SEPTEMBER 27, 2019
Spoilers below for Hulu’s limited series, The Act.
Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee, made headlines for years. Gypsy Rose was a sickly child — hairless, tiny, wheelchair-bound, dependent on a feeding tube. She and her mother made the circuit of special needs pageants and awards shows, turning misfortune into windfall. Even the Missouri house they lived in was built — wheelchair ramp and all — by Habitat for Humanity. They were a cozy, loving pair. Sure, Dee Dee’s cloying devotion bordered on martyrdom, but if there were signs of a folie a deux, of a peculiar insularity, even that seemed forgivable, given the breadth of Gypsy’s illnesses.
Then Dee Dee was found stabbed to death. Lo and behold, not only was Gypsy Rose able to walk, she was perfectly healthy, and had actually commissioned the murder, asking her secret online boyfriend to murder the woman she had wanted for years to escape. What accounted for this stunning second act twist? Munchausen by Proxy, a mental disorder that causes parents to sicken their own children for the pleasure of constant palliative care and attention. Dee Dee was diagnosed by experts after her death — but this does not provide all the answers. It explains why she had Gypsy’s teeth pulled and why she shaved her head, why she forced her into a wheelchair, and routinely drugged her, but it doesn’t explain why Gypsy Rose did not run — since physically, she could have, nor does it explain why murder seemed a better choice than flight.
Hulu’s limited series The Act — created by Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean, and based on Dean’s longform Buzzfeed article about the true crime story — seeks to explain the endless complexity of her reasons; its arc opening like a flower with infinite petals. It does something far more interesting than just recount the details of a salacious crime story, it puts a painful spotlight on a complicated dance between two people, illuminating by macabre exaggeration the ways in which love can become grotesque and destructive, and exploring what a young child is left with after surviving toxic abuse. How does she cope? How does she understand her love for her mother — and her mother’s love for her — when nothing about the relationship makes sense in the real world into which she’s been suddenly thrust?
Revelation dawned as I watched The Act. Although the show’s performances are first-rate, something else was pulling me into its vortex, something subtle enough to be nearly imperceptible. Such is the way with revelation — it comes on quietly at first, suffusing more of your consciousness as your mind can manage it — ”the truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind,”as Emily Dickinson wrote. The Act seems to have been structured with this philosophy in mind. Insight, revelation, inevitability, and catharsis are all tightly linked components of art — and of tragedy, in particular. In these, the characters and their audience must merge, undergoing a mental sea change together. And that’s what happened to me as I watched the dizzying final episodes of the show. The relationship I saw on screen was not fascinating because it was so different from my own experience, but instead, because it bore profound similarity. The show had allowed me to explore the parameters and shadows of my complex relationship to my own mother.
In The Act’s final episode, entitled “Free,” a prison doctor removes the stub of Gypsy Rose’s unnecessary feeding tube. We watch her pull it out and then we watch as the bloody plastic stump sails through the air to the waste bin, but not before Gypsy asks to keep it.
“It’s the last thing I have of my mother,” she quietly implores. (We are left to square how Gypsy could both commission her mother’s murder and still long to preserve their shared history.)
“It’s a biohazard now,” the doctor replies. After two decades, Gypsy and her mother are symbolically severed — the feeding tube having mirrored a grotesque, unnatural umbilical cord. Her abuser is dead, the confining charade of her wheelchair is over, the enslaving false identity has entirely disappeared. There’s just one problem: she’s in an actual prison now, serving ten years for her crime. The episode’s title is playing with our expectations, of course, as well as Gypsy’s: are we ever truly free? Or are we, instead, always imprisoned by love and trauma and the bonds created by both? Are we so thoroughly defined in early experience that our formative years are a kind of prison for us all?
The Act is about terrible crimes, horrific abuses, endless distortions of identity, a psychic hostage-taking. It feels more like mythology than a show based on a Buzzfeed reported story. But what is mythology if not an exploration of the fearful extremes of the human mind? All intimacy is capable of grotesque interludes — particularly mother-daughter ones, because of the dependency of our early years and because of the need to identify with and adore our mothers. Closeness is normal until it’s pathological — if human behavior exists on a spectrum, there has to be a spot where healthy becomes diseased.
