True Crime Tuesdays: Mommy Dead and Dearest
Helen Archer | On 11, Aug 2020
On Tuesdays, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
To most true crime aficionados, the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the 29-year-old currently in prison for the second degree murder of her mother Dee Dee, will be old news. Having hit the headlines in 2015 after a now-infamous Facebook update (“THAT B*TCH IS DEAD”), it was quickly picked up by web sleuths – most notably Meagan Pack, who reported developments as they happened on Thought Catalogue – before being written up by Michelle Dean in a much-shared article for Buzzfeed News. Since this 2017 documentary aired on HBO, The Act, a dramatisation starring Patricia Arquette, has also been made. Gypsy’s story is one which has taken hold of the popular imagination – so much so that it’s hard to believe it all played out a mere five years ago.
If the title Mommy Dead and Dearest sounds like an exploitative 1950s B-movie, it’s because it starts out as one. Two young lovers, desperate to be together, form a plan to kill the girl’s mother and run off into the night. But it soon turns out that not everything is as it seems – the true story is even grimmer than one could imagine; the victim is actually the villain. Erin Lee Carr, who directed HBO’s similarly trashy-titled yet ultimately thoughtful I Love You, Now Die, as well as Netflix’s How to Fix a Drug Scandal, took the reins for this documentary, and managed to get interviews with Gypsy from jail, as well as Dee Dee’s father and stepmother, speaking for the first time.
The film begins with that Facebook message, and the initial shockwaves it sent through Springfield, in the heart of the Ozarks – a that had embraced the apparently severely ill Gypsy and her mother. They’d turned up there claiming to have been displaced after Hurricane Katrina – Dee Dee was a seemingly dedicated and loving mother to Gypsy, who, Dee Dee claimed, suffered from muscular dystrophy and leukaemia (among other things), was wheelchair bound, and had the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. They were given a specially adapted house to live in, and people were generous with both their time and money.
The facade all came tumbling down in the most brutal of ways with those Facebook posts, which sent concerned neighbours and police to their pink, gifted house, where they found Dee Dee murdered in her bed and no sign of Gypsy. Initial concern was that Gypsy had been kidnapped, although it was quickly discovered that she was, in fact, ensconced with Nick Godejohn, a young man she’d met on the internet, having fled Springfield with him after their planned matricide. But what really shocked people was the fact that Gypsy was, in fact, in rude health – walking on her own, with no need for the wheelchair, the feeding tubes, or the many drugs her mother administered to her. What begins as Gypsy’s crime turned out to be, in DeeDee, one of the worst cases of Munchausen-by-Proxy (now known as Factitious Disorder) in living memory. Gypsy had colluded in the killing of her mother in order to escape a lifetime of abuse.
Home footage of mother and daughter is spliced together with Gypsy’s police interviews and news conferences. Dee Dee’s father and stepmother speak of Dee Dee’s past, which included suspected poisoning of her stepmother’s food as well as a history of passing bad checks, shoplifting, and taking out credit cards in other peoples’ names. Gypsy is interviewed wearing an almost comically cartoonish black-and-white striped prison jumpsuit, looking healthier behind bars than she ever did on the outside – skin glowing, hair shining, her voice less infantilised, as she explains the conflicting feelings she still has towards her mother.
The real moral centre of the film, though, is Gypsy’s father Rod and his wife Kristy, who we follow as they receive legal updates, explore medical records, and prepare to visit Gypsy in prison. Much like the residents of Springfield, they are burdened with guilt for not figuring out what was happening sooner. But they are angry, too, at the many medical healthcare practitioners who didn’t step up, instead putting Gypsy through multiple needless operations at the behest of her mother. The one doctor who did identify the case as possible Munchausen’s is interviewed, explaining that, after Dee Dee had seen his medical notes, she made sure never to present to him again.
If there is any criticism to be levelled at the film, it is that it does not dig too deeply into the failures – and possible financial motives – of the medical establishment. But for the most part, the story is horrifying and grotesque enough to be told straight, with little intervention or agenda-pushing, leaving the viewer to recoil at each new revelation. The documentary was filmed before the sentencing of Godejohn, and, perhaps for that reason, it doesn’t delve too deeply into his mindset, though he and Gypsy are presented as a lethal combination.
What emerges is a picture of manipulation and control, with Gypsy imprisoned both physically and emotionally, and a mother-daughter relationship so twisted it dwarfs that described in its namesake, Mommie Dearest. In a typical Gypsy move, she likens her ordeal to a Disney fantasy – she, as Rapunzel, being rescued from the tower in which she is held captive. But she’s also savvy enough to point out that she understands the difference between fantasy and reality. Gypsy has been left with lifelong physical scars, but her mental ones are equally disturbing, and the viewer is left with lingering, possibly unanswerable, questions, surrounding the legacy of abuse.
Mommy Dead and Dearest is available on Sky Crime. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.