BY PATRICIA GRISAFI
By the time my husband and I purchased an apartment in Alphabet City, all my idols were dead. I imagined their ghosts making fun of people like me who crawled into the East Village hoping to have babies and a volunteer gig in a community garden. But I was desperate to belong to a neighborhood that represented my values, ideals, and dreams of a creative life—a neighborhood with a storied history and its share of ghosts.
I began my journey to the East Village in Murray Hill, where most recent New York City-minded college graduates find vaguely affordable apartments among senior citizens. We terrorize them with our idiotic bar hopping and midnight cravings for curry; we run them over scooting to one of seventeen nail salons. But Murray Hill had one perk: it was within walking distance of the East Village, and I spent most of my time pretending I lived there instead of 33rd and 3rd.
In 2007, I was finishing my Masters degree and working at one of those narrow shoe boutiques where they’d pay in cash under the counter. My first roommate had since moved out of the Murray Hill apartment we shared for two years and into a place in Brooklyn with her new boyfriend. I hadn’t heard from her in awhile when I received a disturbing phone call: she told me her boyfriend had threatened her. I started writing a short story that I discarded because I didn’t want to be the gross person who exploits her friends’ traumas. One piece of dialogue always stood out, though, because it marked the beginning of my fascination with a specific New York City tragedy:
"So did you hear about that couple in Queens?"
"Writer and artist. She took some pills or something. Long time coming, apparently. Well, when the boyfriend heard she was dead, he walked into the ocean. Just walked right into the ocean."
The writer and artist who overdosed on pills and died was Theresa Duncan, and she became my first East Village ghost.
Theresa Duncan committed suicide in her apartment at St. Mark’s Church on July 10th, 2007, not in Queens like Darla had said. A few days later Duncan’s boyfriend, artist Jeremy Blake, walked into the water at Rockaway Beach and drowned. The infamous couple had been a fixture of the East Village art scene for years, and they remain in my mind as a particularly East Village tragedy. The "Golden Suicides," they were called.
I fixated on Theresa. A smart, ambitious woman from Michigan, she made a name for herself as a game designer and director. She was the nerd version of Courtney Love—a riot grrrl with red lips and razor insight, hyper-focused on the world of interactive gaming and media. When I watched Duncan’s short film The History of Glamour which was exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s Biennial in 2000, I saw a kindred spirit: a small town girl who finds makeup and rebellion and takes on the world. "Chanel No. 5 on the rocks? Isn’t that most glamorous thing you ever heard?" asks the film’s protagonist Charles Valentine. And indeed, it was.
Theresa Duncan haunted my waking moments. She was who I wanted to be—the breezy, cool girl hosting salons and writing smart blogs. She also embodied what I was afraid I embodied—desperation to be recognized as talented and smart, a capacity to alienate loved ones in pursuit of a grand ideal.
Despite her veneer of bohemian-chic intellectualism, Duncan wasn't well. By many accounts, she was aggressive and intimidating; she had something to prove and was relentless in asserting her worth to a world growing increasingly disinterested in what she had to offer. When she was greeted with failure after a screenplay stalled out in Hollywood, she was convinced a conspiracy was afoot—conspiracies being preferable to perceived failure and falls from relevance. Nancy Jo Sales wrote the definitive narrative about the tragedy, focusing on Duncan’s anxiety over being considered washed up:
…she seemed to fear that she was becoming unknown. One night, at a gathering of New York friends at the rectory apartment—she and Blake were once again throwing lively soirées—Duncan dragged out of a closet her old CD-roms and a copy of The History of Glamour. “Everybody kind of looked at each other like, Oh no, what is she doing?”
As Duncan’s anxiety about being a has-been grew, she lived by the neck of a champagne bottle and in the fog of paranoia before eventually killing herself. At the time of her death Duncan had also descended into delusions, and Blake joined her in paranoia. The two of them, it was said, shared a "folie à deux"—convinced many enemies were circling like peckish sharks.
To occupy space in New York City is to experience the paradox of feeling insignificant and also like the star of your own personal movie—a psychological quandary many city-dwellers feel even on weekly runs to the grocery store or a simple stroll through the park on a sunny day. Such competing feelings of invisibility and overexposure can be overwhelming at times. The Theresa Duncan story sticks with me for these very human reasons. We all fear being the focus of noxious gossip—or being forgotten entirely.
This year, I will celebrate ten years of living in this wonderful, frustrating city—eight of those years in the East Village searching for its many forgotten ghosts like a demented collector. I walk past St. Mark’s Church on a regular basis, plopping down on a bench with my dogs and a taco or ice cream cone. I stare at the Church garden thinking how Theresa Duncan’s dead body laid in one of those rectory apartments, near a note that simply she loved Blake and was at peace with her decision.
There had been talk of putting a permanent memorial plaque up, but nothing came of it—I always check. This exclusion feels wrong somehow, leaving Duncan out of the collective East Village narrative of those who have played the game ferociously and lost. I imagine her ghost wandering the gardens of the Church, feisty and indignant: "Not even a fucking plaque? My work was shown in the fucking Whitney. I revolutionized computer gaming. I wrote a goddamn screenplay. Fuck this." And then she pours herself a glass of Chanel No. 5 on the rocks and blows smoke in our eyes because we continue to be so blind.
Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a freelance writer and educator. Her work has appeared in Salon, Vice, Bitch, Bustle, Ravishly, The Establishment, and elsewhere. She is passionate about pit bull rescue, cursed objects, and designer sunglasses.