In July 2007, the artists Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan ended their own lives. Both had grown erratic and paranoid in the preceding months, and on the 10th, Blake found his longtime romantic partner dead in their East Village apartment, overdosed on a lethal cocktail of whiskey and Tylenol PM. One week later, he drowned himself in the Atlantic Ocean at Rockaway Beach.
The official story, forwarded in a flurry of media coverage of the so-called "golden suicides," tells of folie à deux—a shared delusion, brought on perhaps by career-related stress and a lot of bourbon and champagne, and manifested in abruptly burned bridges with formerly close friends, bizarre "loyalty oaths," and an increasingly monomaniacal preoccupation with conspiracies, especially those related to the Church of Scientology. But alongside this, there exists a second vague narrative: that the shadowy forces that so captured the imaginations of Duncan and Blake in their final years were not merely a troubling obsession, but an active player in their deaths.
This conspiracy theory, put forth mostly by an army of amateur bloggers, points to an array of organizations, but mostly to Scientology, and specifically Blake's very real working relationship with one of its most visible members: Beck, whose 2002 album Sea Change was adorned with cover art by Blake.
Duncan and Blake first met in D.C. in 1994, but didn't hit it off until the following year in New York, where they began a famously devoted relationship that would last until their deaths 12 years later. A former curator at D.C.'s Corcoran gallery called the pair a "dynamic force" to the Los Angeles Times, adding that Duncan once told him that she and Blake "had basically never spent a night apart" after becoming a couple. New York magazine's David Amsden writes that the artists' closest friends could not recall a single instance in which Duncan and Blake argued, or even disagreed; he also recounts an anecdote about Blake driving to a party across town to confront a guest who was making Duncan uncomfortable.
Duncan, whose ascent to fame began shortly before the start of her relationship with Blake, was known for creating Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero—three pioneering CD-ROM games for girls that told whimsical and exploratory stories with a distinct lack of princesses and shopping malls. Chop Suey, about two girls who enter a hallucinatory dream-world after binging on Chinese food, featured voiceover work from a pre-fame David Sedaris. (The three games, long out of print, will soon be playable online thanks to an archiving effort by the digital arts organization Rhizome.)
Her short animated mockumentary The History of Glamour, also a significant work, showed at the 2000 Whitney Biennial.
Blake was known for meditative digital artworks that, it has often been said, fused the techniques and aesthetics of video art with those of abstract painting. His work made an impact both within the insular art world and without—in addition to the Sea Change album art, Blake created the dreamy interstitials for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch Drunk Love. At the time of his death, he was preparing for a solo show at the Corcoran.
The immensely charismatic couple moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2002; this, according to most accounts, is when their descent into psychic disarray seemed to begin. As Nancy Jo Sales writes in the posthumous Vanity Fair profile that is the most enduring document of the suicides, Duncan had inked a two-movie deal with Fox Searchlight on the strength of The History of Glamour; one of those movies was to be Alice Underground, a film about a rock musician in which Duncan claimed that Beck had agreed to star.
At some point, Beck made it clear that he wouldn't be acting in Duncan's film—he told Vanity Fair that he'd never agreed to do it in the first place—and Duncan, Sales writes, "blamed the Church of Scientology." Without a real-life rock star attached, Alice Underground languished at Fox and eventually made its way to Paramount, where it fared no better.
Later, in a 27-page document prepared in advance of a never-materialized lawsuit against the church, Blake alleged that an even higher-profile Scientologist was to blame for failure at Paramount: Tom Cruise. From the Los Angeles Times, which in August 2007 first published excerpts of the document:
In the chronology, Tom Cruise is accused of having used his clout at Paramount, where his production company was then based, to personally derail "Alice" because it offended "his profound loyalty to Scientology." Several sources close to the project said the allegation is baseless. Cruise's spokeswoman said: "The Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan suicides were a terrible tragedy. However, Tom did not know them and had absolutely no connection to their project or Paramount's disposition of it."
Blake's "chronology" also alleged misconduct on behalf of the church by Miranda July, Paul Thomas Anderson, Beck, and then-Viacom COO Tom Freston. Of the group, only Beck is a Scientologist.
The Alice Underground snafu "was not an unusual story in Hollywood, where most projects languish for years before colliding with the voodoo necessary to transform a script into a film," writes New York's Amsden. But for Blake and Duncan, it was not tinseltown business as usual, but the crown jewel of a vast Scientologist plot against them.
In spring 2006, shortly after it became clear that Alice Underground was not going to be produced, Blake was accused of throwing pee on the neighbors' backyard barbecue because he believed they were Scientologists. Friendships were terminated; those who stayed by the couple were asked to sign the aforementioned oaths. "Others," writes Amsden, "Were bombarded with vicious e-mails that had little connection with reality." According to Sales, Duncan took "hundreds of pictures" of out-of-state license plates in the couple's neighborhood, sure that their home was being surveilled.
