they [dreams] cause is usually in proportion to their beauty and signifigance, [sic] and therefore a boon and joy.*******
A lepidopterist is someone who studies moths and butterflies.  But I’d doubt that you’ll find a sub-specialty of it called ‘Nabakovian.’  Clearly, the reference here was to novelist Vladimir Nabakov, author of Lolita

The semiotics of Lolita–old guy, underage chick, tawdry relationship of power inequities, etc.–are rather obvious.  This is something that all of the coded phrases have in common.  Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee” comes to life in Nabakov’s novel as the teenage lover who dies at a young age.  The protagonist, Humbert Humbert, uses Lee’s death as a rationalization for pedophilia/ephebophilia. Sexton, of course, privately, in the context of therapy, accused her father and aunt of molesting her as a child.  Actress Tuesday Weld became symbolic early in her career as the dangerous girl irresistible to older men.  People often assume Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, exhibited pedophilic ideation because of his photographic depiction of children in nude and what might seem to us sexually provocative poses (left).  Of course, many scholars will point out that Carroll’s work didn’t represent any tawdry leanings, but rather a cultural philosophy, the “Victorian Child Cult,” which regarded childhood nudity as innocence.  That could very well be true.  But to a twenty-first century audience, these images could very well seem like child pornography, the sexual exploitation of children. 

Butterflies have a unique meaning to conspiracy researchers.  Most of us will automatically make the connection (especially when linked to Nabakov et al) to Operation MONARCH, a rumored domestic op that the CIA allegedly carried out from the 1950s to at least the 1980s.  Named after the butterfly species, MONARCH involved the indoctrination of children into clandestine services.  The goal was to create the unturnable spy by building her or him from the ground up--so to speak--as a child.  A number of people claim to have undergone such training.  According to them, their main activities included wetworks (assassinations) and sex ops (often for blackmail purposes). 

Duncan did not claim to be a product of MONARCH.   She did not claim that she personally knew someone involved in MONARCH.  But in that all-important redacted post, she made clear her suspicions that someone very close to Blake had suffered because of it.  And because this person suffered courtesy of MONARCH, both she and Blake suffered because of it.

The third conspiracy hypothesis Duncan wrote about on Wit of the Staircase she really only mentioned in passing, often in conjunction with one or both of the previous two.  Although she did not spell out this conspiracy as concretely as she did the others, she and Blake both spoke openly about it to friends.  It comprised a good deal of their meatspace concerns.  Some friends said that it became a major source of dread during the couple’s last year of life.


*Glenn O’Brien, the author’s mom, Dr. Mary Duncan, Terri Phillips, Eric Dyer, and possibly others have contributed material to the site after Jeremy and Theresa’s deaths.  There is an additional sidebar to memorial links not on the site during Duncan's life.

**”The Spore is on the Wind Tonight,” posted 26 Jume 2007.  The post’s title comes from the Steely Dan song “Rose Darling”: “You must know it’s right/The spore is on the wind tonight.”

Note, the word ‘limen’ actually refers more to ‘threshold’ than ‘door.’  Still, the association is clear enough, especially within context.  Also, Duncan usually referred to herself as Wit, and to Blake as Mr. Wit on the blog. 

***”The Green Fairy: The Los Angeles Lunar Society’s Contraband Christmas,” posted 13 December 2005.

****”The Swell Life: Homo Californius and the Return of the Paranoia-Free Pastoral,” posted 20 August 2006.  This actually began as a post about graphic artist Thomas Campbell.  The article then briefly mentions New Age philosopher Daniel Pinchbeck before spending most of the post talking about RI.

*****I could not confirm that the CIA has stipulated Operation MOCKINGBIRD’s existence, since many sources cite the now-famous declassified “Family Jewels” report to document acknowledgement.  “Family Jewels” mentioned a Project MOCKINGBIRD, and described it as a phone intercept (i.e. wiretapping) program aimed at reporters.

Whatever the CIA may or may not call it, there’s good reason to think that MOCKINGBIRD existed under that very name.  A number of sources affirm it, among them former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt.  And beyond dispute are the activities of the OPC, and later the PAO regarding their outreach to Hollywood.

******”Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, The Toast of Vichy France,” posted 17 May 2007.

*******”The Unheimlich Hills, and Canyons of Los Angeles, CA,” posted 26 July 2006.  The post begins with a quote by Dr. Sigmund Freud about fear and the unknown.   

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Socially Dramatizing the Eternal Question

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich--yes, richer than a king--
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

--Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory.”  From The Children of the Night.
I learned of the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan at the same time as everyone else.  If you read the New York newspapers, you couldn’t really avoid the story. Though sad, I didn’t think anything about it at the time.  They weren’t people I knew in cyber- or meatspace.  But early in 2008, I found an extraordinary amount of interest in them online, with a number of sites examining their tale.  There were even a couple of blogs devoted to them. 

Comments about Blake and Duncan focused mostly on her.  I noticed that commentary on their lives and deaths disagreed, often vehemently.  When I saw several hypotheses about their passing competing for attention, I realized right away that the case of Jeremy and Theresa had begun to play out as a social drama.

