Behind the story: ‘She would have been the perfect mom for someone that was actually sick’

Image: Corey Brickley for BuzzFeed News

Reporter Michelle Dean and BuzzFeed editor Marisa Carroll were having drinks last July at Astoria’s Sparrow Tavern. Dean, a crime writer and literary critic, asked Carroll, her editor, if the 8,400-word story about a bizarre murder in Springfield, Missouri they’d been working on for months would actually find an audience or “if it was just a weird little thing that we’d gotten obsessed with.”

Carroll replied that, while she was confident people would read it, perhaps it was better to consider the story a passion project. Dean needn’t have worried. The story has attracted more than 4 million total page views, making it one of the top 10-performing stories of 2016 for BuzzFeed News. A literary management company late last year acquired film and TV rights after a bidding war. Dean, who is also a decorated book critic, noted in an email, “I may never write anything that widely read again.”

Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom To Be Murdered” is the story of Gypsy Rose Blancharde, who was an accomplice to the 2015 killing of her mother, Dee Dee. The latter had, over the course of more than 20 years, taken Gypsy to doctor upon doctor, from Louisiana to Missouri, insisting that her daughter suffered from ailments–including cancer, epilepsy, and sleep apnea–she simply did not have. In other words, Gypsy was the victim of a very peculiar form of Munchausen by proxy. Typically, Munchausen by proxy involves a mother and child. What made this particular case notable–even one-of-a-kind–is it continued past childhood and into adulthood.

What follows is another installment of Behind the story, in which we’re given a peek behind the curtain of how a story was conceived, reported, written, and edited–as told to CJR by the author, Michelle Dean.

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The story began with
a wire report sent along by a friend. At the time, the events involving Dee Dee, Gypsy, and Nick were considered more of a scheme in a traditional sense. There was an arresting photo at the top of the article of a terrified Nick and Gypsy in their orange prison jumpsuits.

I’m drawn to stories about putting on deceptions, and how that eventually takes a toll on your life. The way such stories get covered is generally unsatisfying. The subjects don’t end up seeming like people. With this story, I wanted readers to understand people in a heightened drama situation. So I bought it up to an editor, Marisa Carroll, who I was having drinks with that night. Marisa and I are both interested in the story behind these “crazy stories,” which happen all the time, usually in some part of the country that isn’t doing very well economically.

I started reporting a few days after the body had been found. Of course, it was too early to get anybody to talk. If people have just been through a traumatic episode, it’s not usually possible to get them to immediately open up. They’re overwhelmed. They’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. So I just started contacting people. I’d say, I’m here. I’m thinking of writing a story. And I’ll be on this for a long time.

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Michelle Dean, a crime writer and literary critic

I went to Springfield for the first time in September 2015. It was a weird trip. I’d been talking to one source who knew Gypsy and Dee Dee well on Facebook, so we met up and talked for hours. But other sources I intended to speak to–I won’t mention their names–withdrew. They weren’t just shocked that they’d missed this for so many years, or even that the whole thing had devolved into a murder. Some felt duped. Some were angry. Others were exhausted because local news had done fairly wall-to-wall coverage. 

I also did a lot of phone interviewing. Resources being what they are, I could only spend perhaps eight days total in Springfield over two trips. I’d say there were about 10 sources that I formally, extensively interviewed, and at least half of those were over the phone. With Gypsy’s dad and stepmom, for example, I only met them after we’d already done hours of phone interviews and text conversations. I don’t really like formal interviewing.

I interviewed this one key source over the phone, and then she never spoke to me again. That kept happening. People would agree to interviews and then ignore me afterwards. I think eventually people in the case got interview fatigue. For me, reporting should be an ongoing discussion. Tracking people’s reactions over time is usually interesting, so it’s always a disappointment when someone doesn’t want to talk after their interview.

It’s very tough, right? You’re essentially asking people to expose the conditions under which they were fooled.

I don’t know why people open up to me. I don’t think it was information compulsion. This story is so hard to wrap your head around a lot of the time. So for people who talked to me, especially at the beginning, they did so in part because they were curious about what I knew.

One thing I learned, when I started out as reporter, was to be gentler than I was otherwise inclined. Initially, because I had formal training as a lawyer, I asked very direct and precise questions that made me too aggressive.  

I agree with the opening of The Journalist and the Murderer–that, when you’re out reporting, you’re in danger of being a conman playing on people’s vanity. I try to keep that foremost in my mind when I’m talking to people. There’s a risk or a possibility that I will do that. So you have to stay present in your conversations. Sometimes reporters want to be aloof in their interviewing style. I’m not, at all. I would find it very hard to be just a mandarin, just sitting there recording what they’re saying. I’m usually reacting in some way. In fact, one thing I hate about tapes is I’m always saying things like, Wow, wow or I’m so sorry that happened to you. But I think it helps people feel like they’re talking to a human being.

My reporting method is to try and learn what people are actually like. That takes time. And I realize that’s what Gay Talese and the New Journalists would say to you, but I’ve been influenced by the Rebecca Wests of the world, who just watch people for a long time before they wrote about them.

My North Star as a writer is Janet Malcolm. I understand Janet as saying, Really pay attention. And don’t just pay attention to the surfaces of things, but to the dynamics between people, and the things that are happening between you and them. Because those dynamics are important and they’re shaping the story you’re telling.

To that extent, Janet’s model of reporting–of trying to remain very aware, on a deep level, of what is happening–is what I follow. I also look to David Grann; I read “A Murder Foretold” for structure. He pays attention. But most people who are writing magazine stories right now seem weirdly uninterested in the story they’re actually covering. I am not interested particularly in the high jinx of magazine writers who mug for the camera and call attention to themselves.

