Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Trouble With Witty Flights: Sunday Night at the Movies

Okay.  You might not be watching this on Sunday night.  And you might have a million relatives to greet, or visit in the next few days, not to mention bloat and lethargy resulting from Aunt Mathilda's secret recipe.  But if you have an hour, you might find the videos below interesting, especially if you’ve been pondering whether or not Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan had good reason to fear Scientology.

Figure 1.  60 Minutes (USA, CBS) segment on Scientology’s acquisition of the Cult Awareness Network.

Figure 2.  Nightline (USA, ABC) profile of Jenna Miscavige and Astra Woodcraft  

Figure 3.  2nd Panorama (UK, BBC) episode on Scientology

I wish to extend to all of you, and your families, a joyful holiday season.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Of Blindfolds, Wise Persons, and Elephants

Suicide.  Murder.  ARG.

These were three of the narratives offered to define the fates of one Theresa Duncan, and one Jeremy Blake.  Because of web archives, I knew that each had already taken root in some corner of cyberspace by 2008, when I began to look into the subject.  Certain aspects of the story (or stories) immediately caught my attention.  The first was the astonishing amount of effort that a number of people put forth in order to determine the particulars of these two deaths.  The second was the degree of passion that the participants exuded for specific interpretation of facts.   

In such an atmosphere, one might expect some clashes, fueled by emotion, with each position and its variations confidently asserted after thoughtful consideration, dogged research, and in some cases considerable expense.  Sure enough, clashes occurred.

Each of these stories had strengths and weaknesses.  Sometimes they were obvious.  Sometimes they were not.  Yet when I pondered them, I noticed something.  Despite the sharp differences of opinions, and the vehemence each narrative inspired (for or against), some aspects of  each were not only consistent with the facts, as much as anyone could gather, but in some respects consistent with each other. 
If you’re scratching your head right now, wondering if I’m serious, then consider this.  Each of these versions addressed disparate facets of the story.  The suicide narrative focused on Blake and Duncan’s state of mind.  The murder angle looked at the hegemonic structure of people Blake might have run afoul of, and the persons they connected to (or could connect to, if need be).  The ARG hypothesis examined a cyberculture that Duncan participated in:  specifically, the conspiracy milieu surrounding the Rigorous Intuition blog.  So while the conclusions of each narrative are mutually exclusive, the details and themes supporting them are often not–little surprise if each examines different sides of the elephant. Naturally, one side might fuss over details that would not register as important enough for others to address.

That’s why, when looking at this in 2008, the term “social drama” came to mind.  As with any social drama, there is a struggle to define, for lack of a better word, the “truth.”  And like many social dramas, the primary struggle isn’t in the validity of one party’s facts versus another, but the assertion of what they mean.   True, there are a number of disputed facts in this case (and I’ll get to them later).  But one gets the feeling that even if clarification, stipulation, or concession of facts took place, those championing one version or another wouldn’t really abandon their story so much as adapt it to accommodate new information.

Insofar as its existence in cyberspace, the contested meaning of Blake and Duncan’s deaths developed into something larger.  Many of those who witnessed this characterized it as something much darker.  In many cyber-discussions, this development began to distance itself from the particulars of the Blake and Duncan cases, thus turning into another investigation altogether.  Some referred to it as TD/JB, others as TD, or Theremy.  Whatever one called it, Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake ironically started to look like minor characters in the story of Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. 

Before that happens here (and it will when we get into, let’s call it “Theremy culture”), I’d like to take a look into some things specifically relevant to the hapless couple.  For starters, we might find it helpful to look at, to the best of our ability, their state of mind.

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Real Lives

Blogger dreamsend thought that website Wit of the Staircase seemed consistent with the methods and goals of an alternate reality game (ARG).  While having no truck against ARGs per se, he expressed concern about their usage as a pysops tool, based on the various memes and subtexts one can find on the blog.  This initially led him to consider the possibility that the blog’s creator, Theresa Duncan, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Blake, were not real, but in fact characters played by actors.  He later posited that the blog was a joint collaboration between many parties, and that two bodies surfaced as the blog reached its dramatic conclusion.  Taking Duncan’s work as a whole, he saw various clues that neither these persons nor the blog, were what they appeared to be.

One can certainly discern a subtext within the posts of Wit of the Staircase.  And we have good reason to suspect that Duncan included one (for reasons we’ll examine later).  But subtexts have existed long before ARGs.*  Consequently, their existence on Wit of the Staircase does not necessarily point to an effort to entice people down a rabbit hole and engage in metafiction.  A subtext here could very well indicate other contexts or meanings. 

