A Cocoon of their Making

What does one make of it when two successful people who have everything to live for throw it all away? This question comes on the heels of a highly tragic and bizarre story written by reporter Chris Lee of The Los Angeles Times* about a New York art world “It” couple who in July committed suicide within days of one another, for reasons that are unknown aside from speculation over a shared obsession with the evils of Scientology (according to an alleged 27-page conspiracy “chronology”, written in October 2006 for a never-filed lawsuit, implicating everyone from an ex-girlfriend to actor Tom Cruise, the latter of which, according to the Times, the couple had never met).

Some may know Jeremy Blake, 35, for his melding of Old World artistic traditions with high-tech New World tools — work that graced everything from video games and movie sequences to the walls of The Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art. His live-in girlfriend, Theresa Duncan, 40, was a noted screenwriter and computer game developer who was known for her literary bent on the blog “The Wit of the Staircase”. So inseparable were the two, according to the article, that when Duncan was found dead alongside a bottle of pills, alcohol and a suicide note in the converted New York rectory the couple called home, Blake soon followed — drowning himself off of New York’s Rockway Beach — not unlike the character played by Sterling Hayden in the film “The Long Goodbye“.

Visiting the late Duncan’s blog, one thing is particularly salient: The couple’s relatively recent integration into the life and church of social activist and Father Frank Morales, assistant pastor at St. Mark’s Episcopalian Church. In a Q&A conducted by Duncan in May, Father Morales reveals something the Times’ article does not: a shared fascination with conspiracy theory, such as the purportedly authentic government counterinsurgency program known as “Operation Garden Plot“, which allegedly was created to silence dissent. Duncan titled the piece “Dessert Topping on the Apocalypse Or Paradise Now? Wit Talks Art, War and Religion With Activist Father Frank Morales”. You may read the entries here:

Part 1: http://theresalduncan.typepad.com/witostaircase/religion/index.html

and here, Part 2:


The way the Times paints it, the couple became convinced that a smear campaign was inhibiting their Hollywood success during difficult negotiations involving Duncan’s screenplay “Alice Underground”, the story of two girls that unwittingly kidnap a rock star, which Duncan intended as her directorial debut. Increasingly, the couple lived in a near-constant fear of impending doom, which hit friends and associates particularly close to home when Duncan sent out a bevy of accusatory emails, and in May posted a 17-paragraph blog entry implicating Blake’s ex girlfriend and her family in a [right-wing] conspiracy. (The ex girlfriend in question, art photographer Anna Gaskell, claims to have had no contact with Blake for 12 years.)

The paranoid preoccupations of a life spinning out of control may have been a catastrophic clue into a closely-guarded secret — perhaps mental illness, the clichéd scourge of the creative and the brilliant — or perhaps the personality-altering effects of as-of-yet unrevealed drug or alcohol abuse (which are also, incidentally, the self-medicating drugs of choice amongst the undiagnosed mentally ill). Whatever the cause, Father Morales couldn’t protect them; in fact, he may have made a bad situation worse.

Father Morales told the Times that he had come to know the couple well enough to understand that their enemies were supposedly plotting against them — a claim the Church of Scientology denies — and had spent time socially drinking with them in their apartment, too. Despite the apparent friendship, Father Morales claims ignorance as to whether or not any of their fears were valid. As rescuer turned apparent enabler, Father Morales not only allowed the troubled couple to seek refuge in the church apartment, but did so, it would seem, at the “tough love” expense of recommending psychiatric help. To the contrary, Father Morales entertained the couple’s self-destructive fixation with conspiracy against all things artistic, expressive and liberal.