The scene that culminates with finding Dee Dee’s body was reconstructed by talking to four of my sources who were there. Pretty much everything there is from things they told me directly. Their accounts were broadly consistent, so it was pretty easy to put it all together. There was also a certain amount of Facebook material because people were narrating the events as they happened. People live online now, and pretty much every crime story that I’ve written about that’s occurred in the last three years has a significant social media component.

But I relied on court records, too. I don’t, for some reason, tend to make any headway with law enforcement. What I had was the trust of Gypsy’s lawyer. And that would turn out to be key, because he told Gypsy’s dad and stepmom to talk to me and at the end, I could check myself against what he knew. 

I tend to go in through the lawyers. I always tell them that I used to be one. When you’re doing this kind of reporting, you want the best interview. You don’t just want an interview. So keeping the lawyer out of it and sort of crashing into the scene like you would as a beat reporter isn’t usually the best strategy.

It took me a few weeks to write the first draft, which I filed in May [2016]. Once I started writing, I realized there were holes in my knowledge that were very difficult to write around. Like the medical records, or not having an interview with Gypsy, because there was not a lot I could say about her personality; I’d only seen her in the hearings, from far away. When I finally got Gypsy’s dad and stepmom on the record, I turned in another draft. We intended to publish it by the end of June. But I still wanted the medical records. That was something I was really worried about. There was a hearing scheduled for July 12, so I figured I’d go down there and barge into the lawyer’s office and demand them. But then a week before that hearing, Gypsy pled out.

The draft changed when Gypsy started calling me. I’d sent her a note in prison, thinking she might never reply and that she might not feel like talking. But prisoners can’t send you a note back from prison. They just call you. So one day I just saw I’d missed a call from the Missouri prison system. I spent the rest of the week watching my phone like a hawk. 

I transcribe a lot of interviews, some of which are with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, and no one speaks in the kind of sentences Gypsy does. You can transcribe what she says right onto the page. There are no likes, no ums. She speaks very carefully.

A lot of things fell into place once I finally talked to Gypsy. She really wanted to talk about what had happened to her. One thing her dad and stepmom told me is that, when they first saw her after this all went down, they sensed Gypsy really wanted to tell them the whole story. But she couldn’t; the lawyer had advised her not to do that. So after she’d been convicted and things had been settled, Gypsy was desperate to try to explain the little she could know and process. And I think that’s why she talked, at least initially.

You spend a year thinking about this person. You spend a year thinking, What was she up to? What had she been thinking? You read hundreds of pages of her medical records and you realize that she went through this crazy thing that would have been hard for any child, or even young adult, to get her arms around. And you finally talk to the person and they reveal themselves to you.

The structure is obviously dictated by the material. That first sentence–For seven years before the murder…–came quite late in the process. My editor kept saying that we needed to tell people about the murder way up top. There was a lively discussion during the editing process about revealing the fraud at the top of the article. I resisted it, because I really wanted the reader to go through some of the jarring reversals that the story took for people who lived through it. It was about suspense, on some level, to not reveal who is killed, but it was also about replicating that feeling of confusion.

I got the medical records not long before I finished a final draft, in July. Before that, I knew what had happened, and I had heard details of what was in the file from this documentary crew that was also working on the case. But it was another thing to actually sit down and read several hundred pages about what had happened to Gypsy. Before that, there was a certain amount of disbelief about what had gone on in this case–a certain presumption that doctors couldn’t have missed this entirely, that doctors wouldn’t have accepted so much of what Dee Dee said without medical evidence. But you could watch them do it, in the file.

As I got more, we would rewrite passages. But basically the structure of the article didn’t change at all from the time I handed it in. Marisa and I just tried to batten down the hatches factually. We’d ask, How do we really know this? So I filed the final version of the article in the beginning of August.

There were some editing battles about whether we ought to mention higher up that we were going to talk to her. But it just felt like a natural coda for me. I’m not in the article, explicitly, as a character because I don’t really believe in that. But I was there at the end, because I couldn’t figure out a way to convey certain things about the way Gypsy was talking, about the conversations. I needed to give her a sounding board to convey how she sounded.

The story originally ended with an account of someone else meeting with Gypsy in jail. It was clear to me, all along, that what the story needed was for Gypsy to tell her side of it. It was hard to remember, even for people who knew Gypsy, that she wasn’t an inarticulate, disabled child. She could actually share her experience.

The biggest challenge changed over time. In the first half of reporting it, it was getting people to talk to me. Then, once the floodgates opened up in April or May, the challenge became, How do you make these people transcend the story? Because even though the story is quote-unquote crazy, the people in it are not. No one I interviewed struck me as particularly wild or insane. And there’s always a temptation, when writing a story of people in extreme situations, to play up that extremity. From the beginning, that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a tempered portrait of a bad situation.

Not to get into “Real America” stuff, but I think I do pretty well not seeming like someone’s stereotype of a New York journalist. I’m not there to anthropologically explore some exotic milieu. They’re normal people. One thing that really bothered me in the aftermath of the article was everyone who kept saying It’s a crazy story. I’ve had to calm myself down on this because I know that it is, on some level, a crazy story. But over time people became so palpable to me that when I hear that, I want to say, Do you know that Gypsy is a person and she has to live with the consequences for the rest of her life? This was a very real and serious thing for people. This was a nuclear blast in their lives.

People often asked me if I found this depressing. I didn’t. People had survived this, and it kind of awed me. The things that happened to people in the story–it would have been difficult for me to survive them. These people managed to get through it. They figured out ways to cope. Getting that across was my goal.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.