The murder case of single-mom Deedee Blanchard is one of the strangest the world has ever seen. To her neighbors, the 48-year-old was cheerful, caring, a large woman who favored brightly colored clothes, and loved her very sickly daughter Gypsy Rose above all else, dedicating her life completely to her care. To the world, Gypsy Rose was plagued with illness, from leukemia to waist-down paralysis and mental disabilities that kept her in a wheelchair, out of school, and ever in her mother’s reach. Still, the two seemed happy. Then came hell in the form of a nightmarish Facebook message, where someone seemed to have hacked their shared account to announce Deedee was dead, and Gypsy Rose had been abducted and raped. The truth was far darker and more disturbing.
Deedee’s stab wound-riddled body was found in her home. Gypsy Rose was missing, and from the look of her mother’s corpse had been for several days. Cops set out in a frantic search to find her, and all who knew her were hit with a mix of relief and horror when she was found safe, sound, and accused of commanding her secret boyfriend to murder her mother. Still more shocks came. Gypsy Rose could walk, was not mentally disabled in any way, and told the police that Deedee had long shaved her head and forced her into painful medical procedures to con friends, family, charities and even her ex-husband (Gypsy Rose’s father) to gain sympathy, money, elaborate vacations, and even a free home. Deedee has been posthumously diagnosed with Munchausen by proxy. And in the HBO documentary Mommy Dead And Dearest, filmmaker Erin Lee Carr explores the strange and tragic story of this mother and daughter whose love turned lethal.
Carr takes a surprising approach to her subject, treating its most scandalous bits with a blunt matter-of-factness. Where an Investigation Discovery episode might play out the twisted reveals, setting up the seemingly happy family who stalwartly faced down a sea of troubles together, Carr introduces Gypsy Rose not as a possible victim of an unknown killer, but as a suspect in her own right. Mommy Dead And Dearest begins frankly in a police interrogation room, with grainy footage of the petite, trembling girl being questioned. In this one scene, Carr deftly sets up the crux of her film. By now you might have seen the shocking Buzzfeed article, or heard the wild My Favorite Murder episode. You might know the story of Deedee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard. But Carr introduces you to the people Deedee fooled or evaded, and then dives deep into the claims of Gypsy Rose, a young woman who was undoubtedly a victim of extreme and bizarre abuse that infantilized, wounded, and scarred her. But—Carr asks—can someone raised by a chronic liar and master manipulator be trusted, especially when her own life is on the line?
There’s no question that Deedee was abusing Gypsy Rose. Carr dedicatedly tracks their movements, tying each upheaval to a new location to someone getting too close to the truth. When Gypsy Rose’s dad learns she wasn’t paralyzed from the waist down (as Deedee had claimed), the Blanchards moved up North and out of his reach. When a doctor questioned Deedee’s claims of her daughter’s ill health when no tests seemed to support them, she fled again, escaping the social services that might have smelled a rat. By outrunning doctors and a family that openly calls the dead woman “evil,” she kept Gypsy Rose to herself, making her own reality where Deedee was the kind, caring ultra-mom, and Gypsy Rose her eternal child and very best friend. But as Gypsy Rose grew, she too was crafting an alternate reality, one where she was a princess trapped by a malicious mother. (She references the movie Tangled directly.) And how all she needed was a noble prince to rescue her and vanquish her evil mommy.
In lengthy interviews, the imprisoned Gypsy Rose shares how she managed to meet her boyfriend through a Christian dating site. After Deedee went to bed, Gypsy Rose would sneak online and flirt with her beau, Nicholas Godejohn, who fed into her love of princess tales by characterizing himself as the Beast to her Beauty. While Deedee had tried to repress Gypsy Rose’s emerging sexuality through shame and even lying to her about her age, the girl flourished in fantasy online with Godejohn, the two sharing sexually charged messages and erotic BDSM Beauty and the Beast fan art.
Carr traces how all this led to murder. But her suspicion grows as Gypsy Rose pleads an almost complete innocence towards her mother’s death. Sheepishly, Gypsy Rose confesses her love of fairy tales meant she didn’t understand the real world consequences of her actions. And the young woman recontextualizes seemingly celebratory and sexual videos of she and Godejohn in a hotel room following the killing as her appeasing a mentally unstable killer and rapist whom she’d been naive enough to trust with her affections.
The film reveals what a quagmire this case truly is. Because while Gypsy Rose was definitely abused, and failed by a system and a family meant to protect her, she also definitely did have a major part to play in her mother’s murder. With Deedee gone and Godejohn silent, we’re left to listen to Gypsy Rose, who could be viewed as a self-avenging angel or a cold-blooded killer. Carr refuses to give audiences an easy answer, suggesting with Mommy Dead And Dearest the truth lies somewhere in between and unnerving.
Mommy Dead and Dearest premieres Monday, May 15 at 10PM, only on HBO.