'The Act' Is A Mother & Daughter Story Gone Very Wrong, According To Creator Michelle Dean
It was Gypsy Rose Blanchard's mugshot that first jumped out to writer Michelle Dean. She saw the image of Gypsy, with dark circles under her eyes and a shaved head, in a 2015 wire report that an editor sent to her the week Gypsy's mother Dee Dee's body was found in her Missouri home.
"[Gypsy] has this really haunted look in it and I couldn't forget it," Dean tells Bustle while sitting in a SoHo hotel bar. The report at the time was that, with help from her boyfriend, the then 24-year-old Gypsy had murdered her mom, who for years had convinced the world that her daughter was too sick to even walk as part of an elaborate fraud scheme. "But that mugshot — she looked so young and so afraid — belied the [initial reports]," Dean says. She was convinced that "something else had happened." So she spent months reporting out the story. Her resulting article, which chronicled the lengths Dee Dee went to to care for her daughter who wasn't actually sick, was published in 2016 on BuzzFeed and went viral almost instantly.
Nearly four years after spotting that photo, Dean is now the co-creator and co-writer of Hulu's The Act, a stranger-than-fiction drama based on her BuzzFeed article. The show, like her article, is focused on why the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy isn't just another true crime tale or scammer story — it's a meditation on an incredibly toxic mother-daughter relationship and how it went so terribly wrong.
"It felt like the courageous creative choice in adapting this was to ground it rather than to heighten it," Dean says. "I wanted to recreate that sense for a viewer of being drawn into what happened to a point where they can no longer ignore the humanity in front of them."
It's easy to turn Dee Dee into a monster. In her reporting, Dean found that Dee Dee forced Gypsy to go through painful medical procedures, like having a feeding tube put in, and administered her medications she didn't need to fool people into thinking she was actually sick. Dee Dee claimed her daughter had a long list of ailments including childhood leukemia, chromosomal defects, epilepsy, sleep apnea, and muscular dystrophy, which kept her confined to a wheelchair even though she didn't need one.
We see this in the final moments of the pilot, when Gypsy, played by The Kissing Booth's Joey King, gets up in the middle of the night, ceremoniously cracking her feet before revealing she can walk just fine. It's a bittersweet moment that encapsulates the extent of Dee Dee's abuse: Gypsy knows she doesn't need the wheelchair, but stays in it anyway for her mom's sake.
"I thought about it all the time, her getting up like a ghost like that," Dean says of the scene, which was an image she always wanted in the series. "Knowing she has to hide it or risk committing the worst crime that a little kid can imagine, disappointing your mom."
"Fundamentally, I think Dee Dee’s pathology was informed by the fact that a woman of her class and background doesn't get the kind of positive reinforcement that she seeks unless she becomes a mother."
What's hard is drawing up sympathy for Dee Dee, which the show does with help from Patricia Arquette, who's both scary and sorrowful in the role. In hindsight, doctors believe Dee Dee suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, now referred to as "factitious disorder,” a mental health disorder in which someone makes up an illness or injury for the person in their care. The disorder is also getting more attention in pop culture, since it plays a role in last year's Sharp Objects, another series that deals with the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters.
It's a disorder that hides in plain sight and often goes undiagnosed, as it did in Dee Dee's case. It's also a syndrome that is more often than not tied to motherhood, Dean says. It's why she made her writers room read books on motherhood by the likes of Rachel Kusk, Vivian Gornick, and Adrienne Rich. "I wanted them to be grounded in the sense that the experience of motherhood is complicated and the cultural messaging around it is, too," she says. "Fundamentally, I think Dee Dee’s pathology was informed by the fact that a woman of her class and background doesn't get the kind of positive reinforcement that she seeks unless she becomes a mother."
To the outside world, Dee Dee was a good mom, unflinchingly devoted to taking care of her sick daughter. That's why The Act shows that there were also happy moments in that pink house filled with stuffed animals and fairytales. "That was the trap that Gypsy was in. Like, the trap is actually love," Dean says. "It was so easy to like her mom sometimes and that was how Dee Dee manipulated her and kept her quiet for so long. She just became the object of what her mother needed her to be."
Dean wants The Act to be her final goodbye to the story that has consumed her since 2015. "I didn’t intend and sometimes feel weird about having spent so much time on this," Dean says. But it wasn't until now that she felt she had done what she originally set out to do, which was "to get people to see Gypsy and Dee Dee for a little while."
Dean is no longer in contact with Gypsy. "It was her choice," she says, but she still worries about what will happen to her after she gets out of jail. (Gypsy was given a 10-year sentence as part of her plea deal and is eligible for parole in 2024. She'll be 33.) That worry is why Dean knows she'll probably never really say goodbye. In fact, she admits she'll probably spend the rest of her life thinking about Dee Dee and Gypsy and what happened to them.
"There’s still lots we don’t know and won’t know," Dean says, "but I just want the public to understand [Gypsy] was real, she still is real.” With The Act, Dean made it nearly impossible for anyone to ever forget that.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.