Holding a hand is a strange sensation. It’s both intimate and public; vulnerable yet confident; charmingly sincere and quietly performative. Hand-holding is a proclamation of connection, initiated by one but confirmed by two. There’s the affectionate, aspirational I wanna hold your hand of the Ed Sullivan-era Beatles, and then there’s the regressive familial hand-holding—the sort of helicopter parenting that allegedly yielded a generation of timid millennials who refuse to grow up or, in a broader sense, be free.

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Dee Dee Blancharde never seemed to let go of Gypsy Rose’s hand. In photos and in home movies, Dee Dee kept her daughter physically close, often grasping her palm or wrist from a very short distance. Dee Dee squeezed Gypsy in ways that only the two of them would know—a Morse code for what did or did not constitute “suitable behavior” when others were watching. These hand signals provided Gypsy answers to tough questions and ensured the daily upkeep of a complicated, years-long lie, or series of lies, that ended in tragedy.

Gypsy had a baby voice and baby eyes and a baby pale head. We’re led to believe she was handicapped, mentally and physically, spending her formative years in and out of hospitals for questionable surgeries, followed by extended recoveries that more closely resembled house arrest under Dee Dee. The fragile girl and her mother were the recipients of mass public pity. Gypsy seemed so brave, Dee Dee so dedicated. The two were forced to face such relentless hardship yet kept persevering, and somehow, despite her numerous afflictions, Gypsy stayed alive.

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And even though she spent so much of her life cooped up inside with her mom, Gypsy managed to find love online. She could escape, if only for minutes or hours at a time, through Facebook and chat and sexy cosplay. Nicholas Godejohn was one of Gypsy’s only human connections besides her mother, but three never made as much sense as two.

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And then one day Dee Dee died, her body discovered in a swirl of bloody pink bed sheets. Everything that happened shortly after that moment appeared to make zero sense. That is, until you learn the real story of all that came before—the years of terror and control and abuse, the nuance contained within something as subtle as a hand squeeze. Very few people transition from the physical captivity of a wheelchair to the physical captivity of prison stripes. That was Gypsy’s path, and it’s still hard to unpack.

Gypsy’s strange and complicated journey is the subject of Mommy Dead and Dearest, a new HBO documentary that was one of the most buzzed-about films at South by Southwest. It’s a true crime thriller with the creepiness of The Jinx and the peculiar characters of The Thin Blue Line. Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, director of the 2015 true crime doc Thought Crimes and the daughter of the late journalist David Carr, sat down with Esquire on the day of her film’s SXSW world premiere to discuss the human element of storytelling, particularly when things get dark. Below are key excerpts from the conversation.

Carr started digging into the story after the initial news reports about Dee Dee’s death.

“In terms of access, that took a long time. Gypsy was facing a possible life in prison, and [her lawyers] were like, ‘No, we don’t want you coming near our client. This is not the time for this to be happening.’ So, it was about approaching the family in a careful way and starting a dialogue with Gypsy and with her lawyer, for the most part. I met Claude [Gypsy’s father]. He said, “Come on in, baby,” and he kissed me on the mouth. And normally, I wouldn’t like that sort of thing, but he was a southern, kind of just a weirdo, who just wanted to tell a story. There was no tension, they just kind of said whatever was on their mind. As a documentary filmmaker, that’s rare. We are measured as human beings. We think before we talk. It just like the grandparents. This was a terribly fucked up story that had happened to them. They didn’t mind having a little bit of dark humor about it.”

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