Erik Nelson is drawn to obsessives. After producing Grizzly Man (2005), the Werner Herzog documentary on Timothy Treadwell’s mania for (and ultimate death by) bears, Nelson found his next subject in David Crowley. Like Treadwell, who compulsively videotaped his encounters with grizzlies in Alaska, Crowley amassed a staggering amount of data—both while working on an ambitious feature film, Gray State, a never-completed dystopian tale about an America under martial law, and through journals that tracked the man’s gradual escape into paranoia and away from reality. And, like Treadwell, Crowley’s life ended prematurely: in 2015, the Iraq veteran and aspiring director killed himself after murdering his wife and daughter in Apple Valley, Minnesota.
Nelson—who discusses A Gray State, his film on Crowley, at the Walker on September 21—calls the film a “self-generated documentary”: the filmmaker’s job comes largely in sorting through and assembling material created by its subject. Such material offered a window into Crowley’s mind for writer Alec Wilkinson, whose April 2017 New Yorker essay “Death of a Dystopian” dug deep into the case of Crowley. Here, Wilkinson picks up where his New Yorker piece left off—pondering the contours of Crowley’s obsessed mind, where, despite so much evidence related to it, he finds few answers.
I find it difficult to talk about David Crowley, because I don’t know what to think about him. Clearly he was a tormented and unfortunate soul, and I don’t want to condemn him, although there is no doubt of his guilt. He knew what he was doing, I think, that Christmas morning when he shot his daughter and his wife and then himself, and I think he knew why he was doing it, but I don’t think that the explanation or the reasoning that led to it had anything to do with reality, except as it applied within the walls of his home. He had come to believe—apparently both he and his wife, Komel, had—that there was no place for them in the world and that they were headed with each other and their daughter, Raniya, to another plane of existence, with another purpose. It is common for suicides to believe that in shedding this life they will be given another, more favorable, one.
I knew about Crowley from the filmmaker Erik Nelson, who made A Gray State, and whose work and intelligence I admire. Crowley’s family had given Nelson the contents of Crowley’s computer, where he found a huge archive of photos and videos of Crowley and Komel, who had grown up in Pakistan, and their daughter. He also found drafts of Crowley’s writing, scenes from his film, Gray State, and a journal he had kept during the last year of his life.
Prose has different requirements from film. Nelson was interested in the photos and the videos, and I was drawn to the journal. Reading it, I felt as if a character from Dostoevsky had been living a secret life, full of a complex private purpose, on a quiet street in Apple Valley. Sometimes in the journal Crowley felt confident and boasted, and sometimes he was downcast, but as the entries progressed he began to record intimate visions and revelations, and it was clear that he was losing his mind. By the end, Komel appeared to be having hallucinations of her own, as if he had infected her, and these were sympathetic to his.
Over the last few months of their lives, the Crowleys withdrew from their friends and families, sometimes imagining slights as a pretext. Disengaging from the world is a classic sign of psychosis, but Crowley also had the habit of writing in seclusion, and his friends and relatives took him at his word when he said that he was working hard, and they expected that they would see him when he was done. A strange thing about life, it seems to me, is that we sometimes learn terrible lessons which apply to situations that never happen again.
Delusions typically have some basis in reality. For the most unfortunate among us, a gear slips, and the thoughts, merely distracting at first, eventually won’t leave us. Crowley and his wife colluded in some obscure fashion. They had always been deeply engaged with each other and had a physically affectionate life. “Dominating” is how his presence is often described, however, and he may have worn her down and finally overwhelmed her. She may have had, psychically and profoundly, to accept his way of seeing the world in order to survive in the house. She saw few other people and, by the end, no one else at all, except her husband. Having her all for himself seemed always to have been an ambition for him. In their solitude they appeared, from Crowley’s diary and from videos and recordings Nelson found, to have supported each other’s thinking, even when it was disordered, perhaps especially when it was disordered.
Crowley had a boy’s idea of manhood—being a warrior and a defender. Once he went through being a soldier, however, he grew deeply disaffected. Like all intelligent people, he was resistant to propaganda, and when he became a witness to the destruction and the violence practiced on families in a war zone he began to feel that he was serving an ignoble purpose. After the army, he embraced right-wing causes, but the embrace grew not from personal grievances, as with much of the alt-right, but from his distrust of the government’s morality. Also, from his belief that human life should be unhampered, a Libertarian principle. Among all the footage that Nelson collected, I’m not aware of Crowley’s expressing any belligerent right-wing attitudes or resentment of anyone other than government officials. He believed that the government lied to accomplish its purposes, and he thought that the only people who saw it were the conspiracy-minded types, whom he took seriously.
I know him intimately through the progression of his madness, since I read his journal a number of times. I don’t know him beforehand, really, but I have met a number of people who did, and they are all of a certain well-meaning, sensitive, and sympathetic character, so I find it hard to believe that they made an exception to tolerate someone who wasn’t. They admired Crowley for his talents as a writer and filmmaker. He was a charismatic man, and he worked hard, and he inspired people. All of them were dismayed when he ended their friendships with him. None of them imagined the unspeakable end that arrived.
So what do I think of him? I still don’t know. I see him as someone who needed help desperately. Whose capacities for thinking and invention had turned inward with a lacerating ferocity. He must have been frightening in that condition. A strong, young man, severely determined and unwilling to accept help. Only, I think, a violent intervention—taking him from his house to a place of treatment—might have saved him, and I don’t know how that could have been accomplished safely. He was anyway much more afflicted than anyone guessed.
Nelson is a better filmmaker than to turn Crowley into a caricature or a symbol of a bias. In A Gray State Crowley is inscrutable and complicated, and I think an effect of watching the movie is to wonder at the complexity of human possibility. To wonder and feel humbled by how much of life is beyond our power to explain.