The Act, a new Hulu series, presents a fictionalized version of the story of Clauddine “Dee Dee” Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Rose, whose strange case gained national publicity following a viral 2016 BuzzFeed story by Michelle Dean and a 2017 HBO documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest.
To those who knew the pair before the act to which the show’s title refers, Dee Dee appeared to be a doting single mother to Gypsy, who she said was chronically ill, with a litany of issues that began when she was a baby.
But in 2015, Dee Dee was found dead and Gypsy disappeared. She was found quickly in Wisconsin with her boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, whom she’d met online, where they had plotted to kill Dee Dee. Godejohn was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Dee Dee in February 2019 after being found guilty of first-degree murder in November. Gypsy remains in prison, where she is serving a 10-year sentence.
Though it was a relief when Gypsy was found alive following her mother’s murder, a complicated tale soon emerged. Gypsy, it turned out, had not truly been sick. Dee Dee — who is thought to have had Munchausen syndrome by proxy — had fabricated the whole thing to keep her daughter under control through physical and psychological abuse. She also profited off the fake illnesses through charity trips and donations, including the house they lived in, which was provided by Habitat for Humanity.
The Act, which opens with a 911 call from neighbors concerned about the Blanchards, stars Patricia Arquette and Joey King as the mother-daughter pair. The series premiered on Hulu on March 20 and has garnered largely positive reviews.
Hulu has released the first five episodes of The Act for review. Here’s what’s fact and what’s fiction in The Act, based on what is revealed in those episodes.
How did Dee Dee fabricate Gypsy’s illnesses?
In The Act, Gypsy is bald, gets around in a wheelchair, eats through a feeding tube, has a severe sugar allergy, has had her salivary glands removed and suffers from epilepsy, paraplegia, a heart murmur and anemia, among other issues. In the show, Arquette’s Dee Dee seems able to convince people of Gypsy’s many illnesses just by speaking with an authoritative tone to strangers and doctors. Gypsy’s sickly appearance also goes a long way in stopping any intrusive questions from curious onlookers.
Such claims dogged Gypsy’s real life, too. Dee Dee’s list of her daughter’s diagnoses seemed endless and included epilepsy, sleep apnea, eye issues, muscular dystrophy and chromosomal defects, according to BuzzFeed. Dee Dee claimed Gypsy had leukemia when she was young and that she’d had health problems since she was a baby. Gypsy told BuzzFeed that Dee Dee also maintained that Gypsy had cancer and that she was told her medication was for cancer.
Beyond the physical ailments, Gypsy, both in The Act and in real life, was made to act like she had the brain development of a child — even though she was 23 when she was eventually arrested (confused about the own details of her life, Gypsy told police she was 19). She was homeschooled; the show depicts her coloring and watching cartoons in an early scene, and she dresses up in princess costumes.
The lengths to which Dee Dee goes to invent illness in her daughter points to Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Because Dee Dee is dead, it’s impossible to officially offer a diagnosis, but her behavior fell in line with many signs of the disorder. Having once worked as a nurse’s aide, Dee Dee was familiar with enough medical terms to convince people she knew what she was talking about. She frequently switched doctors to leave behind a messy medical trail that would be difficult to piece together.
The Act explores how Dee Dee became abusive toward Gypsy by bringing parts of Dee Dee’s past to the fore. In episode 6, which picks up right after Dee Dee has been murdered, flashback scenes attempt to piece together the Blanchards’ early days. Dee Dee’s obsessiveness over the health of her baby picks up almost as soon as Gypsy is born and continues throughout her infancy. The issues appear to stem from Dee Dee’s strained relationship with her own overbearing and controlling mother, played by veteran character actor Margo Martindale. Later in the episode, Dee Dee is arrested and imprisoned for writing a bad check (according to BuzzFeed, Dee Dee had legal run-ins for this kind of thing). After being reunited with Gypsy, Dee Dee’s habit of manifesting illness in her daughter becomes more regular.
BuzzFeed’s report on the case of Dee Dee and Gypsy found that Dee Dee had a strained relationship with her own family, and that she began fretting about Gypsy’s false medical problems around when the baby was three months old. According to the report, Dee Dee and Gypsy eventually moved away from their extended family to Slidell, Louisiana.
Were Dee Dee and Gypsy’s neighbors ever suspicious?
The Act prominently features the Blanchards’ neighbors Mel (Chloe Sevigny) and her daughter Lacey (AnnaSophia Robb), who appear to be fictionalized versions of real-life neighbors — Amy Pinegar and her daughter, Aleah Woodmansee — who became very close to Dee Dee and Gypsy.
At the start of the show, Mel seems doubtful of Dee Dee’s claims about Gypsy. Her suspicions deepen when she catches Dee Dee shoplifting. Dee Dee later convinces Mel that she means no harm and that her only goal is to protect her daughter, and the women develop a friendship.
