One hot day in July 2014 in Fairhaven, Ma., Conrad Roy III was found dead by suicide in his pickup truck. He had purchased a generator to trap the carbon monoxide from his the car’s cabin as he sat parked behind a local K-Mart. He was 18.
These details about his death may not sound familiar until you hear about the attractive young woman that the state of Massachusetts has found responsible for Conrad’s death. Michelle Carter, 17 at the time, was Conrad's friend, and maybe-girlfriend; they had met in person less than five times but, in teen relationship speak, they were "talking.”And in his final hours, it was texts from Michelle that the court says led him to take his life. She sent messages urging him to get back in the car as it was filled with toxic gas, even asking him if he'd "done it yet." His final phone call was to her — 47 minutes long. Unlike the texts, all 60,000 exchanged between them, the content of that last conversation remains unknown.
The "texting suicide case" captured headlines nationwide— and now it's the subject of a new documentary, I Love You, Now Die, which premiered at SXSW on March 9, and will air on HBO later this summer.
As audiences will learn from Erin Lee Carr's film, released in two parts, there is much more to the case than a bully and a victim. On February 11, Michelle was found guilty of coercing Conrad to die by suicide via her text messages. She was first sentenced to prison in June 2017 when a judge found her guilty of manslaughter, but had not yet served time as she waited her appeal.
Carr has devoted her career to telling the stories of complicated women, like Gypsy Rose Blanchard, whose story captivated the world in her 2017 HBO doc, Mommy Dead and Dearest, and her upcoming documentary about the rampant abuse within the USA Gymnastic community. But this case, The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, unlocks a brand-new conversation around mental illness in high schoolers, technology, domestic violence, isolation, loneliness, girlhood, misogyny, and pop culture.
But most of all it asks: Can words kill?
Ahead Carr tells Refinery29 about why she thinks America has such a fascination with teenage girls, and if she could ever believe Michelle.
Refinery29: I’ve already watched it twice now. It’s so timely and so unique. What attracted you to the story?
Erin Lee Carr: "What a beautiful compliment! I have a pretty long standing relationship with HBO and my beat has always been crime and the internet so this is a case that fell squarely into that Venn diagram. It just made a lot of sense to try to cover it. Part of it was the “ice cream” — the Cara Delevingne-looking girl. She captivated everyone, but I thought there was something so dangerous that happened underneath this story, and so I wanted to cover it in a real way."
Do you think her looks are why the story gained attention initially?
"I think that, yes, we as a society care when pretty young white women get involved in manslaughter. But I also think it had a lot of staying power. It is a case that was hot at the beginning and has remained so because there are unanswered questions."
So you were following it from the beginning?
"Yeah I started in 2015."
You’ve said this was part of an "unofficial trilogy." Can you talk a little about that and the threads that you’re looking for in stories?
"My first film was called Thought Crimes and it was about a New York City police officer [Gilberto Valle] who was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap, rape, and torture young women. It was violent and crazy and Gilberto unfortunately did not like the film. I thought it was very fair. But after that I was like ‘I want to make films about complicated women.’ So Gypsy Rose Blanchard [in Mommy Dead and Dearest] was the object of many many hours of obsession for me, thinking about her as a human and figuring out why she did what she did. For Michelle Carter, it was the same. There are so many reasons why I want to explore all of them. My fourth film is about the sex abuse story with the US Gymnastics. It is really listening to a survivor chorus and hearing what our thoughts around believing women in the #MeToo era, and what that really means. My friend at Refinery Leah [Carroll] said, 'You’re the patron saint of complicated women.' And I said, 'Put that on my tombstone.'"
In this documentary, you used the pop up text messages to convey the conversation between the two main teenagers. That really highlighted the difference between the way teens and adults communicate.
"There was genuine franticness about the volume [of texts]. We had a record, in real time, of the degradation of two people’s mental state as primary evidence. As a documentary filmmaker, you can’t really get better than that because you knew at the time what people were thinking. I feel very lucky to be a filmmaker working in this age where I have access to these materials. I hope this film sparks debate about girlhood and mental illness and loneliness. I think those are all things that are uniquely...like, you can read those text messages, but when you see them come up on the screen and you’re experiencing them on your screen, you’re going to have a reaction."
