The Trouble with Witty Flights: The ‘Wrong’ Thread
As a whole Rigint is a masterpiece of confabulation and satire, news and conspiracy that despite blending real threats with UFO gobbledlygook somehow manages to get to the black heart of the matter. This genius new literary/news form works in much the same way as a grosteque [sic] nightmare which disguises and yet points back to some basic truth.
–Theresa Duncan, “9/11 on the Staircase: The Coincidence Theorist’s Guide,” Wit of the Staircase (11 September 2006)
Another thread where I have no idea what is going on.
–Nordic, “RI ‘Bad’ Guys: UR Doin It Wrong,” Rigorous Intuition Forum (17 January 2010).
In the very first post in this series, I mentioned the passions that once ran high in online dialogue about Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, as well as my hopes that time has allowed for some cooling down about the topic. Of course, I realized I could be wrong, and that we might be in for a bumpy ride.
Fortunately, things have been rather calm so far on The X-Spot itself. But over the past several months, my inbox got lit up like a Mardi Gras drunk. In summary, these e-mails have come from people connected in various ways to the topic. Some have voiced suspicion about where I am heading, or what my real purpose is (and for good reason, as you will see). Many have expressed concern about my well being should I pursue the niche of the Blake/Duncan story that we’re about to. A couple of people have tried to warn me off of it.
Well, fools rush in.
Almost all of these correspondents cited a certain online event that in many ways defined the Internet phenomenon of Theremy as they came to know it. Namely, they referred to a thread on the Rigorous Intuition Forum titled “RI ‘Bad’ Guys: UR Doin It Wrong,” begun by a forum member using the handle compared2what? (or C2W for short). The initial post, harsh and strident in tone, makes unspecified accusations against unnamed persons on the board:
I don't like to be the agent of anyone's misfortune. So I don't narc behind the scenes, -- or for that matter, in full view -- when it comes to naming names and taking prisoners. And I'd prefer to keep it that way to the greatest extent possible. However, you're the ones who set the limits there, really, not me. I mean by your ‘bad’ actions. In case that's not clear,,,,
As far as I can see, you do not have a valid cause. Apart from which, on an on-again-off-again basis, your pretensions are profoundly offensive to me personally. Because, hello? I'm a politically serious intellectual who finds something close to godliness in transgressive art
So to the pathetic extent that you're pretending to be and/or actually believe that you are intellectuals, politically serious people, and/or transgressive artists, you're pissing on stuff that's very valuable to me....
Because to be honest, I tend to lose interest in that shit once I can see that it is what it pettily is. I mean, it's not like I'm getting paid to map out every fucking non-subtlety in Thee Circle Jerk of Doom.
So there you have it. I feel for you all and wish you the best. I honestly do. But you really shouldn't do ‘covert’ if you don't know how. Because it really can be dangerous. And if you'd had controllers to whom you were assets worth protecting, they would have told you that a long time ago. Plus, just in case you're laboring under illusions on the issue: There's no such thing as a controller who cares about you. In the real covert world or in the real world, period. Caring people do not go into the controlling business....
You could say that there is an ARG. If you consider a small group of egotistical assholes having gone to a lot of trouble to establish multiple false identities with which to take over the RI forum starting (I believe, but sorry, got bored, zzzzzz) way back in the EZ-Board era (if not before, zzzzz) to be an ARG.
Also, there's a whole lot of extraneous shit that people who aren't in on it are supposed to think is happening. Like, you know: When they put your hands in the bowl of peeled grapes while you're blindfolded, you're supposed to think they're eyeballs.
You might be scratching your head right now wondering what that meant. And as the above quote from poster Nordic illustrates, you would have had company back in 2010. A lot of subsequent responses articulated a widespread cluelessness about what C2W said. Some asked for clarification. As someone going by the handle justdrew put it, “are you suggesting that some -kind of self-harm ‘driving’ is being attempted by some theoretical faction?”
While most of the posters tried to figure out C2W’s jeremiad, a handful knew exactly what she meant. Among them was board moderator Et in Arcadia Ego, who briefly explained the subject matter at hand:
At its heart, there are two, maybe three groups, some consisting of probably a single individual, who have caused trouble in one form or another on this forum since at least 2005.
One of them simply consists (my opinion, but an educated one) of a needle-dicked fucking pest, the others, among them a certain chaos fiction author, are a bit more creative in the level of harassment and willingness to portray being something more ominous then they really are. Or more innocent than they are, in reference to Miss C2W's comments.
It could have, and maybe should have been made more apparent to members here, but the management has labored extensively on your behalf to provide you with a stress free environment where you are unconstrained to shit your pants on more important things like crappy CIA-made Hollywood films.
Other forum members pressed for more information about the who and what. But in the haze of vagueness, posters then began making accusations and counter-accusations. One commenter, Smiths, saw the cryptic nature of the allegations as problematic in itself:
i would like to say that the most obvious way that someone fucks around with the board is by posting threads all about the state of the board, the way that someone sows dissent and division is by banging on about losers who are somehow against the forum but not naming names, creating a kind of mystery force that is out to get us all.
In the very next post, C2W, for the first time, named a person she thought was one of the “bad” guys, a fellow poster going by the handle Wombaticus Rex.
