Like a good detective story, some of the best documentaries involve unexpected twists and revelations. Like life, the best documentaries offer no clear resolution. Both principles are at work in “Mommy Dead and Dearest” by documentarian Erin Lee Carr (“Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop”).
It starts with surveillance video from an interrogation room in the sheriff’s office in Springfield, Mo., in 2015. In walks Gypsy Rose Blanchard, under arrest in prison garb. She expresses genuine horror and grief when the interrogator informs her that her mother Dee Dee has been murdered. She is even more upset when he tells her that Gypsy and her boyfriend Nick Godejohn did it.
Apart from the murder accusation, family friends and supporters interviewed by Carr are aghast to learn that Gypsy is 23 (they thought she was a child) and can walk (they had been led to believe that she was confined to a wheelchair). They are appalled and outraged further when they find out that Dee Dee had been exploiting her daughter’s supposed medical conditions (Dee Dee claimed that Gypsy had cancer, muscular dystrophy, blindness, and cognitive disabilities, among other things), which she allegedly used to bilk various benefactors and charitable institutions.
The psychological condition that provides one possible explanation for this bizarre story is Munchausen by proxy, which lacks clear definition in the movie but in this case appears to involve prolonged and systematic child abuse with the intent of fraud. Dee Dee is alleged to have persuaded numerous physicians to authorize unnecessary treatments, including implanting a feeding tube in Gypsy’s stomach.
Could mere greed drive someone to such extreme abusive behavior? Relatives, including Dee Dee’s ex-husband Rod, are baffled or dismiss her as “pure evil.” But the creepy home movies of mother and daughter acting out treacly scenarios and the comparisons made by Gypsy to such Disney movies as “Tangled,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Beauty and the Beast” suggest that their perverse mother-daughter relationship might be an extreme example of unwholesome cultural images of innocence, motherhood, true love, and happy endings.
In addition to interviews with doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, friends, family, and Michelle Dean, the journalist who wrote about the story in publications such as BuzzFeed, Carr includes interrogations and interviews with Gypsy and her boyfriend Nick, whom she met on a Christian dating site. The latter comes off as soft-spoken, polite, candid, and depraved (he is asked in one interrogation sequence if he raped Dee Dee after he had stabbed her to death; he denies it, but admits he raped Gypsy).
Gypsy is harder to figure. No doubt she endured unimaginable suffering — unimaginable for her also, since she knew no reality other than the one her mother imposed on her. But, as some of the interviewees speculate, perhaps as part of the reality she learned deception, manipulation, and deceit. Was she victim or perpetrator? Both?
She was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2025, when she is 32.
“Mommy Dead and Dearest” debuts on HBO at 10 p.m. on Monday. It is also available on HBO on Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO, and affiliate portals.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.