“I knew that Dee Dee was murdered, but that wasn’t the most interesting thing,” director Erin Lee Carr told HuffPost about her latest documentary, “Mommy Dead and Dearest.” “It was about why.”
On the surface, Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Blanchard, seemed to be the textbook example of mother-daughter BFFs. Gypsy, who used a wheelchair and received treatment for several conditions, was always at her mother’s side, sporting a huge grin. The two made appearances at Relay for Life events, went on Make-A-Wish trips together, and even received a house through charity upon leaving their home state of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
Yet, when Dee Dee was found murdered in her Missouri home in June 2015, a different story began to emerge. Gypsy wasn’t sick at all — in fact, she could walk. Authorities discovered her in Wisconsin, on the run with a boyfriend she met online. Later, he would confess to stabbing Dee Dee at Gypsy’s request.
Now, Carr’s film further explores the incident, featuring interviews with family members, medical professionals, law enforcement and Gypsy herself, who is now serving out a 10-year prison sentence. And while there are no tantalizing uncertainties in the way of “Making a Murderer” or “Serial,” the sheer facts of what happened are enough to get you hooked.
“It’s really important that it starts off big and bold and scary and weird, for me,” Carr explained, saying that her previous film, “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop,” unfurled in a similar way, where social media and the internet are the catalyst for revealing darker truths.
Gypsy, the film shows, was a victim of Munchausen by proxy, in which a caretaker exaggerates or induces illness in a child for sympathy or attention.
Dee Dee tightly controlled Gypsy’s interactions with the outside world. From a young age, we find, Gypsy was told she suffered from epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, intellectual disabilities and more. Scenes from Gypsy and Dee Dee’s house show an entire hall closet full of medications. Elsewhere, in a scene where Gypsy’s father and stepmother meet with her attorney, stacks of medical records detailing doctor and hospital visits through the years surround them. Oftentimes, Gypsy wasn’t certain of her actual age.
“Sometimes, my mouth drops,” Gypsy’s stepmother, Kristy Blanchard, told HuffPost. “You know, when I think I’ve heard it all, and then you get hit again with something.”
Dee Dee and Gypsy’s father, Rod Blanchard, were young when they married. They separated before Gypsy was born. Rod then remarried, and he and Kristy saw Gypsy often as a young girl in their home state of Louisiana. But after the mother and daughter’s move to Missouri, the distance allowed Dee Dee’s control over Gypsy to grow even greater.
“Most of the times, I would call to talk to [Gypsy], she told me, ‘I’ll call back in a little while and have her ready,’” Rod said of Dee Dee. “To me, I’m thinking, OK, she’s gonna get her by the wheelchair, wake her up, or do whatever. But looking back now, she was telling her what to say or kind of coaching her along. ‘Don’t talk about this, talk about this.’ So there was never a time that I felt like she wasn’t being coached.”
In the documentary, we see a different Gypsy from the version shown in news stories about the case. There’s no wheelchair, no feeding tube. Her hair has grown out more. She’s able to speak for herself.
“Gypsy kind of changed almost every time I saw her or talked to her,” said Carr. “She was in the process of growing up, she’s in the process of configuring sort of who she was.”
Carr still stays in touch with Gypsy. “I hope that I’m one of many women that will just be like, ‘Hey, you have a voice. You deserve to be listened to,’” she said of their relationship.
“Mommy Dead and Dearest” succeeds in navigating the complications that come with true crime, highlighting what Carr called the “WTF factor” of the murder without feeling exploitative or sensational. By the film’s end, it’s impossible not to feel for Gypsy’s plight, even if she isn’t the one who ended up dead.
“From a New Yorker’s perspective, it felt totally unconscionable that this wasn’t seen quicker,” said Carr. “But as we dove into investigating this story, it was like, [Rod] lived in a different state, Dee Dee literally kept Gypsy from him. She monitored everything that they said to each other. Rod would send her Christmas gifts and Dee Dee would say that she had bought them. There was no shot that he was going to be able to see what was happening here.”
While watching, your heart goes out to Rod and Kristy, who reunite with Gypsy in the courtroom in an emotional scene near the end of the film. The couple represent a kind of silver lining in this sad story — without Dee Dee’s overwhelming presence, Rod and Kristy can finally establish a real relationship with his daughter. Kristy said they now speak all the time on the phone, and showed HuffPost a photo of the three during a recent visit to Gypsy around Easter.
“I was so nervous about it at the time,” Rod said of their initial meeting shown in the film. “Now, when I watch it, now I get more emotional watching it ... It was scary, I mean, for a long time I didn’t know if she hated me or what Dee Dee told her about me, so this was the first time I got really face-to-face with her and rejoin with her.”
Carr said she sympathizes with Rod. “He lost years of a life with his child, he almost lost his kid, and what’s gonna happen to Gypsy while she’s in prison? That is a difficult road ahead of her. But they are there for her, and that is a very rare thing.”
”Mommy Dead and Dearest” airs May 15 at 10 p.m. on HBO.