I wasn't going to name you [Wombaticus Rex] if I didn't have to. You're a very good writer, by the way. I have absolutely no idea what goal or cause you think you're advancing by prepping the board for the Last Statue (and associated) bullshit.
Although it wouldn’t ring any bells for someone new to RigInt, more forum members finally began to comprehend C2W’s initial accusation, namely the derailing of forum topics in order to, among other things, promote The Last Statue. She also pegged someone she thought lay behind these activities: specifically, blogger dreamsend. By this time, dreamsend had become persona non grata on the RI forums, in substantial part due to his speculation about the ARG-like qualities of Blake, Duncan and Wit of the Staircase. Many of the members could also see the similarity between the handles Wombaticus Rex and StegasaurusRex, which many had linked to dreamsend in another online forum .
Other members began to eye Wombaticus Rex with maximum suspicion, prompting the beleaguered netizen to protest his innocence, insisting that he was not dreamsend. To this end he offered considerable personal information about himself, including his real name, age, location, occupations, workplace, musical aspirations and previous residence. Curiously, C2W, the poster who prompted the attack, subsequently chided other posters for following her lead, writing, “The personal attack on Wombat was horrifying. And every bit as bad as what I’m trying to expose.”
Some members saw the thread going out of control. Moreover, they could not understand why Wells, the host, had not taken on a more active role in moderating what might become either a witchhunt,, or the entire usurpation of the forum by posters hostile to its reason for existence. Yet Wells offered little direction, joking that he was a “graduate of the Arthur Carlson School of Forum Management.”*
With no other elaboration forthcoming from the original poster, Et in Arcadia Ego explained the situation, as he saw it, in greater detail:
I was contacted by Jeff in December. He was basically venting over what appeared to be a new mystery person working along similar lines as the much despised fucking nick spoofer, Mrs Et in Arcadia ego Eve....
This new person, Mrs Tina fucking Delgado, is the apparent author of the Last Statue material, and several blogs, Untermuyer, and Kid Kenoma among them. Dream's End latched onto these, because that's what he does.....
Via these blogs, the author was dropping what appeared as ominous references to RI members. This was facilitated in several ways, among them gossip from members here who don't know how to keep their fucking mouths shut when speaking about others who have placed trust in them....
Consequently, I was data mined, information on me was distorted BEYOND FUCKING BELIEF, my ex-fiance, who committed a horrible double suicide was dragged into this, and facts about her life twisted into making me appear the reason for her tragedy.
During all this I have been in constant contact with Dream's End, who has maintained a consistent disavowal of not knowing who this person is, and I believe him having discusses [sic] the matter for COUNTLESS fucking hours over the last three weeks.
Factor in the merging of the recent interest in the Octopus story, which attracted this forum's WORST unknown troll, Socrates/Last_ Name_Left/Proldic and countless other screen names, with the Kid Kenoma author, and you have what Jeff referred to as the ‘Perfect Troll Shit Storm.’”** [caps original]
elfismiles offered further explanation of C2W’s initial accusations, in the process invoking the memory of past domestic operations aimed at political dissidents:
C2W seems to feel there is evidence of a long-term concerted effort among the seemingly disparite [sic] incidences of RI community derailment. A variant on the Cointelpro shenanigans we often discuss here but possibly more a matter of a group of trolls that she believes may be working together and have been here for a very long time.
The users in question have often used sock-puppets to hide their identity and C2W is suggesting they were sleeper-sock-puppets waiting to be activitated.
All of which are ideas I'd not really thought about until DreamsEnd began his similarly minded suspicions and suggestions regarding our host and his moderators back in 2007.”
The “UR Doin It Wrong” thread subtly reveals a coherent narrative. Here, as the story goes, we start with a vibrant, possibly thriving online community, comprised of individual members confident in themselves and each other, collectively doing its best to unravel the arcane mechanisms of power. The members sense an outside presence slowly creeping into their sphere, one that distracts, demeans, undermines, threatens and belittles their efforts. They can cite seemingly disruptive behavior. Yet, they cannot see this alien influence. They remain uncertain about the exact actions taking place, the intentions of the disruptive forces, if in fact the people behind the myriad sock-puppets number in the scores or in the single digits, the direction from whence this presence came, and the direction it’s heading. And even though they strongly suspect at least three to five trolls among their midst, it is unclear whether or not they can offer or garner court-quality evidence to establish (1) the identity of the perpetrators, or (2) their actionable deeds to a preponderance standard of proof. A frustrating turn of events. And it came to a head with the investigation into Theremy and such related topics as The Last Statue.
The result: chaos. Discord. Individual members were now at each others' throats. Worse, they feared themselves. They wondered if an online collaborator might be a sock-puppet of one of the “bad” guys, or a dupe (intentionally or unintentionally) doing their bidding. Some complained that others had appropriated their online identities, posting spurious, incendiary or defamatory content in their name, behind their backs. Many worried about intrusions upon their private lives, similar to what happened to Et in Arcadia Ego. Some, like Wombaticus Rex, even felt compelled to bare all for public scrutiny so that he could stay within the community. Although some might characterize the accounts of personal harassment as grossly exaggerated or perhaps non-existent, the fact remained that the stories themselves had a chilling effect on cooperation, and eroded trust among the conspiracy researchers rallying ‘round the Rigorous Intuition brand.
