Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Case of Michelle Carter

I’m sure you remember Michelle Carter. The Massachusetts teenager goaded her boyfriend Conrad Roy, III to commit suicide. When he did the deed, prosecutors indicted her for involuntary manslaughter. A judge convicted her and eventually sent her to prison. As of now, her lawyers are appealing to the Supreme Court.

Of course, the case is brimming with interesting legal issues. I will refrain from commentary because I have no expertise in legal matters. And yet, the case contains moral and psychological issues and I do know something about them. Thus, some extended commentary.

The case is back in the news because Erin Lee Carr has produced a two-part documentary about it for HBO. The title: “I Love You, Now Die.” It first aired on Tuesday and Wednesday.

As Sophie Gilbert points out in the Atlantic, Carr renders us a great service in not drawing an explicit conclusion, in allowing the facts to prevail over anyone’s interpretation. The judgment pertains especially to the presentation of psychiatric evidence. The defense psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin described Carter’s mental state clearly and persuasively. And yet, both sides of the case were presented as being plausible and credible. The documentary is excellent. I recommend it highly.

One feels compelled to mention that the case was tried in Massachusetts. At various points, it is called a witch hunt, designed to blame Michelle Carter and to exculpate Conrad Roy’s parents. The question, as the show notes, involves two families, each trying to blame the other for a young man’s suicide. 

Being as hyper-sophisticated Massachusetts also gave us the Salem witch trials, the analogy does not seem entirely hyperbolic. If you prefer not to go back quite as far as Salem, you should consider the cases of the Amirault family, nursery school operators, who were railroaded into prison for specious charges of sexual assault against children. In Massachusetts, by the way. The 1980s saw a number of such cases, across the nation. For the most part they escaped public scrutiny. In the Wall Street Journal Dorothy Rabinowitz managed to focus attention on the absurdity of the charges and of the politics of political justice in Massachusetts.

As for the facts, well, they did not matter. Rabinowitz described some of the case against Gerald Amirault:

Children had supposedly been raped with knives--which miraculously failed to leave any signs of wounding or other injury--and sticks, and been assaulted by a clown (allegedly Gerald) in a "magic room." Some children told--after interrogations by investigators--of being forced to drink urine, of watching the Amiraults slaughter blue birds, of meeting robots with flashing lights. Violet Amirault was accused of shoving a stick into the rectum of a child while he was standing up, and of raping him with "a magic wand." Mrs. Amirault was convicted of these charges. The child also testified he was tied naked to a tree in the schoolyard, in front of all the teachers and children, while "Miss Cheryl" cut the leg off a squirrel.

Anyway, Gerald Amirault spent eighteen years in prison, convicted on the basis of childhood fantasies, induced by overzealous social workers. It’s worth keeping in mind.

Anyway, when first we heard of Michelle Carter we naturally believed that she was the lowest of the low, a moral degenerate of the first order, because what species of human being encourages her boyfriend to kill himself? This does not mean that we accept the view that she was guilty of involuntary manslaughter. She did not buy the generator that would produce the carbon monoxide that would kill Conrad Roy. She did not put him in the car where he died. She did not turn on the generator. She was not even there. In fact, she was texting him, and supposedly, when he began to feel that perhaps it was not such a good idea to kill himself, she told him to go for it. 

The prosecution argued that Carter was seeking attention. The theory sounds like the notion that some people, celebrities, in particular, prefer ignominy to anonymity. Carter was alone and disconnected; she wanted to escape her life and to live in a fiction, one where she would be the star. Of course, this might have psychiatric implications... it does not feel normal.

The judge in the case was willing to accept that Carter had not prepared the scene. He decided however that, at the moment when Roy seemed to want to call it off, her encouragement had forced him back into the truck… and to his death.

This is the voice of the law, but there is another issue at play here. Carter was not present and we do not have the text where she supposedly told him to go back into the truck. An appeals court in Massachusetts decided that she was virtually present, but whatever does that mean.

At the least, we should see that, unless he was her marionette, unless he was unable to say No to any of her suggestions, he, not she, must bear the greater part of responsibility for his death. He committed suicide. He prepared it and went through with it. We do not know what would have happened if she had not said what she purportedly said. But, unless she was a witch, unless she had completely ensorcelled him, we must accept that he had free will, and that he was not being forced to get back in the car. If she had at a moment in the past, suggested that he jump off a bridge, and then, if he, months later, jumped off the bridge, has she committed involuntary manslaughter? If he does it because he loves her, does this make her guilty?

