The Cultural Fault Lines of I Love You, Now Die

Erin Lee Carr’s two-part HBO documentary thoughtfully complicates the narrative of a boy’s suicide, and of the girlfriend who encouraged the act.

Rail-thin and blond in an array of J.Crew-esque outfits, Michelle Carter seemed to many to be an embodiment of the awful power of teenage girls. (HBO)

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

Conrad Roy died by suicide in Massachusetts in 2014, after repeated attempts the 18-year-old had made to take his own life. Roy, who had filmed video diaries documenting his social anxiety and depression, had struggled with his mental health after his parents’ divorce. He’d also endured physical punishment from his father so severe that on one occasion a police report was filed. At the time of his death, Roy was reportedly taking an antidepressant known to increase the risk of suicidal ideation in teenagers. In other words, multiple factors could have contributed to Roy’s tragic death. The narrative surrounding it, though, focused almost exclusively on one lurid and appalling element: Roy’s girlfriend, Michelle Carter, had encouraged him to end his life, badgering him with messages in his final days that seemed hectoring, even coercive.

Carter’s perceived culpability in Roy’s death led to her arrest for involuntary manslaughter, and to a charged debate over whether speech could equal violence under the law. She also sparked a rash of news stories focusing on the most sensational aspects of the case, mining the thousands of text messages Carter and Roy exchanged over two years for the most egregious examples of her endorsement of his plan to kill himself. She suggested methods. (“Drink bleach.” “Hang yourself jump off a building stab yourself idk theres lots of ways.”) She encouraged him not to keep putting things off. (“You can’t think about it. You just have to do it.”) She even seemed to position herself as someone who could benefit from the attention that would be given to Roy’s death. (“If you’re gonna do a last tweet can it be about me.”)

During the 2017 trial, Carter’s physical appearance only amped up the morbid fascination with her. Rail-thin and blond in an array of J.Crew-esque outfits, with dark eyebrows painted over an expressive, sporadically sulky face, she seemed to many to be an embodiment of the awful power of teenage girls, with their callous hearts and their casual cruelty and their unshakable narcissism. Nancy Grace described Roy as “a teen boy who was in love with this girl. He wants to get out of it; he wants not to kill himself.” Carter, Grace said, “was like the devil on his shoulder,” a monstrous presence who would not leave him in peace until he ended his life.

But the actual relationship between Roy and Carter, explored with nuance and sensitivity in a two-part HBO documentary by Erin Lee Carr (At the Heart of Gold) was more complicated than many summaries of the case allowed. Carter had her own mental-health issues, having been diagnosed with eating disorders before the age of 10. She’d been on Prozac since she was 14, and had switched to a new antidepressant in the months before Roy’s death; she’d also recently spent time in a psychiatric facility. She was lonely, lacking close friends and alienating her peers with her overwhelming neediness. Her relationship with Roy, while dubbed in the media as a love affair, was conducted almost entirely online; the pair met in person on only a handful of occasions.

And as Carr explores in what seems like a crucial and overlooked detail, their dynamic wasn’t a healthy one. For the first 18 months of their interactions, Roy sent Carter suicidal imagery and abusive texts: pictures of nooses and guns, messages that said things like “fuck you bitch.” He suggested that they could be like Romeo and Juliet at the end, clarifying that she fully understood what “at the end” meant. She, in turn, counseled him to get help and to not end his life. It was only in the final few months of their relationship that she started, instead, to encourage him.

The first installment of I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, which aired last night, dealt with the circumstances of Roy’s death, and with Carter’s eagerness in the aftermath of his suicide to embrace the attention she was finally getting from friends and family. (“Im like famous now haha check it out,” she texted one friend after Facebook posts and fundraisers in Roy’s name started raising her profile.) The second, which airs tonight, complicates the story by sifting through Carter’s history, her relationship with Roy, and her fixation on pop-culture narratives of doomed teenage love. Carr, in what feels like a revelatory move for a documentarian investigating a true-crime case, never comes down on one side or offers up a finite conclusion. This case is extraordinarily messy, I Love You, Now Die says. And it’s messy in a way that indicts Carter less than the culture she was raised in, one where doctors prescribe drugs to teenagers without a real sense of their impact on developing brains. And where digital technology has become ubiquitous so quickly that ethical frameworks surrounding its usage haven’t had time to catch up.

What’s obvious, too, about Roy’s death is how easy it is for people to shape an interpretation of it that suits them. Roy’s grieving family can blame Carter for failing to help their son and, in his final days, for encouraging him to hurry up and end his life already. Carter’s family can see a version of events in which their daughter was caught up in a toxic online relationship, was potentially suffering from side effects of prescription drugs, and was fixated on some projected ideal of Roy, not the reality of him as a flesh-and-blood human.

Carr puts their texts on-screen with the accompanying pings and whooshes of real messages, giving some sense of the dopamine hits their communiqués must have offered. Roy appears to test her on occasion, switching moods in a flash between aggressive and consoling. They develop their own games and coded language. Carter, who’s initially conciliatory and emotionally responsive to Roy’s talk about suicide, seems to become increasingly numb to the idea of it. Her messages to him start to relate less and less to what he’s actually saying.

Carr interviews Roy’s family, who speak openly (and, on one occasion, are disturbingly frank) about his childhood, their heartbreak after his death, and their belief that he’d be alive if it weren’t for Carter’s influence. She’s challenged, especially in the second installment, by Carter and her family’s refusal to submit to interviews, which makes Carter still feel like something of a cipher. Carter’s closest relationships, excluding Roy, were with girls who seemed barely to tolerate her. Her parents and her family background are a total mystery. All that’s left is her presence in court, and the messages she exchanged with Roy and other girls, which provide a spotty, duplicitous, incomplete version of her life and her mind.

What Carr does specify is to what extent Roy and Carter were failed by the systems around them. Both of them, like normal teenagers, spent much of their lives online, where they found forums discussing suicide methods, violent imagery and language, and cultural narratives that fetishize suffering. One of the most poignant moments in I Love You, Now Die comes when Carr reveals that Carter sent text messages to Roy that were taken, verbatim, from characters on the high-school drama Glee. She projected a version of a fantasy onto her own life that had very little to do with what was actually real. And other people, in turn, saw Carter in ways that fit their preconceived ideas about girlhood. (Massachusetts, where Carter and Roy grew up, has its own history of attributing sinister powers to teenagers.) The simplest interpretation of Roy’s death—that Carter was manipulative and heartless and culpable—involves the least amount of reckoning with the circumstances that drew Carter and Roy to each other.