There’s a scene toward the end of the show, in which Gypsy lies down with her mother at bedtime, and they repeat their oft-told memory of gazing at the stars one night through Spanish moss, and how when Gypsy was little and frightened, her mother told her that the stars were like angels guarding over them. We’ve seen the dialogue many times — but this time, Gypsy knows her mother’s killer is just outside the door. She smiles at her mother — genuinely sad — and says “goodnight” for what she knows to be the last time. Something in me broke off and began to wail. When Gypsy stands in the bathroom as her boyfriend stabs Dee Dee, covering her ears as her mother cries out, my heart stopped. Afterward, as she makes a little universe of her bathroom, first cleaning Nick’s wounds and then dressing herself as a grown-up, I sat in rapt identification, and as the dulcet jazz soundtrack swells to match Gypsy’s delusional perception that she is at last arriving at adulthood — her wig and lip-gloss donned — I thought — this show has nailed it.
And then came the final moments of the show. What final — and lasting — horror could The Act bestow? Gypsy walks the long prison corridor to her cell, enters it, and sits on her bed. A vision of Dee Dee appears to her right, the camera cutting her off above the mouth, smiling — just a little — warm, and maternal. With the weight of incarceration on her, Gypsy slowly leans into this mirage of her mother for support. Her longing is mind-bendingly paradoxical — her mother’s support was always a mirage, and therefore not supportive, she’s in prison because she murdered the woman whose presence she now craves, the only comfort she’s ever known is the perverse care of the woman who repeatedly injured her. My consciousness swirled and merged with Gypsy’s imagined moment of connection, which felt both fleeting and eternal. I was reminded of an old aphorism from A.A.: Wherever you go, there you are.
I have never wanted to kill my mother, nor has my mother ever harmed me as Dee Dee Blanchard harmed her own daughter, so I was a little shocked at how totally I identified with Gypsy as the final episode progressed. Where in the murk of mythology and motherhood, domestic ordinariness and poetic notions of “inherited trauma” did my identification take root? What precisely was I understanding so completely?
Where to start? With my grandmother, who held my mother prisoner in show business with the savage cruelty specific to stage-mothers? Or at the other end, in the gnarled world of the nursing home, where I now alternately offer comfort and abandon my mother, who is now 79? Or even more uncomfortably, with the push-pull I see in my own child’s feelings about me?
All intimate relationships skate the line between sensual affection and revulsion. A nursing mother grows a biologically informed aversion to the act eventually, even if she has happily nursed for years. There are two conflicting psychological imperatives for a child: one is to bond with her mother and the other is to differentiate from her. I have seen how much my daughter needs me, and also how much my daughter needs to escape me. For years, my daughter stamped her foot when strangers said she looked like me. I was not offended; I well-remembered how little I liked comparison with my mother. I knew too well her weaknesses, her foibles, the way she looked when she was tired or before she was dressed. I knew her intimately, and that was enough; I did not wish to be seen as an extension of her, or a copy. And yet I loved her ferociously. I stood at the window for hours, waiting for her car to come bouncing down our street. There are no lines a mother fears crossing, or at least that is how, for a time, it seemed to me. There was no need for shame at any bodily function, for this was how my mother responded once, when I was sick from stomach flu: “I carried you for nine months. You do not need to feel embarrassed with me.”
At night, I often lie down with my daughter at her request, until she falls asleep. “Am I too close?” I ask. “No,” she replies, or “just a little, but not much.” Then — “Don’t go too far.” She wraps her leg around mine, I touch my forehead to hers. Then we get hot and disentangle. Later, I go to my own bed. Later still, she follows, resuming her last hour of sleep beside me. She says “Mommy, I miss you,” when I am right there. I used to say the same to my mother.
