“We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.”
Two years ago, after moving to Venice with her artist boyfriend, Jeremy Blake, Theresa Duncan began writing the blog, “The Wit of the Staircase,” which comes from the French phrase l’esprit d’escalier. and it means that thing you always think to say after it’s too late. One month ago, Duncan swallowed too much Tylenol PM and washed it down with bourbon to take her own life. She had moved to New York shortly before. Los Angeles and Venice, which once held promise and mystery and endless inspiration, had become a symbol of her rejected career and perhaps the swarms of Scientologists she and her boyfriend believed were harassing them.
In her final blog entry to say goodbye to her readers, Theresa Duncan wrote:
“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens–second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.” – Reynolds Price
What Duncan wanted to do most, as it turned out, was tell stories. Her imagination was her most alluring attribute. Like an impossibly pretty flowery vine that takes over all other living things but is beautiful to look at it couldn’t be contained. Her imagination took over even her own life story. So naturally, she would be the one to write her own end, not the Hollywood dream factory she was drawn into but that chewed her up and spit her out, not the circle of friends who drifted away from her because she became too delusional towards to tend to endure and not any biographer. It would have ended just that way if not for the truth, which stubbornly nudged its way through her story as the weeks unfolded after her death.
It was truth in the form of two articles that showed a different side of Duncan and Blake. Kate Coe from Fishbowl LA (the Los Angeles branch of Media Bistro), who knew the couple personally, and another writer from the Los Angeles Times, Chris Lee. The sorry truth has derailed the official story Duncan wanted told, but it has made the real story all the more tragic by painting a story of a troubled narcissist, a mentally ill woman, a black hole of need who burned bridges for herself and saw the world as increasingly hostile. Is it any mystery that she felt there was only one way out of it? So down the rabbit hole Alice went.
Duncan’s story has been covered already far and wide – some of the coverage has been a glowing reflection of an image Duncan had carefully cultivated online – and it has been all too revealing of a woman who was overly competitive, vain and paranoid beyond belief. But the strangest thing about Duncan’s tale is the mystery she left for us online. The many artful, moody posts Duncan left on “The Wit of the Staircase” illustrate what Duncan did best: create imaginary worlds. She felt she was meant to be a filmmaker and director, a respected artist, a revolutionary in the world of CD-Roms for young girls. What she became instead was, of all mundane things, a blogger.
As a designer for girls’ games, Duncan had made her reputation with a game called Chop Suey, one she didn’t think up in the first place; rather, according to Coe’s article, it was brought to her attention by Monica Lynn Gesue. The two became friends, but eventually Duncan’s need for fame obliterated their relationship and Duncan became the rising star. She took the fame and ran with it, hoping to eventually bring her imaginative world to Hollywood. That is apparently what brought Blake and Duncan to Venice, California back in 2002. He thrived as an artist, she floundered as a filmmaker. Her project for “Alice Underground,” another tale about adolescent-minded girls who kidnap a rock star, was deemed too expensive a project to risk on a first-time director (this according to Lee’s piece). Duncan seriously believed that the Scientologists were trying to ruin her reputation, and thus the project and her career were shelved. It wasn’t long after that they packed it up and moved to New York where again Blake would thrive but Duncan would flounder, until one Monday she decided to take control of her own ending.
As a blogger, Duncan was anything but mundane. In fact, Duncan’s deliriously addicting writing is like a living novel. By most accounts, the persona she cultivated online, the bohemian artist who never takes a bad photo, holds meetings of the Lunar Society and mysteriously holds power meetings with Hollywood studios, was very far from who Duncan really was and where she came from.
Just try reading the archives of the blog, which is still online and was online the day she died, without falling down the rabbit hole with her. There are no other blogs like it online. Many of the pictures she finds are lovely young women in sometimes overtly sexual poses, but always something you’ve never laid eyes on before. She drags out quotes from obscure writers and was fascinated by perfume. In one of her last blog entries a few weeks before she died, she described a perfume this way:
“Like shiny armor it suddenly encases us. The sunshine, the lemons, the exuberances of sour grapefruit and tanged-up clementines that are so shiny, so way-out, they look like rocks that will be polished for some fantastic fairy giant’s jewels. The mist still hangs in the air as I speak, like light trails careening oh so slowly off a crackling Catherine Wheel.”
Is it any wonder she had so many faithful readers ready for whatever she might throw out on a given day? But it is also clear that this comes from someone not of this world. While Duncan’s paranoia began to overtake her life, her partner Jeremy Blake was riding high as the next big thing in the art world. For a symbiotic pair who apparently never spent a night apart in the 12 years they were together (although this quote is attributed to Duncan, who, by now it should be common knowledge, loved to tell stories), it must have been hard to swallow for Duncan that Blake was getting so much well-deserved attention.
His art caught the eye of director Paul Thomas Anderson, who hired him to do some fantasy sequences in Punch-Drunk Love. Blake was also hired to design three album covers for the rock star Beck. By the time they fled Venice earlier this year, Blake was invited to be the artist-in-residence at the Corcoran Gallery in New York. He was working at Rockstar Games and gone the day that Duncan took her own life.
While Blake is but a footnote these days in stories about the two ill-fated lovers, one day it is Blake’s story that will be told with Duncan as the footnote. Jeremy Blake left his artistic footprint with what he called “moving paintings” and once described his work in an interview with the LA Weekly:
“I like to create these abstractions that come and go like mirages, that impress you as superforms but then they go away. They’re ideologically fluid instead of ideologically fixed.”
He could have been talking about Duncan herself – a mirage that was impressive to look at, but then just as quickly is gone.
Duncan’s blog can be found at http://theresalduncan.typepad.com/