Holding a hand is a strange sensation. It’s both intimate and public; vulnerable yet confident; charmingly sincere and quietly performative. Hand-holding is a proclamation of connection, initiated by one but confirmed by two. There’s the affectionate, aspirational I wanna hold your hand of the Ed Sullivan-era Beatles, and then there’s the regressive familial hand-holding—the sort of helicopter parenting that allegedly yielded a generation of timid millennials who refuse to grow up or, in a broader sense, be free.
Dee Dee Blancharde never seemed to let go of Gypsy Rose’s hand. In photos and in home movies, Dee Dee kept her daughter physically close, often grasping her palm or wrist from a very short distance. Dee Dee squeezed Gypsy in ways that only the two of them would know—a Morse code for what did or did not constitute “suitable behavior” when others were watching. These hand signals provided Gypsy answers to tough questions and ensured the daily upkeep of a complicated, years-long lie, or series of lies, that ended in tragedy.
Gypsy had a baby voice and baby eyes and a baby pale head. We’re led to believe she was handicapped, mentally and physically, spending her formative years in and out of hospitals for questionable surgeries, followed by extended recoveries that more closely resembled house arrest under Dee Dee. The fragile girl and her mother were the recipients of mass public pity. Gypsy seemed so brave, Dee Dee so dedicated. The two were forced to face such relentless hardship yet kept persevering, and somehow, despite her numerous afflictions, Gypsy stayed alive.
And even though she spent so much of her life cooped up inside with her mom, Gypsy managed to find love online. She could escape, if only for minutes or hours at a time, through Facebook and chat and sexy cosplay. Nicholas Godejohn was one of Gypsy’s only human connections besides her mother, but three never made as much sense as two.
And then one day Dee Dee died, her body discovered in a swirl of bloody pink bed sheets. Everything that happened shortly after that moment appeared to make zero sense. That is, until you learn the real story of all that came before—the years of terror and control and abuse, the nuance contained within something as subtle as a hand squeeze. Very few people transition from the physical captivity of a wheelchair to the physical captivity of prison stripes. That was Gypsy’s path, and it’s still hard to unpack.
Gypsy’s strange and complicated journey is the subject of Mommy Dead and Dearest, a new HBO documentary that was one of the most buzzed-about films at South by Southwest. It’s a true crime thriller with the creepiness of The Jinx and the peculiar characters of The Thin Blue Line. Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, director of the 2015 true crime doc Thought Crimes and the daughter of the late journalist David Carr, sat down with Esquire on the day of her film’s SXSW world premiere to discuss the human element of storytelling, particularly when things get dark. Below are key excerpts from the conversation.
Carr started digging into the story after the initial news reports about Dee Dee’s death.
The real Gypsy was and is a hard person to ever truly know.
“I think that in the interviews that we had watched with her, it was very pronounced, how high her voice was. It was very in line with the ‘little girl’ personality her mother had developed. I went to the prison and did an off-the-record conversation and her voice was like that.
It was hard. I sat next to her dad during that movie, and there’s these very edgy parts about adolescent sexuality and taking pictures of yourself. The thing is, just because that makes us uncomfortable, that’s not a reason why not to include it. That is the creating force of what brought these two people together, which actually ended up creating a sort of destiny for Gypsy—freedom and serious consequences.”
She believes that there’s a clear reason audiences keep flocking to documentaries.
“I love [co-producer] Andrew Rossi’s films. Big fan. Before I met him I watched all of his docs. I think Liz Garbus is an incredible filmmaker and documentarian. She accesses the true crime space with There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane in a way that feels purposeful, it feels intellectual, and it does not feel exploitative. It’s a very fine line that we have to walk in making films about this kind of stuff, because you want there to be these moments of levity, these moments of humor, but we’re talking about somebody that died. They’re no longer here, they can’t speak for themselves, and so, Andrew and I thought a lot about how we make this film without it feeling exploitative to Gypsy.”
“I love thinking about these things. Maybe every documentary director feels this way. True crime has this sort of weird reputation within the doc community, but for me, and the reason why I’m attracted to it and drawn to it, is that it’s the human stakes. It’s life and death. That seems totally grandiose, but I like when there are real stakes, that a life is on the line. I will always be fascinated by that.”
Carr’s father is still giving her advice two years after his death.
“I’ve looked through a lot of his emails many times when there’s been a question about access, about integrity, about sobriety, about how to work well with others. I sent a couple of the emails to Andrew. I think one of them I sent was, Great art happens in the spaces between people. That’s how I opened the film today. Those messages resonate with me so clearly and so loudly, and I’m so grateful that he was a writer, and I was able to have access to those thoughts. And all the G-chats. We get to kind of have these things forever.