Rebecca Burger was a French Instagram model. She was very focused on self-care, fitness, health and appearance. Most of the pictures on her feed were of herself, but the very last one, made by her relatives, is of a pressurized whipped cream dispenser. She was 33 when it exploded and killed her.
I think of Rebecca every now and again. Most recently, she came to mind when I heard British journalist Johann Hari say there’s a question that everybody’s prepared to answer in the US, but that you never hear in the UK.
The question is “What’s your story?”
I thought, there’s a kind of fairness, and a kind of ruthlessness, in not knowing how one’s story is going to end and what it’ll ultimately be about.
David Crowley was an American boy who liked to play war. In teenage years, he picked up paintball. After finishing school, he joined the army and went to Iraq.
Real war, its history and geography changed the way David saw the world. He came to Iraq because he wanted to serve his country. But the more he thought about it, the more people he killed and saw being killed, the less clear it was whom he was serving. By the end of his tour, he decided it wasn’t America. It was what he called the World Government, a shadowy and powerful entity which starts and leads wars to control money and population.
Upon his return, David set out to express his new-found worldview by making an action film—an intense movie experience that would serve as a warning to the American citizenry. The project was called Gray State and seemed (judging by the trailer he created with friends) to be the ultimate conspiracy theory film: the US government, now openly controlled by the UN, orders a curfew and implants the population with microchips; the military executes people in the street; there are scenes of creepy occult rituals.
There wasn’t even a script at this stage. The plan was to put so much effort into the trailer that it would make a splash—and then, with the initial reaction as a promise of further success, look for funders. It worked.
David was invited to speak at a Libertarian conference. Alex Jones promoted Gray State on his show. A couple of Hollywood producers showed interest and promised to pay when the screenplay is finished.
But the screenplay wasn’t being finished.
The story grew bigger and began to consume David’s whole life. Multiple storylines were represented by a wall of notes connected with strings on a wall in his house. The Hero’s Journey, which he learned about in film school, was getting difficult to trace.
The director became depressed and reclusive. He stopped talking to friends. His social circle was now limited to his wife—a Muslim woman who quickly converted to Christianity after they met—and their daughter.
Their family life is documented in the home videos they used to record. Some of them are spooky. In one, David’s daughter, about to be four, points to pictures of animals in her book. He asks:
— Are you going to kill?
— No I’m not!
— You’re not going to kill, why?
— I’m not going to kill! He’s a baby!
David laughs: “We definitely don’t kill babies, do we?” The girl then asks, clumsily: “When I was a baby, and then you don’t kill me when I was a baby?”
— No, no one killed you. We couldn’t pull it off.
The reason this is spooky is that they did, about a year later.
The official version is murder-suicide. David is supposed to have killed his family, then written ALLAHU AKBAR with their blood on the wall, and then shot himself. The home videos feature a conversation between him and his wife about a voice she had heard that was preparing them for “ascending”.
The official version did not seem convincing to the conspiracy-minded folks awaiting the movie. David wasn’t Muslim, so why would he write ALLAHU AKBAR? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the author of an anti-government movie was killed by—well—the government?
To me, this is a story about a man who got entangled with an idea that was too dark and too powerful for him.
The movie was to be a political prophecy, both a revelation and a program statement for a growing underground movement. The idea behind it—a sense of approaching doom, which intertwined politics with mysticism, terror and mystery—was too large for an ex-Marine to express in the language of cinema. So the idea found a different means of expression.
Instead of entering our reality though a Hollywood movie, it did so through a news story about a mysterious death of a family of three. And after that, a movie did follow—a 2017 documentary called A Gray State, which I recommend watching while high.
The way I remember my friend Olya is with a huge shining smile on her face. We didn’t see each other a lot in the last years of her life. She was always in a new place: India or Iraq or the US or Ukraine. She worked as a freelance journalist and made very good photos of very troubled places.
The last time when we talked regularly was when she moved back to our hometown to finish the education she had abandoned years earlier. It was a stressful time and environment for her. She felt that other students—mostly men, all younger than her—were talking behind her back. They were mocking her for being weird and older and a woman, or at least that’s what she thought. She might have imagined that. She started imagining other, more troublesome things later.
At the peak of her psychosis she thought she was a target of a malicious international network. The kids in the university were involved, but so were her relatives, and people in governments of various countries, and people she’s met in her travels. At one point, the whole population of a small Greek town seemed to be agents.
She would log onto Facebook with a fake account and visit pages where people shared funny pictures of cats. She thought that every cat meme she saw was a personal, veiled attack on her. Dogs were associated with men, and cats with women, and she was like those cats in those pictures—something to condescend to and laugh at.
I didn’t know it was so bad until after she died. I did know of some of her episodes. We talked, and I tried to help her see that there is no conspiracy while not being dismissive or condescending. I thought I had some success. The last time she mentioned this business to me, she described it as something she’d gotten over.
I later learned it had gotten much worse for her, and then better again, and then worse, and so on. She was treated by a psychiatrist and put on medication. The pills helped her deal with delusions, but drained her of inspiration or will to do anything other than sleep.
Long story short, she hung herself in her hometown, in her mother’s apartment, after a nice vacation she had with her husband in Greece. He thinks she must have expected this period of lucidity to be followed by another unset of disease, and she was not going to go there again.
I sometimes think that what she felt about the people around—that they weren’t who they said they were—wasn’t totally wrong. Maybe she was picking up on the pretending that goes on inside us, like when we don’t know who we are or how we feel or what we want, but we carry on as if we do, and as if all those things are basically good.
My father died in my lap. He was having violent seizures which came in cycles: first he pressed his teeth hard and growled, eyes bulging, then had a minute or two of breathing normally and being able to talk, and then another seizure would follow. This repeated three or four times. I kept telling him that the ambulance was on its way and that he needed to hang in there, and I also asked him where it hurt. His responses were “Everything is ok” and “Everything is tip-top.”
I thought he was still alive when the ambulance arrived, but I guess he wasn’t. What the paramedic said when he entered the room was “It’s over. Grandpa’s dead.” My father was 56.
His last words were that everything was tip-top, and I think I’ve internalized them as some kind of belief. I don’t know if it’s right.
The thing about death is there’s just not very much you can do with it.