Erin Lee Carr On The Real Story Behind Mommy Dead & Dearest

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Gypsy Rose with her mother, Dee Dee Blancharde.
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What would you do if your mom told you you were too sick to go to school? That you were slow, that you had cancer, that you couldn't walk? What if you found out, years later, that it had all been a lie?
That is the story at the heart of Mommy Dead and Dearest, the HBO documentary directed by Erin Lee Carr, which premiered on the network May 15. The film examines the case of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blancharde, seemingly the ideal mother/daughter pair — until Dee Dee was found stabbed, murdered — at Gypsy Rose's behest.
On June 14, 2015, friends and family were shocked to see a strange message pop up on Gypsy Rose's Facebook page. "The bitch is dead!" the post read. Later that day, her mother Dee Dee's body was discovered in their home of Springfield, Missouri.
The story made headlines — not just because of the brutality of the murder, but because the Blanchardes were well-known personalities. Originally from Louisiana, the two had moved to Missouri after Hurricane Katrina, and soon garnered attention from local news. It seemed like a a fairy tale: This little shrunken girl in a wheelchair had survived against all odds, keeping a sunny disposition throughout, thanks to her oh-so-caring, oh-so-brave mother. But that was far from the truth.
As it turns out, Dee Dee appears to have suffered from Munchausen by proxy, a condition which causes someone to project multiple medical conditions onto a victim, manipulating them, and others, into believing they are ill. It first started when Gypsy Rose was a baby. According to her father, Rod, whom Carr interviews extensively in the film, Dee Dee started making declarations about their daughter's health, explaining that she had chromosomal defects and muscular dystrophy. Over the years, the list of alleged symptoms would only grow, to include leukemia, mental retardation, and sleep apnea, among countless other things; she had Gypsy fitted with a feeding tube; she shaved her head, "since it would all fall out anyway"; she lied about her daughter's age.
The extent of the abuse is hard to fathom — Carr explains in the film that for the most part, doctors whole-heartedly believed Dee Dee's story, going as far as performing completely unnecessary surgeries on Gypsy Rose. Dee Dee fed her an astounding amount of drugs (just wait until you see the medicine closet — yes, that's closet, not cabinet), many of which induced the symptoms that doctors later diagnosed.
As she grew older, Gypsy began to question her secluded lifestyle — why couldn't she have friends? Why couldn't she have a cell phone? And so she turned to the Internet to find out herself. There, she met Nicholas Godejohn. The two fell in love online, and decided that the only way they could be together was to get Dee Dee out of the way.
At this point, you're probably thinking: "This all is pretty fucked up." You have NO idea. This story, at its core, is about mental health. But it's also a story about true crime, social media, attitudes toward disability, sexual awakening, and a stolen girlhood.
But for those expecting another installment of Making a Murderer, beware. Carr is less interested in solving the minutiae of the crime than she is exploring the motivations behind it — and for good reason. We know what happened to Dee Dee. More dumbfounding are the details of Gypsy Rose's relationship with her mother, with her boyfriend, and why not a single person caught on to what was happening in that house.
Today, Gypsy Rose looks very different from the child that Dee Dee tried to preserve forever. In her interviews — the first she's given in prison — she's poised, well-spoken, and very conscious of what she's done. But she also seems defensive, crafting a narrative of herself as the ultimate victim. How much did she know about what her mother was doing? After all, if she's manipulating us, she learned from the best.
I spoke to Erin Lee Carr about these questions, what it was like interview Gypsy Rose for the first time, and whether this could all have been prevented.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Gypsy Rose and her dad, Rod.
Tell me about about the beginnings of this movie — how did you find the story and get into it?
“I was at a party with Sara Bernstein who is the supervising producer on this project, and she basically was like, ‘I’m really interested in why people confess online.' So, I immediately was like ‘Okay, I’m gonna find sometimes where people confessed online.’ I work with this incredibly talented woman named Alison Byrne who’s my co-producer, but who is really my girl Friday. She found the Gypsy story, she did the pitch to me, and I was like, 'What?' Then I pitched it to our producer Andrew Rossi, and he was like, ‘Woah.’ So, when you have a reaction like those series of reactions, you gotta go for it. I immediately fell in love with the story, which is a completely bizarre, weird thing to say.”
It's so wild! Had you read any of the articles online about it?
“So, this was August 2015 — I was at the very start, I read a Thought Catalog piece. I knew six months in that Michelle Dean, the incredibly talented writer, was writing a feature about it and I was like, 'Ugh, fine. It’ll be on BuzzFeed, it’ll be fine. They’ll interview her, it’ll get a couple hundred thousand hits.' Then it got 4 million hits and I was like, 'No! People know about my secret story now!'"
It's a movie from the internet.
Gypsy Rose lived much of her life online, to what extent is this a social media story to you?
“I think social media played a huge role. Basically her brain was formed by her interacting with this person who was so close to her, her mom who informed her worldview in this very sick, twisted way — in a very loving at times, but ultimately really sort of tragic way. Then the internet and Disney movies, and when that is the only thing that is getting fed into your brain, there are going to be some pretty tragic consequences.”
How did you go about meeting her?
“It was a long, slow, painful process. I wrote her a letter, I wrote her another letter, I talked to her on the phone, I spoke at length with Mike Stanfield, her lawyer who is an incredibly busy guy. He’s a public defender, I think he handles like maybe about 80 cases a year. You know, his schedule is insane, and so I would just be this woman who’s like, ‘Hi, I work for HBO freelance and I am trying to get in touch with Gypsy,’ and you know, I made contact with the family. They were really reserved, so it was just this super, super careful climb.”
How did the story affect her family? Were they reluctant to come forward and to speak to you?
