Teen text exchanges almost always provide a peek into a dark and disturbing world. Insecure and unformed psyches archived at their most vulnerable and anarchic state. What if Romeo and Juliet had texted? 17-year-old Michelle Carter seemed to be performing that scenario with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III. Their spiraling dependence and manipulation prompted an involuntary manslaughter charge for Carter after Roy’s suicide in July of 2014. Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest) presents the case in two parts — essentially prosecution and defense — in I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter.
Carter and Roy met in 2012 and texted over two years but only encountered each other in person around 5 times. Their virtual relationship was prolific. Tens of thousands of texts were exchanged as a romance blossomed. They were both socially anxious, felt safer at a distance, even as they reveled in emotional intimacy. They were also both depressed and often on medication. During their relationship, Roy attempted suicide four times, being hospitalized for one close call. They spoke openly about depression and death while professing love and devotion. The documentary portrays a good amount of their text exchange because otherwise, it’s hard to comprehend the level of their affair.
Part I builds the myth of maleficent Michelle Carter. Since Roy’s suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck mid-July of 2014, their text relationship has been combed over by police and press alike. Because he left a journal of suicide notes with access information to his phone, their insular world became public. Police quickly acquired a search warrant for Carter’s phone and started building a case based upon the most recent texts exchanged between the pair. In legal terms, only the last month or so counts in terms of direct motivation. The last month was absolutely brutal.
Carter certainly encouraged and informed Roy’s suicide during that time. The documentary allows the information to wash over viewers and inspires maximum repulsion and rage. Who is this villainous girl, with her dark eyebrows and darker heart?! But this is the default and familiar characterization, spun throughout press coverage of the trial and in local Massachusetts communities. If she loved him, why didn’t she inform authorities? Why did she manipulate information? Why did she bask in the drama and attention? Prosecution trial footage provides damning evidence of “wanton and reckless conduct.”
Part II is masterful in its deconstruction of the representation established in the first. Carter isn’t let off the hook by any means, but the totality of context creates deep skepticism, even guilt, about how we initially saw her. Deeper history lays out intense emotional abuse by Roy, repeated threats and mimicry of his own death over text, no doubt desensitizing and disturbing Carter. Painting her has a witchy puppeteer is lazy and sexist. How can we blame her decisions over his, her words over his actions? How can we ignore two years of backstory? How can we discount the intervention of medication into the thoughts and motions of both teens? And for me, quite imperatively, how much stock should we put into text evidence in the realm of law and order? Are texts proof of anything? The doc seems to say only sometimes.
Virtual statements are just as maneuvering, dishonest, and performative as any others. A key piece of evidence against Carter rests on shaky ground. Supposedly, she directed Roy to “get back in the truck” when he became scared during the final attempt, exited the truck, and called her. This was entered into evidence via a text from Michelle to another friend, blaming herself after the fact for his death and confessing she told him to. However, Carter’s other texts reveal that she lied, inflated, and distorted many things about Roy to others. To his parents, to her parents, to her friends, many received different versions of events. Within the trial, the prosecution points out her lying and obfuscation via text, so how can they trust this particular one to be true? If she was “virtually present” via this urging, if he’d be alive without it, we have to be able to corroborate. After all, if she threatened him during that exchange, then it would be absolutely criminal. But we don’t know. And Carter did not testify.
And Roys own language and previous attempts indicate it may not matter. The virtual reality he created with Carter may not signify. But of course, it also could. Her conviction via a bench trial in 2017 revealed how confusing and inconclusive the entire case is. The judge welcomed clarity from an appeals process and stayed Carter’s sentence until the state could confirm his choice. Massachusetts did uphold the conviction, so she is currently in jail. But the Supreme Court may eventually weigh in.
I Love You, Now Die is a compelling and crucial piece of journalism related to freedom of speech but also to how we adjudicate mental health in America. In an era of increasing concern over teen medication and suicide, there are no easy answers or scapegoats. Interviews with doctors, lawyers, and journalists involved in the case hammer out the stakes of such a conviction. The virtual relationship and abuse that Carter and Roy created might not be singular, just an extremely visible example of a larger phenomenon. Will we jail those teens too? The tragic fantasy that Carter participated in is complex and more terrifying in that it could be common.