The genre of true crime, and the media at large, thrive on the simplification of their subjects. We love fitting people into easy boxes: evil, good, innocent, guilty, but human beings are infinitely more complex than that. The media tends to take what is three dimensional and turn it into two, into a digestible narrative that doesn’t leave much room for critical thought. As director Erin Lee Carr told me, while paraphrasing a quote from Liz Garbus, “We are not equal to our best or worst actions.” And this idea is exactly what her new documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, seems to describe to an audience hungry to make sense of it all.
The documentary explores the case of Dee Dee Blancharde’s murder by her daughter, Gypsy Rose, and her daughter’s online boyfriend (see the in-depth article I wrote about this case here). What made this story a national fascination was that Gypsy had been in a wheelchair since she was a small child, sick with a dizzying array of physical illnesses, including cancer, and had the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, though she was apparently 18.
Before the murder, Dee Dee appeared to the world as a caring, devoted mother, and Gypsy Rose, her very helpless, very innocent child with disabilities. In old home movies, photos, and news reports, both wore bright, child-like clothing, Dee Dee always jolly and always very near to Gypsy, usually holding her hand, Gypsy always speaking in a high, infantile voice, bald under her rotation of hats, ribbons, wigs. They were given free trips to Disneyland, received a house from Habitat for Humanity in the Ozarks, as well as monetary donations and services.
But as the story of Dee Dee’s murder unfolded in the media, family, friends, doctors, and those who had followed the sympathetic pair on social media saw that everything, down to the wheelchair, had been a façade. Gypsy could walk. Gypsy did not have cancer. Gypsy was 23.
Factitious disorder imposed on another, known more commonly as Münchausen syndrome by proxy, is a mental disorder in which a person fabricates symptoms of physical or mental disorders for someone under their care, usually to gain attention or sympathy. Dee Dee had convinced the world that her daughter was sick, shaving her head, intimidating her with emotional and physical abuse. Dee Dee had tricked doctors as well, changing offices the moment that someone questioned the laundry list of ailments.
Mommy Dead and Dearest is a direct, unflinching look at Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose, constructed around interviews that Carr conducted with Gypsy from prison, where she is serving an eight-year sentence for second-degree murder. Carr knew that to tell this story, she would need Gypsy Rose. “I immediately wrote to Gypsy Rose in prison,” she told me, the excitement still present in her voice, “and I was in my apartment in Brooklyn and I got a letter back with this sort of shaky handwriting and it was from Gypsy Rose… and it’s very superstitious, but when I get prison mail that could make or break my next movie, I treat it in a very sort of special way. And I opened it and it was like ‘I would like to talk to you, thank you so much for your interest, I am going to talk to my lawyer’… and then she signed her name with a rose, and that is a very promising start.”
It would take a year of waiting and hoping, of small disappointments, but ultimately Gypsy and her lawyer would agree to participate and HBO would green light production. When I asked what Gypsy thought the documentary would do, Carr told me, always being careful not to speak for Gypsy, “Press was a part of Gypsy’s—it was a small part of Gypsy’s life and she was taught to lie. And she’s a pretty moral person, I know that seems like a weird thing to say given the circumstances. She wanted to tell her side of the story, and not in a tabloid way... it was like ‘I want to talk about how this happened, what were the warning signs, and can I talk about this in a way that prevents other children and other young adults from suffering.”
All her life, Gypsy was seen as innocent, sweet, weak, and helpless. She was obsessed with Disney movies, especially Tangled, the story of Rapunzel and her imprisonment by a faux mother who is eventually killed by Rapunzel and her one true love, freeing Rapunzel forever. Mommy Dead and Dearest shows that late at night, Gypsy was exploring and becoming enmeshed in online sexual practices that she was both interested in and intimidated by. Spurred on by her online boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, who is currently awaiting trial for first-degree murder, Gypsy took on several different personas, sending Godejohn various sexual photos from these alternate personalities. Gypsy confided in Godejohn the situation with her mother, and Godejohn, who Gypsy saw as her prince charming, came to his version of the rescue, meeting Gypsy in her home late at night and then stabbing her mother to death in her bed.
Gypsy did send violent text messages. Gypsy did want her mother dead. The evidence is clear. Gypsy helped to carry out the murder, though she stayed in the closed bathroom, in a fetal position with her hands covering her ears. Through interviews with friends and family, with her lawyer and doctor, Mommy Dead and Dearest patchworks the life of a severely abused child that did not have the ability to advocate for herself, in a world where no one took the time to put the pieces together for a child in desperate need. However, that is not the read that everyone has. Some wonder how complicit Gypsy Rose was in this life-long scam. “People question her motives,” Carr told me, speaking of the comments people have made to her after a few select screenings, “and I think that’s real. Her as an unreliable narrator was a difficult thing for me to watch as the edit turned into the final copy of the film, but it rings true to me.”