As Abraham Maslow said in The Psychologies of Science, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Likewise, if one has a belief in an ARG explanation of Wit of the Staircase, all aspects of it seem to confirm this as the case, even when less sinister explanations are more plausible.  As in the Paul-Is-Dead rumor, we can explain some of these nails as tricks of stochasticity, the human tendency to force meaning onto randomness.  In such cases, we often pay attention to similarities, but dismiss differences. 

Looking at the putative examples of ARGness in “The History of Glamour,” for instance, we can see similarities to Duncan’s life and her eventual fate.  We see the number forty in odd contexts, and we know that Duncan died at that age.  Yet, that specific numerical value brings with it a host of semiotic usages, among them the death of one state of existence and spiritual rebirth, a theme found in the film’s plot.  In other words, this could very well have constituted subtle foreshadowing with respect to the movie, but not to Duncan’s life.  To dismiss the other possible meanings of “forty” and latch onto one interpretation demonstrates a selective process in determining meaning.  Another example: the protagonist comes from Ohio, whereas Duncan hailed from Michigan.  As someone who has lived in both the Wolverine and Buckeye states, I can tell you that natives of each would see that as a huge difference.  Yet, someone living outside that geographical area would probably lump these places together as the same general “Rust Belt” territory, dismissing the distinction as unimportant--another example of selectively filtering out differences, while accentuating similarities. 

Other items offered as evidence of ARG activity in Wit of the Staircase have been presented out of context.  For example the alleged prediction of Duncan’s death (as a fictional character) made in a comment to an 8 June 2007 post on Rigorous Intuition (“‘A Lonely Wit - Aloha,’ or ‘A Holy Toenail Law.’”) actually seems like something else when one reads the string in its entirety.  The context of the comment is the prolonged back-and-forth banter between Et in Arcadia Ego Eve, and another netizen going by the handle Shrubageddon.  This protracted dialogue between the two began somewhat antagonistically when Eve requested a photo of the site’s master, Jeff Wells.  Shrub responded to the request with a fairly sharp criticism about the nature of the request.  At some point, the banter took on the tone of a tongue-in-cheek flirtation, with both parties expressing their mutual admiration for the other’s “rapist wit [sic].”  Eve prefaced the anagram remark, writing:

But how will I entice you with a beautiful smile if I do not polish my lovely pearls with ULTRA whitening toothpaste? And how can I combat this artificially intelligent crazy toxic electronic typing machine if not by using it to reach you Adam Shrubbery with my infinate [sic] Eve love.

Thus the “lonely wit” mentioned here does not reference Duncan, or Blake (Mr. Wit) but rather Et in Arcadia Eve and Shrubageddon.  The gag is that if Eve can’t get herself in order she can’t seduce a fellow “rapist wit,” thus making her a lonely wit.**

As with Alex Constantine’s analysis, where we can legitimately demonstrate or infer a connection between most of the parties named, one can articulate themes and recurrence on Wit of the Staircase.  But just as in the murder hypothesis, the ARG narrative prompts the question of how meaningful these inferences really are.   There’s also the additional question of what these inferences actually signify if they are meaningful. 

Possible interpretations aside, the ARG hypothesis has, at its root, a more fundamental problem.  An ArticleFirst search on the name “Jeremy Blake” yields twelve articles written before his death, and two after.***  An identical search on the name “Theresa Duncan” returns one article written during her life, and one after her death.  A MasterFILE Premier search results in eighteen newspaper and magazine articles written about Blake during his life, and sixteen after; for Duncan, the numbers are thirteen articles in life, seven in death.  A NewsBank search yields 108 articles about Blake during his lifetime, and ninety-seven after; Duncan’s numbers are twenty-nine before and fifty-four after.  A ProQuest search shows seventy-five articles written about Duncan during her life, with forty-three after her death; Blake’s numbers are sixty before, and fifty-three after.

When viewing the number of articles written about them after their passing, one has to keep in mind a couple of things.  First, mainstream accounts of Duncan after 10 July 2007 focus exclusively on her death.  Mainstream coverage of Blake mostly centers on his artwork, and subsequent showings of it.  These articles tend to mention his death in passing, sometimes with no reference to Duncan by name, or at all.  Second, the number of articles written after 17 July 2007 is inflated by a flurry of coverage during August 2007, where the press mostly examined their reported suicides.

Figure 1.  JT LeRoy (left).  Theresa Duncan photograph, Elle magazine 1998 (right).

So for relatively obscure people, Blake and Duncan received extraordinary attention in traditional mainstream media during their lifetimes.  If they were no more than fictional characters, then this would have been a fairly extensive ARG, which would have had to have retained actors for exclusive long-term roles.  After all, if they appeared in anything else, people would have seen them merely as actors.  If these were amateurs (as in the case of JT LeRoy), then others would immediately see through the ruse, since there were no obvious attempt to disguise the two, as was the case with LeRoy (see Figure 1).  Furthermore, we’d have to wonder why no one has yet exposed this as a hoax, especially since the reveal is usually an important component of culture jamming. 