I’ve described the concept of social drama earlier in this blog.  For the life of me, I can’t briefly summarize it any better than I already did.  So, to quote myself:
Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner coined the term ‘social drama’ to describe the collection of cultural symbols, often propagated through mass media, which expresses who we are as a people. As Dr. Fred Fogo put it, social drama describes ‘…a transcultural phenomenon by which cultures reveal their fundamental tensions, their meaning systems, and their relations to power.’

Social drama theory describes cultural narratives within four stages of their development. The first is the ‘breech’ stage, where something so anomalous has occurred that we’re forced to take notice of it. The second stage, ‘crisis,’ happens when the story, and the import of its meaning, expands to more segments of society. It is here where the conflict over the interpretation of facts and the symbols begins. ‘Redress,’ the third stage, describes the practical means by which we act or react to the anomaly, according to how we interpret it. The last stage, ‘reintegration,’ is the resolution of the crises brought on by the anomalous event and the conflicting meaning it has to various parties. On occasion, reintegration entails the complete acceptance of one view by either a vast majority of the people or through a virtual consensus. Sometimes it involves a compromise between one or more opposing viewpoints. Most times, however, all sides simply acknowledge their disagreement, and propagate their cause, each hoping that someday their efforts will propel their beliefs into the mainstream.

The breech stage here seems obvious.  Two people, who like the fictional Richard Cory had a life many would envy, apparently took their lives, the first without any warning. This compels those of us destined to go without the meat and curse the bread to ask the eternal question, “Why?”

I stumbled onto the story between the stages of crisis and redress.  By this time, conflicts over the meaning of these two deaths had emerged, mostly over the Internet.   There were more mainstream and traditional media that had begun to react to the story by alerting the general public to--and therefore championing--one of the contentions.  In other words, in the midst of crisis, there were those engaging in redress, in essence laying out the basis for public consensus, a necessary component of reintegration. 

By now, the story of what some have dubbed “The Golden Suicides” has passed the stage of reintegration.  As is typical, there is a mainstream view that receives the most attention.  Yet there are other views, those lurking in the margins of cyberspace, which still hold onto their positions.

Out of all of these interpretations, there are three major ones floating about.  Here, we’ll examine each one.  But before doing so, it’s important to understand a few things about the major source of contested meaning: Duncan’s blog, The Wit of the Staircase.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights*

No one seems to know the name of the restaurant. But at 3:00pm on Tuesday, 10 July 2007, Jeremy Blake (age 35) picked up his girlfriend, Theresa Duncan (age 40), at the rectory of St. Mark’s (Episcopal) Church for a late lunch. Information is similarly sparse about how long the meal lasted, or what they talked about. But the stipulated fact remains that at sometime that afternoon Blake took leave of Duncan expecting to see her later that evening back at their crib.

If he wanted to, Blake could boast of some pretty impressive credentials and achievements. After receiving a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993, and an MFA from The California Institute of the Arts two years later, he went on to exhibit his work in group and solo showings at MoMA the Whitney, and numerous other museums across North America and Europe. He had received considerable press coverage from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Vogue magazine, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, The New Republic, and dozens of other periodicals from around the world. Many considered him a pioneering digital artist, using such media as projected DVD installations and computer-generated graphics. His most lauded work included such pieces as Sodium Fox and the Winchester trilogy, the latter a series of images documenting the guilt and inner turmoil of rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. Yet, his most famous pieces consist of an album cover and booklet he designed for Beck’s 2002 Sea Change album, and an animated sequence in the Adam Sandler movie Punch Drunk Love.

Figure 1. Blake sequence from Punch Drunk Love

Although she didn’t have her boyfriend’s credentials, Duncan was no slouch when it came to impressive achievements. After dropping out from Wayne State University, she became interested in video game design, and subsequently created some of the most popular CD-ROMs marketed to a very overlooked demographic of that industry: pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. Her first, and most successful title, Chop Suey (co-written by Monica Gesue), combined storytelling with exploration. Gameplay was similar to such popular 1980s interactive fiction as Adventure (the original adventure game), and Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but with graphics (by Gesue), narration (by David Sedaris), and a different audience in mind.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Chop Suey

Like Blake, Duncan received considerable press from such periodicals as the New York Times, Variety, Cosmopolitan, USA Today, and Newsweek. Most of these contemporary accounts depicted her as an up-and-comer, someone to watch.

As the CD-ROM market crashed and burned at the turn of the century, Duncan found other pursuits, most notably filmmaking. In 2001, she wrote a screenplay titled Alice Underground. Fox Searchlight optioned the script, but it stayed in turnaround hell for the next four years until Paramount took over the project in 2005. The previous year, she collaborated with Blake on The History of Glamour, a short animated film that was picked for the Whitney 2000 Biennial.

