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HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest is a perfect storm of true crime, pageantry, and Southern gothic tropes

HBO’s true crime doc explores the real-life horror of Munchausen by proxy.

Gypsy Rose Blancharde describes the 2015 murder of her mother, Dee Dee Blancharde, who may have had Munchausen’s By Proxy.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“The last word she said to me was, ‘Don’t hurt me.’”

With these tearful words, Gypsy Rose Blancharde tries to articulate her paradoxical sympathy and remorse for the deeply abusive woman whom she ordered her boyfriend to kill in 2015: her own mother, Dee Dee.

HBO’s new true crime documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, helmed by Erin Lee Carr (a former employee of Vox Media), doesn’t have to do much to hook the viewer turning up for a briefing on the baffling and troubling story of Dee Dee Blancharde and Gypsy Rose. But while Dee Dee’s murder was one of those “shocked the nation” moments when the story behind it was uncovered two years ago, Carr’s film makes the case that this is a story that needs to be seen to be believed.

Through thoughtful editing and a grounded sense of setting and narrative, Carr visualizes the trajectory of a victim of intense physical abuse, charting her course from infantilized mommy’s girl to enigmatic femme fatale — all against the Grand Guignol backdrop of the tattered South.

Dee Dee Blancharde’s murder is a tangled true crime web

Gypsy Rose Blancharde and her mother Dee Dee
HBO

Friends and family were alerted to trouble at the Blancharde house in Springfield, Missouri, on June 14, 2015, when someone — later revealed to be Gypsy — made a Facebook post reading, “That bitch is dead!”

Police later discovered the body of Dee Dee Blancharde, which had been brutally stabbed. Investigators initially believed Gypsy — known by the community as a terminally ill paraplegic in the constant care of her mother — to be a potential kidnap victim of the incident, since she was nowhere to be found.

To the shock of all, however, Gypsy was apprehended alive and well. She was able to walk without the use of the wheelchair she’d spent her life sitting in, and able to eat without the aid of the feeding tube that had been inserted into her stomach as a child.

And, as Mommy Dead and Dearest explains via surreal police interrogation footage, she was hiding a grim story: Dee Dee had been brutally murdered by Gypsy’s online boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, a geek on the autism spectrum with a history of mental illness, who had readily agreed to Gypsy’s request that he kill Dee Dee in order to free Gypsy from a life of unconscionable abuse.

Turns out that Dee Dee, the deeply manipulative co-subject at the center of the film, had spent the entirety of her daughter’s life exhibiting the classic signs of Munchausen by proxy — the eerie psychiatric condition in which a caregiver, nearly always a woman, feigns or induces illness in those under her care in order to receive attention for her role in caring for them.

Dee Dee had been pretending her daughter was terminally ill since Gypsy was three months old, going to elaborate lengths to fabricate a litany of ailments ranging from leukemia to muscular dystrophy to mental retardation. At Dee Dee’s behest, medical experts treated Gypsy like a game of Operation, inserting her feeding tube when she was still a preteen, operating on her eyes, removing her salivary glands, and giving her seizure medications that caused her teeth to fall out.

Upon moving with her daughter from New Orleans to Springfield, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Dee Dee claimed Gypsy’s previous medical history had been lost in order to better fool local doctors. When one lone neurologist noted, “The mother is not a good historian,” in his medical report and tentatively speculated about a diagnosis of Munchausen by proxy for Dee Dee, Dee Dee promptly switched doctors, and no action was ever taken.

She also lied about Gypsy’s age, convincing her own daughter she was four years younger than she actually was, and fabricating birth certificates and medical “proof” for her claims, which helped make Dee Dee and Gypsy minor celebrities on the “terminally ill children” circuit. Over the years, they received free or reduced housing from the Ronald McDonald House and Habitat for Humanity, free trips to Walt Disney World from charities, and an ongoing stream of media attention for the struggles they faced as a low-income mother and child battling [insert disease here].

As she got older and matured into an awareness of her situation, Gypsy attempted several times to escape her mother’s control, to no avail; each time, Dee Dee convinced her daughter’s would-be rescuers that Gypsy — by that time a legal adult — was an underage minor completely under her control. Dee Dee also set up power of attorney once Gypsy turned 18, which barred her daughter from making her own medical decisions or even having access to her checkered medical records.

Gypsy, meanwhile, seemed to consciously identify as a kind of Disney princess trapped in a tower, waiting for a prince to rescue her. From the moment she met Godejohn on a Christian singles website, they planned their romantic escape from the woman who’d kept her in captivity. Ultimately, they planned the crime together, and then — for reasons apparently known only to them — mailed the murder weapon, a knife, back to Godejohn’s house in Big Bend, Wisconsin.

