In July 2016, Gypsy Rose Blanchard was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the brutal stabbing death (in Springfield, Missouri) of her mother, Clauddine "Dee Dee" Blanchard. It seemed like a remarkably tidy ending for an almost surreally sensational crime.
Gypsy, then 24, was arguably the biggest victim of all, having essentially been held hostage by her late mother since she was a young child – a casualty of Munchausen by Proxy, a rare disorder in which a caregiver feigns or induces symptoms of sickness in her charge.
MBP is widely considered an especially sinister form of child abuse, though not all experts agree that it's a legitimate mental illness. MBP expert Dr. Marc Feldman believes MBP perpetrators like Dee Dee Blanchard exploit their children for sympathy and "emotional gratification," though Blanchard was also doing it for donations, free trips and other fraudulent means of making money.
Gypsy's plot to kill Dee Dee – which she bragged about on Facebook after the deed was done – was a last-ditch attempt to flee this abuse. (She allegedly carried out the crime with her boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn, who is still awaiting trial for first-degree murder.) Greene County, Missouri prosecutor Dan Patterson called it "one of the most extraordinary and unusual cases we have seen." So it's natural that the story seized the attention of filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, a crime buff who became fascinated by the case after learning about it in 2015. "I completely fell in love with the story," she tells Rolling Stone. "It's not for the faint of heart. I still think about it all the time."
Carr's new HBO documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, uses home videos, medical records, text messages, interrogation-room clips and exclusive in-person interviews with Gypsy to shine fresh light on the tangle of lies that encompassed the Blanchards' lives.
In the film, Gypsy's father, Rod Blanchard, recalls how, when their daughter was just three months old, Dee Dee told him Gypsy would need a breathing machine. (Rod, who left Dee Dee in 1991, lives in Louisiana with his current wife, Kristy.) It's unclear whether Gypsy truly needed the machine, but the sense that Gypsy was chronically ill only escalated from there, he says, adding that Dee Dee claimed their daughter "was not going to live to see eighteen."
Dee Dee went on to shave Gypsy's head in an attempt to fake cancer. She gave her an unnecessary, painful feeding tube. She lied to her daughter about how old she was. Gypsy's teeth rotted out – it's unclear if that was a result of unneeded prescription medications, or simple lack of dental upkeep – and from the age of five she was forced to use a wheelchair and pretend she was paralyzed from the waist down. "We don't know what happened in that house," Carr says. "They were by themselves. Her mom was a really dangerous, scary person who sometimes showed her love, but also showed her physical violence."
Carr's new documentary offers a humanizing look – and devastating new insight – into an unimaginable story. Here, five shocking things we learned from the film.
Gypsy could walk – but she rarely did
Gypsy was always able to walk, but for most of her life, her mother told her she couldn't. It was one of the most deceptive components of Dee Dee's quest to make her child appear ill. In the film, Gypsy says that growing up, she was in the dark about every aspect of her purported health issues – except the claim that she was paralyzed. "People thought of us as the sweetest mother-daughter family ever," Gypsy told Carr on camera. Deluded by being manipulated by Dee Dee for so long, Gypsy quietly faked it. "I went on blind faith that a mother knows best," she said.
"Gypsy knew she could walk, but it would be better for her and her quality of life if she stayed in the wheelchair," explains Carr. "The only time that she got up and walked around was at home, potentially in the dead of night. Nobody ever saw this girl walk – ever, not one time."
Gypsy did make one escape attempt, though, in 2011. After meeting an older man at a sci-fi convention she attended with family friends, she packed her things, snuck out and hitchhiked a ride with the intention of joining her new acquaintance in Arkansas. Dee Dee tracked her down, dragged her home and smashed her phone and computer. In the film, Gypsy remembers her mother saying, "If you ever try to do that again, I'm going to smash your fingers with a hammer."
Dee Dee Blanchard's family considered her a bad seed
If her relatives' on-camera recollections are any indication, Dee Dee Blanchard never won any popularity contests. "She was OK," her father, Claude Pitre, says of Dee Dee as a child. Dee Dee's nephew, Bobby Pitre, remembered her as a "real weird girl" and suggested she may have suffered from multiple personality disorder or bipolar disorder.
On camera, Rod Blanchard recalled Dee Dee "[being] into some dark things" when they were dating. "She was into witchcraft," he said, also noting that she had a pet tarantula. But there are real allegations, too – multiple relatives accused the late Dee Dee of everything from writing bad checks, to credit card fraud, to poisoning her father's second wife, to killing her own mother, Emma Pitre, by slow starvation.
These same relatives exhibit a rather chilling lack of regret about the way things ended for Dee Dee. In the documentary, Claude Pitre and his wife agree that his daughter "got what she deserved" as they describe flushing her ashes down the toilet. As for Gypsy's prison sentence? "She was punished enough," said Pitre's wife.
