When theories kill
Posted May 22, 2017
Part One of this essay pointed out that conspiracy thinking puts us in a childlike role. In Part Two we look at David Crowley, whose obsession was a form of conspiracy thinking that influenced his murder-suicide. Alec Wilkinson has a careful account of Crowley’s story in the New Yorker (April 10, 2017), from which the quotations below are taken.
David Crowley came back from the Army in Afghanistan bent on making a movie called “Gray State.” In his film a foreign totalitarian state conquers the U.S. While some Americans submit and go on with their lives, others are defiant patriotic resisters. Crowley counted on being famous and rich after his frightening explosive trailer for the film attracted attention and money, especially after praise from conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones. But interested producers didn’t offer Crowley a contract. Over the years that he worked on his film idea, he was losing his grip on reality, and just before Christmas 2014, he killed his wife and 9-year-old daughter, then himself. Alt-right and other figures believe he was killed by the government to stop his film.
The film “Gray State” is a conspiracy fantasy. Armed heroic resisters combat a vicious juggernaut like “big government.” Unlike ordinary thinking, conspiracy theories assume the conspiracy is always malicious rather than a result of, say, insecurity, inaccurate data, or dumb luck. In "Gray State" as in conspiracy theory, there’s no interest in individual characters or motivation. This seems to be the main reason interested producers turned down the project.
The idea owes much to stereotyped rightwing conspiracy theory. But at the same time, Crowley was suffering from a progressive organic disorder that was carrying him toward psychosis. In Crowley’s journal, says Wilkinson, he
wrote about his ambitions in general (to have a screenplay produced by 2016, to be a millionaire by 2017), his feelings for [his wife] Komel (“God I love that woman. Strong, beautiful, ferocious, and deadly intelligent”), and his determination to be a good father. As the entries progress, however, insights appear to arrive unbidden and to impose themselves on him. “I’m expecting to wake up somebody else,” he wrote. “Vast personality changes are happening too fast to write about every day.” And: “I am being prepped for some slide into oblivion or destiny.” Crowley was losing his mind, and he didn’t seem to know it.
In effect, conspiracy theory provided a framework for his disturbed personality to flesh out. Like many rampage killers, he was a veteran with a lifelong interest in warrior heroism. As a boy he played war games with friends, in costume. He brought along his father’s camera as if to make his actions more real. “In the real Army, they thought, you also played combat games, but you got paid for it.”
Joining the Army, he saw real deaths in Afghanistan. The terror of real, uncontrollable death apparently shocked him. He came away thinking of himself as a Libertarian and pacifist. He must have been shaken, since in his film the U.S. resembles the totalitarian invader, and the Taliban could be the patriotic resistance. This suspicion is corroborated by his marriage in Texas to Komel, a Pakistani-American woman who had roots in the region and in Islam.
Pacifist or not, Crowley was still drawn to combat violence. Discharged, he attended film school and “posted a trailer for his movie on YouTube in 2012. It has been watched more than 2.5 million times, and the film has more than 57,000 followers on Facebook.” The trailer is a storm of explosively fragmentary, overwhelming violence. It imitates the pumped-up excitement of American thrillers: what I call “berserk style.”  Alex Jones, the conspiracy prima donna, praised Crowley's project.
“As if inhabiting the world he was creating,” says Wilkinson, "Crowley “periodically cut his hair in a Mohawk and wore combat fatigues and body armor.” When the interested producers finally turned down the script, a friend “said that he didn’t think David knew ‘how to cope with failure on this scale.’ He went on, ‘In my heart I feel like the stress, the message, the story, and his thought process caused his world of fiction and reality to blur.’”
In fact, the film’s chaos increasingly reflected Crowley’s psychic chaos. In Afghanistan, conspiracy theory crashed into terrifying, deflating real death. His film idea tried to keep the childhood dream of superhuman violence alive in the berserk violence of his movie. At the same time, his obsession with heroism was split between dreams of Rambo-style warrior resistance and millionaire status. And as YouTube showed, his conspiracy-plot of an evil invading empire resonated with the people who keep Alex Jones on the air. That encouraged him. Says Wilkinson, “Among certain conspiracy-minded, anti-government, Libertarian, and alt-right believers, Crowley has become a species of martyr.”
