When Michelle Dean wrote the Buzzfeed article about the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, it was only the beginning. Dee Dee was committing Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy on her daughter Gypsy Rose. The situation got so dire that Gypsy met Nick Godejohn online and got him to kill her mother for her.
The article brought Munchausen’s Syndrome to the world stage. Now it is the subject of a Hulu original series, The Act. Dean co-created the series with Nick Antosca and led the writers room. We spoke with Dean at TCA about The Act, streaming new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.
WLE: Did you think you were done with this story after you published the article?
Michelle Dean: Yes. Yeah, I never thought this would happen at all. It began to go viral the weekend after it was published. That’s when I started to realize like oh, people are really connecting to this because I hadn’t been sure. I hadn’t been sure that people would see Gypsy the way I saw her, this very complicated figure. I worried, because before that, there had been so much backlash online, people calling her a scammer and all this kind of stuff. The truth is so complicated, but evidently they did. Now it’s been three years. I guess it’s going to be four in June.
WLE: Has more come out since your article published?
Michelle Dean: Sure. Nick Godejohn went on trial in November, finally, after a delay that I can’t tell you I understand the particulars of. He’s actually being sentenced the 27th of February, and these people’s lives go on. So it’s never really finished, but also I’ve come to terms over the years with the fact that I’m also never really going to know the whole truth of it.
WLE: Was the show a way to update the story?
Michelle Dean: I don’t really think so. I think the show is a chance to explore the emotional logic these people use to get themselves to such a desperate place. Like everyone else, there were things that haunted me about the story. Her getting up in the middle of the night, right, and trying to figure out who she was in the house in the dark, I’m glad that’s in our first episode. Fundamentally, all the reporting that I did couldn’t get me inside of that and never will.
WLE: Were you able to bring any material that didn’t make it into the article to the show?
Michelle Dean: Oh sure, yeah. The show though isn’t a factual retelling of the case. It’s more inspired by the case, something like that. Definitely in terms of informing my whole view of what went on here, we used material. I wouldn’t say there’s revelations or make a claim to us having inside information or something. Over the years this case has become like an ocean for me of information. Apprehending that ocean is a big part of constructing the show.
WLE: As head of the writer’s room and writing some scripts, were you able to add your idea of the subjective experience that you can’t do in a journalism story, but that you experienced meeting these people?
Michelle Dean: Yes. It gives you an opportunity to depict things in a way that isn’t just straight factual reporting. Which allows you, which you probably know as a reporter yourself, some of those things contain the truth as well. It’s just a different kind of processing of the information.
WLE: Were you ever planning to be a TV writer before The Act came up?
Michelle Dean: No. I wrote about TV. I had literally no idea how it worked. That was all a revelation for me. I never really thought about it. I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about TV but that was it.
WLE: Now that you’ve done it, do you imagine this could be a second career?
Michelle Dean: Yeah, I think I’m probably headed towards more TV. I’m not sure what shape that will take but I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of it. I enjoy having other people in the trenches with you, which is something you don’t feel when you’re a reporter or a fiction writer, anything just plugging away in your room. It’s not like that. And I do like that it’s a way to get people to look at other people differently. I feel like that’s what I wanted to do as a reporter, especially in the crime journalism that I did, was take somebody and turn the prism and say, “This isn’t what you think it is. This isn’t a monster. This isn’t a psychopath.” I once wrote about a runaway victim where I felt she was just a picture on the wall and nobody had ever fleshed out who she was. All of that stuff is what I’m about. TV can be a very powerful medium for that because of the attention that it commands.
WLE: Did you see the Lifetime movie based on this case?
Michelle Dean: No, I know about it but I didn’t see it. We have eight hours. Obviously, when the whole business of optioning was going on, people suggested it being a movie. It just didn’t feel like in two hours you could get at nearly what happened here. When I first was working on the story, I remember a couple editors saying to me, “The one problem you’re going to have is it’s very hard to explain it in a short one line explanation in a pitch.” You keep just getting into more and more stuff about the love of fantasy that in two hours you would have time to do the murder and nothing else.
WLE: Was it still hard to confine to eight hours?