Figure 3. Excerpt from The History of Glamour

Duncan also turned her attention to cyberspace. In 2005, she began a blog called The Wit of the Staircase. The title is a literal translation of l'esprit de l'escalier, a French term that describes those frustrating times when you come up with the perfect thing to say AFTER an argument or conversation has ended. The main topics of the site were literature, fine arts, perfume, and conspiracy.

Blake and Duncan first met in Washington, DC at a 1994 punk rock concert headlined by Fugazi,. They met again the following year at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and developed an instant, permanent and powerful attraction. Almost everyone who knew them described their relationship as unusually close. In later years, friends noted that there were times that they almost seemed to act as one individual. An e-mail sent to one could very well be replied to by the other. They were fiercely loyal to each other, and neither tolerated harsh sentiments directed toward their mate. Some eventually began to dub them ‘Theremy.’

The couple lived in New York from 1995-2002. They subsequently left to pursue the Tinseltown dream in Los Angeles. In January 2007, they returned to The Big Apple. Blake and Duncan first planned to move to The Dakota, but then found a better space at the rectory of St. Mark’s in Greenwich Village. They had to scramble some to meet the $10,000 deposit, but they received encouragement from the assistant pastor, Fr. Frank Morales.

Fr. Morales, a venerable leftist activist, had been profoundly influenced by liberation theology. He consequently championed the plight of squatters, the poor and the victims of police brutality. His political leanings led him to research a number of topics considered conspiracy subjects, among them CIA activities in Latin America, and the JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Assassinations. He has since become involved in the 9/11 Truth Movement. Because of their mutual interests, Duncan once interviewed Morales for The Wit of the Staircase. Despite the brevity of this interview, he demonstrated a profound knowledge of clandestine US activities. As he joked to journalist Nancy Jo Sales, “My paranoia is rooted in reality.”**

Fr. Morales wanted Blake and Duncan to move into the rectory because he thought they belonged there. A number of artistic types–from Allen Ginsberg to Andy Warhol–had hung out at the church. And he thought the two would fit in with that history. Blake and Duncan instantly befriended the clergyman, and did their best to help out. On 3 July 2007, they hosted a party that raised $12,000, which St. Mark’s immediately used for restoration work.

On 9 July 2007, Duncan and Blake had come into some good fortune. They spent that day in Washington, where they had a meeting with novelist George Pelecanos and film producer Cary Woods. Brandford Schlei, another film producer, and an ex-friend of Blake and Duncan, had previously optioned the rights to the Pelecanos novel Nick’s Trip. But the option expired. The author and Woods wanted to assemble another production team, and were interested in having Blake direct the movie. Apparently, all went well. As Sales reported:
It was a good meeting, ending with the ol’ Hollywood high fives. Pelecanos liked Blake and Duncan’s ideas, and Woods was on board to produce Nick’s Trip (although he hasn’t had a big success in a few years, Woods was still a name in the independent-film world Blake and Duncan had confidence in).
So, this was the context of Blake and Duncan’s late lunch, a little after 3:00pm, on 10 July 2007, at some undetermined restaurant. Both seemed to be excited about the prospect of working on Nick’s Trip. One could imagine the couple being in a somewhat celebratory mood.

When Blake left Duncan that afternoon, he certainly seemed in good spirits. He returned to the rectory at approximately 7:00pm, and saw Fr. Morales in the courtyard. He invited the priest to come up for a few drinks. Morales had to take care of some church business at that moment, but promised to join him and Duncan in a few minutes.

Moments later, Fr. Morales heard the wail of sirens. Worse, the sirens were heading his way, with emergency vehicles arriving one-by-one at the Church. Sensing something very, very wrong, he bolted to the rectory where he found a distraught Blake punching the walls, yelling, “Dammit! Fuck, no! This can’t be happening.”

By that time, police had already reached the bedroom where they found Duncan’s corpse lying on the floor. Fr. Morales administered last rites as the police began their investigation. Details of the scene are few, but the authorities found a bowl of Tylenol PM, an empty bottle of bourbon, and an apparent suicide note typed on the computer where hours earlier she had posted her last blog entry on The Wit of the Staircase.***

Upon hearing of Duncan’s death, a number of friends–some from out of state–went to New York to comfort Blake. All there became gravely concerned, especially Fr. Morales.  Because of Jeremy's precarious state, they formed a suicide watch for him.  Morales said that anywhere between six and ten people actively participated in this at any given time. Despite the fact that Blake had round-trip air tickets to Lapeer, MI for Duncan’s funeral, and thus seemed to be holding up okay, they endeavored not to leave him alone for a second, at least until after the services.

At 10:00pm, on Tuesday, 17 July 2007, the day before Duncan’s ceremony, police received a 911 call from an anonymous Rockaway Beach resident claiming that she had seen a man strip nude and walk into the ocean. After an hour had passed, with no signs of the stranger coming back for his things, she got worried. Police arrived at the scene and found the discarded clothes, Blake’s identification, and a hastily scribbled note on the back of a business card reading, “I am going to join the lovely Theresa.”