Just before Christmas in 2014, after episodes of tears and despairing, psychotic journal entries, Crowley shot his wife Komel and 9-year-old daughter as they lay before their Christmas tree. He then wrote “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) on the living room wall with his bloody hands, and killed himself.
The reference to Allah brings Komel puzzlingly into the foreground. Having roots in Pakistan and a husband fighting Taliban from the tribal lands of Pakistan, she bonded strongly with him and apparently influenced his ideas.
When they moved to Minnesota, Komel was at first miserably lonely. As she developed an interest in nutrition and planned to start her own business, Crowley was failing and becoming more tyrannically controlling. After all, if she was happy boogeying through a social life, that undermined the reality of Gray State horror. Trapped in the force field of David’s delusions, she wanted to leave her marriage.
Komel’s business card presented her as a “MindBody Dietician LLC—‘Holistic Nutrition Therapy, Food Allergies, Autism, Autoimmune Conditions,” with a photo of her smiling. She may have embraced the fantasy that today’s food is stripped of nutritional value. Her turmoil grew into fantasies of transcendent spirituality. Toward the end, a friend said, “She was reading a lot of books about religions and people who don’t eat for forty days. She said there were people in the world who didn’t need to eat at all. Then she started talking about how she never left the house anymore.” The family was cutting ties, withdrawing from social life and reality-testing. Komel was starved for human touch and warmth.
As the crisis mounted, David was distraught. He insisted on taping their arguments to document their differences. But Komel too was losing her way. One day she “came into the kitchen and asked him to hold her. She said something was very wrong.” David paraphrased her words: “Don’t worry about the pain, because you do not know how to feel pain, and you will return to the dust and your dark slumber, and I will be gone.”
“’I have my mission,” she had told him. She said she had heard a woman’s “scary voice” and asked if he had heard it. Sounding distraught, she reproduced the voice: “I’ve warned you, I’ve warned you.” Then: “I want you. Please come with me, please come with me, your place won’t come to me. . . . There’s nothing left here.”
David went into his office and shut the door. “This took a lot out of her,” he said into his phone. He had held her while she began “to shake and weep and howl,” and then she said, “‘This is what rapture is.’” Komel came into the room then and lay down on the couch.
About this time, “David Crowley wrote in his journal, ‘I am no one. It is everyone else who is someone.’” In the “rapture” and dissociation you can hear suicide emerging as a solution. Mental life had begun to fragment as it had in the trailer.
As I see it, the couple initially bonded through idea of fighting a force like “big government.” The force was the vicious juggernaut in “Gray State,” but also the demands of success, wealth, and heroic status to come to them as “resisters.” It came to include religious compulsion too, in Komel's "mission," "rapture," and the scrawl "Allah." Komel’s suicidal panic must have intensified David’s stress. Was it more proof of defeat? A sign that the evil state had captured her?
As a psychodynamic account of conspiracy theory, the couple’s behavior shows them becoming psychotic: literally, coming apart. Like many veterans, David was conflicted about his military experience. His fantasy of being a “resister” protected his childhood fantasies of warrior heroism, even as the prospect of Hollywood millions promised to transcend the terrors and rage of “Gray State.”
The ”Gray State” fantasy resonates with alt-right and militia ideas of gun-toting heroic self-esteem. David’s paranoid withdrawal at the end shows how constricting the themes could be. Like fantasies of racial supremacy, rampage killing, and other dreams of omnipotence, fantasies of resistance require applause. But “Gray State” never came together as a story, and the theater stayed dark. The incoherent violence of the Army in Afghanistan and the dream of perfect heroic wealth remained sinister. As if to concentrate on the problem once and for all, the dreamer and his family withdrew into the dark theater.
So it was that after the murders, as if the struggle against “big government” had become a cosmic drama, David Crowley wrote with bloody hands “Allahu akbar” (God is Great) on the living room wall. He apparently identified with legendary, fearless Norse berserkers, since “David had talked about berserkers and Norsemen and the practice of writing in blood to leave a message before dying.”
In the berserk state, you try for supreme, do-or-die violence that will bind up the unraveling world and threat. It's death in a "blaze" of glory.
