What’s the story about?
If you’re into true crime stories, then The Act is set to be your new TV obsession. The series follows the disturbing story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the relationship she had with her mother, Dee Dee. To outsiders, Dee Dee looked like the doting mother taking care of her seriously ill, wheelchair-bound daughter. But in 2015, Gypsy Rose was sentenced to 10 years in prison for facilitating her mother’s murder. For as long as she could remember, Dee Dee had raised Gypsy as someone who was chronically ill. She had spent her childhood thinking she was both mentally and physically unwell, a cancer-stricken child with the reading age of a 7-year-old, among other things. But in 2015, Dee Dee was found dead at their home, and Gypsy was nowhere to be found. She and her boyfriend, whom she had met online, were found in Wisconsin the day after Dee Dee’s body was discovered and were charged with her murder.
It’s a story that went viral in 2016 after the publication of Michelle Dean’s Buzzfeed article on the subject, entitled ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’. It turned out that Dee Dee was likely to have had Munchausen by proxy and had kept her daughter as prisoner in their own home.
What is Munchausen by proxy?
People with Munchausen syndrome feign diseases and illnesses in order to get sympathy and attention from others, sometimes doing things that they know will make the unwell, such as ingesting dangerous substances. In this case, Munchausen by proxy – also known as Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another, or FDIA – refers to the act of fabricating illnesses in someone in their care, like a child or a spouse. “FDIA most often occurs with mothers who intentionally harm or describe non-existent symptoms in their children to get the attention given to the family of someone who is sick,” says The Cleveland Clinic.
“A person with FDIA uses the many hospitalizations as a way to earn praise from others for their devotion to the child's care, often using the sick child as a means for developing a relationship with the doctor or other health care provider.”
Not much is known about why or how Munchausen by proxy comes about, but in the case of Dee Dee Blanchard, Gypsy was not her only victim. When Dee Dee was younger, she was suspected of poisoning her stepmother with Roundup weed killer, and as a result she was bedbound for nine months. Dee Dee is also suspected of killing her mother by starving her to death. After Dee Dee died, her family flushed her ashes down the toilet, claiming she “got what she deserved”.
In Gypsy’s case, it started young. Dee Dee was convinced she had sleep apnea as a baby, and it only got worse from there – Mitchell writes: “Dee Dee told doctors there that Gypsy had seizures every couple of months, so they put her on anti-seizure medications. Dee Dee insisted to one doctor after another that her daughter had muscular dystrophy even after a muscle biopsy proved she didn’t. There were problems with her eyes and ears, too, Dee Dee insisted, poor vision and frequent ear infections. Doctors dutifully operated on her. If Gypsy had a cold or cough, she was taken to the emergency room.”
Later in Gypsy’s life, her eye muscles were repeatedly operated due to a supposed ‘weakness’. She was fed by a feeding tube, living on cans of PediaSure well into her twenties. Her saliva glands were removed because her mother said she drooled too much. And when Gypsy was eventually arrested, she told police officers she was 19 – but the birth certificate provided by her father proved she was actually 23.
Who stars in The Act?
Joey King, the star of Netflix’s hit romcom The Kissing Booth, shaved her head to transform into Gypsy for this role. In fact, King had to go through several physical changes for the part: “Her teeth changed throughout the story,” the actress told Variety.
“In pictures of her when she was younger, she had pretty buck teeth with some silver caps, and then as time went on, her teeth got kind of rotten, and then there’s two more stages after that where when you see her in interviews now, we had those teeth, too.” She also had to work on getting Gypsy’s voice down, working to change the pitch to something much higher than her natural tone, which King says made her sick four times during shooting: “Doing the voice with a sore throat is rough!”
Patricia Arquette takes the role of her mother Dee Dee, whilst Chloë Sevigny and AnnaSophia Robb have supporting roles as the Blanchards’ neighbours.
Will you enjoy it?
It’s a hard watch, but that’s kind of the point. Dee Dee was a woman that loved her daughter – loved her too much. It was a toxic relationship in every sense of the word, and while Patricia Arquette is powerful and suffocating as Dee Dee, and Joey King is an absolute force as Gypsy Rose, from start to finish it is uncomfortable viewing.
The series doesn’t pull any punches, either – there are no twists in the tale. You realise from the start that something isn’t right about their relationship. The series doesn’t try to hide the fact that Gypsy isn’t really sick, or that something bad happens to Dee Dee. (In the first couple of episodes, Gypsy is beginning to question the legitimacy of her illnesses straight from the off, wondering why she’s in a wheelchair if she can walk, and the series opens with Dee Dee lying face down on her bed after her neighbours call the police.) Plus, many people will already be aware of this story, whether through Dean’s Buzzfeed ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’ article or the HBO documentary (which managed to interview Gypsy from prison) that goes by the same name. This is more about how this strange story reached the end that it did, and it’s definitely worth a watch.
The Act is available on Hulu now.
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