Erin Lee Carr’s documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest delves into one of the strangest and most unsettling true crime sagas of recent years – the murder of forty-eight year old Dee Dee Blancharde in Springfield Missouri, at the hands of her daughter Gypsy Rose, along with Gypsy Rose’s boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn. Up until this point, Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose had been well known on social media, where a collection of medical conditions – particularly leukaemia – had turned Gypsy Rose into a poster child for courage, hope and resilience in Middle America. If Gypsy’s murder of Dee Dee was shocking, then even m ore shocking was the fact that none of these conditions appeared to have been true, and that Gypsy Rose was able to walk despite having been confined to a wheelchair for the majority of her adult life. As investigation into the case proceeded, it became clear that Dee Dee had forcibly kept Gypsy Rose in a juvenile role for her entire childhood, adolescent and young adult life, forcing her to act several years younger than her age and evincing a level of control that the court-appointed psychologist described as being “total in the same sense that the control of a kidnapping victim was total – her daughter was, in essence a hostage.” Even more extraordinarily, it was apparently enough for Dee Dee to simply inform doctors of previous, fictional diagnoses, for Gypsy Rose to be extensively medicated, connected to a feeding tube, intermittently connected to a breathing machine, and subjected to gastrointestinal, ocular and facial surgery, that involved, among other things, removing her salivary glands.
Not surprisingly, then, the first part of Mommy Dead and Dearest focuses on Dee Dee’s motivation for this lifetime of torture, as well as the way in Gypsy Rose negotiated the damage done to her body in the buildup to the murder. Most immediately, Dee Dee’s actions are attributed to fraud, and to her previous history of fraud, since her maintenance of Gypsy Rose’s symptoms went hand in hand with a publicity campaign that saw them racking up an endless supply of “medical airlifts, Disney travel and free housing.” Similarly, it’s not hard for the film to diagnose Dee Dee with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, nor to see some vein of sociopathy or psychopathy in her treatment of her daughter, with many of her family members also confirming that she had clear evidence of this behavior in her past, including a situation in which she apparently tried to poison her own mother. Lest that make it sound as if Dee Dee’s motivations were purely mercenary, or purely psychopathic, it’s also suggested, if a bit more implicitly, that her acts were informed by an obsessive and pathological need to command Gypsy Rose’s affections and perceptions, and to retain the primal, umbilical connection to her daughter encapsulated in the feeding tube that she’d had implanted into her body, and which allowed her to control her food even when asleep.
Beyond a certain point, though, it becomes impossible to discern Dee Dee’s motivations and, beyond a certain point, the film is not especially interested in them. In part, that’s because the focus is necessarily more oriented around Gypsy Rose, Godejohn and the way in which they handled this nightmare. But it’s also because the film is more interested in what might be described as the aesthetics of Dee Dee’s crime, rather than the psychological or criminological matrix from which it emerged. Time and again, we’re presented with one immaculately crafted tableau after another, in which Dee Dee seems to know just the right combination of cuteness and disempowerment with which to broker Gypsy Rose’s presence on social media. Apparently, she always made her bring a stuffed animal or Barbie doll to the doctor, and that same sense of meticulousness carries over to the images of her daughter that she promulgated online, which perfect a certain fantasy of the child in crisis – especially the white girl in crisis – that has become almost unassailable in contemporary America in terms of its capacityto reap immediate affective, political and economic dividends. Inevitably, that goes hand in hand with Dee Dee’s capacity to perfect a certain kind of kitsch Americana as well, and the film presents the two combining into a vision of America desperate to broker white girlhood in crisis for the sake of a putative greater good.
While Dee Dee’s actions may be monstrous, then, and her motivations a critical part of the overall picture, the documentary is more interested in the way in which she overidentifies with, or takes to its extremity, a subject position and aesthetic orientation, more integral to the American psyche than might initially appear, as evinced in the vast number of people who found the spectacle of Gypsy Rose’s frailty and disempowerment compelling in the first place. Over the last few years, the idea of “cuteness” as an aesthetic approach has been discussed in critical theory from a number of circles, and Mommy Dead and Dearest sides with those thinkers inclined to frame the pleasure of “cuteness” as the sadistic pleasure of witnessing abject disempowerment – or, rather, the cloaking device that allows people to experience a sadistic pleasure in abject disempowerment without feeling sadistic per se. That sense of cuteness as a form of concealed sadism pervades Dee Dee’s direction and management of her daughter’s body, which often presents as the victim of some grotesque plastic surgery designed to keep her in a state of suspended girlhood, and a state of suspended cuteness. Insofar as Dee Dee’s past does factor into the film, it’s as a series of Gothic signifiers – everything from a pet tarantula to an interest in witchcraft to a history of poisoning – that’s condensed down to the spectacle of Gypsy Rose’s delicate physiognomy.