Elsewhere, in other online venues, some seriously considered, the possibility that behind all the “bad” actors and their sock-puppets stood a malevolent puppet-master pulling everyone’s strings.
*Arthur Carlson, played by actor Gordon Jump, was the enfeebled, do-nothing radio station boss on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.
**Elsewhere in the thread, Et in Arcadia Ego complained that the proprietor of the Kid Kenoma blog had dug into his personal background and posted an inaccurate account of how his actions supposedly led to his fiancee’s suicide.
And to Et in Arcadia Ego’s credit, he neither whined nor threatened me when contacting me by gmail. He simply stated the facts of the matter in surprisingly eloquent terms, as one human to another, and the offending material was immediately taken down. He seemed to understand that there was no ARG, no plot, no data mining, no stalking, and that certain persons were wildly exaggerating, or outright fabricating their claims of personal harassment.
The Trouble with Witty Flights: Contents under Pressure
One of the hardest things she went through, she says today, was just getting people to believe that all of the harassment was going on. ‘If you tell people you're being followed, they think you're paranoid,’ she says. The experience left her angry and depressed. ‘I was really very, very bitter.’
–Tony Ortega interviewing Paulette Cooper about her experiences with the Church of Scientology, Village Voice, 24 November 2011
Indeed, Pauline Cooper, in the face of her ordeal with Scientology, found those she counted on for support not only tuned-out the message about Scientology, but pathologized her as "paranoid." One can imagine the type of frustration that causes, resulting in a vicious cycle where one is facing pressure from an outside source, and cannot rely on the expected emotional support of friends, some of whom probably distance themselves. A targeted person might even see that distancing as suspicious in and of itself, leading them to wonder if friends might be secret Scientologists, and if so, which ones. In Cooper’s case, that’s exactly what happened when she discovered that a "new" friend actively participated in Scientology’s surveillance efforts against her
It’s not difficult to imagine that had the FBI not discovered iron-clad evidence, in the form of internal Scientology memoranda detailing their harassment and framing of Cooper (in operations they dubbed FREAKOUT and DYNAMITE), history, and for that matter the courts, might have regarded Cooper as a dangerously disturbed individual, a threat to herself and others. Likewise, Sweeney’s outburst to CoS spokesperson Tommy Davis made the reporter seem unhinged. Although Sweeney could document the surveillance using his own cameras, Rinder’s stipulation that he ordered and participated in the activities against Sweeney, and his possession of internal CoS memos verifying the attempt to harass and provoke the journalist, is what really proves the implementation of the Fair Game policy beyond a reasonable doubt standard.
We know that Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan took at least some steps to document what they saw as harassment by the Church of Scientology. Duncan wrote about these efforts on Wit of the Staircase. She specifically said that she and Blake had taken pictures of cars close to their home bearing Florida plates. In a comment to a post dated 25 July 2007 on Blogging Los Angeles, someone going by the handle "Marshall" shared an excerpt from his private e-mail correspondence with Duncan in which she attached photos of these cars. One of them, a van, had painted on it a telephone number with a Clearwater area code.
Granted, that doesn’t prove that the cars with the Florida plates had anything to do with Scientology. After all, there are plenty of Scientologists in southern California and NYC that could more stealthily follow Blake and Duncan with their in-state plates. Nevertheless, the photos attached to that e-mail at the very least show that Blake and Duncan tried to prove what they felt to be one source of pressure acting upon them. Unlike Cooper, Theresa and Jeremy would most likely never have had the tremendous luck of FBI special agents finding the smoking gun for them. And unlike Sweeney, they probably wouldn’t get former high-ranking church officials to corroborate and provide written evidence of their suspicions. And after they died, they were hardly in a position to stop such Scientology hires as John Connolly from helping to make what could be their final public depiction–the last word.
Although it’s extremely difficult to prove Scientology harassed Blake and Duncan, their claims are consistent with those made by others who were not judged delusional, or could in fact prove the harassment took place. And their behavior is consistent with those getting their buttons pushed. Seeing that by many accounts the couple lived in dread as their lives drew to a close, it’s reasonable to consider the likelihood of the church’s harassment as a stressor, which provoked them to act in ways that would seem unbalanced, irrational, or perhaps even dangerous.
Blake and Duncan might have faced pressures from other sources. In "The Trouble with Anna Gaskell," Duncan unambiguously laid out her suspicions that some of their harassment had come courtesy of Jim Cownie, a well-connected Iowa media mogul and the foster father of Jeremy’s former beau. Theresa saw the connection in a number of menacing guises: the proliferation in their area of cars bearing Iowa plates; the alerting to her FBI file by Dr. Reza Aslan, a former Iowa resident; the friendship between Anna Gaskell and Hillary Chartrand, whose boyfriend, Ralph Rugoff, had apparently started a smear campaign against her and Jeremy; the pacing in front of their Venice home by Gaskell’s brother, Zach.
Let’s table discussion of that for now.
Instead, let’s look at speculation that Duncan and Blake might have faced even more pressure from a source that was as hidden and mercurial as it was ubiquitous. This source has possibly existed for decades, but soon made a special roost for itself online. There are aspects and actors that we can name. Most times, however, it’s not clear who a person is, what they represent, or what they intend to do. Perhaps they can do you harm, online or off.