You would also need the participation of numerous major sources (e.g., Los Angeles Times, New York Times, New York magazine, Elle, Cosmopolitan, USA Today, New Republic, etc.), or rely on them all never to fact check.  This could have possibly been done.  But what you’re talking about would be an enormous undertaking.  And for what purpose?  To play a game?  To sell a line of fiction?  Although dreamsend indicated the purpose could have been to set up a psychological operation, the target or ultimate function of that PSYOP isn't very clear.

Most important, every single one of these sources depicted Duncan as an unusually gifted storyteller adept at working with cutting-edge technology.  In this respect she and Blake shared a mutual artistic interest in expanding the conventions of narrative dissemination.  So if there is a subtext contained on Wit of the Staircase, we would have to concede that Duncan was quite capable of doing that all by herself.  While one can reasonably speculate that Blake and possibly others surreptitiously contributed to the site–the bulk of articles consist of a one-paragraph cut-and-paste quotes, followed by a link; easy enough to mimic–there’s no good evidence to say that the site represents an equal collaboration between myriad parties. 

True, others online or off could have provided suggestions, offered opinions of topics to cover, and might have even given some inspiration on how to layer meaning.   And someone could even include Wit of the Staircase as part of an ARG.  But we don’t have sufficient evidence to show that Wit of the Staircase is itself an ARG, or designed to be part of an ARG.  We do, however, have abundant evidence to show that (1) Blake and Duncan existed, (2) they were capable of producing the artifacts attributed to them, and (3) Duncan exerted principal control over the content of Wit of the Staircase.

*For Example, nursery rhymes sometimes contained political subtexts.  And the works of William Shakespeare in toto yielded abundant political memes that often dealt with the subject of conspiracy (e.g., Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, and so forth). 

**I’ve come across rumors that Et in Arcadia Eve works as a paralegal in the Southeastern US.  If true, the phrase “toenail law” could have some additional significance in this regard.

***This is after taking into account duplicate articles (articles listed separately because they appeared in more than one publication, sometimes under different titles) and articles about other people named Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan.  Naturally, some of these articles mention both of them.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Ex’s, Hexes and Nexus

Edited 7/17/13.

Political researcher Alex Constantine noted a number of persistent and redundant connections between Jeremy Blake, Theresa Duncan, and powerful people who control US Intel.  In  “J'ACCUSE!" and “Duncan and Blake Suicides Solved,” he posited that when Duncan posted “The Trouble with Anna Gaskell,” she set off a chain reaction inside this power nexus, forcing it to protect itself against public disclosure of politically, socially and criminally damning information.  He strongly implied that those in power sought not only to extinguish the source of the rogue information (namely, Blake and Duncan), but to defame that source in death, so that no one would take their words seriously.  In order to do that, the alleged perpetrators needed to sell the public on the notion that Blake and Duncan were a couple of crazed, paranoid loons.

Constantine described, at some length, the connections between Blake, Duncan, and specific power players.  So in order to evaluate the likelihood that one of these parties materially participated in the murder of Jeremy and Theresa, we would not only have to consider the strength of these connections, but also how meaningful they really are. 

Some of these connections are quite strong and provable.  For example, Anna Gaskell did not deny her relationship with Blake, and we would thus have good reason to take him for his word (as given by Duncan) that he actually knew Cownie.  Duncan knew Kate Coe, who knew right-wing ideologue Catherine Seipp, who really has the same name as Dennis Seipp, who worked for a company that had defense and Intel contracts.*  Although Warren Buffett has attempted to distance himself from corrupt former Franklin Community Credit Union director Larry King, he did know him well enough to do business with him, and for his wife to offer King her personal assistance.  Buffett also had an investment in Capitol Cities, a company founded by former DCI William Casey.

Other connections are slightly more speculative, but quite plausible and probably true.  For example, if Casey served as a treasurer for the Inter-American Press Association, it’s reasonable to think that the organization’s task sometimes overlapped (or perhaps consciously supported) the CIA.

Some connections are more tenuous.  Constantine stated, for instance that Blake dated poet Dr. Sarah Hannah.  If Duncan ever wrote about Hannah and Blake’s relationship, that item no longer appears on her blog.  Writer Ron Rosenbaum cited a UPI story that mentioned the relationship, but the link to the article is dead, and another one with the same title does not currently mention the relationship (although one can speculate that it once existed).

