Remember Michelle Carter?
In 2014, the 17-year-old Plainville, Massachusetts, girl made national headlines when police discovered alarming text messages to her boyfriend, 18-year-old Conrad Roy, seemingly encouraging him to kill himself. The case only got knottier as more details emerged about the young couple, who both struggled with depression and met in person only a few times, playing out most of their relationship through endless scrawls of texts.
The ensuing trial is the subject of a two-part HBO documentary, “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter,” premiering Tuesday (8 EDT/PDT), which wrestles with the question of whether Carter, now serving a 2½-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, should be held responsible for Roy’s death.
One of the more bizarre details to come out of the new film is that many of Carter’s texts – to Roy, as well as her friends – were taken directly from “Glee.” Fox’s musical series starred Lea Michele and the late Cory Monteith, who were an on- and offscreen couple until his death of an accidental overdose in July 2013. The show paid tribute to Monteith and his character, Finn, with an episode that October – the same month Carter began texting Roy dialogue from “Glee” that she passed off as her own, about how he’d be going to a better place and she could learn to live without him.
After Roy’s death, many of Carter’s texts to classmates were also lifted from “Glee” and interviews with Michele about grief. We chat with “I Love You” director Erin Lee Carr about the strange discovery.
Question: Was Michelle’s “Glee” obsession something you learned about when the case was in the news, or during the process of making the film?
Erin Lee Carr: It was really under-reported, actually. There’s a journalist, Jesse Barron, who is featured heavily in our project who was running the text messages against pop-culture references because he was just like, “There’s something going on here.” So it was reported in Esquire in a long-form piece but went under the radar for some weird reason. We thought it was a perfect rabbit hole to really get into, and it’s such a visual part of the story, switching from (clips of) Lea Michele to Michelle Carter.
Q: What did you find most troubling about the way Michelle would lift dialogue directly from “Glee” and use it in text messages to her friends?
Carr: As a young teenager I was obsessed with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I would recite it ad nauseam, but I never participated in grabbing dialogue from a show or an interview and using it as my own. So for me, it was the clearest example that Michelle Carter was living in a different reality. One of the scarier parts was that Lea Michele’s on-camera and real-life boyfriend died due to a drug overdose and it basically set this plan in motion. When Lea Michele’s boyfriend died, she was able to grieve, and everybody looked up to her and said, “You’re doing such a good job.” Potentially, I’m not certain, but what if Michelle Carter was like, “Maybe that could be me.”
Q: Lea Michele told Ellen DeGeneres she felt like the “luckiest girl in the world” dating Cory Monteith, and he was “the greatest man.” Michelle later used that almost verbatim when talking about Conrad, writing, “He was the greatest man I ever knew and I literally lived every day feeling like the luckiest girl in the world.” What do you think that says about the way she blurred the line between fiction and reality, or romanticized Conrad’s death?
Carr: It made me feel a lot of anxiety making something about her, because we’re talking about her guilt or her innocence. And here she is saying, “He was my person” and eliciting sympathy from people. It made me question her motives when he died. Was she sad for him, his family, herself? Or was there a secret amount of relief that now she could enact this romantic fantasy of the grieving girlfriend? It was baffling. Also that she could be somebody who is in school, that goes to camp, that adults feel respected by. She had this exterior where she was able to be this quote-unquote “normal” teenage girl in front of other people and then she harbored these very weird, dark fantasies about being Lea Michele through her texting partner/boyfriend, Conrad, dying.
Q: Apart from “Glee,” what other pieces of pop culture did Michelle pull quotes from and pass off as her own?
Carr: There were country songs. Taylor Swift. Definitely “The Fault in Our Stars.” Lea Michele music videos and talk-show interviews. It really felt centered around Lea Michele.
Q: Carter’s defense team argued that she suffered from “involuntary intoxication” from antidepressants and wasn’t fully cognizant of what she was doing. How much of a part do you think that had in this?
Carr: I believe there were psychiatric issues at play here, but more for Conrad as a result of the meds. Michelle Carter was taking 5 milligrams of Celexa, as reported in the court evidence. That is a really, really small amount. So while she could potentially have side effects, it really felt like (psychiatrist) Peter Breggin created this terminology of “involuntary intoxication” because her family could not reckon with what she had done, so they basically had this defense of “the meds made her do it.” So for me, it’s always been less about meds, and more about loneliness and neediness and wanting attention. Is it a motive to kill someone? I don’t think so. I think we’re dealing with two incredibly troubled people that unfortunately met at the worst possible moment.
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