If you want a short name for this "thing," let’s call it "Trickster," for the time being. Like any other trickster, it’s not a he or she, but an it, which real flesh-and-bone people bring to life. And like tricksters past and present, it finds fruit in every wound.
We have reason to suspect that Blake and Duncan might have encountered either Trickster or a twenty-first century spiritual clone. Other bloggers--especially those who write about politics, parapolitics or conspiracy–have argued in reasoned terms that a malicious something turned the biographies of one Theresa Duncan and one Jeremy Blake into the backdrop of a sideshow called Theremy. Many have described this entity as malevolent. Those who encountered it have discussed publicly and privately the personal toll it took on them.
Every who has encountered Trickster will tell you, at the very least, the experience was stressful.
The Trouble with Witty Flights: All’s not Fair in Vanity
On 6 December 2007, John Spaulding, of The Society of Mutual Autopsy Review of Religion and Culture (SoMA) made a call to a friend, who knew a priest who knew Father Frank Morales. The friend seemed somewhat baffled that the Vanity Fair article Spaulding referred to in his post that day, about the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, carried the byline Nancy Jo Sales. “Are you sure it was a female reporter?” he asked.
This friend asked, because the priest he knew had spoken to someone else at Vanity Fair who wanted information about Fr. Morales. The interviewer was male.
The following day, Spaulding got another call from another baffled reader:
...I got a call from someone who was interviewed at length for the piece and was stunned to read at SoMA that Nancy Jo Sales had the byline. Asking not to be named, this person said that, last they knew, VF contributor John Connolly was writing the article, and that it was probably now in final edits, not already on the newsstand.
So, another Vanity Fair writer, John Connolly, worked on the same story. He interviewed a number of people whose quotes and information seem to have appeared in Sales’ article, “The Golden Suicides.”
So who is John Connolly?
Connolly was once a New York City Police officer. He then tried his hand at stockbroking, but quickly ran afoul of federal authorities, who charged him with pumping and dumping, recklessly tanking his clients money in worthless stock purchases he made without their knowledge or consent (they lost any where between $19,000 and $107,000 each), and other things. Instead of indicting him, US prosecutors turned him into an informant.
It was as a government informant that Connolly found his next career. Using the information he collected in his capacity as a prosecutorial spy, he wrote articles later published in Forbes. The feds, naturally, no longer used his services. But Connolly continued to write and contribute articles for a number of other periodicals, among them Vanity Fair. At the time of his investigation into Blake and Duncan, Connolly served as a contributing editor to the magazine.
Connolly has a reputation for decent writing. But many in the publishing industry say that his true skill lies in his ability to investigate a story, a trait he undoubtedly honed as a policeman. Among those singing his praises was former LAPD officer-turned-private-detective Gene Ingram. Among Ingram’s clients was the Church of Scientology.
Connolly was a resource to deal with media problems....Ingram used to tout Connolly’s virtues pretty often–‘Connolly can handle this; he’ll find out what’s going on and he’s got lines into all media.’
Rathbun primarily served as the CoS’s fixer, someone who made trouble go away. So Connolly interested him. Likewise, as someone very involved with the church’s public relations, Rinder saw the value of Connolly's services. As evidence of Connolly’s connection to the church, Rathbun posted on his blog a secret memorandum penned by Scientology’s DCO External Affairs Office of Special Affairs INT chief Linda Hamel exemplifying how the ex-cop worked with Scientology. The memo dealt with British journalist Andrew Morton, who was then writing an unauthorized biography of actor Tom Cruise. The memo read in part:
Connolly was here in LA working on the [private detective Anthony] Pellicano story and contacted Morton and met with him on the basis of gaining his cooperation to be interviewed for an article for Vanity Fair about the books Morton has done on celebrities including the one he is writing on Tom Cruise. Connolly wanted to see what Morton was like and get any information about where Morton is currently at with regard to writing the book and to see if Morton would agree to be interviewed for an article. Based on the meeting, Connolly said that Morton seems to have finished his research already and is busy writing the book.
Connolly told Morton that it would not be a puff piece and would show both sides including what would be said about Morton. (Connolly will use the article to investigate Morton’s past treatment of other celebrities, use of sleazy sources, etc. that would undermine Morton’s credibility)....
The reporter got the impression from talking with Morton that Morton has collected a lot of information about the Church and that this will be well covered in the book. Morton also mentioned that he has an assistant who is working for him.....
Connolly’s impression is that Morton is a formidable adversary who is not going to back down. He thinks that Morton has made up his mind already as to the angle of the book but did not specifically say what it was.
This memo appears to describe a modus operandi similar to the one Connolly deployed in his days as government informant. He attempted to gain information from and about Morton under the guise of writing an article about him. In this case, Rathbun is saying that instead of reporting to the feds, Connolly reported to Scientology’s intelligence office.
Because of Duncan’s stridently anti-Scientology posts on Wit of the Staircase, it is, at the least, odd that Vanity Fair would assign a CoS hiree to write an article about her. According to some sources, the magazine simply “pulled him off the story," which certainly makes sense since that would seem like a conflict of interest. Whatever the case, someone eventually reassigned it to Sales, who knew of the couple because of her close relation to their friend, Fr. Morales. While it’s quite likely Sales interviewed and got information from Morales, it remains unclear as to how much information might have been gathered by Connolly. Moreover, one has to wonder how many of the quotes cited in the article came from interviews with Connolly, as opposed to Sales.