This tragedy, though inherently personal and private, imparts a very public object lesson:

1) Talented and successful people, particularly those who suffer from paranoid personalities, bipolar disorder or functional alcoholism [none of which are proven or even alleged in this case], are seemingly less likely to receive the mental health services they need by virtue of their own success, which seemingly leads onlookers to mistakenly assume that they are dealing with rationale people who will “come to their senses”. When one considers, after all, the many people who are living with profound, economic-crushing disabilities, who live in war zones such as Iraq and Darfur, who lack health care in the face of debilitating illness, who lose careers to layoffs, homes to foreclosure or natural disaster, or family members to accident or violent crime, it is particularly difficult to imagine how successful individuals justify self-destructive, potentially life-ending behavior, which may also explain why those who have “everything to live for” seemingly are the last to receive help.

2) Success of the type that involves notoriety is a “damnable blessing” because those who have achieved it often come to believe that all eyes, adoring or malevolent, are on them. The seeming casualties of celebrity are ego — giving rise to a narcissistic level of confidence in the infallibility of one’s own skills or perceptions — and fear (sometimes evolving into all-out paranoia toward those who fall outside one’s social network, which may include those who differ in religion, education, race, class or political bent).

Long before Duncan and Blake became active in the church, for example, they had begun to take note of what they allegedly perceived as satanic Scientology symbols while living in Los Angeles, and later came to suspect, according to Blake’s “chronology”, those with Florida license plates driving near their New York apartment — some defaced by graffiti that resembled, allegedly, Duncan’s handwriting. Apparently it never occurred to Duncan, Blake and Father Morales that if a smear campaign or a politically-motivated conspiracy of imposed silence were to be executed at all, it would be far more likely to strike more outspoken targets, chief among them the Bohemian Grove-infiltrating radio broadcaster Alex Jones, a frequent guest on the nation’s highest rated nighttime talk show “Coast to Coast AM” (http://www.coasttocoastam.com / http://www.prisonplanet.com).

So what does one to make of it when two successful people who have everything to live for throw it all away?

It becomes apparent, firstly, that the very lifestyle so many of us covet carries with it a burden as great as it is glamorous — what one might dub “the law of equal returns”. Fame, in particular, has a way of distorting reality, fueling isolation — since the wealthy and successful must be unusually wary of those fair-weather friends who seek only their limelight or their cash — and, for the most part, depriving those who are insulated by fame or wealth of social and intellectual diversity in all but an academic sense (which may explain Mrs. Barbara Bush’s naive post-Katrina comment that implied that the many “underprivileged” hurricane victims would find living in a shelter relatively comfortable).

The second take-home message is in ironic inverse to prevailing wisdom: Mediocrity is not only the safer path, but in many ways much more gratifying. The so-called simple life will slip by untouched by stardom and unnoticed by history, yet rarely without the priority-centering realization that family and friends, not celebrity, money or influence, are among the most priceless assets one can enjoy.

These observations, however, beg the question: Why does it seem that those who occupy the middle of the political, religious and economic spectrum are more grounded in their capacity to put life into perspective? Perhaps those who hail from humble roots, because they themselves are not too far removed from the lower echelons of society and therefore have yet to lose touch with the sobering realities of survival, are less likely to rationalize an appetite for artificial drama, be it the shallow, alcohol-laced antics exemplified by Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan, or the paranoid, tyrannical preoccupations of the insecure elite as asserted by the likes of Father Morales and Alex Jones. Perhaps viewing life squarely from the middle of the road — from a vantage point where excellence, wealth or fame do not seem quite so unrealistic or excessive as they may otherwise appear to those living hand-to-mouth — imparts an ability for those who do not share in the limelight to nevertheless appreciate the contributions of cultural front-runners sans the deepening divide that proves so destructive to those who are steeped in the peculiar pressures of success. Of course, one could make an equally compelling argument that public figures do not have a propensity towards self destructive impulse that is any greater or lesser than the rest of us — but for the fact that they often find their personal lives beneath a very public magnifying glass.

Whatever the case, it may be said that success brings out the best of times and the worst of times. Perhaps Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf would agree: Great wealth is just as sure a test of character as is great poverty.

Dream big, my friend. But be careful of what you wish for.


From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded, (Luke 12:48, NRSV).

* LA Times/Calendar/E1/August 3, 2007

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