3 takeaways from HBO’s chilling — and subversive — Michelle Carter documentary

"It’s the perfect storm of a tragedy."

Michelle Carter
Michelle Carter. –Courtesy of HBO

A new HBO documentary is offering a closer, and perhaps complicating, account of the Michelle Carter texting suicide case.

Directed by Erin Lee Carr, “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter,” which debuts in two parts this week, retraces the 2017 trial against Carter and the disturbing texts the then-17-year-old exchanged with her purported boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, who committed suicide in 2014.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in jail for repeatedly encouraging the 18-year-old Roy in text messages to follow through with his plan to take his own life. On the evening of July 13, 2014, he drove from his home in Mattapoisett to a parking lot in Fairhaven and killed himself in his truck by inhaling carbon monoxide.

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The unsettling texts at the center of the trial drew national attention. However, the new, hair-raising documentary digs deeper than the headlines.

Throughout the trial, the documentary team were the only ones filming in the courtroom. In addition to the extensive trial footage, “I Love You, Now Die” centers around the two Massachusetts teens’ texts and features interviews with many of those closest to the case (though Carter and her family denied requests to participate in the film).

It also raises questions about Carter’s conviction.

“There was this very simple story put forth that Michelle Carter was this good-looking ice queen that set about to kill a young man to become popular,” Carr said in a recent interview. ”I knew that that wasn’t going to be correct.”

The first part of “I Love You, Now Die” airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on HBO, followed by part two Wednesday at the same time. It will also be available on HBO’s online streaming platforms. Here are three big takeaways from the film:

1. The tragedy resulted from a “perfect storm” of factors 

Roy wasn’t the only one with personal troubles. And while the fact Carter and Roy both suffered from depression wasn’t a particularly new revelation, “I Love You, Now Die” casts an unfiltered light on the extent and origins of their struggles.

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Through texts and interviews, the film illustrates Carter’s devastating loneliness. Classmates testified that they frequently rebuffed Carter’s attempts to hang out. Samantha Boardman, one of Carter’s closer friends, said that Carter often complained about always having to reach out to others.

“No one asks to hang out with me,” Carter said in one 2014 text.

Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist hired by the defense, said Carter developed a severe eating disorder and was prescribed anti-depressants that exacerbated her mental health issues. She told friends that she cut herself. According to Breggin, these factors combined to cause Carter to further isolate herself. Carter texted Roy that she once was on the verge of hanging herself — going so far to put a noose around her neck — but “chickened out” at the last minute.

Prosecutors made the case that Carter encouraged Roy to kill himself in a ploy for attention. Texts she sent immediately before and after Roy’s death show Carter using his disappearance to get friends to hang out. She also organized a memorial baseball tournament for Roy — in her hometown of Plainville — that was mostly attended by her own friends and family.

Still, Carter’s lawyers say the attention she received obscures the truth. Texts show that Carter initially sought to get Roy treatment, before eventually relenting and supporting his suicide plan (Massachusetts state law does not criminally prohibit assisted suicide).

“The focus became Michelle, and not Conrad — did he really want to die?” defense attorney Joseph Cataldo says in the film. “And so they shied away from the root causes of why Conrad Roy killed himself.”

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Lynn Roy says she began to notice her son having issues around the time of her and his father’s messy — and at times violent — divorce. According to police reports, not only were Roy’s parents violent toward each other, his father, Conrad Roy Jr., repeatedly abused him.

“Told Dad I would put pan of mac & cheese away after commercial of basketball game,” Roy wrote in a statement to police. “He said do it now. He punched me repeatedly and pinned me down. I couldn’t get up. His girlfriend said I was piece of s—.”

“I believe some of his Dad & his family members have blood on their hands,” Lynn Roy texted Carter less than a month after her son’s death.

When asked about the accounts of abuse, Roy Jr. told filmmakers that it was “kind of embarrassing” and “doesn’t really matter.”

“Things got out of control and we both fought each other,” he said. “And I’d do it again just like that.”

Roy had previously attempted suicide four times — once nearly successfully via overdosing on pills. He frequently researched online the most effective suicide methods. According to his mother, Roy’s grades slipped and he described having “racing thoughts” and losing his memory. In a video journal, he said social anxiety felt like it was “overwhelming” his life and he was “differently wired that everyone else.” His family brought him to doctors. Roy was also prescribed psychiatric drugs. He and Carter traded eery texts about having visions of the devil.

“It’s the perfect storm of a tragedy,” Breggin said in the film.

