Watching The Lies Unravel with Director Erin Lee Carr
Watching The Lies Unravel In Erin Lee Carr’s True Crime Documentary ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’
The Front talks with director Erin Lee Carr about her True Crime Documentary 'Mommy Dead and Dearest'
By Sophie Weiner
That bitch is dead!” read the post on Dee Dee Blanchard’s Facebook account. It was spring of 2015, and Dee Dee, a mother living in the small town of Springfield, Missouri, had just been murdered. Up until that point, Dee Dee was known as the fiercely devoted mother of her daughter Gypsy, who suffered from disabilities and illnesses that kept her confined to a wheelchair and made the frail 23-year-old look much younger than her age. But as police investigated Dee Dee’s death, they quickly discovered, as the local sheriff put it in a press conference after the murder, “Things are not always as they appear.” Gypsy, who would later be convicted of planning her mother’s death, had never actually been sick. Quickly, the layers of lies the family had used to construct their reality began to unravel.
Dee Dee is believed to have suffered from a mental illness called Munchausen by proxy, in which someone’s caregiver exaggerates or completely makes up illnesses suffered by their child or spouse. For years, Dee Dee was convinced, and convinced others, that Gypsy was sick and mentally disabled, and she subjected her daughter to countless unnecessary surgeries, medications and other medical interventions. But Gypsy wasn’t sick. Her only real problems came from the abuse inflicted on her by her mother.
The lies were so big and all-consuming that no one in the town or Gypsy’s father, who lived in Louisiana where Gypsy was born, ever suspected that Dee Dee could be lying. Even most doctors didn’t question her.
But Gypsy herself eventually figured it out. For one, she knew she could walk. Though her mother kept her as isolated as possible, technology allowed her some illicit freedom. When she met an older boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, on the internet, she finally trusted someone with the reality of her situation. Godejohn and Gypsy began to plot her escape, and killing her mother seemed like the surest solution. Finally, together, they carried out their plan. While Godejohn stabbed her mother to death, Gypsy listened from another room. Gypsy was found at Godejohn’s house in Wisconsin after the murder, and both were arrested. It was then, when Gypsy walked on her own in public for the first time, that the enormity of Dee Dee’s lies began to evidence themselves.
Now, Gypsy is serving 10 years in jail on charges of second-degree murder. It was only after the trial that her story became a national sensation, but early on, the story caught the attention of a few dedicated journalists.
“I watch so much stuff, I read voraciously, I try to keep up with media, and when you haven’t heard anything like a story [before], it piques your interest,” says Erin Carr, a filmmaker whose documentary on Dee Dee and Gypsy, Mommy Dead and Dearest, premiered on HBO on May 15.
Carr, whose father was the famous New York Times media critic David Carr, is known for documentaries that deal with the fringes of true crime. Her previous film, another HBO documentary called Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, dealt with the trial and investigation of New York police officer Gilberto Valle, who was charged and ultimately acquitted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping after his wife discovered chat logs where Valle fantasized about kidnapping, raping and cannibalizing women. Like Mommy Dead and Dearest, Thought Crimes dealt with the space where fantasy brushes up against reality, unveiling some of the darkest corners of the human psyche.
“It’s just something that elevates my blood pressure,” Carr says of her fascination true crime. She believes women are specifically drawn to stories of horror and bloodshed because of our proximity to violence. She notes how many of her friends list the sexual abuse crime procedural Law and Order: SVU as one of their favorite TV shows.
“I think there’s something sort of psychological with women and true crime. I always thought of it as sort of preparing ourselves for something.”
But that doesn’t mean dealing with the gruesome details of a crime every day is a breeze.
“[While working on the documentary], I had to stop watching dark stuff at night,” Carr laughs. “It had to be like 30 Rock and Gilmore Girls.”
Carr began her work on the documentary in 2015, when Gypsy’s case was still in court. As with any true crime case that’s drawn the public interest, access to sources was far from guaranteed.
“There were a thousand and one ways that this film could not have happened,” Carr says. It wasn’t until over a year later she was able to talk to Gypsy in prison. “There were several iterations of the film without her in it,” she says. “But I think that the movie really took off once you hear directly from her.”
When Carr first spoke to Gypsy, she remembers the 24-year-old still spoke in the high-pitched, girlish voice she’d used while she was subjected to her mother’s abuse.
“She seemed really, really young,” Carr remembers. “I’d asked her if she ever watched a documentary. She said, ‘No.’” But as Gypsy got more comfortable with Carr, her true self began to emerge: the young woman who always remained articulate and even confident, despite her mother’s insistence that she was mentally disabled.
“The little girl stuff started to fall away,” Carr says.
Aside from speaking to sources like Gypsy’s father Rod and her stepmother, Kristy, Carr and her team used archival sources like medical records, crime scene photos and videos from the TV programs Dee Dee and Gypsy appeared on to flesh out the story. But one of the most important sources was Gypsy’s publicly available internet presence.
“It was her actual, digital imprint online — her Facebook, her talking with other people, her communications with Nick,” Carr says. “I think [our social media accounts] are windows into our brains.”
Other than the shocking element of abuse, one of the biggest draws of Dee Dee and Gypsy’s story is the righteous anger many people feel when they hear about the case’s outcome (Gypsy took a plea deal). Another journalist, Michelle Dean, wrote a feature for Buzzfeed chronicling the case, and the comment section is filled with indignant readers outraged by what they consider an unfair sentence for someone who was abused for so long. It’s not unheard of for an abused child who kills their parents to get off. And even if you believe Dee Dee was suffering from Munchausen by proxy, she’s clearly not blameless. As Dean details in her piece, Dee Dee took advantage of her and Gypsy’s situation to score free trips to Disney World and even the house they lived in from Habitat for Humanity.
Carr says she understands why Gypsy chose the path she did:
“I talked to a couple of people who have been in abusive situations. They reached out to me and said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be trapped within an abusive relationship.’ [Gypsy] was confined to not only the house, but to her body. So I think that this literally was one of the only ways she envisioned of getting out.”
“I wish it had been less time,” Carr says of Gypsy’s sentence. “There was a murder, it happened, the evidence was there, it’s fairly explicit. But we were hoping for around five years, and she got 10.”
Despite the emotional toll true crime can take, Carr says she has no plans of stopping. She’s already working on her next film, which will feature a true crime story, and reaching out to sources.
“It is not for the faint of heart,” she says, remembering what it took to get an interview with Gypsy in prison. “But this is the life I have chosen.”