Who, exactly, is Michelle Carter: a black widow, an attention-seeking teenager, or someone else entirely? HBO’s latest documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter seeks to answer that question.
A two-part documentary series, I Love You, Now Die chronicles Carter’s role in the 2014 suicide of her long-distance boyfriend, Conrad Roy.
That July, police had found the body of 18-year-old Roy in his truck, dead by carbon monoxide poisoning. Later, it was discovered that Carter had encouraged Roy to end his life. In the weeks leading up to his death, Carter had texted him repeatedly, badgering him to go through with his suicide with messages like, “You keep pushing it off and say you’ll do it but u never do. It’s always gonna be that way if u don’t take action.”
His final phone call was to Carter, who heard his last words and listened to him die for 47 excruciating minutes.
After the texts were discovered, Carter was arrested for involuntary manslaughter and was blasted across the news cycle. News outlets were quick to paint Carter as a teenage femme fatale, an attention-seeking “black widow” who encouraged her boyfriend to end his life simply so she could gain sympathy and popularity. After all, Carter was a beautiful, bubbly teen who seemed to strive for popularity and perfection. She was known for her cheerful demeanor and was given the superlative “Most Likely To Brighten Your Day” at her high school.
In photos from before the tragedy, we see a smiley Carter posing at school dances and athletic events, arms slung around friends. Headlines were quick to assume that she was a vapid, evil teen who wanted Roy gone so that she could use his death to bolster her social currency. But, as we learn in I Love You, Now Die, there is so much more to the story. And perhaps, at least in part, Michelle Carter was a victim, too.
Told largely through interviews with friends and family and texts from Carter’s own phone, the documentary reveals a more complicated, nuanced narrative of Carter’s life, arguing that she was less “femme fatale” and more “lonely outsider.”
Though she had a lot of “school friends,” as she said in text messages to classmates, people never seemed to want to hang out with her outside of school. Carter was lonely and needy; many acquaintances reported being barraged with texts from Carter begging them to get together. Rarely did they actually do so.
But perhaps even more significant than an insight into her loneliness is the documentary’s examination of Carter’s own mental health. For his part, Roy’s depression was well-documented. He had previously attempted suicide multiple times and had opened up about his depression and anxiety in a series of videos before his death.
However, I Love You Now Die explains that Carter herself had been mentally ill. Carter had been prescribed antidepressants since age 14. She had a documented history of self-harm and had battled a debilitating eating disorder for years. Carter even spent time in a psychiatric hospital and was released only about a month before Roy’s death.
Carter also seemed to have difficulty discerning real life from fiction. She had a fixation on the television show Glee, particularly identifying with lead actress Lea Michele and her onscreen character Rachel. Many of Carter’s texts to Roy were exact quotes pulled from the show, or were paraphrases of interviews with Michele. The show had clearly intertwined with Carter’s perception of her own life in a disturbingly deep way, and it begs the question: did Carter even have a grasp on reality when she was encouraging Roy’s death?
In addition to the question of Carter’s mental state, the documentary touches on the tone of misogyny surrounding the case. After all, white males like Brock Turner got far less time for crimes they actually committed and Carter was not even physically present when Roy died.
Alternately, Carter is serving only a 15-month sentence while her legal team works to have her conviction vacated. (I can’t help but think she was granted leniency in part because she was a young, pretty, white girl. Would a person of color have received the same leniency? Probably not.)
Either way, to allude that a woman can somehow entrance a man and coerce him to do things at her will, as the prosecution does, is demeaning and dangerous.
Ultimately, I Love You, Now Die offers a more nuanced portrayal of Michelle Carter than what has been written in the headlines. And it leaves viewers like me conflicted. Carter’s messages to Roy leading up to his death were objectively reprehensible and it’s easy to want to hold her accountable in some way. But is it legally unethical, or even sexist, to convict Michelle Carter for her role in a death that she wasn’t even physically present to witness? I Love You, Now Die doesn’t answer these questions. But it does leave you asking so many more.
I Love You, Now Die is currently streaming on HBO.