2.The relationship was in many ways detached from reality

Boyfriend and girlfriend might have been overselling the relationship. Carter’s home in Plainville was nearly an hour away from Roy’s hometown of Mattapoisett. Their introduction in 2012 didn’t come in Massachusetts — but in Florida, where the two families spent their February vacation.

“They met maybe five times,” Lynn Roy says in the documentary. “I never saw her. I mean I saw him text her all the time on his phone, but I didn’t think they had a relationship like that”

Carter and Roy sent each other thousands of text messages. Sometimes, they would make plans to meet in person, but wouldn’t follow through. 

The exchanges also appeared to be one-sided. Carter would asked if they were officially dating, garnering a less-than-enthusiastic response from Roy. Jesse Barron, a writer who covered the case for Esquire, told filmmakers that Roy’s texts were alternately mean and sweet, sometimes “negging” Carter.

“The relationship was much more Michelle’s fantasy and Michelle’s idea than it was Conrad’s,” Barron said.

According to Barron, Carter was obsessed with the show “Glee.” And in more than a few texts about her relationship with Roy, she used both real-life and fictional quotes from actor Lea Michele, whose boyfriend Corey Monteith — who also played her character’s boyfriend on the TV show — died of a drug overdose in 2013.

“I just had it all planned out with Conrad,” Carter texted a friend following Roy’s death, nearly verbatim quoting a line from Michele’s character. “Now I have to do something different, maybe something better, I just don’t think that that’s possible. He was my person you know?”

In one exchange, Carter told Roy that she wanted to name a future child after him — and wished that he could be the father, if not for his suicide plan. 

“There’s an amazing intensity to the messages that’s totally incommensurate with the relationship they had,” Barron said.

3. The text messages drove the narrative — but leave some questions lingering

Fairhaven Det. Scott Gordon says police happened on the trove of text messages almost by accident. Roy’s phone was dead when they found his body and there wasn’t much interest in it, but officers at the scene took it as evidence. They also recovered a journal containing Roy’s passwords.

 “Everyone’s life is in their phone these days,” Gordon said.

Upon unlocking the phone, the detectives quickly found the “disturbing” text messages to and from Carter.

It was just constant encouragement to take his life — almost demanding that he take his life,” Gordon said.

From advising Roy on the logistics of his suicide to repeatedly pressing him to follow through on the plan, Carter’s texts shocked police — and eventually the public.

“You’re so hesitant because you keeping over thinking it and keep pushing it off,” she wrote the day before his suicide. “You just need to do it, Conrad.”

The records provided a rare glimpse of the two teens’ thoughts — and dominated the news coverage of the trial. However, Carter’s lawyers contend they also left some questions unanswered.

In his verdict, Judge Lawrence Moniz ruled that Carter’s actions met the legal threshold of “wanton and reckless conduct” beyond a reasonable doubt for manslaughter. Even though Moniz said that Carter’s texts encouraging Roy to follow through on his plan was not the cause of his death, the judge ruled that she recklessly failed to act at the time of his suicide. Carter’s order to Roy — after he had gotten out of the truck as it filled with poisonous gas — to get back in the vehicle was what caused his death, according to Moniz.

“Get back in” became the infamous words that decided the case.

However, the documentary concluded with the argument that the evidence that Carter said those three words — or something to that extent — is shaky, at best. Carter never sent any text messages to that effect to Roy.

After exchanging texts that evening, phone records show that Carter and Roy had two long calls — one 43 minutes and another 47 minutes — right around the time of his death (there’s no recording of what was said, only time logs). In a text two months later, Carter told Boardman that Roy “got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I f—ing told him to get back in.”

“I could have stopped him but i f—ing didn’t,” she wrote.

The defense argues, however, that Carter frequently made contradictory statements. Her friends testified during the trial that they often didn’t believe what she said. And prosecutors argued that Carter couldn’t be trusted and was seeking attention — yet they pointed to her texts to Boardman as incriminating evidence.

“They were just cherry-picking when to believe Michelle and when not to believe Michelle,” Cataldo says toward the end of the documentary.

“To now treat this juvenile as someone who committed a homicide, I think, is unfair, unjust, and illegal, and I think eventually the court system will see it,” he added.

On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously upheld Carter’s conviction earlier this year. And in February, she began serving her 15-month sentence. Carter’s legal team has until Monday to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the magazine that published Jesse Barron’s story about the Michelle Carter case. The magazine was Esquire, not GQ.