This becomes even more of a sticky point when discussing the quotes attributed to Beck Hansen. Sales reported that Beck e-mailed Vanity Fair to deny his involvement with Alice Underground. Moreover, he characterized his relationship to Blake and Duncan as “a passing social acquaintance.” Yet, four years earlier in a 5 August 2003 interview with Corrière della Sera reporter Sandra Cesarale, he discussed an upcoming movie he would film in the near future:**
It will be full of energy and full of characters: some kind of Alice in Wonderland set in the 70s. It still doesn’t have a title. The director is a friend of mine and it will be her directorial debut. But I trust her. We will begin shooting in the Fall.***
Here, it’s highly unlikely that Beck was referring to anything other than Alice Underground, and Theresa Duncan. It would therefore appear that he and Duncan mutually saw their relationship as not just a “passing social acquaintance,” but as an actual friendship. He also described his enthusiasm for the project, and his willingness to participate in it.
Back in December 2007, some commenting on this earlier interview accused Beck of lying to Sales. But did he?
Sales wrote that (1) the statement was in fact an e-mail, and (2) he sent it to Vanity Fair, not specifically to her. As to the first point, we have to concede that we normally don’t watch people e-mail us. We can assume the person who clicked the “send” button is the same one whose name is incorporated into the address. But commonsense tells us that anyone can set up an account and incorporate aspects of the person’s identity, and actually type their name after the closing.
As to the second point, we don’t know exactly who received the e-mail, although one can infer it was either Sales, Connolly or both. Here, we would have to wonder if someone connected to the church wrote it on his behalf--with or without his knowledge. Even if Beck wrote it himself, hi might have realized that it would go to a writer with a connection with Scientology. Or, he could have written it under duress. Whatever the case, we cannot definitively prove that he either composed, sent, or even endorsed the content of that e-mail.
When New York Post reporters Bill Hoffman and David Li tried to verify or clarify the statements attributed to Beck in Vanity Fair, they could not gain access to the rock star. Instead they spoke to a spokesperson who made it clear that neither he nor Beck would offer anything further:
A spokesman for the rocker told The Post last night that Vanity Fair's quotes from Beck were accurate.
But the mouthpiece said Beck didn't want to add any additional comments: ‘That's about as on-the-record as you're going to get from him.’
Beck aside, “The Golden Suicides” depicts Blake and Duncan’s concerns about Scientology as nothing more than psychotic paranoia, also evident in other conspiracy conjectures the couple had expressed to friends:
Blake wrote of how he and Duncan had been ‘harassed here to the point of absurdity’ by people who were so ‘paranoid’ that it made him ‘laugh.’ He said that they had been ‘defamed by crazy Scientologists,’ threatened and followed by ‘their thugs.’ (The Church of Scientology has denied any knowledge of the couple.) He wrote of how New York was starting to seem like the place for them to be, a place where they could speak ‘freely’ to ‘exceptional people’ and get their projects started.
Meanwhile, Hollywood, Blake said, was ‘under a pathetic right-wing invasion’ by the Bush administration and ‘extremist religious groups.’ He mentioned a couple of media companies with obvious Republican leanings. And then he said, ‘They are even running ads on the Cartoon Network recruiting people to be in the CIA!’
It’s interesting to note that while “The Golden Suicides” takes a rather mocking tone on Blake’s assertions, a simple Google search shows that he was hardly alone in thinking that right-wingers are trying to exercise some influence in Tinseltown Moreover, the Agency actually produced TV advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable networks. The below, for example, could have very well appeared on Cartoon Network or similar venues, since it would fit the demographics of its late-night audiences, and would match the style of that station’s content.
Figure 1. CIA Recruitment Ad
As for the church’s professed ignorance of Blake and Duncan’s existence until after their deaths, one has to recall that it denied spying on and harassing BBC journalist John Sweeney. Sweeney, of course, had the wherewithal to document the snooping and button pushing on camera. He also had confirmation from Mike Rinder and written documentation from Rinder’s files.
The point here is that “The Golden Suicides” contains some of the same pitfalls as Kate Coe’s “The Theresa Duncan Tragedy.” Neither article shows any serious research to verify or debunk the validity of the strange activities reported by Blake and Duncan, or any views the two expressed. Instead, each presents the claims of detractors, in Sales' case Scientology and Scientologists, at face value, and offer these statements as evidence of the couple’s detachment from reality--despite the fact that one can show various aspects of their assertions are true. “The Golden Suicides” averred that the couple weren’t as close to Beck as they claimed, despite evidence to the contrary; and that evidence came from Beck himself. The article depicted their fear of Scientologists as pathologically delusional. Yet, others have managed to prove far wilder persecution by the church than anything discussed on Wit of the Staircase.****
Indeed, the ugliest and most one-sided depictions of Blake and Duncan in “The Golden Suicides” center on their claims against the Church of Scientology. It's therefore particularly distressing that someone who had worked for the church also worked on the article for any length of time, in any capacity, especially since such actions are consistent with the church's Fair Game policy of smearing critics.