Some people compare the situation to hiring a hit man to murder someone, but in that case two people have made a deal. They have signed an implicit contract.Both parties have agreed to fulfill its terms. Such is not the case with Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy.

Moreover, when we watch the show we learn that both Carter and Roy were clinically depressed. Both had tried to commit suicide before. Both were taking psychiatric medication. Both were in therapy.

What this says about mental health services in America today, I will leave it to you to decide.

Sophie Gilbert describes Roy’s case:

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. 

A boy who wanted to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps was beaten senseless by his father. Said father, when interviewed for the show, explains that he would have done it again. Seriously... isn't this a sign of moral dereliction. Roy came from a broken home, too, but being beaten by his father must certainly have sustained his impression that he was worthless. 

Carter was hardly doing well. Gilbert explains:

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.

We can add, as the show does and as Esquire reporter Jesse Barron notes, that Carter had also began cutting herself. When she was first put on Prozac she also tried to hang herself and came to despise herself for being so cowardly. 

The documentary focuses on the fact that the unhappy couple, a couple that considered themselves to be star-crossed, and that mused about dying together, a la Romeo and Juliet, only saw each other in person a handful of times. The show makes much of this, and I concur heartily. We suspect that the two were not star-crossed, in the sense that they could never marry because of a family feud, but they barely knew each other. Their relationship was fictional, if not fictitious. At the least they were virtually separated.

You may recall Kristen Roupenian’s story, “Cat Person,” about another couple that mostly developed their relationship via text. When Margot and Robert moved from texting to sex, the results were calamitous. Not as calamitous as what happened between Michelle and Conrad, but certainly a wake-up call for those who have drunk the deconstructionist Kool-Aid and have accepted that Western civilization is a conspiracy to repress writing in favor of speech. Couples who merely text are living the deconstructionist dream. And suffering the consequences.

When Dr. Peter Breggin testified for the defense, he pointed out that Michelle Carter had been put on Prozac when she was too young for it. He added that the drug produced suicidal ideation, had provoked a suicide attempt and caused Carter to start living in an unreal world. I for one found his testimony persuasive.

Adding to Breggin’s analysis, reporter Jesse Barron discovered that Carter was not just living out any old fantasy. She had confused herself with the actress who starred in the television show Glee, one Lea Michelle. After all, two Michelles, parallel lives.

Barron pointed out that Carter’s texts occasionally echoed lines from the show. As you know, Lea Michelle’s real life boyfriend, co-star Cory Monteith, died of a drug overdose. To become Lea Michelle meant becoming a grieving “widow.”

As for why Carter did as she did, why she kept encouraging Conrad Roy to kill himself, the documentary makes clear that the idea came from him. Before he met her he had tried to commit suicide. He had been hospitalized. And he had chickened out… as had she.

So, he recruited her, made her something like a therapist and used her to help him to do the deed. As I saw it, she was very weak, very vulnerable, very young… and accepted him as a sometime boyfriend because he was a port in the chaos of her life and provided a temporary and pretend refuge from her anomie.

Why did she encourage suicide? Let’s imagine that she loved him. And that he told her that he was going to do it. She wanted to connect with him. She felt empathy for him. She was chock full of empathy-- giving us yet another example of why empathy is not God’s panacea for all of society’s ills. So she felt his feelings, which feelings were very similar to those that she had felt herself. Weren't they soulmates?

Without having any real evidence for my opinion, I got the impression, while reading Carter’s texts to Roy that she was really talking to herself, saying what she wished someone had said to her when she tried and failed to hang herself. Just an impression… perhaps a sign of dissociation. 

Both seemed to want to screw up the courage to succeed at suicide. Both were alienated and isolated. Both were lost. They had planned to consummate their relationship by dying together, to be together in the afterlife as they had not been in real life. Isn't that what soulmates do?

It is a monumentally sad story. To blame it all on Michelle Carter, exculpating Conrad Roy’s family and the psychiatrists who were treating both teenagers is unacceptable. As I said, do yourself the favor of watching the documentary.


trigger warning said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam L. said...

No, I won't. I have opted out of HBO.