It’s been nearly eight years since Massachusetts teen Conrad Roy died by suicide while his girlfriend Michelle Carter, then 17, urged him along through increasingly disturbing text messages. That tragic moment culminated with a landmark “texting suicide” conviction that landed her in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Since her 2020 release, the court of public opinion maintains a whole host of indictments about her. Bully, liar and murderer, to name a few. But “The Girl From Plainville” offers a separate perspective: misunderstood.
It’s the latest series that goes out of its way to convince its audience that there’s more to the Incriminated White Female than the headlines suggest. And to be fair, in this case that is somewhat true. As depicted in “The Girl From Plainville,” Michelle (Elle Fanning), like Conrad (Coltan Ryan), has had her own history of mental illness, including depression, which was conveniently underplayed in news coverage as well as throughout her trial. She is socially awkward and doesn’t really have friends (the two she refers to are the ones who gave up information about her damaging texts with Conrad to law enforcement).
There’s even a point in the Hulu series, from showrunners Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, when Michelle’s parents (played by Cara Buono and Kai Lennox) are concerned that she might be slipping back into old habits. They approach her about it long before Conrad’s death, and she denies it. So when Michelle gets involved with Conrad, she initially seems comforting and understanding when he tells her about his suicidal ideations and how he’s abandoned therapy. Still, the series shows how this turns into a two-year codependence between minors with varying levels of emotional and mental stability.
Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health, considers how that could trigger an unhealthy dynamic. “To even sit and listen while someone has taken their life and to not have remorse afterwards, those are purely anti-social tendencies,” she told HuffPost. “She had severe mental health struggles, and it’s probably what bonded them: trauma.”
But the remorse part seems debatable as “The Girl From Plainville” portrays Michelle as bewildered days after Conrad’s death. And yet there’s a scene in which she stands before the mirror practicing how to appear overwhelmed with grief as a teary episode of “Glee” plays in the background.
For Jean Cirillo, a psychologist and attorney, it highlights how much she was in control of her actions as well as her complicity in Conrad’s suicide — far more than he ever was, even despite her struggles. “It’s kind of like the fact that he was taking on her worse traits,” she said. “She was vicariously doing the things that a part of her wanted to do, but now she didn’t have to kill or harm herself anymore. She could stay healthy, but he was the sacrificial lamb.”
Opinions about Michelle’s degree of responsibility persist today while digital toxicity escalates to alarming levels, teen suicide cases continue to rise and mental health remains stigmatized in many circles. In “The Girl From Plainville,” these intersecting issues are humanized and provoke the question of whether Michelle received the appropriate punishment for her behavior.
But it’s what the series doesn’t explore that festers in the mind long after watching it. Namely, Michelle’s 12-month imprisonment, which was trimmed from the original 15-month sentence due to good behavior. This remains a point of contention among many who believe that if she had been of color, the sentence would have been much longer.
“If, say, it was Black-on-Black or Hispanic-on-Hispanic, they would either ignore it [or] it wouldn’t have made the press,” said Debra Warner, a forensic psychologist and trauma expert. “Nobody would know about it because it’s people of color. Or they would still be [in prison].”
It’s true. Today’s social media and texting era, alongside the cultural reckoning, has led to numerous instances of toxic behavior and online bullying that have gone unchecked, particularly when it comes to teenagers of color. Though Michelle’s case is regarded as setting a standard for how courts consider encouraged suicide cases, it is far from the only one that we should be talking about.
“It’s not the first time that parents have tried to get it to that level,” Porche said. “I know in the mental hospital, a lot of people go to the police station because they want the police to do something about this other child’s influence over their child.”
You can argue that what made Michelle’s case so definitive, as “The Girl From Plainville” underscores, is her own disturbing text messages that were used as evidence of her guilt and what she tried to cover up. The one that seals her fate is when she tells Conrad to get back into his truck, which he’d filled with carbon monoxide, when he begins to change his mind.
But that doesn’t mean that others should not be handled with the same level of investigation or importance. After all, the issue long predated Michelle, and yet her story gained a gigantic profile. As a result, she became a celebrity in her own right. Even before “The Girl From Plainville,” there was the 2019 documentary “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter,” released just one month after she began her sentence. People aren’t just as equally fascinated with her story as they are disturbed by it ― plenty want to understand her.
Contrarily, that same interest isn’t bestowed on young people of color, who face fears of being criminalized long before they consider getting law enforcement involved. Or, like Warner suggested, far fewer people would take notice anyway — like with the case of Inyoung You, 23, the Korean-born former Boston College student who urged her then-boyfriend to die by suicide in 2019. She pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and, unlike Michelle, was explicitly barred from profiting financially from the facts of the case during her 10-year probationary term.
Even more damning is when the perpetrators aren’t prosecuted at all when the victim is of color. Latina Rosalie Avila was just 13 years old in 2017 when she took her own life after being relentlessly bullied by her peers both online and in person. And not even Avila’s parents knew she was struggling.
Porche explains that there is still a stigma against mental health and coming forward that especially affects people of color with compromised states, such as Michelle’s, even inside the hospitals and psychiatric wards. “They’re assumed not capable of proper mental health,” she said. “Notice, I included the word ‘proper’ because we’re expected to be at a lower mental capacity than our white counterparts. So they’re treated differently inside of the hospitals; their consequences are different.”
So, not only is mental illness not sufficiently factored in the court of law, as with Michelle, cases involving people of color aren’t even heard or are mishandled at the mental hospital level. When someone white is made the example, it only makes the treatment of everyone else’s cases that much more glaring.
We know what happens to people like Michelle, who’s a free woman today and maybe even reflecting on her story in “The Girl From Plainville.” But what should we make of what happened with Avila or You amid today’s so-called accountability culture?
“Like the college admission thing, people have probably been doing that for years but nobody had an example,” Warner said of the nationwide bribery scandal at elite colleges. “Now we do. So this starts the thought and process of something to happen. Ten years from now, we’ll know how that unfolds.”
But can we really wait a decade for the appropriate justice for everyone else?
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Cara Buono’s surname.