After the Ambulances Go
"Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life." - Simone Weil
The image above was posted by Theresa Duncan on her eclectic blog The Wit of the Staircase, July 10. Later that day, Theresa's boyfriend of 12 years, Jeremy Blake, discovered her body in their East Village apartment, an evident suicide. ("A bottle of pills and alcohol were found near Duncan's body [and] she left a suicide note saying that she was at peace with her decision and loved Blake and her family deeply.") A week later, a man was seen walking into the ocean at Rockaway Park, and not walking out. Blake's wallet and clothing, and his suicide note, were found beneath the boardwalk.
Duncan and Blake were both career artists and filmmakers. Theresa was also a game designer, a culture critic and a reader of this blog. "Paranoia seems to us an absolute patriotic duty at the moment," she wrote a year ago, "and Rigorous Intuition is like the incredibly symbolically twisted and bizarre dream you wake up from to realize that the scenario thrown up from the unconscious is actually the expression of some very simple truth you had been desperate to avoid facing." It was last May that Theresa faced hers, and posted "The Trouble with Anna Gaskell," in which she described an ongoing campaign of harassment against herself and Jeremy, and the long shadow cast by Des Moines' businessman Jim Cownie, "a major Republican donor with ties to the Midwest's Heritage Groups, founded by the ultraconservative Adolph Coors."
Cownie became the legal guardian of New York-based artist Gaskell and her siblings following the early deaths of her parents (her father was Cownie's business partner). While an undergraduate she dated Jeremy Blake for about a year. It was during that time that Blake got to know Cownie as well.
Cownie has an oddly vast collection of firearms--an entire out building devoted to them in fact.... Then there were the mobster "friends" in Las Vegas who comped Mr. Wit [Jeremy] and Ms. Gaskell with an eye roll and a groan when they mentioned Cownie's name at the front desk, as he had instructed them to do. In addition to the Gaskell orphans, Cownie has four or five children of his own. The oldest male Cownie child, then a teenager, even bragged to Mr. Wit during one visit "My Dad's going to get me in the CIA!"
Once the harassment of The Wits [Jeremy and Theresa] began, these disparate old Anna Gaskell anecdotes, which up to the late summer of 2006 had been completely unknown to me, began to suddenly bob up in Mr. Wit's memory. Mr. Wit's recollection was further jarred after we repeatedly witnessed Ms. Gaskell's brother Zach mysteriously pacing in front of our Venice California home. Then there were the many cars with Iowa license plates following us around Los Angeles at the time. (We took photos of these, naturally.) Mr. Wit during this time also suddenly remembered that busy Cownie often travelled to South Dakota to attend some of the Midwest's more unsavory biker rallies. But I guess being friends with ex-con bikers and Vegas mobsters doesn't necessarily point to somebody who would, like, hire thugs to harass, threaten or--wow--maybe even kill people.
To add the final dessert topping to this apocalyptic art world sundae, Mr. Wit says that normally dour Cownie frequently made jokes about child molestation as a "training" tool. This wouldn't be so fucking spooky, friends of the Staircase, if Des Moines wasn't the land of the Project Monarch/U.S. Intelligence rumored disappearance of Johnny Gosch and the odd resemblance of poor little Johnny to Bush White House gay hooker-psychological operative Jeff Gannon.
She concludes with advice for Anna Gaskell: "Stop accepting payoffs from Cownie immediately, get your younger brothers away from him, get a lawyer using only your own money, and have the lawyer get Cownie to answer a few questions about your mother and father."
When news of the deaths of Duncan and Blake were posted on Metafilter, a clue to the cause of their presumed suicides was Theresa's "paranoid screed," in which many of the "bugbears of the psy-ops crowd were put on Duncan's mental merry-go-round and given a real strong spin." The words "psy-ops crowd" were linked to the RI forum.
I don't know how I could begin assessing from here, tonight, the merits of Duncan's story and the legitimacy of the verdict of suicide. I do know it would be indecent to try. We enjoy mysteries. We even revel in the great mysteries that may mean either our destiny or our doom. But God help us if we become a mystery. And I don't want to make one now of Theresa Duncan.
I've known people who've had dead cats hung at their doorstep; who've been poisoned and burgled, and received death threats all because of the work they do and the privileged interests they challenge. I know they're not making shit up, because I know them. But if you didn't know them, to hear them talk sometimes, you might want to think they were. Because maybe it would be better if they were a little deluded than that they were describing the world. Even if you did know them, for their sakes you might want to think so, too.
But both harassment and the delusion of harassment are real, and a paranoid screed can also be one's patriotic duty. Murders and suicides happen all the time, as do murders that mimic suicide, and less frequently the reverse. Advocating for justice and truth and a closure to mystery does not mean forever contending that death must come by another hand. And sometimes we ought to be adamant that we simply don't know.
Two days before her death, on Sunday, July 8, Duncan wrote that she had another political essay in the works and would post it later. She'd entitled it, "The Devil and Dick Cheney." What would she have said? We don't know.