In his research for the screenplay, Ellis noted that the article had numerous problems. As he told Kyle Buchanon of Movieline, “I know that there was some concern among family and friends that this was going to be a script that was very much in line with the Vanity Fair piece, which really isn't true.“
One could guess that family and friends might also fear that the movie might be just as one-sided.
I guess the proof will be in the screening–if it ever makes it that far.
*Gawker.com decided not to publish the article, titled “Was a Vanity Fair Editor Secretly Working for the Church of Scientology?” The New York Observer subsequently picked it up and published it on 1 March 2011.
**The article is no longer on the web, or available through archive.org. Washington-based journalist Emanuelle Richard brought it to public attention in December of 2007, shortly after the publication of “The Golden Suicides.” A number of websites linked to the original Corrière della Sera story, including FishbowlLA, so it would appear to have been pulled sometime after 2007. Click here, and you can see that Richard's original article reporting this is also not extant.
***When originally reported in Variety, Alice Underground did not yet have a title. It’s possible that Duncan had still not completely settled on the title by August 2003, or that she did some time after Beck last spoke to her about the project/
****In a comment to the previous post, Ray mentioned the plight of Paulette Cooper, a reporter who wound up “fair game” after criticizing the church in her 1971 book The Scandal of Scientology. For years, Cooper faced relentless harassment, which culminated in the church attempt to frame her for bomb threats. Because of the lack of corroborating evidence, prosecutors eventually dropped the charges. But it wasn’t until years later, during the FBI’s investigation of the church’s Operation SNOW WHITE, a conspiracy to steal and destroy documents compiled by 130 government agencies, that the Feds came across memos detailing Scientology’s harassment of Cooper, including a self-congratulatory memo on the successful frame job. The actions targeting Cooper, dubbed Operation FREAKOUT by the church. were designed to harass Cooper to the point where she would become so unstable that authorities would find it necessary to place her in a mental institution, or prison.
In a 24 November 2011 article for the Village Voice, Tony Ortega asked her about her ordeal. This passage could have just as easily apply to Blake and Duncan:
One of the hardest things she went through, she says today, was just getting people to believe that all of the harassment was going on. ‘If you tell people you're being followed, they think you're paranoid,’ she says. The experience left her angry and depressed. ‘I was really very, very bitter.’
BBC journalist John Sweeney filmed two segments on Scientology for the news magazine Panorama. The first, titled “Scientology and Me,” chronicled his journeys to Clearwater, FL, Los Angeles and elsewhere to investigate claims that the church engaged in cult-like behavior. During this outing, Sweeney found that the church had placed him under surveillance, and he was able to document this by filming members following him. The Church of Scientology denied that they had spied on him.
In his second Panorama special, “The Secrets of Scientology” (see previous post), Sweeney found further evidence that the church had in fact not only spied on him, but had also harassed him in order to discredit him. The most important evidence came from the church’s former official spokesperson, Mike Rinder. One of a growing number of ex-members who still believe in the tenets of Scientology but nevertheless parted ways with the church because of what they characterize as an increasingly aggressive “authoritarian” posture under the leadership of David Miscavige, Rinder admitted that he had not only ordered the surveillance on Sweeney, but actively participated in it. Rinder also showed Sweeney memoranda chronicling the church's campaign to discredit him by emotionally stoking him to the point where he lost his cool, and by filming a counter-documentary, with clips of him taken out of context, to show him as unstable, or bigoted against Scientology.
Yet, the church still denied that it had coerced or spied on Sweeney.
Sweeney made clear in both Panorama segments that when you look into the church, the church looks back at you. In the church’s words, his investigation into Scientology made him “fair game.” The church has a history of vigorously opposing criticism and protecting its image. With vast media resources at its disposal, a fair amount of coin and a very visible set of celebrity adherents, Scientology has shown a fair degree of public relations savvy.
Sweeney’s experience was in some respects similar to that of the old Cult Awareness Network (CAN, or Old CAN).* As you can see from the 60 Minutes segment embedded into the previous post, church leaders insisted that they had long abandoned the practice of attacking critics. But former member Stacy Young explained to CBS reporter Leslie Stahl that the church not only continued the practice, but had made it a policy in its Fair Game Law, which stated that anyone who says something negative about the church “can be destroyed”–whatever that might mean. Young stated that the church’s campaign against Old CAN began in the 1980s, that she personally participated in the efforts, and that the church specifically allotted resources to destroy CAN’s reputation. They even went so far as to hire private investigators to “dig up dirt” on the organization. When they couldn’t find it, they made stuff up, including an accusation that CAN founder Cynthia Kisser worked as a stripper. Despite the fact that Kenneth Moxon, the church’s attorney, admitted that particular charge was bogus, he nevertheless tried to reassert the claim, a tactic that took Stahl by surprise.
The church also made a slew of allegations against Old CAN that involved charges of kidnapping (putative deprogrammings), violence and threats, all of which they reported to police. Problem was, the private investigator whom they cited as the source of the information told 60 Minutes that their interpretation of his report was “embellished,” and basically untrue. The church also filed a number of lawsuits that required expenditures for legal representation. When an Old CAN volunteer referred the parents of eighteen-year old Jason Scott to Rick Ross for deprogramming, only then were they liable for a conspiracy tort that resulted in a judgement of approximately one million dollars against them. The judgment forced Old CAN into bankruptcy, whereupon Scientologist Steven Hayes purchased its assets in 1996. As a result, New CAN was predominantly staffed with, and run by members of the church.