On or about 25 July 2007, fisherman found a male corpse floating four-and-a-half miles offshore of Sea Girt, NJ. Local authorities suspected that the body belonged to Blake since they knew that NYPD divers had searched for it. But they did not officially identify it until 1 August 2007, after a forensic examination of dental records matched the decedent’s teeth with those of Jeremy Blake.

*I’ll be citing numerous sources as they come up. But in each of these posts, starting with this one, I’ll be relying heavily on five which contain vital facts on the case: “Artist Believed to be Sea Suicide” by Mike White and Alison Gendar (New York Daily News, 21 July 2007); “Conspiracy of Two” by David Amsden (New York magazine, 19 August 2007); “In a Cocoon of Their Own Making: Friends Sift through the Clues Left by Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, the Glittering ‘It’ Couple Who Committed Suicide” by Chris Lee (Los Angeles Times, August 2007); “The Puzzling, Tragic End of a Golden Couple; Artist Jeremy Blake a Suicide Weeks after His Companion, Theresa Duncan, Took Her Life” by David Segal (Washington Post, 1 August 2007); and “The Golden Suicides” by Nancy Jo Sales (Vanity Fair, November 2007).

**I should point out that Fr. Morales was Sales’ husband from 2004-2006. She quoted him at some length in her Vanity Fair article on Blake and Duncan.

***The items mentioned here are reported in most sources, but there are those who point out that some of the details involving these items are quite vague. These same researcher also doubt the accuracy of this information. We’ll take a look at those claims later.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Preamble: There’s Always More Sculpture

Call it vanity, but every six months or so I Google The X-Spot, just to see the new links to this page.  On very rare occasion (rarer than I would have thought, actually), they’re cussing me up and down for butchering a sacred cow.  Usually though, it’s because someone has cited something on the page as a reference.
Back in January 2011, I came upon a very unusual link: a footnote to a 46,000 word online novel.  It read:
Joe Dorgan, a member of the Straight Satans motorcycle club, was present at the LaBianca residence when the bodies of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were found. Dorgan was the fiance of Rosemary's daughter Susan Struthers. See http://xdell.blogspot.com/2008/10/ devils-in-slide-love-locs-and-rosemarys.html.
Of course, novels usually don’t have footnotes, unless they’re republished editions from some bygone century.  As it turns out, this was not the original version of the book, but rather a recreation of it by a forum dedicated to dissecting it for meaning.  The original had no footnotes.  The netizens on this particular page had discovered an abundance of clues--kinda similar to the Paul-Is-Dead Hoax--that in themselves presented a mystery.  It was dense with arcane, esoteric, and occult allusions, with copious references to the lyrics of Steely Dan and the Doors.  The forum’s founders established the page to parse out everything.  The posters wondered if there were some sort of profound secret meaning behind this story. 

Most of the novel’s characters aren’t fictional, but rather real-life flesh-and-bone people, most of them famous Hollywood actors, directors and producers.  The remaining characters consist of historical figures, many of them not famous but connected to the underground scene of 1960s Los Angeles.  The few fictional characters populating this work are thinly disguised versions of actual people.  Some of the characters’ actions accurately reflect what their meatspace counterparts actually did.  Other actions are purely fictional.  The footnotes became the forum’s way of sussing out fact from fancy. 

A group calling itself Margaras Media posted the novel sometime in 2010.*  Its title: The Last Statue.  Its author: V. Cinco (no relation to the gentleman on the left), or as I like to call him, Five Five.

The plot: Dick Privette (a private investigator for those of you who are incredibly thick), on behalf of a client named Wheeler, hires a hack screenwriter to infiltrate the shoot of O’Blivion’s Water.  The movie’s director, former 1960s wunderkind Rex Learner, has gone into bunker mode, hiring tight security and letting no outsiders onto the set. Wheeler suspects Learner’s life is in danger because of the movie, and has hired Privette to get to the bottom of things.  Because the project has a need of a script doctor, the screenwriter, who had worked for Learner before, seems a natural choice of spy.

At least that’s how the plot starts.  The novel sorta rambles, first to the screenwriter’s past, and then to the party scene of 1960s Hollywood.  From there, it goes into the history of what Mae Brussell called “the California violences” (Zodiac, Tate-LaBianca, and so forth).  The story then catches up with Lerner and his exploits in Latin America during the 1970s.   The last chapter has the screenwriter, back in his native Westchester County, New York, shooting the breeze with old friends, talking about the strange history of their hometown.

Upon casual inspection, The Last Statue comes across as, well, a mess.  With so many references to so many things--the bulk of which I knew about, but a number of them that I had to look up--and with so many changes in direction, it’s damn near impossible to comprehend.  But since it touched on a boatload of conspiracy subjects, I thought I’d give it a college try.

When I want to read something that’s disorganized, I often find it helpful to edit the damn thing.  That forces me to engage the text in an active way, making me less likely to be dismissive of subtle themes, connections or other things that seem trivial at first glance.  I better see the work's internal logic.  In the case of The Last Statue, some things began to dawn on me:

1.  The novel had multiple authors.  I realized this because of subtle changes from chapter to chapter in such things as punctuation style, syntax, time/date presentation and so on.  My best guess: five (possibly six) people wrote it.

