The Wit of the Staircase

Last summer, BLDGBLOG interviewed author Erik Davis about Davis's new book The Visionary State – a book that was originally sent to me on the advice of a woman named Theresa Duncan.
Theresa was the author of an often disarmingly sharp blog called The Wit of the Staircase.

[Image: Artist/photographer unknown. From an old post on The Wit of the Staircase].

When I announced that BLDGBLOG was moving to Los Angeles last September, Theresa and I got in touch, and we began emailing here and there, maybe once a month. Soon, I saw her at the first BLDGBLOG event, back in January; she and her boyfriend, artist Jeremy Blake, tried to meet up with me and my wife at David Maisel's L.A. opening gala (but our timing was off); and then, after she and Jeremy moved back to NYC, to live in the attic of a church in Manhattan's East Village, they stopped by the closing party for Postopolis!
She also sent me links here and there, and her emails were incredibly encouraging – in fact, she's one of the people I thanked when announcing the BLDGBLOG Book back in May.
So I was stunned, saddened, and horrified to learn, in the context of an otherwise casual email exchange, that Theresa committed suicide two weeks ago. Somehow I missed the news.
A few days later, her boyfriend, Jeremy Blake, left behind a note in a pile of clothes on the beach and then "walked into" the Atlantic – and his body has yet to be found.
The story's been all over The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Modern Art Notes – basically everywhere – even as author Ron Rosenbaum has been using their deaths, somewhat irresponsibly, to speculate about what he wants to believe was a murder.
Of course, Theresa was well-known for her "paranoiac" writings about Scientology, the art world, CIA black ops, secret FBI files, and the like – this post, in particular, has received a huge amount of attention this past week (and it's a crazy thing to read) – but to throw her entire blog away as mere political ravings overlooks the vast majority of the site's actual content: short observations – often limited to single quotations and photographs – with an articulate precision and interpretive confidence other writers would only dream of achieving. She could be writing about supermodels, the occult, music, 9/11, Percy Bysshe Shelley, perfume, Los Angeles, or the films of Quentin Tarantino.
Not everyone will agree with the political views espoused in this essay, for instance, but Theresa wrote one of the best and most energetic reviews of Grindhouse I've ever read; and she posted a long interview with Father Frank Morales, an Episcopal priest, in which they talk about everything from Philip K. Dick and Jerry Falwell to the Moonies, Freud, Marx, science fiction, and Disneyland – all by way of a discussion about Jesus Christ.
Here's an excerpt:
    Wit of the Staircase: You know, Philip K. Dick is really interesting on this, too, because he had a conversion experience in California – he famously lived next door to Disneyland – and a woman came to the door. She was wearing a fish sign, a Pisces sign that the early Christians used. And he claims he had this sort of mystical experience that was across dimensions of time. And he actually suddenly felt that time was an illusion. So he said ever after he had the feeling time was essentially created by Satan to prolong and delay the return of Jesus Christ, the Second Coming. So, under all of the supposed progress and all of the change, he says it's just an overlay over the same unchanging reality. It's still like the day that Christ died, and he felt the anticipation of resurrection, the thrill, he says, constantly.

    Frank Morales: I totally agree with that.

    Wit: So other than the hucksters, the Falwells and the L. Ron Hubbards of the world, there are these startlingly generous and original religious thinkers. P. K. Dick – obviously, he's a little wiggy, but he's an original thinker, and this old narrative was just completely alive for him. And Slavoj Žižek is great on the continuing radicality of Christian love and forgiveness, particularly in his book The Puppet and The Dwarf, which is also thankfully very good on Freud and Marx.

    Morales: As a matter of fact, to use that metaphor again, without sounding preachy, reminds me of Buckminster Fuller's comments, why do you think they call the basic element of time "the second"? Because it's not the first.

    Wit: Well, because P.K. Dick lived next to Disney World, he talked about the animatronics there – the servo operated puppets and the moving pirates and the fake birds – a place everything was artificial. And he said that that's like the second reality. But he said, someday a real bird was going to sing at Disneyland and uncover the first reality.

    Morales: Ah, beautiful.
In any case, this is personal news creeping onto an architecture website – but I'm stunned. And I don't mean to imply that we were close friends – we weren't – in fact, we only communicated through email. But sometimes you look away and things just disappear.

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Blogger tim atherton said...


My reaction was pretty much the same as yours.

Sad - terribly sad.

July 25, 2007 5:18 PM  
Blogger tim atherton said...

oops "Geoff" - sorry...

July 25, 2007 5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

seems like it took you a few too many lines to get past yourself and on to the point.

July 26, 2007 12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

with sad news such as this, it is best to honor their memories, not promote ourselves

July 26, 2007 12:46 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Thanks. The original draft of this post was actually just a huge photograph of myself wearing $$$ sunglasses, standing in front of Hustler Hollywood. You would have liked that version.

