The following contains spoilers for The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes, written by Scott Frost, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, written by Mark Frost, and the Twin Peaks television series.
“Cooper never could resist a bird with a broken wing—you know as well as I do by now that it’s a central part of his makeup: white knight syndrome, the irresistible urge to rescue every damsel in distress he came across.” – Agent Tammy Preston, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier
With these damning words, Mark Frost’s final chapter on Twin Peaks drove a dagger through my heart. I have never been a subscriber to the “white knight syndrome” theory and the general sentiment that it was this weakness in Cooper that led to his downfall in the Red Room. After all, the classic white knight of legend was Sir Lancelot, hero of King Arthur’s roundtable. Is being a knight supposed to be a bad thing?
In their book, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others, authors Mary C. Lamia and Marilyn J. Krieger describe the White Knight thusly:
“The contemporary real-life white knight may appear to be a gem of a partner but is actually a tragic hero. White knights demonstrate not only a willingness but also a need to rescue. In fact, often without self-awareness, white knights seek out as partners those who are especially needy or vulnerable. Thus, in our conceptualization of the white knight syndrome, the inclination and the need to rescue are the fundamental requirements for white knighthood.”
OK, so maybe Cooper is a bit of a “tragic hero.” And yes, maybe Annie was a bit “vulnerable” as well. But was their relationship solely built on his need to rescue her? When he catches a glimpse of the scar on her wrist in Episode 24, is that really what drives his desire for Annie, rather than a genuine connection between two quirky, stranger in a strange land archetypes?
Much of the foundation for this theory was laid in the book The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes, released on April 2 during one of the several hiatuses ABC had placed Twin Peaks on during Season 2. Ostensibly, the main goal of the book was to give us background on the new bad guy of this season, Windom Earle, and his past with Agent Cooper. However, the book also outlined a number of past relationships from Dale’s life before coming to Twin Peaks.
In his own words, Cooper says, “My mother, Marie, and Caroline. Those are the names on the signposts past which I’ve traveled.” So do these loves outline an inevitable diagnosis? A path to self-destruction that Agent Cooper had been set upon since early childhood? Let’s take a deeper dive.
“Without stepping too far into profiling here, my feeling is that this relates directly to Cooper’s troubled relationship with his own mother, a fragile woman who suffered through a sizable portion of Cooper’s teenage years in varying degrees of mental and physical suffering—the product of her own turbulent marriage. Before she eventually straightened herself out, Cooper spent a lot of time tending to her—perhaps too much time—and this seems to have encouraged in him a moral conviction, if not an obligation toward ‘saving’ women in jeopardy that he carried into his own adulthood.” – Agent Tammy Preston, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier
There is virtually nothing about this assessment that rings true with Dale’s mother as portrayed in My Life, My Tapes. She was not a “fragile woman.” She threatens to beat Dale within an inch of his life when he returns from his Great Adventure.
She did not have any “physical suffering,” other than the brain aneurysm that kills her pretty much instantly in November, 1969 (age 15). In fact, initially, Dale is the one with a physical ailment, suffering from asthma to the point of being laid up in bed, with his mother taking care of him, not the other way around.
Her marriage was not “turbulent.” All indications are that Dale’s mom and dad were happily married, and if anything, she was the anchor in their relationship. Prior to leaving for college, Dale worries about his dad because “without Mom at his side, his interests may lead him into trouble.”
The only nugget of truth to this massive retcon is regarding her mental suffering. Dale’s mother had dreams. Terrible dreams. Dreams that continued right up until her death, so she never “straightened herself out” either. In one of the earliest entries in the book, his mom tells him about a dream of birds blocking out the sun. He asks her what the dream meant, but “she just smiled and said it was nothing.” This becomes a recurring theme. While she and Dale sometimes talk of her dreams, and his as well, he never spends any time, let alone “too much time,” tending to her.
We are first introduced to Marie when Dale takes notice of “strange activity next door” in January 1968 (age 13). Marie, a year older than Dale, is dancing provocatively in the window and knowingly looking over at Dale watching her. It all makes him feel very strange and he does not know why. A bit of a late bloomer, our Dale.
Thus begins a roller coaster relationship that spans the next two and a half years. Marie intimidates Dale. His assessment of her is that “she is bigger and stronger and can probably beat me in a wrestling match so is not afraid of me.” She lets him tie her up to practice knots for a merit badge. She continues to taunt him through the window, even after she dumps him for an older boy. She becomes a hippy, overdoses on drugs, then becomes a Jesus freak in recovery.
