The new channel ‘Sky Crime’ has unveiled a series of documentaries, exploring some of the most infamous cases of the last decade. I’ve already made my way through the ‘Paradise Lost’ series over the last few days, having watched the first in the trilogy a few years ago. I then stumbled across I Love You, Now Die and decided to give it a shot due to my general lack of knowledge about the case.
I Love You, Now Die is a two-part documentary series that delves into the case of Commonwealth vs Michelle Carter. Twenty-year old Carter was believed to have been complicit in the suicide of her boyfriend Conrad Roy, who was discovered dead in his car in a supermarket’s car park the day after he’d uncharacteristically failed to return home. When the police did a standard check of the vehicle and recovered items found on Conrad’s person, a blasé search through his phone revealed a series of messages from his girlfriend Carter, who had systematically goaded Conrad on with his suicide mission.
I briefly remember this headline, particularly Carter’s mugshot being plastered across newspapers and articles. I never really looked much into the case, yet I knew that Carter was under a lot of scrutiny and that the distinct appearance of her bright blue eyes, bold brown eyebrows and straight blonde hair had remained etched in my head, affiliated with ‘the text suicide case’. The case had been profound because some people regarded it an unprecedented instance, wherein legislature was challenged.
The defence lawyer referred to Carter’s actions as ‘reprehensible’ yet also noted that there weren’t sufficient grounds for a criminal charge, in that Conrad killed himself. Not only this, but Conrad had attempted on several occasions prior to end his life and had a volatile history of mental illness. The case essentially shed light on the problematic nature of emotional blackmail via social media in the modern day, raising questions about coercion, liability and agency. A clip from a local café summarised this conundrum and the polarisation of the general public, with a barista stating that it was a situation similar to being told to jump off a bridge by a friend. If you jumped, an act of your volition, would it be fair to hold the friend accountable for their involvement in your decision?
I think the most striking thing I admired about this documentary was its commentary of the media and its prominent role in spreading misinformation, at the expense of the defendant. As a director, Erin Lee Carr does a great job of presenting the villainous Carter with whom the general public are familiar, against the complex reality of Carter’s life and personal issues, that wasn’t given fair exposure in the media. Make no mistake: Carr doesn’t provide a purely sympathetic portrayal of the defendant, by any means. However, Carr does use the documentary platform to illuminate the systematic vilification of women in the press. There have been other instances that draw parallels, including Pamela Smart who was convicted for life (without the possibility of parole) for the murder of her husband in the early 90s. A campaign of public criticism and sensationalist media narratives led to a compromised jury and a verdict that continues to be debated.
Viewers are immersed in the twists and turns of the changing narrative surrounding Carter. Initially Carter is introduced as a typical white American, a suburban teenager who was respected by adults in her local community. Accounts of her demeanour at school highlight that she was a sociable student and performed well in academia, however, Carter was also acknowledged as an ‘in-school friend’ by many peers and struggled with her social standing. Carter frequently tried to instigate conversations and meetings with girls outside of school, yet people rarely responded to these offers, leaving Carter feeling as though she ultimately had, ‘no friends’. A picture is painted of a young woman who seems to fit in yet also privately battles a troubling loneliness.
Conrad’s mother acknowledged that her judgement of Carter was misguided and others, including the judge presiding over the court, remarked that he was also troubled by the disturbing nature of the revelatory texts that were exposed in court. It quickly became apparent that there was a substantial divide between Carter’s social identity and personal identity, a clash between the ‘girl next door’ image and the clingy, needy Carter who so often harassed others in a bid to be acknowledged. The media adopted the narrative that Carter was an attractive young girl who had orchestrated the death of her boyfriend, facilitating his research into ways of killing himself and eventually persuading him to get back into his car and finish the job (when he surreptitiously backed out). The response to Carter was one of universal anger- there were persistent threats from the general public. She had been painted as a manipulative and coercive by the media, a witch.
Undoubtedly, there was plenty of black-and-white evidence to suggest Carter had acted inappropriately. For instance, she did a test-run of texts two days before Conrad committed suicide, contacting friends to gauge their reactions to the news. The prosecutor understood this to be a rouse and claimed that this was evidenced by Carter’s exploitation of Conrad’s death, in the days following his suicide. Suddenly Carter had gone from being persistently rejected to being treated as a valid member of a social circle, who rallied around her and came over to her home in order to comfort what they believed to be a bereft teen.
To amplify her popularity, Carter used the Facebook platform to set up a commemoration event for Conrad, remarking of the success online that, ‘I’m like famous now haha’. Tom Gammell, a friend of Conrad, questioned Carter’s choice to hold this event in her town of Plainville as opposed to the town from which Conrad (as well as his friends and family) were mainly based. Gammell claimed that Carter was unwilling to change the event’s location and kept insisting that she was the creator of the event, seemingly plying for credit and recognition. The prosecutor perceived this to be a definite sign of her ominous motivation in encouraging Conrad to commit suicide, remarking that, “She begins to get the attention she’s been craving for- ‘the grieving girlfriend’.”
However, Dr Peter Grebbin (regarded as the ‘Conscience of Pychiatry’) was more concerned with unpicking the toxicity of the narrative created about Carter. As a crucial member of the defence, he states that, “Men are terrified of women… We have vilified women in many roles in history. There’s a fear in men- that women can control them.” Instead of viewing Carter as the central figure of this controversial case, the perpetrator with the power, Grebbin examined Carter’s personal history of mental health with the understanding that she too was a victim. Grebbin acknowledges Carter’s severe eating disorder and her excruciating feelings of loneliness, addressing behavious such as self-harming and isolation from her parents as symptoms of Carter’s personal struggle. Also on antidepressant medications (alike her boyfriend Conrad), Grebbin argued that Carter was compromised by the drugs and didn’t act of her own volition, as her miscomprehension of reality seemed to evidence her adverse response to the medication.
Additionally, texts between the couple also seemed to evidence a lengthy passage of emotional blackmail, on the part of Conrad, who frequently threatened to take his life and avoided communication with Carter in order to elicit an emotional response. Carter would persistently try to persuade Conrad not to go through with his actions but would be left waiting, often told the next day that plans had failed and Conrad would go through with it at a later point. It was apparent that the couple’s relationship was deeply troubled from the onset, with both individuals struggling with serious mental health issues.
The black-and-white declaration of victim/perpetrator, of right/wrong and of the truth/falsified narrative become extremely convoluted by documentaries like these. Dr Peter Grebbin is just one of many voices drawing attention to the details lost in the fabric. His words really resonated with me as they posed a completely different take, informed by an understanding of the millennial depression pandemic. Grebbin picks up on the fatality of particular branded antidepressants, popped as though they were candy by vulnerable youths who are susceptible to serious side effects including the increase of suicidal thoughts and a distortion of reality.
I would really encourage you to watch the documentary. It really takes you through a number of attitudes towards the defendant and raises very interesting questions about autonomy in the modern era. Let me know your thoughts!