July 26, 2007 1:27 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Sorry to comment here again, but upon re-reading this post, I would have written it in the exact same way if I had to do it all over again.

Why on earth would I be telling people about Theresa Duncan, in an architecture blog, if I didn't first explain to them who she was, how I knew her, and what she has to do with this website?

If I suddenly felt like I was free to report on any tragedy, anywhere in the world, whether or not it had anything at all to do with architecture, then it's that attitude that would make me self-interestedly abusive of other people's memories - not explaining to my readers, if I have any, why it is that I might care and be saddened by the fact that someone I was in contact with for nearly a year has committed suicide. Surely if I had no connection to Theresa whatsoever, it would be a little weird to mention her on an architecture blog - a blog on which I don't exactly indulge in emotional self-narration, much to the relief of the people who might read this thing? Is it really so callous to take a minute to explain to people why I might give a shit?

Or should I just post arbitrary obituaries here, about people with absolutely no connection to my life, turning myself and this site into the architecture world's designated mourner?

In any case, if you feel so strongly about this, then anonymous sniping is a mature and impressive way to communicate yourself.

July 26, 2007 3:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I've only been reading BLDGBLOG for a couple months or so and I don't think I've commented before.

Sorry to hear this. It's remarkable. I often just read the feeds, but I clicked on for this one. Something in the pic, the title, that drew me. I was also immediately fascinated, clicking through to the blog in question, thinking I might subscribe. Then I read on, went back, looked at the dates...

I often wonder about that. Will my blog, or others' end like that too one day. Neglected. Not updating, not ever?

Again, sorry to hear that a new and perhaps promising acquaintance was cut short, esp. like that. Sorry about that twat posting above too... What on earth could be wrong with your post? Bloody anonymous idiot.

July 26, 2007 5:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like a wonderful, insightful blog. I'm sorry I never got the chance to know its author.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Philip K. Dick essay she refers to in the interview, it's online here.

July 26, 2007 6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the sniping is unfortunate under these circumstances. to know that this person was largely, through a chain of associations, responsible for introducing us is doubly sad, and spooky.

July 26, 2007 11:08 AM  
Blogger peacay said...

Thanks geoff, it was not only interesting to hear of your occasional connection to Theresa but your brief review of her blog work is welcome and quite spot on. She carved out an eclectic space online and will be missed. Sad.

July 28, 2007 2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this wasn't the point of the post, but I believe that photo might be the work of Laurie Simmons.

I was a fan of Wit of the Staircase, but Theresa Duncan was a paranoid schizophrenic who went out of her way to be very insulting to a lot of people. Her suicide just seems like one final selfish gesture, especially since her being "at peace" with the decision did not diminish the huge impact this act had on the lives of her loved ones.

July 28, 2007 4:29 PM  
Blogger Formerly Fooled said...

I really enjoyed this article Mr.Manaugh. I also enjoyed the links you provided.

Theresa Duncan was the kind of writer that many wished to be. Yes, she and her blog will be missed.

I see some people posting sarcastic and downright mean things here (and elsewhere on the internet) which only proves out the saying "Envy is more incapable of reconciliation than hatred is".

Mary McConnell

August 06, 2007 10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if I would have got into her blog or not. But she was beautiful, if her picture's any judge. And I suspect even those burned by her illness will miss her on some level.

August 08, 2007 10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jesus christ,horny old men-get a grip

September 05, 2007 11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sometimes you look away and things just disappear."
In fact, it's the "things" - such as her blog - that are here to stay. A woman lost her life. That's not a 'thing', that's a life.

December 10, 2007 5:48 AM  
Blogger Aziza said...

noa, it was a metaphor. Get over it.

March 26, 2009 2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Geoff,

Well, I'm somewhat of a latecomer to the details of all this (though I did stumble upon both Theresa's blog and her obituary almost simultaneously, in 2007...)

In reading the various articles (Vanity Fair, various national papers, etc) I've profiled Theresa all over the map, from possible meth user to paranoid narcissist. But after reading her apparently notorious 'Wit' post re: Anna Glaskin, I surprised myself by agreeing with Theresa.

Read the article now, again, in light of what's transpired since she wrote it. I am no conspiracy theorist by any means - I am a well-reputed skeptic. But Theresa seemed to have ironically stumbled into a hornet's nest, a perfect storm of money and power.

I realize she may have insulted people independently of this situation otherwise in her life, but I'm holding that separately for now, to consider the situation she proposed.

Please excuse my anonymous post - usually I'm quite plain and honest in my signature - but Ms. Duncan's careful essay of provenance has me spooked.

December 16, 2009 2:31 AM  

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