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The New Michelle Carter Documentary Changed My Mind About the Case

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve been following the Michelle Carter case in the news, you might have heard media tell the story of a teenage femme fatale set on manipulating and encouraging the suicide of her emotionally vulnerable boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, in order to attract sympathy and popularity.

But according to a new two-part HBO documentary, “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter,” this isn’t really how the story goes. Documentary producer Erin Carr tells a more nuanced version of what happened that gives us a deeper look at Carter’s life. In fact, it changed my mind about the case in three important ways, which I’ve detailed below.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her then-boyfriend, Roy, to kill himself via text messages over multiple months. They were both teenagers at the time. During his suicide attempt, Roy was on the phone with Carter. Allegedly, he got out of his vehicle while he was attempting to take his life, and Carter instructed him to “get back in” the car to complete his suicide. Roy died by suicide on July 13, 2014.

The case was culturally significant for a number of reasons, but perhaps most prominently because it brought up the tricky question of whether we should legally treat psychological coercion toward suicide the same as we do physically assisting someone with suicide. Carter’s lawyers also argued the verdict violated her constitutional right to free speech, which her legal team is now asking the Supreme Court to review.

Before diving in, I want to clarify I’m not necessarily arguing Carter should have a lesser sentence. I’m saying we need to consider these three important aspects of the story the documentary brings to light when evaluating Carter’s case and what we think of the verdict.

1. Michelle Carter Struggled Deeply With Her Own Mental Health

One of the resounding themes that came up again and again in the documentary was Carter was not mentally well herself. Carter struggled with an eating disorder, self-harm and was on psychiatric medication by age 14. At one point Carter even found herself on the brink of her own suicide attempt, though she later stated via text message she “chickened out” and didn’t go through with it.

The documentary also presented the idea Carter may have been in love with the idea of a tragic romance, partially due to her fixation on “Glee” actress Lea Michelle. For those who don’t know, Michelle dated her “Glee” co-star Cory Monteith, who died unexpectedly from a drug overdose. “Glee” incorporated his untimely death into the show’s storyline.

In her text message conversations with Roy, Carter would often quote Michelle’s lines on “Glee” as well as quotes from interviews she gave after Monteith’s death.

“Not only was she quoting sort of language from ‘Glee’ the TV show, which a lot of young girls do, but she was quoting the real-life actress,” Carr told ET. “And to me, that was really important to put in because it really made you question, like, ‘What is Michelle Carter’s concept of reality?’ And, ‘Is she living in this reality?’”

In addition to her own mental health struggles, Carter was deeply lonely — in part because she craved intense emotional connection with her peers that came across as extreme “neediness.” During the legal proceedings, the prosecution called Carter’s school acquaintances to testify Carter was constantly (and unsuccessfully) trying to get people to hang out with her. These girls shared they hadn’t really been friends with Carter, in part because she lied a lot to try to get attention.

2. The Relationship Was Unhealthy on Both Sides

While we (understandably) tend to focus on Carter’s behaviors in the relationship, it’s worth noting Roy’s behaviors bordered on abusive at times. Roy himself was both a witness and victim of domestic violence, as his father was arrested for assault and battery for harming Roy and his mother on separate occasions.

It wasn’t uncommon for Roy’s texts to Carter to have a mean or “negging” edge to them. For example, Roy would say out-of-the-blue comments like “fuck you bitch” followed up with a “jk :)” when Carter expressed confusion in his change of tone. 

The pair talked about death often. It was common in their text relationship to send pictures of suicide tools like nooses and compare themselves to Romeo and Juliet, who tragically died for love.

Roy told Carter again and again “this was the time” he would actually die by suicide, but each time he would still be alive the next day. Prior to his death, Roy previously attempted suicide four times, but toward the end, it’s possible Carter believed he wouldn’t really go through with it.

As loved ones of people who attempt suicide know, it is a trauma in and of itself to live with the constant fear your loved one could end their life at any moment. Marin Cogan, a New York Magazine columnist interviewed in the documentary, said the secret relationship between Carter and Roy was “totally destructive to their mental health.”

3. There Is No Concrete Proof Carter Told Roy to “Get Back In” the Car

The documentary suggests three words, “get back in,” are what sealed Carter’s verdict. From a legal standpoint, this was the most shocking detail of the documentary.

Though there is no direct text from Carter to Roy telling him to get back in his vehicle to complete suicide, about two months after Roy’s death, Carter texted this to a friend:

His death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in.

Largely on the basis of this second-hand text, the judge convicted Carter of involuntary manslaughter, saying she not only failed to help Roy but encouraged him to enter back into an environment “inconsistent with human life.”

But did Carter actually tell Roy to “get back in”?

In the court proceedings, the prosecution spent so much time talking about how Carter often lied to get attention from her peers. The documentary highlighted texts Carter sent to friends telling different stories about her physical relationship with Roy. In one she said they had gone to third base, in another she said he raped her. One friend even responded she didn’t really believe her, implying Carter was untrustworthy.

Over and over again the prosecution proved Carter was an unreliable source of information, yet the judge ruled this particular text admitting her role in Roy’s death to a friend was a definitive admission of guilt. Carter’s lawyer noted the prosecution cherry picked when to believe Carter and when to not believe Carter.

While it is unequivocally true Carter encouraged Roy toward suicide over their months of texting, there is no tangible evidence she told him directly to get back in the car in the moments prior to his death. It’s true Carter and Roy were on the phone at the time of his death, but there was no audio recording of the call, and therefore no way to prove she said these words.

The Michelle Carter case is difficult for a lot of reasons, but as “I Love You, Now Die” argues, the story is a lot more complicated than what the media presented. If you have thoughts on the two-part series, feel free to comment below.

When suicide makes its way through the national news cycle, it can be tough for people who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide or lost someone to suicide to watch a story like this unfold. In the light of this kind of news, here are five things you should remember in the wake of the Michelle Carter verdict

What’s your take?

Screenshot via HBO

Originally published: July 17, 2019
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