Michelle Dean: Yes. It feels like it could’ve gone on and on and on.
WLE: It did for her whole life.
Michelle Dean: I know, for her it went on from the time she was very, very small.
WLE: To 19?
Michelle Dean: She was actually 23 when she was arrested but she said she was 19.
WLE: She thought she was 19.
Michelle Dean: It’s actually not clear what she thought at that point but she was telling people she was 19. She became aware of the inconsistencies of her age before she was arrested. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the musical Gypsy. There’s a song about a mother not telling you how old you are. I think about that a lot with her.
WLE: Did any more doctors who had seen Dee Dee come forward after your article?
Michelle Dean: No. I think with doctors and Munchausen’s it’s a very complicated calculation. They’ve been fooled, so in a way they have no incentive to talk about the ways in which they’ve been fooled. The liability issues I think really scare a lot of them so I didn’t really hear more. What I did hear from was other doctors who had not treated them but who had seen lots of Munchausen cases and were generally eager to share. This is actually quite common. It’s funny, it’s sometimes said it’s rare but most of the doctors that I’ve spoken to over the years have told me that they usually see a lot of cases of this in their career, of these mothers who are convinced there’s something wrong. It is generally mothers although fathers sometimes have it. I think the doctors just didn’t want to tell the story.
WLE: There’s hypochondria and then there’s actually causing it.
Michelle Dean: Right, and Gypsy’s case, it’s not clear what she was causing and not causing. I was only ever shown a partial stash of the medical records but it’s complicated. Some of it was just claims, just claiming. “The mother says, mother says…” and doctors trusting the mother which again, some of them told me for the purposes of the article too, you don’t want a medical system where if you go to the doctor and say, “My leg hurts,” the doctor says, “Really?” You don’t want that system. You want the system where they trust you to report your symptoms but that results in cases of this.
WLE: Do you show the conventions Gypsy went to?
Michelle Dean: Yeah. You’ll find out that Gypsy could be resourceful, or at least ours can. Our fictional gypsy can be resourceful and that she really just wanted somebody to love her. As simple as that sounds, too simple for a complicated story like this one, that is what was at the heart of all of this. She couldn’t abide being trapped by her mother if it meant that she couldn’t be loved by somebody else.
WLE: Was it harder to capture Dee Dee’s subjective point of view?
Michelle Dean: Obviously. There’s so much about Dee Dee that nobody knows because she’s not here to tell us. Frankly, even if she was, would it have been the truth? What was the truth here? I don’t mean to be coy when I say that but I don’t think that there would’ve been a straightforward answer to why she did the things she did. I think it would’ve been confused, conflicted. So I think that’s where having an actress like Patricia who can come in and just she has such a fearlessness about going places that other actresses might be afraid to go that helps fill in blanks.
WLE: Was it surreal to see these things re-enacted when you knew the people involved?
Michelle Dean: Yeah. It was surreal but it was also a relief to see them make it theirs because I wouldn’t have been happy with an adaptation that was an imitation of the real story. I think it would’ve cheapened it in part because there were so many holes. I think the greatest performances aren’t imitations. They’re creatures of their own. As soon as I saw that these people had transformed into these characters and made them something that wouldn’t exist without Joey, that isn’t just like Joey mimicking what Gypsy was but Joey being kind of Gypsy. That to me was great. She was really interesting to watch.
WLE: Did the story lend itself to eight chapters?
Yeah, there could’ve been more. Most of the episodes have a very specific plot point that we have to get to or a moment in time of a thing that happened that we have to get to. So I suppose it leant itself to that. I think in terms of emotional complication, eight hours was optimal.
Michelle Dean: How much of your life did this story take up while you were working on the article?
WLE: When I was writing the article, it was intermittent. I would check in with sources and they would refuse to talk to me again, I would check in with sources, they would refuse to talk to me. That went on for quite a while so it took me about a year to write the article but it’s not like I spent that year on the phone every day. That’s not really how reporting that kind of piece works. You’re waiting for people to trust you enough to talk to you. It was a work of narrative journalism. You need to know a lot of detail.