At seven, my daughter already knows that her great grandmother — whom I called “Mama Selma,” was cruel to her grandmother. My mother was a prodigy; she skated for large crowds at Rockefeller Plaza, and acted on radio and television. My grandmother saved every press release, newspaper clipping, and glamour photo of my mother — a large black and white photo of her dressed as a Snow Queen with a glittering tiara shone above my grandmother’s fireplace for decades. She adored my mother, drawing sustenance from her success. She also screamed at her, demeaned her, and physically assaulted her.
In The Act, Gypsy Rose’s portrait hangs on the wall of their Easter egg pink house. Her mother has a book of collected notices and articles about her and about the two of them — the wonder duo — the powerful mother fighting to keep her fragile, sickly child alive. Dee Dee tells people — in front of Gypsy — that Gypsy is developmentally stalled, that she has “the mind of a child,” whatever that means. She repeats it so much that Gypsy seems to half believe it. When my mother was accepted to Hunter’s new gifted program in 1944, my grandmother lashed out. “You think you’re so smart? You were 21 out of 21 — the bottom of the barrel!” (My grandfather later told her she was 21 out of nearly a thousand children tested.) Dee Dee insists on bathing Gypsy, on dressing her, controlling the tasks that normal parents gradually teach their children to take on for themselves. Before the sun rose each day, my mother would awaken to the sensation of tugging — it was her mother yanking on her skating tights while she slept.
These memories stayed with my mother. When I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, we did not use the words “trauma” or PTSD as much as we use them today. But now I realize that daily activities would trigger a memory for my mother — of her helplessness and her pain. My grandmother would slug her with a hairbrush when she couldn’t land her jumps; my mother told us this as casually as she asked us to set the table for dinner. Her mother told Collier’s Magazine in 1947, in an article called “Skating Baby,” that she wasn’t sure whether show business was right for her daughter — “so much pressure on a little one.” Behind the facade, Mama Selma relentlessly pushed her child to perform. Watching Patricia Arquette, as Dee Dee, communicate with neighbors and medical staff in silver-tongued lies, pretending to be, above all, reasonable and measured and appropriately protective, I thought so much of my own gray-haired grandmother, who also used an artificial pleasantness to cover her primal narcissism and possessiveness. Selma deeply resented my closeness with my mother. “There’s always trouble with three,” she would say. She seemed to poison every person she touched, and to do so through a fog of misperceptions and fantasies. My mother once remarked, after watching a documentary on Jon Benet Ramsey, that “the only difference between JonBenet and me was that I survived.” Dee Dee, with her punishing, obsessive need to control her child and to shape her public image, is a monster I instantly recognized.
I started to work in television when I was eleven. I remember two things about how my mother reacted. First, she was extremely proud, never missing a chance to tell others when they could see me on air. Second, she grew anxious. She worried about my “bad” angles and whether the other kids in a shot made me look thin, pale, less pretty. She obsessively eyed the competition, noticing once that a TV producer preferred a little blonde girl on set to me. We were playing the same character at different ages, and my mother foresaw doom in this, although she was never able to articulate precisely what could come of not being the more admired child. All this had been done to her, of course, years before, but my mother insisted that she was not a stage mother. I used to insist it too, and in many ways, I was right. She was not ruthless or relentless, she did not punish me for losing roles, she never demanded I give up anything to do a job. Still, I knew I represented her, I knew I could fulfill dreams she had abandoned, I knew I depended on her to help me present the best of myself — a kind of alter ego — at auditions. There is so much closeness in a backstage relationship. There is so much plotting and dreaming on the long car rides to casting offices; there are quickly exchanged smiles to communicate that a reading went well or that something encouraging was overheard behind the producer’s door. Other kids can be exclusive and clubby at casting calls; my mother was a pillar and a lifeboat in those times. Where is the line between protective and possessive? Between intimacy and a caricature of it? There are many such wordless exchanges in The Act, many times that the mother-daughter bond is reinforced by their secret understanding, in the toxic way that conspiracy binds.