Carr is known previously for her HBO documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, a look at the trial of former NYPD officer Gilberto Valle, who was charged with conspiracy to kidnap because of his chats on a fetish website. In these chats, he detailed his desire to murder and cook women, going as far as to make what appeared to the prosecution as actual plans for a kidnapping. Valle never wavered from his defense that it was all role-playing, all a dark interest he indulged late at night. The case inspired a national debate about thought crime, about the line between fantasy and action, and whether Valle should have been prosecuted. Carr was right there, interviewing Valle and his mother from their home while he was on house arrest, watching him cook strange meals for his mother, in his sleepy, sweet way. It’s disorienting at times, the whirl of personality in Carr’s work. Just tell me how to feel! You sometimes want to yell.
Personhood is the word that kept coming to mind while I watched Mommy Dead and Dearest and re-watched Thought Crimes, as well as Carr’s previous documentary work at Vice. She and her team of filmmakers have a remarkable talent for taking the two dimensional and translating it back into three. Instead of manufacturing villains and heroes, Car’s work helps us remember that people can hold inside them both cruelty and violence, as well as care and love. Nothing is ever simple. Though they are ripe with moments of tenderness, pain, and revelation, and crafted with the color and light of a careful artist (a title Carr is wary of claiming), I leave Carr’s films not feeling as much as thinking. This seems like a step in the right direction when trying to form an opinion as frighteningly vague as guilty or innocent.
“I think there are so many stories like Gil Valle, like Gypsy Rose,” Carr told me, “people throw these men and women away because they did something unconscionable. And that’s just not true, these are human beings that breathe and feel and love and they feel pain, and it felt deeply important to me to add dimension to the story.”
Her work is clearly dedicated to an impartial view of the human condition, however, Carr was not shy in letting me know how she felt about this case: “I have a lot of bias, I do believe that Gypsy is a victim, that she should not be in jail. I don’t explicitly say that in the film.”
Carr said it is the work of her editor, Andrew Coffman, that gives the film its neutral feel. “I find the story. I get the story, and I curate what I think is the story. It’s really important to work with an editor who is unbiased, who is going to look at the material and see what rises to the top.” I asked Carr about the hopes she had for her film, the way she wanted her audience to feel. She told me simply that she didn’t want to answer that one. Then after a pause, “However they want. If they are angry, if they’re creeped out. I want it all.”
It was Carr’s father, renown New York Times columnist and author David Carr who died in 2015, that Carr believes imprinted on her an understanding of the nuance of her subjects. “I was raised by my dad, who’s a journalist, who led a pretty wild life before he had me and my twin sister. We grew up knowing that we are not responsible for the worst thing we ever did…We knew that there was gray in this world of black and white.”
Carr continued to tell me about her father’s influence: “I was raised without gender. I didn’t understand that women couldn’t do certain things. I grew up in this household where my sisters and I were told constantly by our dad that we were unstoppable, that we were brilliant, that we had things to say. And then when I got into the real world and people stopped saying that to me, I was like, Wait a second! I have so much gratitude that my dad was a feminist in a real way.”
True crime is a genre that is statistically consumed by a female majority, some theorize because women are overwhelmingly the victims of these types of stories. True crime could be a way in which we prepare ourselves for a world that victimizes women at a constant rate. Carr calls herself “a very proud feminist,” so I asked her to tell me more about the development of her feminism: “Basically I was a cult fanatic of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rooting for the underdog, knowing that women are powerful, and knowing that there is evil in the world to be explored.”
“It seems like a very simply premise,” Carr said of Joss Whedon’s Buffy. “A girl walks into an alley at night, and that’s how Joss felt about it, he wanted her to fight back. When we shift and flip these story archetypes, it just becomes so much more interesting.” Buffy echoes Mommy Dead and Dearest in this way, in the flipping of archetypes, the weak suddenly becoming strong, imbued with some new force, for better or for worse. Buffy was also a show of character depth, of character complication, of the murderous vampire with a soul, of the power of a love that even the evil can sometimes feel.
I asked her to tell me more about her influences inside the true crime genre: “I love My Favorite Murder. I watch all the HBO documentaries… they have a really great legacy, with the Paradise Lost series, with The Cheshire Murders, with There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, with The Jinx, so incredible… I’m trying to take in as much media as I put out, and luckily there is so much to choose from.”
She credits a well known true crime book as her root. “I think it was Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. I was obsessed with that book. It was so well-written, it was so heavy, it was so complex, it was so comprehensive. It started the love affair that I have with true crime.”
Carr is only 28-years-old, a fact that she can never seem to get away from. “I was asked how old I was every day this year.” Pitching Thought Crimes at just 24, the brilliance and courage are clear, so I decided not to ask anymore about that. Instead, I asked Carr to tell me a little about herself outside of her work, “I love to hang out with my dog, Gary. He’s a 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier who is mean as a bag of snakes, but he loves me. I go to be at 10:30 at night and I say, ‘Gary it’s time for us to go to bed,’ and he hops in and spoons me. He’s the little spoon, obviously. But that is one of the great joys of my life. That’s about all I do.”
The highly anticipated documentary, directed by Erin Lee Carr, will be premiering May 15 on HBO.