All of this back and forth culminates with a vacation to Promised Land Lake for July 4th that Dale’s father arranges with the Schlurmans (July 1970, age 16). “He’s packed the Scrabble game. Marie has packed her Bible. I am doomed.” This is coming off the previous summer’s combined watching of the moon landing, where Marie snuck off with Dale only to lie in the grass holding hands for two hours praying.
To Dale’s surprise though, when the parents row out to the middle of the lake to watch the fireworks, Marie says the kids will stay behind. When they’re gone, she races into the forest, leaving a trail of discarded clothes behind her. Dale catches up to her, confesses that he most certainly does believe in God, and Marie begins to go down on him. And then the fireworks begin—exploding in the forest all around them. They flee for their lives, fighting forest fires all the way back to the safety of their camp. The next day, Dale and his father return to the city, Marie and her family stay at the camp, and young Dale’s sexual frustration continues.
A week later, he gets the news that Marie died at the lake, having hit her head diving off the swimming platform. The news leaves him feeling empty and sad. Dale tells his father that he feels guilty that he was not in love with Marie, because he might have been there to save her. His dad replies that, “the only way love ever affected death was in making it more painful.”
In the spring of 1969 (age 14), a new girl, Anne Sweeny, moves to Dale’s school and he instantly falls in love. His friend Brad says she “looked like she breathed milk” and that everyone was infatuated with “the Goddess of the Plains.” Unfortunately for Dale, that includes Nancy Nordstrom, a tenth grade field hockey player who beats out him and all the other boys in ninth grade for Anne’s attentions. Very progressive.
Dale is heartbroken, sinking into a depression that eventually catches his parent’s attention. He pulls himself out of it by blowing up Nancy’s mailbox, and incredibly radical move for the future Eagle Scout. At the end of the school year, Anne moves back to Minnesota and Dale is left with only his memories of the first time he saw her and the sound of the exploding mailbox.
That summer (age 15), Dale decides to have a Great Adventure, skipping the bus ride home from a Scout jamboree to hitchhike his way home. He is picked up by a young hippie couple, Star and April, who are driving their VW bus to Washington to chain themselves to the Pentagon. It’s 1969, the Summer of Love, and young Dale is hopeful that April will help him with the matter of him still being a virgin. She taunts him unknowingly, hugging him to her breasts, running around naked at night, planting a big kiss on him when they depart—but alas, he departs with his virginity still firmly intact.
Good thing too. Not just because it would have been statutory rape on April’s part, but also because she reappears in Dale’s life in April, 1970 (age 16), as a student teacher in his English class. He finds out that she and Star split up, fueling Dale’s hopes once again. Unfortunately, all Dale gets from her is a C in English, and she runs away with the History teacher after the school year ends.
In August, 1973 (age 19), Dale starts at Haverford College, an all-male school just a few miles away from where he grew up. After a particularly depraved pep rally, Dale walks down to Bryn Mawr, the women’s college down the street—not in his usual pursuit of sex, but rather just to find “thinking human beings.” Despite his noble intentions, he does take a liking to one girl in particular, but cannot remember her name.
He doesn’t return for a month, but when he does, he is literally knocked out by a red-headed field hockey player named Andy, who we presume is the same anonymous junior from his previous outing. They make a date for the joint-college homecoming bonfire the next night, and end up making love out in the woods. As they are getting dressed, Andy informs Dale that she is leaving for Holland that morning on a 6-month foreign exchange program, and her husband is going with her.
While he realizes that “her marriage would make further contact complicated,” Dale continues to think about Andy all the time. The next few months are filled with interludes of Dale torturing himself, having another brush with evil, and bad dreams. Andy returns in January without her husband and they spend the next month exploring the limits of the human body with the aid of a small book on the Karma Sutra that she gifts Dale.
Then Andy gets word that her husband has been injured and she decides to return to Holland to be with him. She tells Dale that “love was not a variable in our relationship” and dumps him. This makes an interesting contrast to his relationship with Marie, where he was the one who was not in love with her. Though at least this only left him in emotional shock, he did not die as a result.
It’s unclear whether this was the girl Dale finally lost his virginity to, or if he had perhaps lost it during his three year hiatus after graduating high school. My guess would be the former, because years later, he still looks back on his time with Andy fondly. He found his satisfaction in the successful conclusion of his first FBI case to be wanting in comparison to “a moment I spent with a Bryn Mawr student near a faculty barbecue.”
In March 1974 (age 19), Dale takes an internship at the county hospital to “assist in a study of average people who have gone mad.” In a vignette, his psychology professor describes that “something caught his attention there that forever changed his life,” steering him away from what she had hoped was going to be a long and brilliant academic career. That something was Betty.