But then—the conflict is pitiful—on his desk, in a notebook with dried blood in the margins, David wrote “Submit to Allah now.” That could mean that having accepted failure by “sacrificing” his family in murder-suicide, he could surrender to that force, call it Allah or Father, Destiny or whatever. He apparently felt his violence was his supreme act of resistance against the forces disintegrating his personality, accomplished as he felt himself coming apart.
These meanings round out ”Gray State” plot in an all-too-familiar way. In “submitting” he could die in defeat, but as the dead hero celebrated in myth and pathology as the martyr. In terrorist terms, the martyr is the jihadi earning his ticket to heaven: earning the conviction of self-worth at the cost of annihilating the self. And as Wilkinson notes, “Among certain conspiracy-minded, anti-government, Libertarian, and alt-right believers, Crowley has become a species of martyr.”
Conspiracy thinking, again, recapitulates many childhood conflicts. In this case the failed hero can choose to “submit” to the all-powerful adult regime while saving face as a good child, the martyr. The fantasy is a desperate way of holding the self together as insuperable conflicts and organic dysfunction are degrading reality.
Conspiracy is the whispering just out of earshot that answers to the mystery of being alive. That tantalizing buzz pervades religion, politics, and back fence gossip. It can support morale or drive you nuts.
As if Crowley needed an ironic postscript, on YouTube a Christian chap named “Brother Clint” uses a conspiracy theory to warn you not to watch the version of “Gray State” on YouTube which he thinks has been tampered with by an evil conspiracy. He seems to be confusing Crowley’s drama with a documentary Crowley made about the film. Brother Clint regards the film as a fake designed to brainwash you into rage against “big government” that would provoke fatal repression. That is, “Brother Clint” imagines a conspiracy theory that warns him against his own impulse to rage—also imagined as a conspiracy. That is, he relies on one to protect against another. But then, he seems to know a number of folks with a “Gray State” mindset in a world where ranting about “fake news” has become commonplace.
The Crowleys’ dog deserves the last word. After the murders, locked up in the house with three corpses under a Christmas tree, the family pet (to use Wilkinson’s delicate word) “scavenged.” It’s survival appetite. It’s how we’re built. The absurdity of “man’s best friend” forced to survive by eating the best friend mocks conspiracy theory’s certainty that the secret to everything is just around the corner, beyond that wall, whispering.
Resources used in this essay:
1. “With every weapon of the state turned against us, how long can we resist?” It's symptomatic that in the trailer menacing noise overwhelms communication: machine gun sounds evoke a door-pounding Gestapo or SWAT team raid. Like nearly every TV clip these days, the trailer uses obnoxious percussion to pump up agitation and the feeling of relentless force. Crowley's wife and child appear in the trailer. Viewers seem to be drawn to its atmosphere of suspicion, crisis, and persecution. For examples and implications of berserk style, see The Psychology of Abandon (2015).
2. In 2012 Alex Jones had Crowley and his co-writer on his radio show “Infowars" to discuss “the impressive film you’re working on.” The world depicted in “Gray State” is already “happening here,” Jones said. “The people who have hijacked our country, they’re admitting it. They’re admitting that we’re an occupied nation by foreign banks, they’re admitting they’re getting rid of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.” Crowley replied that “We have people who are living in the Alex Jones world who know what’s going on, and the people who simply don’t." He added that “Gray State" was factual and “could be described as a documentary.”
4. Militias hold that "big government" is an uncanny enemy. In the standoff over grazing rights in Oregon, militias protested that government was taking “the people’s” land, as if all 350 million Americans wanted to graze cattle there instead of a few armed folks for whom it would be a profitable business windfall. The militia reliance on military weapons reveals the underlying assumption that the conflict is potentially warfare, with loot for the victor. The armed force believes it’s really “my” loot, just as a politician may treat “our” tax money as “mine,” believing that the despised poor conspire to get “free things.” Often journalism ignores the illogic. Mlitia threats are seeping into everyday life, despite their treasonous potential. With a wink, goldbugs, eg, are endorsing armed insurgency in defense of Trump should the law try to curb him: https://www.marketslant.com/article/do-you-want-be-short-gold-and-long-s...
5. Brother Clint believes God told him that Alex Jones is a shill obviously employed by the CIA to incite people to acts that would justify totalitarian government crackdown. The film, he insists, is full of “subliminal things” and “brainwashing techniques.”