In the weeks following their deaths—once friends had seen Duncan lying in an open casket at her Michigan funeral, once Blake’s body had been found by a fisherman 4.5 miles off the coast of New Jersey, once the thin hope that maybe it was all some kind of performance had been snuffed out—it seemed there was no end to the number of people who gravitated toward “the story,” perplexed as to why people living such vibrant lives would choose to end them. The Internet, especially, produced countless repositories of mourning and conjecture: “I did not know the couple at all, but I loved her blog, and now I find myself obsessed with the story,” a woman named Sandy Starkey wrote on one blog, expressing a sentiment shared by many. “Why would a couple who seemed to be living such an ideal, urban, creative life make this choice? I am an English teacher, drowning in papers with five kids at home, too, and I can only dream of such a life.”
In time everyone had a theory, a hypothesis, an eagerness to impose his own story line onto what had happened. To some the “double suicide,” as the newspapers called it, reinforced the quixotic fantasy that artists are somehow too pure for the harshness of the world. To others it was a Shakespearean tale of a love so tragic and potent that one person could not live, literally, without the other. According to the blog Dream’s End, the deaths were not suicides but murders connected to an “alternate reality game.” As more details emerged—about their troubles in Hollywood, their claims of harassment by Scientologists, and how many people they had thoroughly alienated in recent years—the narrative grew harsher. Now their deaths became a story of wrathful envy, of toxic ambition, of fame obsession, of a woman spurned by success, of a terrible conspiracy, of madness. People so quickly grew fixated on trying to define what Duncan and Blake represented in death that it became increasingly difficult to understand and remember who they had been when they were alive.
There is a photograph, two years old, from September 2005. In it Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake are seated on the vintage couch in their Venice Beach cottage. Behind them is a bookshelf crammed with fiction and philosophy and the political polemics that Duncan, if you let her, would talk about for hours. Do they have a fire going? You can’t see from this angle, though they so often did in the fall and winter that you can imagine the snap of burning logs and the sweet soot smell mixing with one of Blake’s Nat Sherman cigarettes. His left arm is extended along the back of the couch, as if about to embrace Duncan, who is perched back on her heels, holding a stethoscope to Blake’s heart. Her eyes are closed. She is listening. His eyes are half open, a lazy grin on his face. The photo is almost uncomfortably intimate. It was taken by the artist Dario Robleto, part of a project to collect the heartbeats of 50 lovers. “Hearing Jeremy’s heart like this was amazing,” Duncan wrote on her blog, “like staring through a telescope at a vast and previously undiscovered world. The beats sounded so powerful, and yet so temporary. We are just another damn song …”
They had first met in 1994, in Washington, D.C. Some say it was at a Fugazi concert—Blake was close with the seminal punk band—others remember the two running into each other at a house party. Whatever the case, back then they were no more than casual acquaintances. Blake, then in his early twenties, had recently moved back home after receiving an M.F.A. from CalArts, and was still figuring out what he wanted to do as an artist. Duncan, on the other hand, was already known in certain circles as something of a force: a punk spirit sheathed in designer clothes, a woman always swimming against the current. Aggressive and unrelenting when she needed to be, which was often, Duncan convinced her bosses at Magnet Interactive, a CD-rom manufacturer, to give her $80,000 to create, along with colleague Monica Gesue, a video game for girls called Chop Suey. The game centered on two sisters, Lily and June Bugg, who drift into a food coma after gorging on Chinese food and take a whimsical journey on clouds that morph into tennis shoes and teapots. Narrated by the then-unknown David Sedaris, Chop Suey was universally praised for transforming the medium: a child’s game that had an edge, that lacked condescension.
It was by coincidence that both Duncan and Blake moved to New York in the same year, 1995. One autumn night they ran into each other backstage at the old Knitting Factory, and this time the attraction was immediate. Within a few weeks it seemed to friends that Duncan and Blake had been together for years—two people connected by an almost compulsive fascination with the idea of the artist: the fantasies, the mythologies, the clichés. Duncan, a careful crafter of her own history, enjoyed telling friends and strangers about an early night they spent together at the Chelsea Hotel, where plaques list the famous names of those who lived and worked there: Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas. In her words, from a 2005 interview: “I remember before we went to bed we were making out in the window, looking out at the street filling up with snow, it was almost completely quiet and we were overlooking the electric Chelsea Hotel sign ... I remember later the wild noises that the hotel made late that night, like some madman in the basement playing a church organ made with the hotel’s old radiator pipes.”