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Documenting Docs: 'Mommy Dead and Dearest'

by Emily Reuben The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board. True crime is currently all the rage. There is a seemingly endless amount of podcasts, YouTubers, books, and documentaries all tackling the subject to varying degrees of quality. With so many choices, consumers have a ton of material to choose from to get their fix. But for many, retellings and evidence of cases isn’t enough; cases without any narrative padding can be too gruesome, or even boring for many consumers. With the rise of true crime popularity we have also seen fictional retellings based off of real cases. Just to name a few we have the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy set to release later this year, Martin Scorsese is set to direct Devil in the White City, based on serial killer H.H. Holmes, and even My Friend Dahmer which released in 2017. Following the trend, The Hulu original series The Act released on March 20th to positive reviews, and at the time of writing this article, has currently released four episodes. The anthology series reenacts actual crimes, focusing on one specific case per season. For the series’ first season, the case of Gypsy Rose and the murder of her mother Dee Dee Blanchard is the season’s focus. [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_5fqDZCjQo[/embed] Gypsy, a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy inflicted by Dee Dee, eventually conspires to kill her mother with her boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn. Shortly after Dee Dee is killed, Gypsy and Nicholas were found and arrested. Gypsy was sentenced to ten years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2024 when she is 24 years old. While The Act does a great job of retelling the case, there is some creative freedom at play. To tell a compelling narrative, some liberties had to be taken to construct a cohesive, interesting narrative for the television format. For those interested in Gypsy’s story who want a non-fictional account, the HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest offers a more raw, authentic look into the case. Mommy Dead and Dearest is a documentary released in 2017 and directed by Erin Lee Carr, director of another true crime documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop. In Mommy Dead and Dearest, Dee Dee’s murder is discussed, but the primary focus is the abuse endured by Gypsy. Because her mother suffered with Munchausen, Gypsy was forced to play the role of an incredibly sick child suffering from leukemia, muscular dystrophy, and even brain damage that allegedly “made Gypsy have the mind of a seven-year-old child”. Gypsy was confined to a wheelchair, fed with a feeding tube, and had multiple surgeries for her various illnesses, but her illnesses were all fabrications made by Dee Dee. Dee Dee managed to convince the world she was a fiercely dedicated, loving mother who garnered sympathy and monetary donations from those who clamored to support her and Gypsy. Their home in Springfield, Missouri was built by Habitat For Humanity after the pair were supposedly left homeless after Hurricane Katrina. Gypsy was given charitable donations, was a Make-A-Wish recipient, and appeared in the local news.

Gypsy Rose and her mother Dee Dee Blanchard
In actuality, Gypsy was needlessly subjected to surgeries by a mother who hindered her freedom and was forced to lie to those around her about her illnesses. Dee Dee isolated Gypsy from just about everyone. While Gypsy had made friends with her neighbor Aleah Woodmansee, her mother would keep her from speaking to her friend, calling Aleah a “bad influence.” In the television movie Gypsy’s Revenge Gypsy states, “I couldn’t trust Aleah because my mother was starting to put things in my head that Aleah wasn’t my true friend and that she was a bad influence on me so I couldn’t be friends with her anymore.” A character not given much screen time in The Act is Gypsy’s father. In Mommy Dead and Dearest the case is relayed by Gypsy herself, journalists, doctors, and so forth but also by members of Gypsy’s family, including her father. These testimonies are incredibly interesting and showcase elements of the case from a personal perspective. Gypsy’s father, Rod Blanchard, was active in Gypsy’s life until around age 10 when she and Dee Dee moved to Slidell, New Orleans. After that, he was hardly allowed contact with his daughter and was not aware of the abuse she endured. Dee Dee and Rod separated shortly before Gypsy was born. According to Buzzfeed, Rod explains that Gypsy was a healthy baby, but as time passed Dee Dee began claiming Gyspy had more and more health concerns, ranging from sleep apnea to a chromosomal defect. While certain instances raised suspicion for Rod, he knew nothing about Gypsy’s local fame and the illnesses. Like everyone else who knew Gypsy, he wasn’t even aware that Gypsy could actually walk. Tired of the constant operations and heavily restricted lifestyle imposed on her, Gypsy did eventually start pushing back against her mother. On June 14, 2015 the Facebook account shared by Dee Dee and Gypsy posted a concerning message that caused alarm: After seeing the message, a concerned family friend called the police. Once the police entered inside the house, they found Dee Dee in her bedroom, stabbed to death, and Gypsy was nowhere to be found.
Gypsy Rose (Joey King) and Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) in The Act
The key difference between The Act and Mommy Dead and Dearest (other than one being a retelling while the other is a documentary) is that The Act allows viewers to see what might have been the daily life and abuse Gypsy faced. Because creative liberties could be made, there is plenty of opportunity for character building and dramatic effect. Dee Dee, played by Patricia Arquette, does a great job of being both intimidating and sickeningly sweet. Joey King, the actress who plays Gypsy, is excellent and genuinely looks and sounds like the real Gypsy Rose. Both of these performers work off of one another to make the narrative effective. However, The Act is realistic fiction, so it’s difficult to say just how accurate the interactions between are, more specifically the ones that happened behind closed doors. Because the series is still releasing new episodes, it remains to be seen how the show will handle Dee Dee's murder and Gypsy's subsequent trial.  This is the appeal of the documentary format. While testimony is used and adds some drama to Mommy Dead and Dearest, it doesn’t embellish or dramatize the case. It should be noted that, while not disingenuous or manipulative regarding what information is provided to the audience, the documentary does skew towards empathizing with Gypsy and even criticizes her sentencing. There is some opinion provided, so for those looking for a documentary with little input and nothing but facts and evidence, this may be a turn-off. Despite some liberties taken, The Act is incredibly respectful to the source material. A problem many true crime stories based on real cases run into is romanticization of the crime and killer. The upcoming Ted Bundy biopic became highly controversial after the first trailer released, making the character of Ted Bundy appear to be a cool, Wolf of Wall Street-esque bad-boy. It’s easy to forget that these stories are based on real people and real victims are involved, and because of this, need to be told with expert care and respect towards those involved. Luckily, The Act manages to be both entertaining and respectful. In terms of preference, it honestly just boils down to what you’re looking for. If you want a no-frills look at Gypsy’s case, Mommy Dead and Dearest is probably the better choice. If you want a series with character development and a slow build-up, The Act will probably be more satisfactory. Frankly, Gypsy was failed by those around her. Medical professionals could have intervened and stopped the abuse had they been more vigilant. CPS failed to find anything amiss with Dee Dee’s mothering. Neighbors were manipulated and unable to help Gypsy. Gypsy’s father was purposefully kept away by Dee Dee. Whether you start watching the The Act or catch Mommy Dead and Dearest on HBO, the case of Gypsy is a tragic, sickening story of child abuse.
Sources: Mommy Dead and Dearest, Gypsy's Revenge, Facebook, Medical News Today, BBC, Buzzfeed, Variety, Rotten Tomatoes, Insider, Springfield News-Leader Images: IMDb Featured Image: Isabella Torres (Illustration) and Emily Reuben (graphic)

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