As much as Gypsy Rose might be framed as an outlier, or as an emissary from a darker, weirder America, part of what makes her body so confronting is its hyper-normativity, as the infantilism and arrested developed foistered upon American girlhood, and the process whereby American girlhood is managed for social media cache, is taken to its logical conclusion. While the contrast between the home footage of Gypsy Rose and her appearance at the trial and arraignment may be uncanny, uncannier still are the continuities that exist between these two versions of Dee Dee’s daughter, since even in the present she still looks as if she’s been pieced together like a doll, naturalising rather than ever escaping the hyper-normative demands of femininity placed upon her by Dee Dee. That presentation of Gypsy Rose as a figure both exceptional and normative would already have made fairy tales her logical lens for viewing the world, but with Dee Dee explicitly encouraging a fairy tale aesthetic, repeatedly taking her to Disney World, and encouraging her to adopt a “heightened Prince Charming” approach as her only template for romance, it’s almost inevitable that this should become the central vocabulary Gypsy Rose has for her situation.
To some extent, that vocabulary seems to have driven Gypsy Rose’s longing for escape from an early age, as she recounts the impact that the story of Rapunzel, and Disney’s Tangled, had upon her younger years. It’s in her online romance with Godejohn, however, and their eventual murder of Dee Dee, that this “heightened Prince Charming” template comes to fruition, in a sustained romance that accentuates and intensifies the lifeworld laid out by her mother, rather than subverting or departing from it in any real way. After all, the logical conclusion of Gypsy Rose’s intensified and abject girlhood is an equally intensified and abject submission to the first man who shows her any interest, meaning that Dee Dee – somewhat ironically – set up Gypsy Rose to destroy her by way of the first man that she met. Accordingly, when she does meet Godejohn in person for the first time – during a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella – he doesn’t merely force her into a fairy tale role, but blends that role with his own particular BDSM proclivities, encouraging her to participate in an online exchange revolving around Disney iconography remade as sadomasochistic erotica. Culminating her fairytale world by forcing her to identify even more fully with its sadomasochistic gender relations, and its primal association of femininity with bondage, Godejohn doesn’t disrupt so much as complete and culminate the damage done upon Gypsy Rose’s body by Dee Dee, turning him into her accomplice more than Gypsy Rose’s, and even gravitating him towards a kind of monstrous father at key moments.
The most chilling moment in the entire story, and in Gypsy Rose’s relationship with Godejohn, therefore comes with his suggestion, to her, that he rape Dee Dee in the act of killing her – an act that, as the documentary presents it, is devoid of any sexual imperative but instead framed, somewhat ceremonially, as way for Godejohn to absorb Dee Dee’s total control over her daughter into himself. As a compromise, and as a last breath of respect for Dee Dee, Gypsy Rose suggests that he rapes her instead, in a performance of non-consensual intercourse that, Gypsy Rose testifies, actually became non-consensual in the process of performing it. For all the horror of this sequence and encounter, however, it effectively becomes Gypsy Rose and Godejohn’s marriage ceremony, or at least the ceremonial sequestration of parental ties typically connoted by marriage, leading to a series of text exchanges in which the familiars of “Dear” and “Darling” factor into the more incriminating and lurid references to the murder even more than they did in the preparation for it. By these final stages of the crime, then, the documentary seems to suggest that Godejohn has forced Gypsy Rose into a kind of intensified and suspended wifehood much as Dee Dee forced her into an intensified and suspended girlhood, with both existences converging into a total over-identification with the demands placed upon women by American patriarchy, and the contingencies of an economic system founded upon marriage.
No surprise, then, that the consensus seems to be that “literally everyone failed” Gypsy Rose, since the film presents a system that is set up precisely to fail American girlhood, if only by perpetuating it into adolescence, adulthood and beyond. With all Dee Dee’s iconography of bondage, servitude and incarceration simply shifted to Godejohn, the film – and Gypsy Rose’s lawyers – beg the question of how the state can address with her without being complicit in both her mother and husband’s crimes, along with the necessity of building a narrative for her outside the life that Dee Dee orchestrated and directed for her. It’s a relief, then, when the state decides to only grant her ten years, instead of life, or even the death penalty, especially since she has the possibility of parole after eight and a half. Still, the film falters in these final moments, falling back from the radical critique it has been building to momentarily suggest that Gypsy Rose might have been more at blame than appears when it comes to Godejohn, since “she now doesn’t have a language beyond manipulation and retaliation.” It’s a bit of a middlebrow stab at mystification, since, if anything, it’s amazing that Gypsy Rose has survived as well as she has, while only her unworldliness prevents her from making more of case for herself, or for institutionalization over imprisonment, which would seem like the logical conclusion to any impartial observer.
Instead, the final tragedy of the film is that Gypsy Rose remains far less adept at manipulating her own life for pathos and practical gain than Dee Dee did, as she finds herself placed in prison for eight years on the basis of a crime that could easily, in a different context, have been framed as an act of self-defence. Yet it’s that unworldliness that makes her so compelling, resilient and inspirational as a survivor as well, resulting in a remarkably touching meeting with her father and stepmother in the final scene of the film. Insofar as there’s anyone to blame here outside of Dee Dee, it’s Gypsy Rose’s father, who clearly knew enough of what was happening to try to provide his daughter with some small modicum of support, even if he happened to be living in another state. The way in which Gypsy Rose assures him that she holds no resentment, however, is more humbling than any direct accusation could ever have been for him, even if it might have lessened her sentence by painting a broader picture, for the judge, of the matrix of circumstances that led to this terrible situation. In that gesture lies the gravity and dignity of Gypsy Rose, a survivor in the truest and noblest sense – and, in a strange way, a happy ending, or at least a hopeful ending, of the kind we rarely see in this muted and somber brand of true crime television.