In the years before her death, Theresa Duncan ran a popular blog called The Wit of the Staircase. Reading posts from 2006, it is difficult to square the erudite and breezy writer with the Duncan who was evidently wracked by paranoia and doubt in her personal life. On the page, she is omnivorous and sharp, near-virtuosic in her ability to pull snappy insight from pop and high culture alike: here she is lovingly contextualizing Julian Casablancas within "the decline of of colonial imperialism;" there she is meditating on media saturation and plagiarism.
But away from the keyboard, things were turning dark. The plagiarism post was written in response to allegations that Duncan had lifted from another writer in a piece about perfume she'd written for Slate. Laurie Winer wrote what happened next in C California Style magazine:
In March 2006, Duncan penned a piece about perfume for Fortini, who, at the time, was an editor at the online magazine Slate. After publishing Duncan's piece, another editor there noticed that Duncan's opening sentence was almost identical to one by a blogger named Victoria Frolova, who also frequently wrote about perfume. Duncan's explanation: The Scientologists had pre-dated Frolova's piece on the Internet to make Duncan and Blake look bad. At this point, Fortini and Aslan, like many who knew the couple, began to distance themselves.
Then-Slate editor Amanda Fortini and the writer Reza Aslan, her fiancé at the time, were friends of Duncan and Blake's. About a year after the plagiarism dustup, in the comments section of a post that has since been scrubbed from her blog, Duncan was alleging that Aslan—an agent with the Department of Homeland Security who also had ties to Scientology, she wrote—was part of the conspiracy, too.
Duncan and Blake were eventually evicted from their L.A. home—neighbors told the landlord that they would "seek police protection" from the couple if necessary, Sales writes—and moved back to New York in 2007, living in the rectory apartment at St. Mark's Church in the East Village. There, they befriended Frank Morales, a radical leftist Episcopalian priest whose version of leftism included both advocating for squatters' rights and hosting weekly meetings of a 9/11 truther group. Morales is a friend of the wingnut media entrepreneur Alex Jones, according to Sales, and Blake began familiarizing himself with trutherism through Jones' radio show. The artist wanted to do a show with Jones about Scientology, Morales says, and "was talking about doing art around 9/11 truth."
Sales, Amsden, and other reporters who covered the suicides generally agree that escaping L.A. and returning to the city of their relationship's genesis was good for the couple, but the dark cloud didn't entirely lift. Duncan was drinking champagne "by the bottle," according to Sales, and Blake sometimes brought a flask of Maker's Mark to his day job at Rockstar Games. Amsden's recounting of their deaths opens on a fundraiser for the St. Mark's Church, organized by Duncan, that the couple ultimately refused to attend, staying holed up in their apartment instead. "Without apology they explained that they could not come down, no, they were experiencing a 'collective vision' that the grill was going to explode, somehow harming Duncan," Amsden writes. "It would have been a more troubling exchange were it not, by this point, almost expected."
A week later, Duncan committed suicide, and Blake followed a week after that. "I am going to join the lovely Theresa," he wrote on a business card he left behind him on the beach.
The Conspiracy Theory
Perhaps spurred by Blake and Duncan's own convictions that real truth was hiding somewhere beneath the fabric of bureaucracy and religion, some conspiracy theorists refuse to believe that the lovers took their own lives. Others believe in the suicides, but are sure that the all-consuming paranoia that preceded them was rooted in something very real and very menacing.
Duncan- and Blake-centric blogs abound, though many are now dormant. Theresa Duncan Central billed itself as "a one-stop source for budding Duncanologists"; The Wit Continuum was apparently titled in honor of Duncan's own blog. In an excellent survey of the mainstream and amateur media coverage of the suicides, freelance writer Ellen Killoran links to a post by an unhinged blogger named Alex Constantine, whose pet theory extends far beyond a handful of Hollywood Scientologists. A representative excerpt:
Bottom line, simple answer: Warren Buffett's CIA/GOP friends murdered Duncan and Blake. Disgraced former Omaha police chief/accused Mormon pedophile Robert Wadman, who recently put my publisher through a nuisance suit in Ogden, Utah, is Buffett's CIA-pervert lieutenant - Wadman hoped to silence me with his - alas - dismissed "lawsuit," have my books recalled, and - not incidentally - my investigation of Duncan-Blake taken off the Internet.
MediaBistro.com, a CIA/GOP front, was the core of a smear campaign waged against the "paranoid conspiracy theorists" post mortem to discredit Theresa's research on Buffett's CIA/GOP pedophile network buds, and send a "message" to "conspiracy" researchers aware of the "Sage of Omaha's" role in 9/11.
