Truly, Madly, Deeply; Theresa Duncan Created Acclaimed Videogames. Jeremy Blake Was a Digital-Art Pioneer. They Were Talented, Successful and in Love. and Then They Committed Suicide. How the Technology That Infused Their Work Helped Destroy Them
Dokoupil, Tony, Newsweek
Byline: Tony Dokoupil
On July 10, Jeremy Blake returned to his downtown Manhattan apartment from a day of meetings with plans to relax with a bottle of Scotch. The 35-year-old digital artist, whose work is already enshrined in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, lived in a converted Episcopal church rectory with his girlfriend of a dozen years, Theresa Duncan, a 40-year-old writer and former computer-game designer. Before going upstairs to meet her, he stopped by the office of the church's assistant pastor, Father Frank Morales, and invited him up later for a drink. But when Blake got to his place and opened the door, he found Duncan lying dead in their bedroom, with a bottle of bourbon, Tylenol PM pills and a suicide note next to her body. When the police arrived, Morales followed them upstairs and found Blake kicking the walls and sobbing before settling into a living-room chair. After the coroner took his lover's body away, Blake spent the next three hours with Morales, silently drinking glasses of Glenlivet until the bottle was empty.
The following days were understandably tense. "It was obvious that he was a suicide risk," Morales tells NEWSWEEK. "We put him on a 24-hour watch, I mean not even letting him walk alone across the street for a cup of coffee." Friends of the couple rotated through the apartment, offering food and distraction until Blake appeared to turn a corner. He started sketching again and made plans to drive to Theresa's funeral in Michigan. On July 17, the day before he was supposed to leave, Blake boarded an A subway train bound for Brooklyn, where he was scheduled to meet a friend, but he blew past his stop and got off the train along Rockaway Beach. As the sun set, he walked toward the water, took off his clothes, piled them neatly on the sand and waded into the brownish Atlantic. Five days later, a fisherman discovered his body off the coast of New Jersey. Near the spot where he'd entered the ocean, authorities found a Jeremy Blake business card with a short note. It didn't say much, just that he couldn't live without Theresa.
Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan seemed like the perfect couple: beautiful, talented, successful and deeply in love. But beneath the idyllic surface is a darkly modern tale of obsession and paranoia fueled by instruments of a digital age. Duncan and Blake built their lives around computers and the Internet, using them to create innovative art, prize-winning videogames and visionary stories. But as time progressed, the very technologies that had infused their work and elevated their lives became tools to reinforce destructive delusions and weapons to lash out at a world they thought was closing in on them. By the end of their lives, this formerly outgoing and affable couple had turned cold toward outsiders. They addressed friends and colleagues from behind electronic walls of accusatory e-mails and confrontational blog posts, and their storybook devotion to each other slowly warped into a shared madness--what is known as a folie A deux. "This wasn't who they wanted to be," says Katie Brennan, a Los Angeles gallery owner and longtime friend. She compares the couple's late-life delusions to "a kind of terminal cancer" that overtook the true Jeremy and Theresa.
For some, technology and mental illness have long been thought to exist in a kind of dark symbiosis. Blake and Duncan's case follows a long history that began when the electric age upended daily life with baffling, complex innovations. The first victim is believed to have been James Tilley Matthews, an 18th-century British merchant who thought France planned to take over England with a mind-controlling magnetic machine using technology developed by Frank Mesmer--from whom the word "mesmerized" is derived. More recently, the introduction of television inflamed the minds of patients who believed that their TVs were watching them or broadcasting secrets about their lives. …