Teen Michelle Carter's actions shocked a nation - but what really happened behind closed doors? This HBO special showcases the prosecution's point of view and alternately the defense's. Whic... Read allTeen Michelle Carter's actions shocked a nation - but what really happened behind closed doors? This HBO special showcases the prosecution's point of view and alternately the defense's. Which side do you fall on?Teen Michelle Carter's actions shocked a nation - but what really happened behind closed doors? This HBO special showcases the prosecution's point of view and alternately the defense's. Which side do you fall on?
Massachusetts; July 2014. 18-year-old Conrad Roy, III has been 'dating' 17-year-old Michelle Carter for around 18 months, although their relationship exists almost exclusively through text messages, with the odd phone call. Despite living only an hour's drive from one another, and both possessing cars, they have met only five times. Conrad suffers from depression and had previously tried to kill himself on four separate occasions, and shortly after they met, he told Michelle that he wanted to die and was doing research to find a method that would be 100% guaranteed to work. Both Conrad and Michelle are on SSRIs, drugs which can exacerbate suicidal ideation. For 18 months, Michelle steadfastly refused to endorse Conrad's desire to kill himself, continuously asserting he had much to live for and reminding him how much he was loved, but on July 2, she seems to begin to actively encourage him.
On the evening of July 13, Conrad drove his truck to a Kmart parking lot, and hooked up a portable carbon monoxide generator. At 18:28, he called Michelle and they spoke for 43 minutes. At 19:12, she called him and they spoke for 47 minutes. Three minutes after the end of the last phone call, she called him again, then two minutes later, then another two minutes, and then a further 25 times over the next two hours, but all calls went to voicemail. Following Conrad's death, police discovered the tens of thousands of text messages sent between himself and Michelle, noting that in the last 48 hours of his life, she had asked him over 40 times some variation of "are you gonna do it now". The case ignited a media firestorm with Michelle painted as an evil narcissist void of emotions or empathy.
As there is no law against encouraging suicide in Massachusetts, the DA made the controversial decision to prosecute the case as a homicide. In February 2015, a Grand Jury returned an indictment for involuntary manslaughter ("wanton and reckless conduct resulting in death"). The case hinged on the fact that Michelle had told a friend that she was on the phone to Conrad as he died, and at one point, he had gotten scared and got out of the truck, but she had told him to get back in. It didn't help her case that an hour after she already knew Conrad was dead, Michelle was texting his sister Camdyn asking if she knew where he was. It helped even less that two days prior to his death, she was texting friends and telling them Conrad had gone missing, whilst simultaneously texting Conrad himself, something the prosecution would later call a "dry-run" to see if she got the attention she was looking for. The case came to trial in 2017, with Michelle waving her right to a jury trial, instead leaving the decision up to Judge Lawrence Moniz. Whatever he decided would set a landmark legal precedent.
According to journalist Jesse Barron, "the biggest mystery of this story is not why Michelle Carter did what she did, but what Michelle Carter thought she was doing", and this is a central point - Michelle's own understanding of her actions are at the centre of everything. Certainly, her actions were inhuman, immoral, and abhorrent, but did she intend them as such? Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin argues that Michelle became overwhelmed by the caretaker role Conrad had assigned to her and pinpoints July 2, the day when she began to encourage him to kill himself, as the point at which she became "involuntarily intoxicated"; a result of her being on Prozac. However, in an example of the show's balance, we immediately cut to another psychiatrist pointing out that there's no agreement in psychiatry that involuntary intoxication as a medical diagnosis is even real.
The show makes a solid argument that, in this case, Occam's razor does not apply; the simplest explanation for Conrad's death - that Michelle manipulated him into committing suicide so she could elicit sympathy from those around her - is not necessarily the most likely explanation. This is not simply a case of hideous sociopathy; it's far more psychologically complex, and Carr does a fine job of peeling back the layers to illustrate this complexity, restoring context to much of the information that the media presented in a streamlined fashion to advance the "devil woman" narrative. Such context does not, in any way, excuse what Michelle said or how she acted, nor does the show suggest as much. But it does go some way to explaining her psychology; in a case where context has been ignored, yet context is everything, the show attempts to provide the viewer with that context, revealing Michelle's own deeply disturbed psyche and psychological trauma.
However, there are some problems. Take Breggin's centrality. Should a psychiatrist who says something like, "she's clearly out of her mind and so is he" really have such a prominent role in a show of this nature? There's also no mention of the fact that he's against psychiatric drugs in general, nor is there anything about how, in 1987, after appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show and telling psychiatric patients not to take their medication, he was brought before a disciplinary board.
Aesthetically, although the replication of the text messages as on-screen text without narration was a wise decision, there are also some questionable aesthetic choices. The use of a sentimental piece of piano music when discussing how Michelle had no real friends is manipulative, and the chronology of events is a little confusing, jumping around a lot between the suicide in 2014 and the trial in 2017. There are also a couple of examples of information being introduced which seems to go nowhere. The best example is a physical fight between Conrad and his father, which Carr makes no effort to tie back to events concerning Michelle.
The biggest problem, however, is that neither Michelle nor any of her family participated in the film. Given how concerned Carr is with understanding what was going on in Michelle's head, this is a considerable problem. Several of Conrad's family appear, and the cumulative effect is to convey just how crippling his mental health issues were. In terms of Michelle, however, the only person who speaks to her mindset is Breggin. Along the same lines, Conrad's background and family life are sketched pretty thoroughly, but Michelle's is left completely blank - we learn absolutely nothing about her childhood or parents, who are never even mentioned. This is a significant misstep on Carr's part, and the lack of background contextualisation renders Michelle as something of an impenetrable question mark, which works against the show's attempts to elucidate her mindset and motivation.
Nevertheless, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter is an informative engagement with a case of huge complexity and importance. Challenging the prevailing media depiction of Michelle, Carr sets out to remind the viewer that things are more complicated than they may have been led to believe. Never advocating for Michelle's complete innocence nor endorsing the devil woman persona, Carr stays fairly balanced throughout. She acknowledges that Michelle's actions and words were indefensible and inhuman, but so too does she argue sociopathy may not have been the primary cause. The central question of the case is whether Conrad would have killed himself had Michelle not encouraged him to do so. The easy answer is "no, he wouldn't". Carr, however, suggests that that question may be unanswerable. What happened is clear. But Carr is attempting to remind us that why it happened is a much more complex question.
- Aug 4, 2020