“Rod is a captain on a boat, he’s an incredibly private person. He loves his family, he loves fishing. Being interviewed about the scary circumstances that happened to his kid, [is] so far outside his wheelhouse. So, him doing this was an incredible act of good faith, and you know I think he just had to really think about it. Christy and Rod were often blamed for not knowing the extent of the deception, or knowing about the deception in general."
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Gypsy Rose, present day.
That's one of the main things that struck me when I was watching the film: How can people not have known? What do you think this says about how we as a society approach disability? Does it make us so uncomfortable that we’re not willing to ask questions?
“That to me is such a crucial question. So, basically, [imagine] you’re working at the movie theater, there’s this super maternal, loving, very attentive woman next to this child in a wheelchair. The child is bald, very ill — people always talk to Dee Dee. They did not talk to Gypsy, because Gypsy was so...I mean I’m going to say strange-looking, and I say that in a hopefully not offensive way. They just [immediately] thought she was mentally handicapped. I know that in my life there has been confusion: I was a waitress, how do I give money back to a blind person? How do I know not to pet service dogs? There’s no understanding about handicapped men and women as capable, as smart, as human beings. There’s just this weird cultural message that’s like, talk to their caregiver or act like they’re a child, it’s really disturbing.”
I was so struck watching the interviews with her today, how different she looks.
“You know, she looks like a woman, she doesn’t look like a mentally handicapped forever child that her mom fashioned her to be. It was just an incredibly complex, smart ruse.”
She tends to portray herself as a victim in the film a lot, which she certainly was, but do you think she was more aware of what her mom was doing than she lets on?
“You know, we’re not in that house, we don’t know that. I don’t feel comfortable answering that question because then you get into a mode where [people] think of me as a conduit to Gypsy and I’m not. I spent an intense amount of time with her, I talked to her a lot, but we are different people and I have no frame of reference for what it was like to be her. So, I really try to be very careful about ever speaking for her because [for] so many years people spoke for her, and I just can’t be another woman that lets her down.”
Did she seem remorseful in your conversations with her?
“Yes. A lot. She misses her mom, they were best friends for a big portion of her life, you know. It was an impossible thing to deal with because they were best friends, and then any time that Gypsy tried to gain a semblance of autonomy — getting a friend, having a play date, having a phone, a cheap phone — her mom got increasingly possessive. Like a boyfriend, and it was so confusing for her, and then the rage at what happened to her, it just all coalesced into this really uncomfortable sort of — she doesn’t know how to feel about her mom. She still doesn’t.”
Throughout the film, Gypsy Rose mentions Disney princesses and Disney movies repeatedly, and stresses her fascination with them. To what extent does this show the toxic side of the Disney princess narrative?
“I think that when Disney becomes the framework for how you are going to live your life — in that you are not complete without a handsome guy by your side — you will be failed by that. And then when there is evil in your life, and the only way to vanquish it is to run away, to kill, to use magic in some way — it’s a dangerous way to learn lessons, but I don’t think Disney intended [for that]. Dee Dee would only let [Gypsy Rose] watch Disney movies that were PG to keep her brain sort of young. I don’t really think Disney has culpability here, I think it’s the woman that plunked her kid in front of the TV day after day after day after day.”
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Gypsy Rose
Was there anything that you didn’t ask Gypsy Rose, anything that was off limits to you?
“Basically, I wanted her to talk more about being in that relationship with her mother, and what happened. There are these really sort of iconic photos of them, and so I began showing her some photos, and it was so offensive to her. This is someone that’s dead, this is her mom. You know, in my intentions, it was a good intention, like, 'Talk to me about what this felt like.' Looking at it now, that’s not okay, that’s not nice. She’s grieving her mom even though she had a role in planning [her death]. You have to be so careful when you’re interacting in these spaces.”
Did you try to talk to her boyfriend?
“Yes, of course. Nicholas Godejohn — I sent him a letter, it was turned back unopened. I reached out to his lawyer many times. You know, just sometimes people do not want to talk, and I understand why. I feel like he got a very tough end of the story, he’s a severely mentally ill person. Did he know it was right or wrong? You know, I don’t know.”
True crime is having such a moment right now. Why do you think we find these stories so fascinating, and are they problematic to some extent?
“I think true crime has always sort of been in vogue, [but] because of the distribution models of entertainment, more people have access to it. And you know, there’s just incredible filmmakers that are working so hard for so many years. But I do think that it can be problematic if we treat these cases as entertainment and not as the life and liberty of human beings. That’s what we were very critical about in the edit. There needs to be funny moments, there needs to be moments of levity, but this is also about someone who is severely abused, how do we tell this story in a tasteful way? I hope we did it.”
How did you come to documentary film?
“I was so lucky to be a [production assistant] on the set of Girls, and basically — I want to say this without seeming like an asshole — I saw so many people between me as a PA, and a producer. I just [thought], 'This is a long way for me to go' and I took inventory: Where is a space where women are in positions of power? That led me to documentary, and that is a very entitled, very ridiculous thought process, but that is my honest answer. I wanted to make things that I cared about, and make things with people I cared about. So, I worked at Vice for a number of years. It was a hard shop to learn at, but they gave me every opportunity and I just began to figure out how to make stories, and it was my education. Did not go to film school, so I learned what I know now at Vice, and translated it into feature filmmaking.”
What do you hope people take away from the movie? What do you hope the reaction will be?
“I think it’s about spotting some of the warning signs of Munchausen by proxy. We both know it’s very rare, but this could have been avoided if somebody had spoken up in a clearer, more direct way. You know, my hope for anything is just eyeballs — will people watch it? There’s so much incredible media that’s taking place in this building alone at HBO. So, if my film could break into the noise of media, I will be grateful to the doc gods."
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