Gypsy may have picked up some of her mother's tendencies for manipulating the truth
It's unclear exactly which mental illnesses Dee Dee may have struggled with when she was alive, but according to some in the film, her daughter may have unconsciously adopted some of the mom's more questionable psychological tendencies. "I do think Gypsy is potentially dangerous. Dee Dee was a master manipulator," journalist Michelle Dean, who covered the case for Buzzfeed, says in the film. "It's impossible that Gypsy would not have picked this up and used it."
Indeed, there are multiple instances of Gypsy stretching the truth. In one post-arrest interrogation video clip, an officer asks her if she killed – or even helped to kill – her mother. In response, she repeatedly cries, "No sir," as she vehemently shakes her head. At another point, she insists, "I'm innocent. What they say on the news is not true."
In the film, Munchausen expert Dr. Marc Feldman says he believes Gypsy is afflicted with some degree of sociopathy, citing the disturbing messages she posted on Facebook after her mother's murder as evidence. But Carr says she trusted Gypsy implicitly. "My gut and my instinct as a filmmaker? I trusted her," Carr recalls. "She was a victim. I always had empathy for her, and I continue to have empathy for her. Her story was complex, but it was fairly consistent."
Though Carr says she'd observed Gypsy's demeanor change depending on whom she was talking to, it didn't faze her, given the young woman's dire circumstances. "I could see her [change] as she shifted from me, as she shifted to Michelle Dean, as she shifted to her parents. That's not to say she was lying or being manipulative. That's what she's been taught. It's impression management," Carr says.
Gypsy's first love was anything but traditional
Because Dee Dee kept her daughter confined at home, Gypsy was never allowed to date. Most of her private time was spent lost in fantasy worlds thanks to books (she wasn't educated past second grade, but Gypsy taught herself to read with Harry Potter), Disney movies and Facebook, where she had at least five accounts.
Gypsy first reached out to Nicholas Godejohn on a Christian dating website. Four days later, they were in a relationship – and "two bad narratives collided," as Michelle Dean describes it in the film. Godejohn, who lived in Wisconsin, reportedly has a history of mental illness, and in 2013 he was busted for masturbating at McDonald's with a concealed knife on him.
"As [the relationship] progressed, things got weird," Gypsy remembers on camera. Godejohn introduced his new girlfriend to BDSM, and in a Facebook status update she posted at the time, Gypsy wrote, "I am embracing my role and duitys. [sic] ... I live and breath to serve my Master." She sent Godejohn sexual photos of herself posing with knives and dressed as various personae, like Kitty the little girl, and Ruby, the evil vixen. Godejohn claimed he had multiple personalities, so the duo created each of these characters as a commensurate "girlfriend" to match his alter egos.
But, as non-traditional as it was, Gypsy's relationship with Nick was also transformational for her. Gypsy's secret liaison with Godejohn was her biggest push toward self-will; defining herself for herself.
"When you watch the first 20 minutes of this film, [Gypsy's] a little girl: infantilized, wearing bows," Carr says. "It feels very weird to see her as a sexual sort of being." But her girlish appearance doesn't negate her intelligence and maturity. "She is an articulate, adult woman," Carr says. "Those were her choices. Godejohn didn't force her to send pictures. She was exploring her sexuality."
Gypsy alleges Nick raped her on the night of the murder
After they'd been dating for a while, Gypsy confided in Godejohn about her life at home with Dee Dee. At first, her idea of the couple murdering Dee Dee and running away together was just fantasy – "Plan B," Gypsy calls it on camera. But eventually, when Gypsy "got desperate," as she says, the plot grew legs.
"I acted like everything was fine," Gypsy remembers onscreen about the night of the killing. She and her mother painted each other's nails, then Gypsy put Dee Dee to bed, promised to be "a good girl," and waited for Godejohn to sneak into the house. "Don't hurt me," Gypsy tearfully recounts as her mother's last words to her.
When Godejohn arrived, Gypsy says she hid in the bathroom in the fetal position, listening to her mom scream "help me" while Godejohn stabbed her to death. Afterward, the couple took a cab to the local Days Inn before fleeing to his parents' house in Wisconsin.
In police interrogation footage, Godejohn says he and Gypsy had sex that night. Despite the fact that he "didn't feel any pleasure from it," he doesn't indicate that the encounter was out of the ordinary. For her part, though, Gypsy alleges for the first time in the film that her boyfriend raped her, and police photos show bite marks and bruises on her body.
Godejohn was not interviewed in the film, though Carr tried to reach his lawyers various times. He is still awaiting a bench trial for his role in the murder. "I believe he was also a victim here," Carr says. "I use the word 'victim' because he has a severe mental illness. But did he know what he was doing was wrong? I think he did."
Despite everything she's been through, Gypsy Blanchard admits on camera that she's relieved to be free of her mother's abuse. She'll be 32 by the time she's eligible for parole in 2024, but she says her prison stint is preferable to continuing to live with Dee Dee. "I get to start over. I'm newly born."