Overview: Gypsy Blancharde was a lifelong victim of her mother Deedee’s Munchausen by proxy syndrome, until she and a boyfriend decided to take matters into their own hands. HBO; 2017; Not Rated; 82 minutes.
Both Kinds, Southern and Gothic: When I was a kid, I had a friend whose parents were, uh, free-spirited. I loved spending time at their house, feeling liberated by the lack of rules and parental concern. It was fun, until it wasn’t. Usually the “until” was her parents drunkenly fighting, though memorably it was once her dad speeding down the highway while we lie, bracing ourselves, in the bed of a pickup. The point is that there was always a sudden, crystalline moment when I felt I am uncomfortable and I do not belong here with these people. The experience of watching Mommy Dead and Dearest, the latest in a string of marquee true crime tales from HBO, is that feeling in documentary form. I don’t say that to impugn its quality. It’s smart in all the right ways, patient in the unfolding its story, and clear-eyed in its approach to its subjects. But, man, is this thing bleak. Seeing a childhood destroyed and watching people’s kindness exploited for profit and to fulfill the bottomless needs of a very sick woman makes for tough viewing. But if you’re up for it, it’s more than worth it.
Plenty of Victims: Gypsy Rose Blancharde was victimized by her mother her entire life. She was forced not just to endure lies about her various illnesses but to be made complicit in them—though the degree to which she even grasped this is still unclear after watching the documentary. That victimization is meticulously examined by the film’s director, Erin Lee Carr, and dragged out into the light using a mixture of home movies, photos, and interviews with family and friends. For years, Deedee fooled everyone—from donors to doctors, and even Gypsy’s father—with increasingly desperate stories about Gypsy’s medical conditions. As the lies escalated, so did the stakes, with even an obfuscating long-distance move and an illusory fresh start unable to rein in Gypsy’s sexual maturity and desire for freedom.
Few Heroes: I lost track of how many times during this film I wondered aloud how any of this could have happened. If you’ve seen previews or stills of the film, you know that Gypsy looked like a very sick little girl. But, and this is not a spoiler, to know she was perfectly fine for all the years makes one wonder exactly how she endured multiple, painful operations and took a pharmacy’s worth of pills day after day without anyone, family or friends, let alone medical professionals, sensing something was very wrong. It’s a frustrating puzzle I kept waiting for the film to address, but it only touches on it, pausing briefly, before moving onto some other aspect of the story.
No Escape: The documentary does an excellent job at making the viewer really feel the smallness of Gypsy’s world. Watching it made me feel restless and crave escape. And that’s not a bad thing. It helps to understand how Gypsy could have felt she had no other options. But the most disconcerting part? It was the discomfort I felt upon seeing who Gypsy had become. I found myself questioning her motives, doubting her sincerity and wondering about her future. Is this an inspiring survivor’s story or a cautionary tale of what we become when the damage done to us is too great? Carr rightly doesn’t tell us, and I suspect she doesn’t know herself. But that’s what makes this unsettling story so compelling.
Overall: Masterfully edited and charged with emotion, Gypsy’s narrative is the film’s strong suit. The few places it falters are in the omission of facts or in incomplete explanations. With a story as dark as this one though, you won’t likely be thinking about those things when you remember this film.
Featured Image: HBO