A second self steps back to watch my interactions with my mother these days, one that gapes in shock. My glamorous mother is faded, blanched from a decade-long battle with dementia. Last year, the pleasant assisted living facility where she was living told us we had to transfer her to a nursing home. In the new place, everyone has a kind of rabid dementia, so different from my mother’s. A cloud of psychosis hangs about the place, and I shake when I go to visit. The longer she lives there, the more unlike my old mother she becomes, and I grow frightened to look in her eyes. I have loved this woman so deeply, so affectionately. I used to laugh before she even finished her punchlines, predicting them with the primal ease of intimacy. Now, a clownish horror hangs like a veil between us, a mockery of the Pieta-like memories I have of her holding me after the bath, singing a line from “Silent Night” each evening before bed, “mother and child, mother and child.” Even though I cannot wait to leave the nursing home, we still have crystalline moments. We sat side by side in a doctor’s office waiting room one day, and she asked me why I was there. “It’s like the song, Mom,” I said. “In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay, but our love is here to stay.” She patted my hand. I was her angel, and she was mine. “I’ll protect you and you protect me,” Dee Dee whispers to Gypsy each night before bed.
And so when Gypsy held her mother’s hand and asked to talk about the stars again, the stars that, like angels, watched over them, and how she would protect Dee Dee and Dee Dee would protect her, even as she knew it would not be — I understood the dissonance. I understood how you can live in one moment as two people, how you can long for more even as you have had more than enough, how closeness and grotesqueness are different points on the same spectrum, how love and revulsion can dance with each other as time turns the dial of intensity.
My daughter has told me that she would like me around all the time, but she would also like me to be invisible. I embarrass her when I chat casually with her friends. She is attuned to my foibles with the sensitivity of a seismograph, indeed perceiving my behavior to be as calamitous as an earthquake. She wants me to sign up to chaperone every field trip, crying bitterly when I am not chosen, but she warns me not to make jokes with the other parents on the bus. This is fairly routine stuff. I worshipped my mother but hated her pretentions, her at times garish lipstick, her distorted views on gender relations. I hear her now in all the music she listened to — turning up the radio in pursuit of her. Yet when I sing, I hate the way my voice sounds like hers.
Push-pull, sweetness-grotesqueness, childhood-adulthood, safety-freedom. Of course, Gypsy’s safety is not safe at all, her mother is no nurturer. And yet, she insists continually throughout The Act’s final installment, “my mother loved me.” (My mother always said the same about hers, adding, “She could be monstrous, but she was not a monster.”) Gypsy insists so much that you start to agree. Yes, Dee Dee loved her. Rotten, twisted, damaging, nearly fatal love was all Dee Dee had to give, but it looked, not only from the outside,but even at times from within, like mothering, if so intense it strangled.
As staged by The Act, the Blanchard’s little pink house reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ famously dreary childhood flat in St. Louis, and Dee Dee of William’s real-life mad mother, Edwina, and her altar-ego “Amanda” in his autobiographical play, “The Glass Menagerie.” “Amanda” lives in a narcissistic dream world and foists her fantasies on her two helpless children, until one day Tom finds the courage to flee, vanishing down the fire escape in the middle of the night. But, he says, in his final monologue,“I was more faithful than I intended to be.” He recounts that even years after he left, he was caught by memories and trapped by guilt. He is serving a life sentence: to be forever haunted by the ghost of his mother. Physical distance is rarely a sufficient means of escape, at times perhaps even tightening our pathological bonds.
Most mothers do not clip their child’s wings; most mothers do everything they can to foster independence. But for me, who has experienced a mother’s love through the refracted pain of past abuse, the specter of excessive identification looms large. Mothers who are victims — as my mother was — as Dee Dee Blanchard claims in various ways to be throughout The Act — pull their children back into them on the tide of those children’s inappropriate sense of responsibility. “I’ll protect you and you protect me.” Dee Dee’s demand for reciprocity is itself abusive — and fertile soil for toxic codependency.
So, is Gypsy “free” at the end of The Act? She has managed to escape the fun house and walk into the light of day. But the house has long shadows, and she is more faithful than she intended to be. When she sits, at last alone, in her jail cell, the ghost of her mother sits with her. Jail, it turns out, is not nearly as confining as her love for Dee Dee — and escaping that peculiar prison may be her lifetime’s work. In this, at least, she is not alone.