The documentary draws upon temporal displacement to jarring effect

Footage from 1986 showing a 22-year-old Dee Dee in a local pageant ball.
HBO

Carr’s documentary lays out all of this backstory straightforwardly, which is no easy feat. Throughout the film, Carr intersperses home video footage of a doting Dee Dee being creepily affectionate with her daughter while subtly controlling her behavior. The visual contrast between present-day Gypsy — who looks markedly healthier and happier in her post-jail life than she did in her years under her mother’s care — and the Gypsy in that footage is often extremely disconcerting. This is exacerbated by how difficult it is to ascertain how old Gypsy is in the footage, where she cavorts and frolics like an infantilized preteen while manifesting mannerisms that would seem to put her near adulthood.

In one scene, Gypsy pushes herself onto a pile of snow from a porch railing while faking being unable to move her legs, giggling like an 8-year-old. At one point, Dee Dee’s ex-husband Rod Blanchard (Dee Dee added the “e” to Blancharde after their divorce) and his wife Kristy go through a host of grim photos taken of Gypsy from various medical operating rooms over the years, unable to tell what horrible thing happened when. As Gypsy and her baffled father narrate stories of Dee Dee’s control and isolation of Gypsy, we see Gypsy as a frail, wheelchair-bound child, head shaved to create the appearance of having undergone chemotherapy, in the constant company of her mother.

Thanks to Carr’s savvy editing, the juxtaposition of these images form a deeply surreal horror pastiche, assembled out of hundreds of painstakingly arranged moments in the media spotlight, like when a wheelchair-ridden Gypsy sings an off-key song to an audience of hundreds while onstage at a charity event. Next to her, Dee Dee looks on, beaming.

The overall effect of this editing is to leave viewers constantly seesawing between fact and fiction, between artifice and reality, between what we think we know and what the players onscreen think they know at any moment. The film’s interweaving of past and present creates a visually unsettling tapestry of disbelief.

The tale plays out like an unraveling Southern gothic mystery

Dee Dee’s father, Claude Pitre, stands on the steps of his Cajun-flavored home in Louisiana.
HBO

Throughout the documentary’s home video footage, Dee Dee seems addicted to the pageantry of it all. Video recordings of her before Gypsy’s birth show a woman who clearly basks in the limelight, even as her relatives recount her history of stealing from family members and writing bad checks throughout the Louisiana bayou.

In keeping with those accounts, authorities speculated that financial gain might have been the primary cause for Dee Dee’s actions — but the documentary makes it abundantly clear that if Dee Dee isn’t around to explain herself, no one is going to rush to do it for her. In fact, one scene in which Dee Dee’s father and stepmother scathingly discuss her family’s dismissive attitude toward her cremated remains is eerily reminiscent of a similarly shocking postmortem scene from S-Town, another recent narrative mystery with cameos from notably unsentimental relatives.

In fact, there are several elements of Carr’s unraveling of the Blancharde murder that rival S-Town in their uniquely Southern true-life eccentricities — above all, the tried and true Southern gothic tropes of keeping up appearances despite building unrest, and a town’s communal complicity in the keeping of dark secrets.

At various points, family members, friends, neighbors, and doctors all suspected something wasn’t quite right with the Blanchardes, but the dominant narrative that Gypsy was perpetually near death and her mother was a tireless caregiver prevailed. Family members seemed fully aware that Gypsy could walk, but lapsed into indifference after the pair moved further away. Bernardo Flasterstein, the neurologist who suspected Dee Dee, defends his decision not to report her to authorities by insisting that no one in the local medical community wanted to hear it.

HBO

Through it all, we see shots of Rod and Kristy and Dee Dee’s relatives framed against rural Louisiana backdrops of desiccation and poverty, in ways that seem to suggest that the enigmatic landscape of Southern decay and loss, with its habitual emphasis on artifice at all costs, somehow helped engender their inability to realize the truth about Dee Dee and Gypsy. In the end, when Gypsy flees her crime, the fact that she flees north seems like one more inevitable part of an over-the-top morality play.

The question of how culpable Gypsy actually was in luring Godejohn to murder her mother is largely left for the documentary’s finale. Gypsy — who received a reduced sentence of 10 years due to the extraordinary circumstances of the case — presents as largely naive and troubled by her actions, though she seems to have been fully complicit in the method of her mother’s dispatch and not initially remorseful after the fact.

She comes across as eager to appear an innocent victim at the hands of Godejohn and his violent role play fantasies, despite what seems to have been her manipulation of him during their relationship. Given Dee Dee’s continual emphasis on appearance throughout Gypsy’s life, it’s hardly surprising that we’re left with questions about Gypsy’s ultimate level of control over her own narrative; yet what’s really surprising is how easy it is to believe her when she says she misses her mother.

It’s one of many contradictions and paradoxes that Carr balances throughout the film, and one of many moments that make Mommy Dead and Dearest a must-watch for any fan of true crime, or any fan of stories from the depths of the troubled South.

Mommy Dead and Dearest premieres Monday night on HBO at 10 pm EST, with reruns to follow. The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, and HBO GO.

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