While Kisser admitted to referring callers to legal deprogrammers (i.e., those recovering minors from coercive cults), she claimed that it was not Old CAN’s policy to kidnap or inflict violence on anyone, or to assist in the deprogramming of adults. If true, that would make the Jason Scott case an anomaly, a mistake for which they paid dearly. Worse, the attacks on Kisser and Old CAN continued long after the organization’s demise, and into the present day. Moxon assisted activist Susan Darnell and sociologist Dr. Anson Shupe (Indiana University) in research conducted on Old CAN’s paperwork, which Kisser had donated to a university library. In a 2004 book titled New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, they characterized Old Can as “a criminal organization.” Subsequently, there are many places on the web where you can find Old CAN described as such.**
There’s a certain irony here in that the Church of Scientology has itself faced numerous allegations of kidnapping, forced imprisonment, and violence. The list of these accusations are so numerous and redundant, it would be impossible to cite in any appreciable depth here. Yet, we can begin by looking at the experience of Jenna Miscavige and Astra Woodcraft, both of whom were separated from their parents as minors, forcibly restrained, and accused of lying and worse once they left the organization. A number of ex-members report being abducted against their will and shuffled off to “labor camps,” where security officers forced them to work long hours, with little rest, on myriad chores, many of them menial, demeaning and punitive (e.g., cleaning out a dumpster with a toothbrush). Others have complained of being imprisoned on the Freewinds, a ship owned by the church. Jeff Hawkins, an ex-member who once supervised their PR efforts, told journalists that the church routinely inflicted violence to keep its flock in line and to subdue critics. Marty Rathbun, Scientology’s former Inspector General, admitted to Anderson Cooper that he not only beat other members on the orders of leader David Miscavige, but that he witnessed a number of physical attacks administered by Miscavige himself, most notably the vicious beating of Mike Rinder in 2000.***
Note that Sweeney filmed his first special on Scientology in 2007, seven years after Miscavige’s alleged pummeling of Rinder, an incident that Rinder corroborates. Yet, Rinder demonstrated loyalty seven years later when participating in the attack against BBC reporter John Sweeney. As he explained to Panorama, Rinder had pressures not only to remain in the church, but to enforce the Fair Game Law on people who, like Sweeney, investigated it. As ex-members said in the second Panorama episode on Scientology, many current adherents have similar pressures to remain in the church, project a positive image about Scientology, and enthusiastically join in on its attacks against critics–all this despite suffering physical and emotional abuse.
Rinder’s high position apparently did not shelter him from abuse. Jenna Miscavige complained that not even her blood kinship to leader David Miscavige shielded her from abuse. This leaves one with the distinct impression that the church, at least under David Miscavige’s direction, had little compunction about turning against, and speaking ill, of people who once did its bidding, no matter how high up or prominent within the organization.
One might subsequently wonder if that abuse extended to its celebrity adherents. Sweeney interviewed a number of church glitterati, among them actresses Kirstie Alley, Julliette Lewis and Anne Archer. He said that all three told him they wanted out of the cult. Unfortunately for him, the church found a way to keep Sweeney from showing these interviews on the BBC. However, the church edited and used clips of this footage in the counter-documentary about Sweeney’s investigation.
It’s within this context that Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan made their initially private, then later public accusations against Scientology. While some sources generally regarded these claims as paranoia, or as excuses the couple used to rationalize their failures, we would still have to concede that what Blake and Duncan said about the church was hardly extraordinary given what others have said about it--most notably former members and high-ranking church officials.
Sweeney documented the church’s policy of conducting surveillance against and harassing people they considered “fair game.” He confirmed this with Rinder, who orchestrated such campaigns, while Young, Rathbun and others corroborated these allegations in interviews done by other journalists.
More important, the church’s policy, as outlined by Rinder, to psychologically harass perceived enemies, and to push their emotional buttons so that they appear unstable to the general public, has to be considered when evaluating Blake and Duncan’s claims. Granted, Theresa and Jeremy were sophisticated about a great number of things. But if the church in fact targeted them--a notion most of us, who have never faced such a situation, would find rather odd, unrealistic, or perhaps even psychotic--they really wouldn’t understand immediately what they were going through, and could possibly lack a ready response on how to handle cars making slow drive-bys of their Venice Beach digs.
Worse, they had related to others that their friend, Beck Hansen, was in fact a Scientologist literally years before the rock star publicly announced his membership. According to the Vanity Fair quote attributed to him by Nancy Jo Sales, he never mentioned his religion to them. Yet, Blake and Duncan knew. The most plausible explanation for their knowledge is that the statement is inaccurate, and Beck nevertheless told them. Theresa and Jeremy would have therefore realized that not every Scientologist wears his allegiance to the church on his sleeve. Thus, they found themselves in the position of not knowing for sure whether new people in their lives belonged to Scientology or not. One might understand, in that light, why they might have been cautious about embarking on new friendships, or why they might have come to re-evaluate those they already had.****
As to what Blake and Duncan regarded as the initial factor of their harassment by the Church of Scientology, the optioning of the latter’s screenplay, Alice Underground, by Fox Searchlight, one has to ask if this would have given the church sufficient cause to declare them “fair game.” On the one hand, Blake and Duncan might have had a small degree of prominence in the worlds of art and video games, but they weren’t really media fixtures or Hollywood players. Nor were they anti-cultists on the order of Old CAN.