What was it like reading those texts messages on paper?
"It felt really voyeuristic. I moved up to Massachusetts to cover the trial, and I was sitting out on a porch with a print-out of all these text messages. The sun was shining and I was drinking my coffee and I felt sick to my stomach. It was so sad."
What do you think this case tells us about America’s perception of teenage girls? Because we even see Conrad’s mom saying that she had specifically warned his about manipulative young girls.
"That stuff is in there because it mirrors our media portrayal. But I don’t think women are inherently manipulative. I think she was just trying to exist as a person and tried to get attention the way she found she could get attention. I don’t know that she was aware enough, or cognizant enough, to be aware that she was being manipulative. But my all-time favourite part of the film, and I am not embarrassed to say this, is when Dr. Peter Breggin is like, 'Men are terrified of women.'
The fact that I get to make this feminist allegory about a crime case where a doctor is talking about being frightened of women, I was like, made in the shade. This is what I was meant to do."
Where there any different challenges in this documentary compared to Mommy Dead and Dearest?
"Mommy Dead and Dearest was so much easier. I had access to the main person, and there were incredible characters. There was a crazy crime, but there was also a sense of playfulness, in that everyone was living their life after the fact — every moment of their life was not about a tragedy. It felt very different with the Roy family. I’ve done probably 140 interviews in my life and it has become something I’ve really enjoyed doing. When I interviewed Lynn Roy [Conrad’s mother]… it was just so painful. I actually had pneumonia at the time, and she didn’t want us to be there. It’s really painful asking people about the worst thing that ever happened to them, and being careful and thoughtful. I slept the whole next day. I had one of those days where my job was a little too painful. I think that it is important to stay connected to that because this is not entertainment."
Have you seen Eighth Grade?
"No! I am such a doc weirdo that I’m like, ‘Docs only!’"
There’s one scene that reminded me of Conrad’s videos of himself in the documentary. It’s something that we really see in Eighth Grade: young people are really using technology to work through their issues in a way that no other generation has.
“[Conrad] was singular in that way. He feels special to me that he had awareness, and we lost something really special and really thoughtful. Yes, you see him sort-of joust and be playful in the text messages, but he was a very smart, sensitive, good kid that lost his battle to mental health issues.”
The Carter family denied your request to be interviewed. Was that for legal reasons or were they not interested?
"They were really not interested in participating. It made complete sense to me. Their kid was facing a 20 years prison sentence. Then when she was found guilty, which I was honestly more shocked than anything about, she was allowed to stay at home under her appeal. So when they finally sent her to prison, I emailed her lawyers once again and was like, ‘I know you’re sick of hearing from me, but I am still here and still waiting even if you want to do an off-the-record.’ I really wanted to honour her at every juncture and see if they could participate while acknowledging that she is fighting for her survival."
At the movie’s SXSW premiere, you asked the crowd if they thought that Michelle should go to prison for what she did, and only a few people raised their hands to indicate 'yes.' Were you surprised?
"I was genuinely shocked. Jesse Baron, [a journalist] who is in the doc, and I were just chatting and we said, ‘We [the public] all feel that way because she is in prison now.’ We are able to have that emotional rendering. But had she not been in jail and just been this person at home pending her appeal, I think people would be more angry [at her]. It depends what part of the case you’re in."
If you had been given the opportunity to talk to Michelle, would you believe what she had to say?
"I don’t think I would believe what she would say."
This documentary also reminded me of another case currently happening in Philadelphia. Rappers are testifying in Supreme Court that rap lyrics are poetry, and not threats. It is the same conversation defining the difference between a written word and an actual viable threat. Do you see this becoming a bigger issue?
“That’s a good question. I really hope that this case and this film generates a sense of awareness about how we treat others. So that when you do text somebody else, or you’re tweeting, we need to remember that somebody else is on the other side of that. I just think we have lost our way a bit when it comes to this. I am in no way technology-phobic — I am a product of this technology explosion, but I am also very wary of it. We can contain those hopes and those fears in those same space.”
Watch I Love You, Now Die on HBO summer 2019.