2.  Actor Dennis Hopper (right) appears in two separate contexts within this story.  The first is as himself, the actor Dennis Hopper.  But he is also Rex Learner.  We know this because the fictional director’s biographical information highlights unique events in Hopper’s life.  For instance, the novel has Learner attacking his girlfriend, Caterine Milinaire, subsequently putting marks on her face.  The following morning, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe visits and, horrified by the previous night’s violence, documents Milinaire’s injuries by taking pictures of them.  In real life, Milinaire was Hopper’s beau.  Mapplethorpe came over the morning after a night of violence, and photographed her injuries

Another example: there’s a reference in the novel about Learner’s attempt to blow himself up in a chair.  Hopper really did this.in a 1983 publicity stunt.

3.  The Last Statue, as originally posted by Margaras, has a sidebar (if you click the above link to the novel, you might have to scroll down a bit to see it), which consists of various names and titles.  Many of the links (e.g. Harry Dean Stanton) belong to characters in the novel.  Some of the items listed do not (e.g. Giulio Camilo and Thomas Pynchon), but one can quickly see their relevance to the text. 

One of the most important links leads to a Wikipedia article on “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a 1940 short story penned by Jorge Luis Borges.  Here, a bunch of cultural elites conspire to create a bogus history of a fictional country, Uqbar, by publishing phony references to it’s existence in a region of Asia Minor.  Their plan is to have Uqbarian culture dominate the globe in order to transform the Earth into the mythical kingdom of Tlön.

4.  The plot serves as a platform to discuss the Los-Angeles based Four-Pi Movement (or Chingons), a cult formed in 1968 by fifty-five former members of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, an offshoot of Scientology.** (Remember V. Cinco?)  Gannett reporter Maury Terry, with help from the Queens County (NY) District Attorney’s office, and law enforcement agencies in Westchester (NY), Minot (ND), Los Angeles, and Palo Alto (CA), linked the cult to numerous crimes, including possible involvement in the Zodiac, Son of Sam and Cotton Club murders. 

The Last Statue features suspected Four-Pi members (e.g., movie mogul Robert Evans, convicted hitman William Mentzer, and military intelligence officer Ron Stark), actions the group allegedly undertook (e.g., ousting Mellon family scion Billy Hitchcock as the dominant supplier of LSD in the 1960s), possible victims (e.g., director Roman Polanski and producer Roy Radin), and rumored settings (e.g., Hollywood, and Yonkers, NY’s Untermeyer Park, where an East Coast branch of the cult supposedly operated).   These references and many more serve as the unifying theme of an otherwise incoherent narrative.*** 

5.  Most important, The Last Statue isn’t really about Hollywood, the 1960s or Four-Pi.  The true protagonists are never mentioned, nor do they participate in the story as either themselves or fictional characters, although their names appear in the sidebar. Permeating the tale are massive references to their story, which had become a juicy source of gossip in New York during the fall of 2007, with considerable press coverage in the local dailies, and eventually the national press.

In 2007, a few of my meatspace friends--academics who are highly amused by the fact that I maintain this blog, but who nevertheless promise to keep my identity secret--pressed me for my thoughts about the matter.  They wanted my perspective for several reasons.  (1) They knew that because of my relationship to Dr. R., I had spent considerable time in and around St. Marks, the primary setting of this story.  (2) A number of rumors had begun to circulate that involved, let’s say, X-Spot material.

(3) The gossip centered on the fate of a fellow conspiracy blogger.

* Click here to see the recreation and footnotes.

**'Chingon’ apparently comes from a Mexican Spanish slang term roughly translating as ‘bad ass.’ 

***Indeed, The Last Statue would be impossible to comprehend without extensive knowledge of Four-Pi.  Terry’s The Ultimate Evil is an excellent primer on the subject.

Terry briefly examined the relationship between Charles Manson and Mentzer, who were close enough for the latter to acquire the nickname Manson II.   Ostensibly a consultant for Crest Security, whose clients included Evans, Larry Flynt, and other glitteratti, Mentzer gunned down Radin in 1984, and actress June Mack (right) in 1983.  A jury, believing that he had killed “for profit,” found Mentzer guilty of first-degree murder in Radin’s case in 1991.  He subsequently confessed to Mack’s slaying later that year after forensic evidence proved he used the same .22 to slay both her and the producer. 

David Berkowitz told Terry and authorities that he assisted Mentzer in the killing of Christine Freund and Stacy Moskowitz, two victims generally attributed to the Son of Sam.  Berkowitz also accused Mentzer of the 1974 murder of Arlis Perry, the wife of a Stanford University undergraduate.  Police found her severely brutalized corpse in the campus chapel.

Berkowitz stated that he had joined the Four-Pi Movement shortly after his discharge from the US Army.  He identified former USAF Airman John Carr (father: Sam Carr) as another member of the cult, and a fellow Son of Sam perpetrator. 

