Erin Lee Carr’s remarkable documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) contains a remarkable sequence that begins with Gypsy Rose Blanchard, victim of her mother’s need to turn a healthy child into a dangerously ill patient, sitting in Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, eating “some real mashed potatoes.” As we discover, this is a girl who will not know how to distinguish fantasy from reality. “Life is not a fairy tale,” she reflects while awaiting trial for plotting with her boyfriend to kill her mother. “I learned that the hard way,” she admits after she has been charged with second-degree murder.
What fairy tale did she use to make sense of her life? “I liked the Disney film Tangled,” she tells us. “It’s about Rapunzel. She’s a princess in this kingdom, and she’s kidnapped by Mother Gothel from her real family. And Mother Gothel keeps her in this tower for all of her life and tells her ‘Don’t leave this tower’ so that is all she knows. . . . At the end Mother Gothel dies. She got thrown out a window because Rapunzel tried to stand up for herself and leave her tower.”
After years of treatment for diseases like muscular dystrophy and leukemia–diseases she never had–Gypsy Rose finds love in a relationship, one that is once again mediated by fairy tales. On Facebook, she chats with Nick Godejohn, who persuades her that “every Beauty needs her Beast.” “We can relate to it from opposites of it, Sweetie,” he tells her. “I was taught that a woman’s role is to be submissive,” Gypsy Rose declares, “and the man is dominant.” On Facebook she tells Nick “Well, I’ll be your Belle if you be my Beast in bed.”
Gypsy Rose never had a chance to learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The desperate need to follow scripts that are pure fantasy turned her life into what one officer describes as a “fairy-tale nightmare,” a worst-case scenario that replicated the excesses of fairy tales and never gave her the chance to experience the redemptive therapeutic value of stories understood as story, told in a safe space that creates the opportunity to use the symbolic to navigate the real rather than to model it in ways that turned horrifyingly real.