A mother is supposed to take care of their child through any sickness, and on the surface this seemed to be the case with mother Dee Dee and her daughter Gypsy Rose Blanchard. But it’s as Sheriff Arnott says during the film, “Things are not always as they appear.” And in June 2015, the police arrived at the home of Dee Dee to discover the woman stabbed to death in her bed, and Gypsy Rose missing. Even more shocking surprises lay ahead for the police, when it was discovered that Gypsy Rose was in fact alive and well, staying at her boyfriend’s house, and she was able to walk despite only ever being seen in a wheelchair by her neighbours and friends. As the police began interviewing Gypsy Rose, more secrets began to spill out, she had requested her boyfriend murder her mother, she was in fact twenty three not nineteen as her mother claimed she was, and that she was actually in quite good health.
As the documentary unfolds, it is discovered that Gypsy Rose is the actual victim of Munchausen by proxy syndrome. It is a situation where ina caregiver — in this case, Dee Dee Blanchard — invents illnesses for the person being cared for, whether to attract sympathy and financial support or for other, less clear reasons. Gypsy Rose had been forced to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach, to be forced to use a wheelchair and made to shave her hair off by her mother. She was even informed by her mother that she was “mentally retarded” and was never allowed to attend school. Interviews with Gypsy Rose’s father, stepmother and grandparents reveal that Dee Dee was the real villain of this story and manipulated everyone around her to get what she wanted at the cost of her own daughter’s mental and physical health.
The most revealing and impactful interviews are the ones with Gypsy Rose herself, as she recounts her own problematic childhood. “I was taking medication that she said was cancer medicine,” Gypsy says in one clip. “She would shave my head and say, ‘Well it’s going to fall out anyway, so let’s just keep it nice and neat.’ I just went on blind faith that a mother knows best.” Disturbingly enough, Gypsy Rose compares her real life experience as the same as Tangled (2009), the Disney film where Rapunzel is locked up in a tower by her evil “mother” who sings a song entitled “Mother Knows Best.” But unlike, Disney films, real life doesn’t have a happy ending.
The documentary director Erin Lee Carr (who directed the insightful and thrilling Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop) does a good job with the material, but there’s so many questions that are left unanswered, and there’s certain aspects to the story that are glossed over and rushed. One underexplored question is how Dee Dee Blanchard could have convinced what seems to be a string of medical professionals that Gypsy suffered from so many medical conditions, and her reasons for the abuse.“
‘Mind-boggling’ is the only way I can put her ability to manipulate people,” is how Mike Stanfield, the lawyer who represented Gypsy describes the situation, but that’s somewhat an understatement. This is an extraordinary tale, but seems very hurried, this is a story that can’t be easily explained within an hour and a half film.