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Monday, October 08, 2012

Preamble: Fruit of the Wound

Trickster finds fruit in every wound.
–a friend of mine, 2001 letter.

Professor Mary Magoulick, who teaches in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department of Georgia College, describes the Trickster as an archetypal character found in the folklore of numerous civilizations and societies. As the name would imply, the Trickster plays tricks. Wild pranks. On anyone. At any time.

For the most part, we love him because he isn’t afraid to ply his tricks on those who frighten us: the enemies of state; the crown, the boss, the bully, the government, or anyone else who’s too risky for us to get even with. Trickster gets even for us. The need for us to hold such an entity in our collective consciousness says a lot about what it is to live in a society with power inequities. As Prof. Magoulick explains:
Although trickster's actions and personality may seem ridiculous or extreme, some scholars have noted that he/she serves an important purpose in traditional and contemporary narratives. Trickster may work as a kind of outlet for strong emotions or actions in which humans cannot indulge. These actions are at the margins of social morality and normal behavior, so humans can express and feel things through the trickster that would be unsafe to express or experience outside of stories. In this sense the trickster is a kind of ‘escape valve’ for a society.

Of course Trickster doesn’t appear in the same guise to all peoples. Sometimes Trickster’s triumphant. Sometimes he pays for his transgressions. The Trickster is usually male. But in more gender equal societies, Trickster is sometimes female (e.g., Pippi Longstocking). In many cultures, Trickster is a god (e.g., Loki). Often, Trickster is an anthropomorphic animal who takes on human characteristics (e.g., Br’er Rabbit). But he can sometimes take human form, if it’s clear that Trickster is only fictional.

While there aren’t a lot of things Trickster manifests consistently from culture to culture, there are some things that he has in common no matter what incarnation he takes. Prof. Magoulick lists some of them on her website. First of all, Trickster is neither good, nor evil. He is amoral. And he has a lot of negative traits: he’s lustful (for sex, power, blood, attention, etc.), he’s irresponsible, and he’s indifferent to the suffering he causes (some might characterize him as “mean-spirited”). And while he’s often very clever, he can be really, really stupid at the same time. On the other hand, he’s an “irrepressibly sympathetic character” who’s always funny and “lovable.”

And, in a strange sense, he is an heroic figure–just like the guy in Figure 1:

Figure 1. A typical Trickster

On her site, Prof Magoulick quotes a 1993 essay by Gerald Vizenor to demonstrate the purely fictional nature of the trickster:
Tricksters are real in stories but not in the flesh. Tricksters are not blood or material, but imagination, Tricksters are the kind of thought that raises hope, that heals, that cures that which cannot be traced....Tricksters do not represent the real or the material.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, if Trickster actually existed, we’d string him up by his intimate anatomy. We’d find nothing humorous when his pranks headed our way. We definitely wouldn’t consider him adorable. We’d see him as a pest at best, or a threat at worse. Real life pranks, from real-life jokers, often entail a maliciousness or immorality designed to achieve specific means–whether it’s separating a sucker from his wallet, or manufacturing consent to support war, poverty or other evils.

Nevertheless, people sometimes encroach upon Trickster’s territory. Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs perpetrate hoaxes in order to expose the weaknesses in the fabric journalistic. And like Trickster, both men have their fans. One could also suppose that they get a big ego kick out of it. But their intent isn’t really all that malevolent.

Artistic hoaxes expose the shallowness of an audience that pays more attention to the artist than it does to the artefact. We don’t really judge the painting, per se. We judge the painter. The monetary value of an artwork really stems more in the identity of the artist than in the artistic statement, the technique, or the visual pleasure (or provocation) it offers. Sometimes, as in The Official Art Hoax of The X-Spot (i.e., Clubbo Records), the prank produces tangible works.

Although the artistic hoax isn’t all that harmful (except to a sucker’s ego), it is, like the pranks of the Trickster, an exertion of will for selfish reasons.  After all, as my friend said, he’d have to get some goodies out of the havoc he wreaks; otherwise there’s no sense in doing it.

Of course, one can note that when people successfully play Trickster, they do so behind a fictional persona. Abel (along with his wife, Jeanne, and his friend, Buck Henry), Skaggs, and Clubbo founders Joe Gore and Elise Malmberg all pulled off their pranks utilizing a slew of a false identities. So in this sense, the Trickster remains a fictional character to at least a negligible degree.

Because Trickster is fictional, we have nothing to fear from him. We love him because he can’t hurt us (usually–there are some exceptions to this). It’s the real-life jokers we have to look out for–in meatspace and cyberspace.  It’s their will and their payout that give us cause for concern.  We might not like how their desires conflict with our own.  And the fruit that they find in our wounds might be more than we can afford to lose.

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Friday, October 05, 2012

Preamble: If It’s Friday, It Must Be Tuesday

Warning: spoiler alert.

When Lathrop Weld died in 1947, his wealthy family forced Yosene Ker, his widow, into a difficult decision.  She could choose to give her in-laws full custody of their three children, provided she never see them again.  Or, she could keep the kids and live in poverty.

Yosene kept the kids.  But damned if she would live in poverty.  She made the youngest, Susan, go to work as a child model.  She then found an agent, who got the child acting gigs under the name Tuesday, a stylized variation of Susan’s childhood moniker.

To say that Weld grew up fast would be a bit of an understatement.  By the age of five, she had become her family’s breadwinner.  At nine, she starred in her first film.  That same year, she suffered a nervous breakdown.  By age twelve, she’d made her first suicide attempt amidst the throes of alcoholism. According to memoir writer and former actor John Gilmore she became a habitue of wild Hollywood parties--rife with the sex, drugs and bebop of the James Dean generation--by age fourteen.

By the time nymphet-mania came around in the 1960s, Weld starred in some memorable pictures as the dangerous girl who enchants men to wrack and ruin.  The 1968 flick Pretty Poison starred Weld as a high school drill team geek who becomes the obsession of a recently released psychiatric patient played by Anthony Perkins (talk about type casting).  The Perkins character can only find menial work, hardly anything that would give him a chance with a perky little teenager.  So he tries to impress her by introducing himself as a CIA case officer.  Under the guise of recruiting her into espionage, he involves her in a series of intrigues that winds up with her bludgeoning a guy to death.  He voluntarily takes the rap for her.

Two years earlier, Weld played a wannabe high school cheerleader who becomes the fancy of Roddy McDowall in the film Lord Love a Duck.  The McDowall character, like the Perkins character in Pretty Poison, winds up in prison for murder.  Unlike the Perkins character, he actually committed the crime (mass murder this time) so that Weld’s character could realize her dream of becoming a movie star. 

The movie is rather forgettable, despite the title.  But it’s noted for this really bizarre scene in which the Weld character goes on a sweater shopping spree with her father (played by veteran actor Max Showalter).

Figure 1.  Excerpt from Lord Love a Duck

If nothing else, this scene proves, beyond all doubt reasonable or unreasonable, that the Hays Code was at death’s door by 1966.  Ephebophilia and incest hadn’t quite come out of the silver nitrate closet, but they certainly lingered at the threshold. 

Weld’s prominence in so many films of this era arguably established her as queen of the nymphets.* And one can see such movies as a response to the youth movement she symbolized for an older generation. 

Celebrities generally become agents of identification.  As such, they can exert more influence on popular culture than most of us.  But one conspiracy researcher, Jeffrey Turner, asserted that Weld had more than a general influence on the counterculture.  According to him, Weld created and micro-managed it.

Turner claimed that Weld is a “High Queen and Princess” of the Illuminati, a descendent of a long line of underground Druidic royalty.  Moreover, he insisted that her mission during the 1960s consisted of distracting young activists away from political struggle.  Acting under the orders of Bob Hope, her assignment consisted of enticing the youth of America into such hedonistic pursuits as sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, in hopes that they would someday conform to the dictates of creature comfort capitalism.   He points out that a number of cultural references cryptically refer to this, most famously in the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.**

Although Turner felt that Weld’s goal was to dissuade 1960s youth from both pacifism and the fascistic bent of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, led by her former protege and later nemesis Kristi M., he nevertheless considered her evil, linking her to all sorts of murders–from Marilyn Monroe to Natalie Wood (whom he claimed to be his mother).            

Adam Gorightly publicized Turner’s claim on his website and podcast (both titled Untamed Dimensions), and in an article for Paranoia magazine.  Gorightly didn’t buy into Turner’s story.  He nevertheless followed through on the hypothesis and turned up some items of interest, most notably Weld’s links not just to wealth and power, but to old-money wealth and power.   The Weld family had a good deal of influence in politics (e.g. former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, Tuesday’s cousin), oil, finance capital and other business interest since fourteenth-century England.  During the Nineteenth Century, the Welds supported the abolitionist movement.  During the Twentieth Century, they forged ties to the Bush family. 

Of course, if Gilmore is correct, Weld, at a very young age, had access to a milieu that would have included such actors as Dennis Hopper, whose friends Kenneth Anger and Marjorie Cameron had a strong interest in the occult.*** It’s not difficult to speculate that Weld at least developed some curiosity about a philosophy that embraced the hedonistic lifestyle they all enjoyed at that time.
Okay.  So the notion of an underground celebrity sorceress who uses magick to influence major political events on behalf of economic and political elites seems, well, impossible for most of us (probably all of us) to swallow.  Still, I find it curious that a woman who served as a cultural icon of 1960s male fears has again become a frightening symbol–at least to those believing in the grand Illuminati conspiracy hypothesis. 

*In a 1967 TV adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Weld played the part of Abigail, a teenaged servant who gets booted by the mistress of the household when the latter finds her seducing her husband.  In the 1970 flick I Walk the Line, she played a small-town girl who seduces the local sheriff away from his wife.

But even in other movies, Weld was romantically paired with much older men: twice with Steve McQueen (thirteen years her senior) in the movies The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Soldier in the Rain (1963); and with Richard Beymer (five years her senior) in Bachelor Flat (1962). 

Also, Weld co-starred as Selena, a teenaged girl with “a past,” in the 1961 movie A Return to Peyton Place.   A year earlier she co-starred in Sex Kittens Go to College as one of the kitties in question.  So it would seem clear that her appeal to producers rest in the projection of her as an underage or barely legal sexpot.

**For example, Weld is the putative subject of the song “Ruby Tuesday” (although, according to Keith Richards, the song is about his ex-girlfriend, Linda Keith, who left him for Jimi Hendrix).  She supposedly appears in the Beatles' “She Came In through the Bathroom Window” (the lyrics “Tuesday’s on the phone to me”), “I Am the Walrus” (“stupid bloody Tuesday”), and “Lady Madonna” (“Tuesday afternoon is never-ending”).

While we're at it, we might as well throw in this song from 1967.

***Cameron was the widow of rocket scientist/occultist Jack Parsons, a follower of Aleister Crowley, and a friend of Parson's partner, L. Ron Hubbard, who went on to found the Church of Scientology.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Preamble: Obsessed with the Tender Age

Warning: spoiler alert.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
–Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee”

If you primarily understand the 1960s as a hippie-dippy wigout, you’re missing a lot of what went on then. Many diverse, occasionally competing, cultural themes co-existed.

Sure, the youth movement had become the craze of Western civilization since the 1950s mainstreaming of rock and roll, with its decadent mores.  As sociomusicologist Simon Frith put it, rock gave teenagers their bodies back.  That meant freedom of movement, freedom to experience the joys of physicality and sensuality.

Of course, implicit in that: the freedom to experience sex in a more exciting way than the birds and bees teachers lectured about in hygiene class.  So it shouldn’t surprise us all that much that during the 1960s we begin to see the hypersexualization of the teenager–and not just by and for other teenagers.  After all, a lot of people born before 1935 didn’t want to miss out on all the fun.

Simply put, one of the most curious themes in mainstream 1960s culture was hebephilia/ephebophilia: the middle-aged sexual obsession with pubescent and post-pubescent teenagers. 

Lolita, a 1962 Stanley Kubrick film based on the 1955 novel by Vladmir Nabakov (who also co-wrote the screenplay), tells the story of a teenybopper who becomes the desire of not one, but two older men (played by James Mason and Peter Sellers).  Although cute, there’s nothing especially attractive about her.  She’s not brilliant, or witty, or cultured, or urbane.  She has problems just taking the gum out of her mouth.  And because neither Nabakov nor Kubrick gave us much insight as to what went on in the head of little Delores (Lolita’s real name), we can’t tell if she’s really as shallow and vacuous as the protagonist (Humbert Humbert) projects her to be.   After all, he’s not really so much interested in her as he is in her youth, and what that signifies.

In order to get the movie past Hays Code censors, Nabakov had to rewrite some aspects of it.  In the novel, for example, Lolita’s twelve years old.  In the movie, she’s a few (unspecified) years older; clearly post-pubescent.  Kubrick cast fourteen-year-old actress Sue Lyon (left) as the title character in part because her physical maturity made her look more like an adult woman, and less like a little girl (you can imagine it would have really freaked out a lot of people if she could pass for a Brownie–especially during the sex scene).* 

Nabakov made one more critical change to get the project past censors.  In the movie, Humbert had no jailbait ideation until he met Delores.  So, Lolita comes across as uniquely sexual for a girl her age.  She becomes the irresistible force that lures two men, and one woman (namely her mother), to their deaths.  In the novel, however, Nabakov made it clear that Lolita did nothing special to attract Humbert.  Humbert had an illicit predilection for pubescent and post-pubescent girls his entire adult life. Nabakov even gave us a reason for his paraphilia.  Way back during his own adolescence, Humbert’s first love, Annabel Leigh, died at the age of fourteen.  Thus, in the novel, Humbert neurotically saw Annabel in Lolita and all of the other girls he fantasized about.

Most of the adult actors who comprised the Lolita cast–Mason, Sellers, Shirley Winters, etc.–went on to make other movies, often tackling diverse roles.  In her next film, a 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, Lyon played another underage femme fatale who ruins the life of a defrocked Episcopalian priest, played by Richard Burton.** 

Just as the Twenty-First Century has its divas, the 1960s had its nymphets.  Lyon realized that if she played her cards right, she could become their queen.  But she chafed under the Hollywood machine.  Cutting back on the grind, she acted sporadically before leaving the silver screen in 1986.***

So the title of Queen Nymphet would have to go to another actress.  And if you believe some of the recent conspiracy stories about her, the front-runner for that honor was already a queen, of sorts.

*Lyon was sixteen at the time of Lolita’s release. 
**According to Wikipedia, multiple versions of this movie were filmed, edited and released.  In one, the movie ends with the Richard Burton character committing suicide by walking into the ocean.

***Click here to see Lyon in a 1980s interview where she discusses the making of Lolita, and some of the `aftermath.

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