Michelle Carter’s release from jail was never going to be a low-profile affair.
Her crime is too heavily freighted with the zeitgeist to allow her to walk unseen out of the Bristol County House of Correction.
She embodies too much. Most importantly, the immense loss of Conrad Roy III, 18, for whose 2014 suicide Carter was held responsible, because she sent him text messages encouraging him to kill himself, and talked him back into his truck as it filled with deadly carbon monoxide on the day he died.
But the narrative surrounding Carter’s role in Roy’s death has always been about more, much of it bolted on though it doesn’t quite fit: the stereotype of the callous and manipulative “mean girl”; the dangers of the Web, where violent images and suicide how-tos are clicks away; the perils of teens living online, their thoughts and interactions hidden from the adults who might protect them.
And so the cameras massed to catch Carter one more time last Thursday morning. And a Bristol County sheriff who craves their gaze was all too happy to accommodate them.
Watching the spectacle, you had to wonder if Carter will ever make a life beyond their scrutiny. Of course, many would say she doesn’t deserve one. But it takes nothing away from the tragedy of Roy’s death, or the harm of Carter’s texts, to say that the reality of their relationship was far more complicated than it appeared, far less amenable to easy narratives and sermons about our unhinged times.
Carter, from Plainville, and Roy, from Mattapoisett, saw each other in person only a few times over the two years since they’d met vacationing in Florida. But they had much in common: Each of them struggled with mental illness, and had previously contemplated suicide. Each was taking medications that can make teens more likely to harm themselves. Carter was deeply insecure, and desperate for acceptance by her peers.
In the official story of her role in Roy’s death, the girl was in control, cruelly bullying her boyfriend for months until he took his own life. But recent reexaminations of the case — including a 2019 HBO documentary — have mined thousands of texts between the two to show that, for much of their friendship, the power dynamic was different. The relationship could be toxic, the girl eager to remain in Roy’s favor. Roy often led the talk of suicide, at one point suggesting they could die together, like Romeo and Juliet. Carter sometimes played along, appearing to get swept up in romantic story lines she’d seen on TV and in film. Other times, she tried to bat back Roy’s talk of suicide, trying to help him.
Until, in the final few months, the 17-year-old Carter started encouraging it. There is no denying the horror of those texts, in which she badgered and goaded Roy past his indecision. And then there’s that final conversation — which Carter recounted to a friend in a text a couple of months later — in which Roy got out of his truck in a Fairhaven parking lot, afraid to breathe in the fumes that would kill him, and she told him to get back in.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that Roy and Carter were even more impaired than other teens, their already compromised judgment further weakened by mental illness. Maybe those final few months made all that came before them irrelevant.
That’s what a judge concluded, finding Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter for her words on the day Roy died, and sentencing her to 15 months in jail.
Whether that seems a fair punishment or not, Carter has taken it — or at least the official portion of it. Her crime will live forever online, her frailty and cruelty always a Google search away, defining her.
Plenty of people, especially those who loved Roy, will conclude that’s as it should be, with a fragile young man full of promise gone forever.
But maybe it’s time for the rest of us to turn our righteous gaze upon somebody else.
Justice has been served. Maybe it’s mercy’s turn.