Constantine's blather surely represents the pinnacle of incomprehensibility here—MediaBistro.com, a CIA/GOP front!—but other questions put forth are murkier. Accepting that Duncan and Blake really did end their own lives, and that much of their paranoia was unfounded, can we wonder whether their fixation on Scientology didn't arrive ex nihilo? When the target of your obsessive fear is an organization with a long history of alleged harassment—an organization that runs a secretive compound known by staffers as "The Hole," where members say they've been interrogated and beaten—the idea that friends are conniving behind your back and strange cars are surveilling your house isn't an enormous stretch.
The Scientology bug seems to have bitten Duncan and Blake sometime during their interactions with Beck. While Beck acknowledges that he was acquainted on some level with the couple—and Blake's work on the Sea Change album art is an uncontested fact—the musician maintained in interviews after the fact that their relationship wasn't particularly close, that he had never agreed to act in Alice Underground, and that he had never discussed Scientology with either of them.
But as Killoran notes, he sounded excited to appear in an awfully familiar-sounding film in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2003. A translated excerpt was published here:
What about [your debut] movie?
"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."
According to Sales in Vanity Fair, Duncan once emailed friends a handful of 2004 photos of herself, Blake, Beck, and Beck's fiancé Marissa Ribisi relaxing on the beach, seemingly disputing the notion that the couples were only casual acquaintances. (Most of these photos appear to have been scrubbed from the web if they were ever uploaded in the first place; a friend of the couple published one snap of Blake and Beck on the beach to Tumblr in 2013).
In one 2006 email excerpted in Vanity Fair, Duncan claimed that Beck hoped to use Alice Underground, which would shoot in New York, as a means to escape the Hollywood-centric Church. Duncan believed that the Scientologists were harassing her because of her knowledge of the plan:
Duncan e-mailed a friend in late 2006: "[Beck] really, really tried to get away … using going to NY to be in Alice Underground.… He told me he wanted to leave the cult desperately, and this is what they do when someone knows that." She was referring here to her perception that the Church of Scientology had been harassing her and Blake..."They are furious because he valued our way of life far more than Celebrity Center sex trash," wrote Duncan.
Killoran also points to two oddities within "The Golden Suicides," Sales' Vanity Fair profile, itself. The first—that Sales was once married to Frank Morales, the leftist priest, and may have used her relationship with him to get into Blake's private funeral service—is concerning from an ethical perspective, but doesn't shed light on any real or perceived Scientology connection.
The second, however, carries that uncanny is this a real thing or am I just being crazy? feeling that pervades many Scientology-adjacent stories. Killoran writes:
Almost everyone interviewed for this story brought up a minor mystery connected to the authorship of "The Golden Suicides," which the SoMA review first addressed in a post that was picked up by New York magazine's Vulture blog. In it, SoMA's editor Spalding wrote that he was contacted by someone who was familiar with the reporting on the story and who said that she "was stunned to read that Nancy Jo Sales had the byline."
As it turns out, that person was LA Weekly's Kate Coe, who maintains that she always believed Vanity Fair contributing editor John Connolly to be the "author of record" and who shared some of her research with him when he first took on the assignment. Robin, who spoke to both Connolly and Sales, concurred that Connolly was the first to interview him.
Connolly, too, insists that the assignment was initially his and said that he had asked to be taken off the story after Sales became involved, because he felt her relationship with Morales was "too complicated." After Sales completed the story, Connolly had the option of taking an "additional reporting" byline but declined to do so.
John Connolly, as Gawker's own John Cook reported in a 2011 New York Observer story called "Was a Vanity Fair Editor Secretly Working for the Church of Scientology?", has his own bizarre connections to the church. (A Vanity Fair spokeswoman named Beth Kseniak confirmed to Cook that Connolly contributed to "The Golden Suicides.")
From the Observer:
The accusation comes from Marty Rathbun, who ranked so high in the organization before he left that he served as Tom Cruise's "auditor," or confessor, and Mike Rinder, Scientology's former chief spokesman. Both men have defected from the church and accuse its current leader, David Miscavige, of ruling through violence and terror. On February 15, Rathbun posted to his blog a lengthy internal church memo, purportedly written by Linda Hamel, chief of the church's faux-CIA "Office of Special Affairs," revealing Connolly to have secretly supplied intelligence to the church on the preparation of Andrew Morton's 2008 biography of Tom Cruise. According to the memo, Connolly approached Morton in 2006 under the pretense of writing "an article for Vanity Fair about the books Morton has done on celebrities including the one he is writing on Tom Cruise." He proceeded, the memo says, to pump Morton for information about his book and report it back to the church.
And while we have our tinfoil hats on, isn't it interesting that P.T. Anderson—who worked with Blake on Punch Drunk Love, remember, and introduced the artist to Beck—made a movie about Scientology in 2012?
"Never heard of these people," a representative of the Church said when Sales asked about the alleged harassment for her Vanity Fair article. "This is completely untrue."
This is Illuminati Month on Black Bag, in which Gawker locks itself in the woodshed and breaks out the red yarn to explore its favorite conspiracy theories. Photos via Getty. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.