On the other hand, the Church of Scientology has carefully crafted its public image, micro-managed it, and spent considerable resources defending it. Furthermore, the church’s influence in Hollywood is fairly obvious, not only in terms of its celebrity clients, but also in the number of adherents who make their living behind the camera. While five years turnaround hell isn’t unheard of in Tinseltown, one could really see the problems inherent in making an openly anti-Scientology film in Hollywood. It wouldn’t be simply a matter of Tom Cruise or someone of that ilk using his clout to forbid production, but of the company realizing the consequences of production in terms of labor relations and creative contributions.***** If the script languished, Blake and Duncan might understandably wonder if Scientology had a hand in suppressing it.
It wouldn’t really matter if the church actively campaigned against Alice Underground or not behind closed corporate doors. The fact remains that the church had a history of silencing communications it perceived as a threat. The mere consideration of this possibility seems reasonable in this light, especially when the co-President of a major studio (Alli Shearmur of Paramount) was such an ardent supporter of the project. One would figure that if the co-President of a major studio can’t greenlight a project she truly believes in, then hardly anyone can.
Among Duncan’s effects was a twenty-seven page document, in which she and Blake outlined what they considered evidence of harassment by the Church of Scientology. According to many sources, they planned to file a lawsuit against the Church. But they both died before they could do that.
That Duncan and Blake considered butting heads against the Church of Scientology’s fabled legal team is interesting in and of itself. You’d hardly think that they stood a chance, whether their allegations were true or baseless. But maybe they counted on finding help from another impressive legal team, to which Blake had access. Jeremy’s stepfather, Arthur Delibert, happens to be a partner at K&L Gates, a large, reputable law firm with offices in cities across the US and Australia. Among other things, Delibert’s company provided pro bono legal support to Old CAN in its struggles against the Church of Scientology.******
I can’t find any indication that Delibert participated in the CAN case. And given his specialty in investment management law, it’s unlikely that he did. Still, it’s possible that, as a partner, he heard something about it, and might have said something about it in casual conversation with Blake. And Blake might have gotten the idea of suing Scientology because of family connections that might help. Whether or not that’s true, a firm of that size and prestige might offer a plaintiff the best possible shot of winning against Scientology’s legendary attorneys.
As CBS reporter Leslie Stahl made note of in her interview with Scientology attorney Kenneth Moxon, the church engaged in character assassination. With respect to Blake and Duncan, the church denied even knowing of the couple’s existence until after their passing, and thus couldn’t possibly have defamed them. Yet, given the church’s denials of activities that were later verified by ex-members who participated in them, we really cannot have complete confidence in that declaration.
Moreover, we have reason to suspect that the church actually embarked upon a smear campaign against Blake and Duncan after they passed away.
*Some refer to the present incarnation of the Cult Awareness Network, run by Scientology members, as the New CAN. In order to be clear, I’ve made a distinction between Old CAN and New CAN.
**One has to realize that as part of their public relations strategies, more influential cults, including Scientology, have utilized the services of scholars to legitimate their existence and tactics. As mentioned earlier, in the series on the Children of God, another sociologist studying new religious movements, Dr. Stephen Kent (University of Alberta, Edmonton), noted a number of scholars who dismissed methodological rigor and acted quite nakedly as cult apologists, among them Rev. Dr, J. Gordon Melton (University of California, Irvine) and Dr. James R. Lewis. In this case, Dr. Shupe had written very sharp criticism of anti-cult organizations such as Old CAN. Moreover, he testified as an expert witness against Old CAN in the Scott case. This gives the distinct impression that Dr. Shupe had as much a bias against Old CAN as Moxon. Furthermore, some have called into question both his and Darnell’s research methodology.
***Specifically, Rinder constantly risked losing contact with his wife and children. Indeed, his family remained in the church after his defection. As a result, his wife divorced him. Moreover, he had no contact with his children as of this special's 2011 air date.
****One could note that if the church really wanted to harass them, they could have taken a play out of COINTELPRO’s book and utilized snitch-jackets, or in other words given Blake and Duncan false indications that innocent friends were either members, or conspiring against them in other ways.
*****The Law & Order episode titled “Bogeyman,” a fictionalized account of Blake and Duncan, featured a scene in which a prosecutor questions several jurors about their ability to remain impartial. One juror said she had misgivings about making any ruling that would adversely affect the Scientology-like cult (called Systemotics in this episode), because she made her livelihood in the theatre, and thus had to interact and rely on a number of colleagues who belonged to the cult. One notes that the episode itself seems to bend over backward to portray Systemotics as both blameless and misunderstood, Undoubtedly, one could fathom that the show’s producers shared the concerns of this fictional juror.
******At the time, the firm was known as Preston Gates & Ellis. In 2007, they merged with another law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, to form K&L Gates.