In June 2015 residents of Springfield, Missouri were shocked by the stabbing death of Dee Dee Blanchard, a woman well-known to locals as the caring mother of a 17-year-old daughter suffering from muscular dystrophy, leukemia, and a string of other illnesses that had left her confined to a wheelchair. Even more astonishing was the news that came a few days later, when authorities announced that Dee’s Dee’s daughter Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend had been arrested for the murder.
How could a critically ill teenage girl possibly have been involved in such an act? As it turns out, Gypsy wasn’t a teenager, and had never been sick to begin with – her mother had fabricated all of her extreme health issues in a horrific case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. After a lifetime of abuse and isolation, Gypsy and a young man she met on the internet, Nicholas Godejohn, hatched a plan that would ultimately lead to Gypsy’s escape, and her mother’s demise.
These events and their aftermath are explored in Mommy Dead and Dearest, the captivating new documentary from filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, which is scheduled to air on HBO this week. Following the film’s premiere at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, we joined Carr for a cup of coffee in downtown Austin, Texas to discuss her latest project.
What was it about Gypsy’s story that made you want to tell it?
Erin Lee Carr: I feel like anyone would be interested in this story, because you look at it and you’re immediately like “what happened here?” I read the Thought Catalog piece by Megan Pack, and I just thought “I need to talk to this woman.” And so I did.
When you first reached out to Gypsy, was she resistant to having conversations about what happened? Or was she eager to share her version of the events?
Erin Lee Carr: I always want to be really careful when I talk for my subjects, and unfortunately Gypsy isn’t here, she’s in prison and she’s not able to speak for herself… We started sending letters back and forth… and I think she wanted to tell people what had happened. Her whole life, her mom had said “you can’t tell anybody anything,” and finally there were people who were interested in asking.
She wanted to tell her side of the story, but she had to be really careful, because she was still in prison. The death penalty was still on the table when we first started talking. So she was like “I would love to talk to you, if I’m allowed to,” and she was still using that sort of language: “allowed to,” which I thought was sort of disturbing, but I understood it.
Your film has a tremendous amount of access to home videos and photographs. Were there ever any concerns about showing too much of Gypsy’s private life, or was that necessary to tell the full story?
Erin Lee Carr: That’s a great question. I think you do want to be careful not to feel exploitative, but as a documentary filmmaker, archival is just the best thing in the world. Especially stuff like VHS home movies, where we can see her as a child and how she grew up, and that gives us this whole three-dimensional portrait of who she is. My sort of raison d’être and the way I do business is that I include everything, because the film is sort of a patchwork quilt of all these things that create a story about her. I want you to have a full picture, so that you can tell me what you think about what happened.
In the film, we see some of the interrogation footage. Do you think those interrogations may have been handled differently if the officers had a clear understanding of what Gypsy had gone through?
Erin Lee Carr: I’ve watched the interrogation tapes many times from start to finish, and this is what I find very perplexing. There’s the Gypsy interview with the police officer, and he’s pretty aggressive, and then there’s the Nick interview, and [the interrogator] is amazing. But they don’t mention the wheelchair! The only thing that is really mentioned is that [Dee Dee] wanted her to stay like a little girl forever.
Wouldn’t you, if you were Gypsy, say “I was an abuse victim and I needed someone to help me, and this is what happened?” I thought it was so curious that at the jump, that was not her defense – she got in the room and she immediately started lying. But that’s what she had done her entire life, so I don’t really hold that against her.
When you’re dealing with a subject like this, obviously there’s a lot of research and investigation involved, and the subject matter is very heavy. How does that affect you on a personal level? Is that something you can put away at the end of the day?
Erin Lee Carr: I would say that I have a pretty big comfort zone for this kind of stuff. But my poor boyfriend! [laughs] I’m always like “hey, can you watch this new cut” and he’s like “no!” But that’s why I have a dog – he’s great, he doesn’t talk to me about true crime stuff.
When I was working on my first film, Thought Crimes: Cannibal Cop, that was totally in my subconscious. [The subject and I] had a pretty tense relationship at the end. He did not like the movie, and that felt very nerve-wracking to me. When you’re grappling with these things you have to remember, it’s not just a story, it’s these real people. And if you fuck up their story, that’s not okay, so it’s a tremendous amount of pressure.
But yeah, don’t be watching that sort of stuff right before you go to bed, and don’t watch it during dinner. You have to watch true crime in the exact right spot – and on Monday, May 15th at 10pm, everyone should watch it.
Mommy Dead and Dearest premieres on Monday, May 15th at 10pm, exclusively on HBO.