Dale describes her as “nineteen, a student, and in every way a very beautiful young woman”—except that she believes she is possessed by the devil. While I don’t think Cooper necessarily felt any attraction to Betty, I mention her because she is very definitely a damsel in distress that crosses his path.
He meets her on March 16, spends the day with her (amounting to 5 hours) on March 17 gaining her trust, and then late that night, he’s called in to negotiate a hostage situation where she’s taken an orderly at knife-point. Things go badly and Betty is shot by the police who are also on the scene. As she is being taken out on stretcher, Dale hears her say “I’m free.” By the afternoon of the next day, she dies of her wounds.
Dale is very troubled by the whole thing. Granted, he hardly had any time at all with Betty, but there was no real way for him to “rescue” her. The damsel freed herself by committing suicide by cop. No knight need apply. Dale sees that evil engages in the world freely, but he struggles with how good can engage back. Losing the victim does not seem like a victory of good over evil.
On July 1, 1975 (age 21), Dale meets another Bryn Mawr student, Lena, at a coffee shop, where she educates him on the importance of oils to a “truly superior brew.” It’s a match made in Heaven and he has high hopes that Lena may be the one he’s been looking for. They meet for coffee again on the next day and she reveals that she has taken a vow of celibacy until she comes to terms with her mother. Typical Dale luck.
After a frustrating month and a half of dating, Dale agrees to go with Lena to visit her parents after summer classes completes. There he finds out that Lena’s issue with her mother is that she slept with the last boyfriend Lena brought home, and sure enough, Dale gets a visitor in the middle of the night. This is when he also discovers his girlfriend is an arsonist, as a fire breaks out in the garage, interrupting the mother’s plans.
On the drive home, Lena douses her clothes in gasoline and declares her celibacy over. The ever-horny Dale obliges her and they manage to survive the ordeal with only minor damage to the car. A few days later, Lena checks herself into a mental hospital for psychiatric evaluation. After visiting her in the hospital, where she no longer recognizes him, he says, “I do not understand what it is about the choices I have made with women but they all seem to have been disasters.”
A few weeks later, he adds, “Have come to the conclusion that I am suffering from a form of curse that I remember seeing in certain suffering individuals on my travels after high school. Am quite aware that the Western mind will not allow itself to believe in anything outside the world of fact. But I am now convinced that the many disastrous relationships I have experienced have not been a result of chance.”
Agent Robin Masters
Dale meets Robin during his time at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia (September through December, 1977 – age 23). Dale describes her as “a person of great drive, beauty, and excellent marksmanship.” So, needless to say, Cooper feels an attraction for her.
Four weeks into their classes, he gets partnered with her for a simulated hostage exercise. In some manner that is never explained, his feelings towards her result in Robin’s simulated death. His assessment is, “Never again can I allow my guard to be lowered because of personal weakness on my part.” Even though he finds out the attraction is mutual, they do not pursue the relationship during the remaining two-and-a-half months of training. They both agree “it just isn’t the right time, or place.”
This is the first time we’ve seen Dale exhibit restraint in his love life. We’re finally seeing the Dale Cooper who will later turn down Audrey’s advances with a mature grace. We’re also foreshadowing his future relationship with Caroline, where once again, despite his vow, he lets his guard down.
He does run into Robin again, later in his career, upon reassignment to San Francisco. They fire off some shots together at the firing range, but that’s as much flame as they reignite. Their assignments keep their paths from crossing, and Cooper decides that is just as well. “The past should remain firmly behind one,” he declares. “The present holds enough obstacles.”
There are three things we know Scott Frost was directed to include by Lynch and his brother:
- Young Dale’s investigation into asparagus’ effect on pee smell (per Wrapped in Plastic #73)
- Cooper’s older brother Emmet was a late addition (per Wrapped in Plastic #73)
- The Windom Earle storyline (per Brad Dukes interview)
Because the book was being written at the same time as the Season 2 scripts, details differ between the show and My Life, My Tapes, in the manner one has come to expect from the various Twin Peaks multimedia expansions. Scott Frost worked production on Season 1 and is the uncredited writer of Diane…The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper, so he was largely trusted as the voice of Agent Cooper. He also wrote two of the Season 2 scripts, Episode 15 (one of my favorites) and Episode 21.
In Scott Frost’s telling, Dale meets Window Earle at a job fair in December 1975 (age 21), and Earle rekindles his interest in joining the FBI. Earle reappears in April 1978 (age 23), taking over the Philadelphia field office where Cooper, now a full-fledged FBI agent, is assigned. Earle tells him that he’s been following his progress since joining the Academy and “has not been disappointed.”