For the most part, the links presented by Constantine can be either proven or inferred.  But his hypothesis begins to run into problems when we consider their relevance.  If we can connect Blake and Duncan to all of these evil folks, one could argue, following the same line of reasoning, that Jeremy and Theresa are among these evil folks.  In other words, many people have relatives, or work for shady businesses, something they can scarcely avoid in this highly networked, oligopolistic society that we find ourselves in.  If you examine the company you work for, or the past military records of your employers, friends and family, it’s quite likely that you too could find yourself in a complicated diagram full of defense contracts, intelligence activities, and so forth.  That wouldn’t prove ipso facto that you were also in on the conspiracy to do in Theresa and Jeremy.

Moreover, while some institutions really have demonstrated connections to Intel, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone connected to the institution is up to something nefarious.  Many universities other than Columbia have had dealings with CIA, especially nowadays since the Agency openly recruits on college campuses.  Yet, one cannot assume that Columbia is, as our friend Ray would put it, “crooked down to its janitor.” 

One can also note this story’s most critical connection, between Duncan and Coe, calls for a fair degree of speculation.  True, Coe wrote a problematic piece that cast aspersions on Duncan. And although her articles and interviews lack the recklessly acerbic polemics of her close friend Seipp, one could fairly assume that Coe herself is politically conservative, given her attendance of  Los Angeles’ Wednesday Morning Club.** Still, there’s little that one could discern in these facts with respect to conspiracy.  Even though we can stipulate many of the connections between some players, we cannot not prove that Coe’s derisive prose indicated anything more than a bias against Duncan’s leftist leanings, or for all we know a personal grudge.    And even if we speculated that her supervisors ordered her to pen a poison piece--an attack on “liberal elitists and conspiracy-mongers” carefully disguised as an objective report by a skillful writer--then we would still have to ask what this has to do with the passing of Blake and Duncan.  One could easily interpret the exploitation of this tragedy as an opportunity to discredit leftist (para)political thought, without being the cause of it.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that somebody actually put out a contract on Blake and Duncan.  Where would that contract originate?  Buffett?  Cownie?  King?  In other words, one would have to ask what route, along this interconnected highway, did the order really travel if this allegation were true.  Would all these players have to give a thumbs up to such an op, or just key ones?  Would all of them be involved, or very few? 

If there were a conspiracy to murder Blake and Duncan, then someone would have to act, not simply be (associated with).  Constantine offered no specific agency in this analysis of who ordered the putative hit, and who carried it out.  Much less is there any indication of how someone might have committed the crime and disguised it as suicide.

The main problem with the analysis is that it does not address the actual facts (few and shaky as they are) surrounding Blake and Duncan’s demises.  There is no indication of whether or not there are inconsistencies within the police investigation itself (as there were in John Lennon’s murder investigation).  Constantine did not mention anything about forensic or eyewitness evidence that would contradict a determination of suicide.  For example, when talking about Theresa, were there foreign items in the rectory?  Things out of place or damaged?  Was there any evidence of forced or surreptitious entry?  Did the police collect fingerprints that didn’t match anyone known to be in that space?  Did Duncan’s body have any bruises, contusions, ligature marks?  Did Blake’s body show signs of violence?  Did either of them have bloodshot eyes, broken thyroid bones, or swollen lungs (evidence of suffocation)?   Did toxicology and micrology reports reveal something that shouldn’t have been there?  In Jeremy’s case, was there water in his lungs (i.e., death by drowning as opposed to death by hypothermia)?  Did someone witness him meeting someone else on the train to Rockaway Beach, or see someone following him when he disembarked?  Can someone show that any of the parties depicted in these diagrams shelled out money to finance such a plan?

Mind you, the answer to any of these questions could be "Yes," given the paucity of information made public, and considering some of the disputes about the sequence of events and items found at the scenes.  The problem here is that unless someone gives us credible inside information, all of the above would remain highly speculative.  Naturally, I have nothing against speculation.  But even when taking a wild stab one should address the state of this evidence, or lack thereof.  If we buy into the premise that the couple really had powerful enemies (and they could have, for reasons we’ll discuss later), then we would still have to concede the possibility that they committed suicide.  People with enemies actually off themselves, after all.  They also die from natural causes and accidents.  At best, we can see these connections as indicative of motive, which in itself is just one piece of evidence a prosecutor can present to a jury; and it’s unlikely to stand all by its lonesome.  In order to prove murder, we would have to address many of the other circumstances involved with such a crime.

At worst, Constantine’s description still provides a pretty interesting portrait of corporate/political hegemony.  But hegemony alone doth not an assassination make.

 *As a previous commenter has pointed out, the name of Catherine Seipp's widower is Jerry Lazar.

**The Wednesday Morning Club, founded by right-wing policy advocate David Horowitz, is a regular meeting of conservative Angelinos.  As the article states, it doesn’t always meet in the morning, or on Wednesday.  But it gives its attendees the opportunity to come together in mutual support.

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

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.”

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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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