Monday Mystery: The Golden Suicides

On July 10, 2007, a 40-year-old woman named Theresa Duncan lay down in her New York City apartment, took an overdose of medication, washed it down with bourbon, and died. Ten days after that, her long-time romantic partner, 35-year-old Jeremy Blake, drowned himself in the ocean off Rockaway Beach.

All but the very fringiest of conspiracy theorists agree that both deaths were suicides. That's not in question.

Duncan was well-known as the co-creator behind a handful of video games meant specifically for girls. They were whimsical and engaging, and involved exactly zero princesses. For the past two years, she had run a blog called The Wit of the Staircase, full of cultural observations and critiques. Blake was a graphic artist working in digital media whose credits included an album cover for the musician Beck, a consulting position with Rockstar Games, and a number of gallery showings. They supported each other passionately, obsessively, and poured their time and energy into fundraiser parties and trying to get Duncan's independent film Underground Alice produced.

They were eccentric, bordering on incomprehensible. Duncan produced her first CD-ROM game with Magnet Interactive, in Georgetown, MD, cutting off her coworkers and leaving in a huff the first time someone questioned a significant design decision in one of her projects. She moved to New York, met Blake, talked to Hollywood. They bounced to Los Angeles to chase movies, and bounced back to New York when movies turned out to be untouchable coquettes. Blake moved slowly, inexorably, into success with his digital art, while Duncan watched her dreams of filmmaking slip away. They spiraled into paranoia -- she spiraled into paranoia, and he followed her in as he followed her absolutely everywhere.

Eventually, the strain was too much. She cracked. He couldn't live without her. That's also not in question.

No, the question is: How much of that stress was delusion, and how much wasn't?

Duncan tended to be suspicious in all directions, reacting particularly badly to any sign that someone was criticizing the fundamental nature of her work. It's a phenomenon psychologists call splitting: The view that everything, especially people, is either all-good or all-bad, with no real nuance. They're either with you, or against you. Several of the articles note that their friends had been known to describe Duncan -- or the both of them -- as "bipolar". It may or may not have been literally true, but splitting is a common byproduct of cycling from depression to mania and back again, as well as a feature of a number of personality disorders. Either way, it can make life difficult for both you and everyone around you, and I for one am not surprised they kept knocking back and forth from coast to coast because of it.

The driving force behind her failures, Duncan felt, was Scientology. Hollywood was lousy with Scientologists, and they were dogging her every move, warning people away from her, punching holes in all of her plans. This sort of idée fixe is more characteristic of a paranoid schizophreniform disorder, although if it goes on for more than six months (it did, by a lot), technically you have to be diagnosed with schizophrenia instead. It's rather unusual to qualify for that without having any of the negative symptoms, which Duncan evidently hadn't -- when she wasn't talking about Scientologists, she was socially competent, cogent, and charming. Friends appear to be uncertain about whether Blake was going over the edge as well, or merely suffering from a folie imposée, a delusion imposed by his partner, to whom he deferred in all things.

Normally, this would be a clear-cut case of untreated mental illness -- their reality testing failed, it failed in an unfortunately unpleasant direction, and the anguish was so great they took their own lives. On the other hand, this is Scientology. They have been dragged into court for doing myriad terrible things to those they felt were enemies of the church, the biggest and best-documented being Operation Snow White, where CoS infiltrated a number of US federal agencies. They basically invented both the practice of doxxing, and the use thereof to ruin someone's life. (They may have regretted that when anonymous started doing it back to them. "Fair game," as the Scientologists themselves used to say.) There are a number of cases in which they are accused of keeping people captive and withholding medical care until they died, or until someone else did.

In short, if there were ever an organization that would in fact follow a mentally-ill woman around and drive her crazier and crazier until she killed herself, Scientology would be it. If there were ever another one, it would probably be the CIA, which Duncan rather understandably felt were the people ultimately in charge of CoS. The CIA is fonder of hallucinogens, but Scientology reportedly gets by with a lot of shouting and creative use of a galvanometer.

There are a further slew of irregularities, large and small, that appear when you look deeper into the case. They are, I suspect, the sort of inconsistencies that happen constantly whenever you try to use logic to figure out what humans have done, and normally pass without notice. They may mean nothing, but they're impossible to get out of your mind once they've popped up and waved at you. Duncan's choice of suicide drugs, for instance, is... well, not. Or at least not commonly. The pill bottles on her bedside table were reportedly Tylenol PM and Benadryl, and she washed them down with hard liquor. The combination of diphenhydramine -- the active ingredient in Benadryl and the sedative in Tylenol PM -- and booze could technically kill you, I suppose, but you'd have to try incredibly hard. You would have to knock back so many tablets that it would almost be easier to just chug your way up to lethal levels of bourbon. Tylenol and ethanol will definitely kill you, but not that very evening, while you're lying nicely on the bed. Acetaminophen poisoning makes you feel maybe kind of bleargh at first, and you might throw up a few times, but then you get back up and feel fine for a couple of days before your liver shits itself and you drop dead. It's possible to OD and never even notice, if you survive -- symptoms take so long to show up that you figure the bottle of pills did nothing, and the misery that set in three days later was coincidental.

The only mention of a tox screen that I can find said there wasn't anything else in her system. I'm not sure if I can trust it, or anything else in any of my references, because the hinkiness extends even to the articles written about the two of them after their death. The most extensive one was the Vanity Fair piece, but virtually everyone else has pointed out that the author, Nancy Jo Sales, has some suspicious connections to the subject matter, having been married -- err, kind of -- to the priest that got Duncan and Blake their rectory loft in New York. Kate Coe is alleged to have connections with the parts of the art community that rejected their work. And Gawker is, uh, Gawker. If they came out with a clickbait article headed "Breaking News, Sky Still Blue," I would take it cum grano salis.

It's an exciting story because so many things could have happened, even if it turns out that they didn't. It's probably a coincidence that Duncan fixated on one of the few organizations that might potentially have done the thing she thought they were doing -- if she'd claimed to be stalked by the American Medical Association, we'd just be shaking our heads at the state of mental health care in the US today, and there wouldn't be a market for a post on a conspiracy theory blog collecting links to all of the other posts on the other conspiracy theory blogs. But the fantasy as they wrote it has just enough fact that it might be plausible fiction. One can't help but think that she might have walked into one of her own screenplays -- or at least into one which, if she'd written it, might have gotten greenlit.

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