Dale is first introduced to Caroline in May 1978 (age 24) when Windom invites him over for dinner and a game of chess following Dale’s first shooting (killing a suspect in a bank robbery). Cooper describes her as “a remarkable woman.” What follows is a year-long cat-and-mouse game with Windom Earle maneuvering Caroline and Dale to fall in love in the midst of multiple horrors that Windom, unbeknownst to everyone, is committing to and around them.
All of this culminates with Cooper watching over Caroline at a safe house, where she confesses her love for him and he is forced to admit the same. They sleep together that night, and are then later attacked by an unknown assailant. Cooper is stabbed and Caroline fatally so. He later tells Diane, “I believe for the first time in my life I know what love is, because I have lost it.”
I would be remiss if I did not mention Diane. The book treats Diane as very definitely being a real person, putting to bed the speculation of fans from the first season. Dale establishes early on that he is going to address his tapes to her “even when it is clear that I am talking to myself.” That one statement nixes most of the perceived clues pointing to her non-exist-ence. Even though the book answered that particular mystery, its planned release in April, intended to fall just before the Season 2 finale, was going to allow the fans to continue to stew on the mystery right until the end.
Towards the end of the book, Cooper asks Diane out for a dinner date, perilously crossing the line between his public and private life. He’s just returned from investigating the Teresa Banks murder, and then capped off that experience with the receipt of a taunting tape from Windom Earle. Perhaps these two back-to-back brushes with evil left Cooper feeling that life was short, and so he bent the rules and let his guard down.
Having closed the book on one Diane mystery, here we open another: did they or didn’t they? In a vignette, Diane remembers that dinner, describing the main course, Peking duck, in a way that could be taken as sexual innuendo. Cooper’s only comment on the date is that, “It occurred to me last night while in the middle of a very fine duck that I do not know Diane’s last name.”
Given how frank Cooper is about so many of his other sexual escapades, I don’t know why both he and Diane would be coy about such a liaison, if it did happen. Diane could even be having fun here with the archivist. There’s not as much as a ripple in the flow of recordings after their dinner. Cooper continues to address his tapes to Diane and there’s no new level of intimacy introduced. My vote is they didn’t.
One of the things I found most disagreeable about the “white knight syndrome” diagnosis is that not only did it denigrate Agent Cooper to the status of tragic (read: failed) hero, but it also relegated Caroline Earle and Annie Blackburn to the role of mere damsels in distress. We are to believe they were as in need of being rescued as Cooper supposedly was in need of being the rescuer. After Season 3, there were even theories that Annie (and probably also Caroline, I’m sure) was just a tulpa, sent as irresistible bait to lure Agent Cooper into the Black Lodge.
However, the unreliable narration of The Final Dossier runs counter to the damsel diagnosis by fleshing out both of their stories. The Final Dossier does for Annie what My Life, My Tapes did for Diane. It made her a real person with a real background story. Caroline comes to life as well, having a career as “a partner in a thriving corporate law practice,” rather than just acting as little more than a prop in her husband’s machinations.
Looking at the rest of Cooper’s loves throughout My Life, My Tapes, what do we find? Some were indeed troubled, like Marie the Jesus freak and Lena the arsonist—but at no time was Dale trying to “rescue” them. Neither was he trying to “tend to” or “straighten out” his mother, whose affliction he actually shares to some degree. Others, like Anne, April, Andy, and Robin are strong, independent girls and women. They didn’t need fixing and Dale loved them nonetheless. He even admires Caroline as being “remarkable.”
Dale does have knightly qualities. He is chivalrous and old fashioned to a fault. He is also a romantic. After his encounter with Betty, the mental patient from his internship, he expresses the following desire: “I would very much like to walk hand in hand with a beautiful woman who I am deeply in love with. Lie in the grass and talk of everyday things as if they were happening only to us. Look across a candlelit table at eyes reflecting every emotion in the dictionary.” He found exactly that in Annie Blackburn.
I’ll close as I began, with a quote from Agent Tammy Preston, because she sums this up better than I could. As always, Mark Frost leaves it up to us to interpret.
“It’s possible that what drew him to Annie was something much purer and simpler: the fact that they’d both endured—and survived—vicious assaults by dangerous criminals against the core of their being, which nearly cost them their lives. That such a powerful personal narrative connected them shouldn’t be minimized. For all we know, had their relationship been given a chance to grow, it could have become the most healing bond either of them had ever experienced, possibly even (a heart breaking thought) the love of a lifetime. It’s not out of the question, and I know it must be the least of what you would have wished for your friend. Sadly, we’ll never know.” – Agent Tammy Preston, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier