Like many teenage girls in the early 2010s, Michelle Carter was obsessed with Glee. On her Twitter, Carter regularly gushed about it, quoting not only from the show itself, but from interviews with actress Lea Michele. In fact, Carter was so obsessed with the show that, when its star and Michele’s real-life boyfriend Cory Monteith died of an overdose in 2013, Carter texted her boyfriend Conrad Roy Jr. a line-for-line recap of the episode.
Carter’s obsession with Glee would prove especially significant one year later, on July 12th, 2014, when Roy was found dead of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Evidence later recovered from Carter’s phone indicated that Roy and Carter were on the phone in the minutes leading up to his death, with Carter encouraging him to follow through on his plan and even telling him to “get back in” the car when he got scared and tried to get out. But in most of the text messages with her friends following Roy’s death, Carter failed to mention that. She did, however, directly quote from the Glee tribute episode for Monteith, as well as interviews with Michele. “He was the greatest man I ever knew and I literally lived every day feeling like the luckiest girl in the world,” Carter texted a friend a few days after Roy died, quoting word for word from an interview Michele gave to Ellen DeGeneres in 2013.
Later, during Carter’s trial for involuntary manslaughter for her role in Roy’s death, prosecutors would argue that Carter had borrowed from Glee in order to more convincingly play the role of the “grieving girlfriend,” and that she had convinced Roy to take his own life as a ploy to get attention; the media would make a similar argument in its own reporting on the case, depicting Carter as a sociopath who was inspired by a fictional narrative to convince her own boyfriend to take his own life. The judge overseeing Carter’s case apparently agreed, sentencing her to two and a half years in prison for her role in Roy’s suicide. (She will start serving her sentence this year.)
But director Erin Lee Carr saw Carter’s obsession with Glee differently. “We all fantasize about pop culture when we’re teenagers, and adults, and we like to draw on our notebooks, [but] I never said the words of an actor to another person in my life,” Carr told Rolling Stone. “[When] I learned that, it really cemented that we were dealing with someone who has mental health struggles.”
Carr is the director of I Love You, Now Die, a two-part HBO documentary series premiering July 9th and 10th that takes a closer look at the Michelle Carter case. The film attempts to subvert the media narrative of Carter as cold-hearted femme fatale by painting a portrait of a lonely, isolated teenage girl struggling with deep-seated mental health issues, including an eating disorder that at one point required her to be hospitalized.
The film juxtaposes this more nuanced view of Carter with heartbreaking interviews with Roy’s family members, who speak to his own history of mental health issues. Using her texts and phone calls with Roy, as well as footage from inside the courtroom, the film traces the increasingly unhealthy relationship between two lonely and struggling teens, whose courtship unfolded almost entirely in the digital space. (The two interacted in person only a handful of times before Roy’s death.) And while this dynamic certainly isn’t unique to Carter and Roy, the film hints that technology created the circumstances for their increasingly toxic relationship to flourish, ultimately culminating in tragedy.
In advance of the new documentary, which premieres July 9th and 10th on HBO, Rolling Stone spoke to Carr about Carter, mental health, and director’s attraction to stories about complex female criminals.
One of your most recent films, Mommy Dead and Dearest, was about Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her role in the stabbing death of her mother Dee Dee, who reportedly subjected her daughter to years of physical and psychological abuse. What do you think draws you to these stories of young women who commit these unthinkable acts?
Yeah, I guess that I’m always interested in dynamic, complicated women. There are so many crime films about male perpetrators that it feels important for me as a female filmmaker to be really thinking about these women, and not judging them by just one day in their life… thinking about all the days that led up to this moment to create a nuanced portrait of a crime story. I don’t know why, but all of my films are about women now, and I love it! It’s something that I care a lot about, being a feminist working in a crime space that can be seen as putting females only in this sort of victim mentality, and I really think it’s time to demolish that.
Do you see any similarities between Michelle and Gypsy Rose?
I mean, both were isolated, socially anxious, rendered somewhat invisible. In terms of Gypsy Rose, in public she was smiley, and talkative, and bubbly, but she had this sort of interior life where she had to be really quiet, where she was heavily medicated, where the internet was her only place where she could truly be herself. I think that there’s a similarity between her and Michelle on that front. I think in person, Michelle was probably very quiet, very young-seeming, and she thought one of the only ways that she could be herself was in this online capacity.
What initially sparked your interest in this case?
I saw some of those text messages [Carter sent in the days leading up to Roy’s death]: “it’s now or never,” “drink bleach.” I just knew that there was a crazy story behind those text messages. I wanted to dedicate years of my life thinking about what the story was behind those few sentences. Because we all, at some point, have been Michelle if somebody’s reached out to us. We’ve been Conrad Roy and we’ve struggled with mental health issues, and we’ve reached out to others. Mental health is something that I really want to think about: how we really, as a culture, have evolved our understanding of what it means to be mentally ill, what it means to be seeking help, and how we do those things.
How aware were you of her mental health issues prior to shooting this film, and how much do you buy the defense’s argument that Michelle was just as much at risk and damaged by mental illness as Conrad was?
I think I had a definite perception of Michelle that she was opportunistic, that she was potentially a sociopath. But in sitting through the trial every day, I think it became clear to me that the prosecutor’s argument for her motive — that she killed the guy, or convinced the guy to kill himself to become popular — is bullshit. It doesn’t really make sense. The defense argued she was somebody who was cutting, was consistently avoided by her social circle. She had an eating disorder, and she was somebody who checked into a mental health facility — McLean Hospital — months prior to Conrad killing himself. I mean, we all struggle with mental health, but I think it has to get to a pretty serious level if you are checked in at a hospital. That’s something that has been wrong as we discuss this case: the mental health aspect has fully been designated for Conrad Roy, who obviously consistently dealt with these issues, but I do believe that Michelle Carter did as well.
It’s interesting you say that, because I actually came away from the film believing both the defense and the prosecution. I believed that she definitely struggled with mental health issues, but I also believed the prosecution’s argument that she did it for attention from this group of friends that was sort of rejecting her. I didn’t necessarily think the two were mutually exclusive.
Right, I think that’s a better way of putting it. [The film asks you to] basically figure out all of the arguments and what holds up and what doesn’t. And I think that on both sides, there are areas that work and those that do not.
You speak to Conrad’s family in the movie, but you don’t speak to Michelle or members of her family. I wanted to know more about the circumstances behind how you reached out to them, but I also wanted to know, as a filmmaker, how did you try to overcome that obstacle of not having access to her, while trying to tell her side of the story?
Yeah, I mean, to even get Conrad Roy’s family to talk to me was a giant win. The dad had never spoken to anyone. These are people who lost their son, [and] I am a filmmaker who has made films that are somewhat empathic portraits of people who are complicated. If you were a betting person, you would look at my career and be like, “OK! She might have some empathy for Michelle Carter.” So I knew that when I started talking to the Roy family, I had a film.
I thought there was very little shot that Michelle Carter or her family would speak to me. She was in an ongoing legal battle, and she would end up appealing it, so any immediate interview would only serve to create friction. I reached out to Michelle Carter [and her family] at the beginning of the process, I reached out to her in the middle of the process, I reached out to her at the end of the process. Even while she was set to appeal, I wanted to give them every opportunity to speak on record, or even speak on background. They were going through one of the scariest legal situations that anybody could ever go through, so I don’t fault them at all for not being able to talk, but I really did want to figure out a way to bring Michelle Carter into the present. I felt that through her text messages we were able to ascertain her point of view consistently, because it was her words. So I think you walk away from the film with an understanding of who she was, and who she was during the trial.
You talk about a relationship Michelle had with a girl named Alice, that may or may not have been sexual, and her despair over it ending. Did you try to talk to Alice and her mom? And what role do you think this relationship played in Michelle’s relationship with Conrad?
I did speak with Alice, through messaging on Facebook. Her and her mom both had the same opinion that they did not want to say anything that would move the appeal one way or the other. Alice maintained that it was a friendship with Michelle Carter that Michelle Carter fantasized about in terms of a romantic relationship. I am not in that relationship, I do not know exactly what happened, but there is Alice’s version and there is Michelle’s version. What the truth is, we don’t know. But it does speak to Michelle’s romantic fantasizing, not just about Conrad but also about her friends. She had this sort of romantic sensibility that things were grander than they were in real life. There were points of delusion, especially when we get into the Glee storylines. She was not super based in reality.
You mentioned that she sort of constructed this romanticized narrative for her life, and she wanted to make things bigger and more intense than they were. Do you think that’s why she was so insistent about Conrad taking his own life in those final days?
I really think that she told Conrad to take his own life because she thought it would help him. There was this sort of religious ideation that popped up that Conrad was gonna become an angel and that he would be rid of his mental health struggles, that he would finally be at peace.
That does not hold up with me. I think that’s part of a delusional framework. Death is finite, we don’t know if there’s an afterlife, we don’t know if someone becomes an angel, obviously. It was a really upsetting line of logic that does not hold up. All of these moments had to happen for Conrad to actually take his own life, and for years, Michelle had tried to counsel him and be there for him and listen to him and understand what he was going through, and then two months prior to his death a switch was flipped. The defense calls it “involuntary intoxication” [from Carter’s antidepressants], which I don’t believe exists. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s so upsetting. Conrad had tried to kill himself before, he’d asked for help, one of his friends called an ambulance, he was saved, and he lived to be a brother another day, to be a son another day, to be a student, and do the things he loved. But that was not what happened July 2014.
What verdict would you have rendered if you were the judge?
Oh, dear god. I am so lucky that’s not my job! I don’t know. I gave you 140 minutes to try to decipher what I feel. What is clear, I think, is that it is complicated, and Michelle is not the pure villain that many news organizations painted her as.
You mentioned Glee earlier. Can you speak to the role that Glee and Corey Monteith’s death played in this relationship, and in Michelle’s psyche?
Yeah, Jesse Barron [from Esquire, who is interviewed in the film] was the reporter who uncovered the similarities between Glee, the television show, and Lea Michele the actress, and Michelle Carter’s obsession with these two things. To me, that was a part of the film where we reveal what really is going on inside Michelle’s brain. She would say things to others that the actor Lea Michele had said in a press interviews. I don’t know, that’s crazy to me. When I learned that, it really cemented that we were dealing with someone who has mental health struggles. We all fantasize about pop culture when we’re teenagers, and we like to like, draw it on our notebooks…[but] I never said the words of an actor to another person in my life. And so the Glee stuff was really a vantage point, an entryway into Michelle Carter’s personal psyche.
Do you think that she identified with Lea Michele? Or do you think she wanted to sort of recreate that tragedy with Conrad? Because I think there’s a distinction between those two things.
That’s a good question. I really think she wanted to be Lea Michele. And she put herself in that role of the grieving girlfriend and she was at her most comfortable and least socially isolated when she was the grieving girlfriend. The moment that really terrified me were those really smiley pictures at the “Homers for Conrad” softball fundraiser that she threw [to promote suicide awareness after Roy’s death]. I mean, what the fuck? It’s almost like she forgot where she was and what she was doing. I remember when I was writing about my dad [journalist David Carr, who died in 2015] and thinking about these things. This is not a way to be famous. This is a way to talk about somebody you love, and put their ideas out into the world. And yes, doing press interviews and stuff like that is fine, but remember why you’re there. It added a layer of conversation in terms of me figuring out what I thought about Michelle Carter, because it was so, so deeply inappropriate.
Do you think she is a sociopath?
Sociopaths don’t care what other people think. Michelle is the living embodiment of a person that cares what you think about her. So I really do not think she’s a sociopath. I think she cannot understand emotional response in a way that other humans do. Ultimately, I don’t think we came to a diagnosis, because we don’t know her intimately as a human being and her psych records… I do wish that there was more communication happening between her and the mental health workers that were part of this situation.
I think the film makes a compelling case for increased awareness of mental illness, and centers the dialogue around mental health. But the film also makes clear that both Conrad and Michelle had received help in various forms for their mental illnesses, at various points in their lives. So what do you think is the takeaway from your film regarding mental health? What message are we supposed to sort of glean from that?
I think mental health is obviously so complicated. But there was a complete breakdown in communication between parents and their kids, [for both] Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy. Conrad Roy is a clear example of someone who suffered through mental health issues: he tried to commit suicide. And his mom and him were very close, but she didn’t want to smother him, she did not want to baby him, and I think that he was not able to express the sheer pain that he was in, potentially because he was worried that they might try to stop him, or put him in the hospital. What I know, and what other people know through suicide awareness, is that when you’re a kid, it feels like all of the doors are closed to you, that no one can help you. But I don’t think you’re gonna spend your whole life feeling that way. It’s very rare that your whole life, you end up fantasizing about killing yourself; it’s pockets of time that through mental health work and through medication, will be lifted at some point.
I just wish there was more communication from Conrad to his parents, from Michelle to her parents about what was going on. And so, the film is generally about the divide between kids and their parents in terms of communicating about mental health. And I hope that it sparks a discussion about how to talk to people, how to talk to your kids, and how to talk to your parents if it’s possible.