In reality, Pinegar says she tried to only be a good neighbor to Dee Dee and help out the family as much as she could. She did sometimes find talking to her neighbor about her life caring for Gypsy overwhelming.
“I wondered … keeping this child alive … Is she that happy?” Pinegar told BuzzFeed.
Did doctors ever try to intervene?
Doctors frequently miss signs of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, often because they rely on patients to provide accurate information about themselves. Medical records for Gypsy obtained by BuzzFeed show that a number of tests and scans she went through came back negative and clear. Doctors often went ahead with medical procedures without checking records, based solely on accounts from Dee Dee about her daughter’s latest ailment.
Doctors, for the most part, treated Gypsy without asking too many questions. According to BuzzFeed, there was only one exception, when a doctor said he had doubts about the number of illnesses Dee Dee claimed Gypsy had. He flagged in Gypsy’s file the possibility of Munchausen by proxy — and Dee Dee stopped bringing her daughter to him. Similarly, an episode of The Act depicts a doctor hunting down Gypsy’s medical records and trying to uncover the truth about Dee Dee, to no avail.
How did Gypsy attempt to escape?
In The Act, Gypsy attempts to escape in a painfully suspenseful scene. Gypsy befriends a man at a sci-fi convention and then begins talking to him online. Eventually, she leaves a note for her mother saying she is leaving to get married and that there’s nothing Dee Dee can do to stop her. At this point, Gypsy has discovered her real age, though Dee Dee tells her it’s an error and claims that she’s only 14. Dee Dee finds her daughter, takes her home and ties her to her bed.
The scene plays out similarly to what transpired in real life, according to an interview Gypsy did with 20/20 in 2018.
Prior to meeting Nick Godejohn, Gypsy did attempt to escape from her mother. In 2011, when she was 19, Gypsy went to a sci-fi convention, as depicted in the show, where she met up with a man she’d been talking to online. The man took her to a hotel room, where Dee Dee later discovered them and took Gypsy home, according to BuzzFeed. Following the discovery, Dee Dee became violently angry, breaking the family computer. Gypsy, neighbors said, appeared subdued after the incident.
“She physically chained me to the bed, and put bells on the doors, and told anybody that I probably would have trusted that I was going through a phase, and to tell her if I was doing anything behind her back,” Gypsy said in the interview.
Did the Blanchard women share an obsession with Disney and princesses?
Disney stories, princesses and fairy-tale ideals played a large role in Dee Dee and Gypsy’s lives. Gypsy’s love for princess outfits, including the long, curly blonde Cinderella wig seen throughout The Act, added to the perception that she “had the mind of a child of 7,” as Dee Dee claimed, according to the BuzzFeed story.
In the show, princess outfits and other fantastical costumes appear frequently, serving as symbols for Gypsy’s captivity, desire for freedom and the blending of her reality and fantasy worlds. Gypsy frequently wears wears a Cinderella costume, and is wearing it the first time she meets Nick Godejohn, her mother’s eventual killer, in person at a movie theater. Their relationship mostly carries out online, where Gypsy dons princess-type wigs as part of her boyfriend’s BDSM fantasies. The BuzzFeed report on the case notes that the couple had specific BDSM roles and names, including one in which Gypsy dressed up as DC Comics character Harley Quinn, which is also depicted in the show.
When was Dee Dee Blanchard killed?
The show portrays the discovery of Dee Dee’s body much like it was actually discovered, though as of the fifth episode, the murder itself has not been depicted. In the first episode, Mel tries to break into Dee Dee and Gypsy’s house to see if she can get some answers following a suspicious social media post. In real life, another neighbor, David Blanchard (no relation), climbed in through a window to find out what had transpired.
Dee Dee Blanchard’s body was found on June 14, 2015 by sheriff’s deputies at her home in Springfield, Missouri, BuzzFeed reports. She had been dead a few days by the time police found her body.
Authorities were alerted to suspicious behavior on the part of Dee Dee after two mysterious Facebook posts popped up on her account on June 14. One post, which still remains online, read: “That Bitch is dead!” A comment on that post, which is no longer online, graphically described the murder of “that fat pig” and the rape of “her sweet innocent daughter.”
The messages sounded nothing like the Dee Dee friends and neighbors knew. They quickly sprung into action. Once police obtained a warrant, they found that Dee Dee had been stabbed and left in her bedroom.
Gypsy, who relied on several medications and a wheelchair to get around, had disappeared. On a tip from Woodmansee, who was friends with Gypsy, police tracked her location to a house in Wisconsin, where Gypsy was found, unharmed and healthy, with her boyfriend, Nick Godejohn.
Finding Gypsy sparked the discovery of even more sinister information: She was, in fact, healthy, able to walk and lacking any of the medical issues her mother claimed prevented her from having a normal life.
“Things are not always as they appear,” the Springfield sheriff said at a press conference following Gypsy’s finding.