A CLOSER LOOK
The Curious Case of Michelle Carter: A Troubled Teen Who Encouraged Her Lover’s Suicide Via Text
‘I Love You, Now Die,’ a new documentary premiering at SXSW, takes a look at the case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of encouraging her beau, Conrad Roy, to commit suicide.
Michelle Carter is infamous for the possibly fatal texts she sent to her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III. Carter was 17 when she encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself in the days and hours before he took his own life. The texts appear to speak for themselves—“Why haven’t you done it yet,” “You just need to do it Conrad” and “You just gotta do it babe, you can’t think about it.”
In I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, a two-part HBO documentary directed by Erin Lee Carr, police detectives in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, recall coming across these texts on Roy’s phone after he was found dead in his truck. The conversations were unlike anything the officers had ever encountered, this “constant encouragement to take his life.” Where before there was just a suicide, now there was the possibility that a crime had been committed. If it wasn’t for Michelle Carter, the officers wondered, would Conrad Roy still be alive today?
I Love You, Now Die features interviews with Roy’s family, Carter’s lawyer, key witnesses, and journalists who covered the disturbing case. But again and again, it returns to the texts. Not just the ones the Massachusetts teens exchanged on July 12, 2014, the day Roy committed suicide, but the thousands of messages that passed between them over the course of their two-year-long relationship.
Despite living about an hour away from each other, Roy and Carter met in person “no more than five times.” Their virtual relationship, as evidenced by the horror of the Fairhaven detectives, is every adult’s worst nightmare. Their conversations, which flash throughout the documentary, mimicking a real-time back-and-forth, are intimate and coded. They have inside jokes and a shared sense of humor. They seem to tell each other everything, keeping up a constant stream of communication. They are capable of epic declarations of love, and teasing that borders on cruelty. They both struggle with mental illness and appear to be each other’s life rafts—until Michelle holds him under. At least, that’s the prosecution’s argument: that Michelle Carter caused Conrad Roy’s death, that she goaded him into taking his own life so that she could play the role of the grieving girlfriend. That, even when Roy got cold feet, and exited the death trap he had built for himself in a Kmart parking lot, she ordered him back in the car.
The documentary is divided into two parts: the prosecution and the defense. This allows us to weigh the two arguments, and marvel at how the same set of evidence was used to tell two very different stories. Then I Love You, Now Die goes a step further, searching for the stories that Michelle Carter told herself, and the ones that she and Roy told each other. One particularly insightful reporter talks about the pop culture references that littered Carter’s communiques. She was obsessed with Glee, and appeared to see some of her own doomed romance in the death of Cory Monteith, one of the stars of the series. Carter even went so far as to steal the language that star Lea Michele, who dated Monteith in real life, used to articulate her grief in interviews.
But Roy was not a passive object of Carter’s delusions. In text exchanges, he used Romeo and Juliet as a template for their love. They constructed a shared fantasy of a future child that Carter would have when Roy was gone. She would name him after Conrad, and tell him all about her fallen first love. Their remote relationship was intensified through tragedy. It became so all-encompassing, so real, that it untethered them from reality—or as Dr. Peter Breggin, the psychiatrist who testified that Carter was “involuntarily intoxicated” by antidepressants put it, “She’s clearly out of her mind and so is he.”
Michelle Carter’s case raised a number of fascinating legal questions; the root idea, that urging someone to take their own life could result in a manslaughter conviction, is a deeply polarizing one. Many people interviewed in the documentary believe that what Carter did was immoral, but not illegal. Still, a year and a half after she was found guilty, Carter’s appeal was denied. She is currently serving 15 months in jail.
Because Michelle and her family declined to participate in the documentary, we only see the footage of her that’s already been played around the world. But the deep-dive into her texts, the attempts to articulate her mental state and her profound loneliness at the time of Roy’s death, as well as the depth of the bond between them, inform these images of Carter wordlessly sobbing through her trial. Then there is the grief of Conrad Roy’s family. The guilty verdict does not bring Roy back, but it provides its own fantasy—possibly true, but ultimately unprovable—that if it wasn’t for Michelle Carter, Conrad Roy would still be alive. With all of the unanswerable what-ifs that suicide leaves behind, it’s the story that allows them to survive.
Ultimately, Carter’s case came down to the one conversation that was not immortalized in text. Roy and Carter talked on the phone the night that he died; in a subsequent text to a friend, she wrote, “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared. And I fucking told him to get back in.” When the judge found Carter guilty, it was due to her “failure to act” during or after the phone call, concluding that “knowing the condition of the truck” Carter had a “duty to alleviate the risk.” The judge decreed that this alleged failure—the conversation was not recorded—“Caused the death of Mr. Roy.”
Carter’s lawyer expresses disappointment in the verdict, bemoaning that, “They were just cherry-picking when to believe Michelle and when not to believe Michelle.” Carter’s texts showed that she would tell different friends different versions of events, and that they often questioned the veracity of her claims. “I don’t think we can know that Michelle’s story is at all true,” Dr. Breggin concludes.
The prosecution and the defense seem to agree that Carter was incredibly lonely. In courtroom footage, her friends are called to testify that they were not really friends—that she was the kind of person you might befriend in class, or bond with during sports practice, but not someone you’d hang out with after school. Texts show that Carter was painfully aware of her position in the social hierarchy, writing, “I push people away, I text them too much or try talking to them too much and they leave.” She told friends about her eating disorder, that she had mental breakdowns and would self-harm.
“I have no one, no friends, barely a family—like they don’t even like me half the time.”
The prosecution took Carter’s mental illness disclosures, her social anxieties and the apparent disinterest of her peers, and used it to argue that Carter had set a plan into motion. They posited that she urged Roy to die so that she could “get the sympathy and attention that she believes she deserves.” The most compelling evidence is, of course, in Carter’s texts—two days before her boyfriend committed suicide, she texted several girls from school telling them that Roy had gone missing, when she was fully aware that he had not. The girls naturally responded with concern and comforted her. The prosecution argues that this is the proof that Carter needs in order to know that her plan will work.
“It was the perfect combination of everything that people hate about teenage girls,” an Esquire reporter who covered the trial explains—the narrative of “this heartless bitch who killed a guy to get popular.” Interviews with locals illustrate just how well the villainization of Michelle Carter worked. “I certainly wouldn’t want to date her next,” an older man jokes. As Carter walks into court one day, footage shows a passerby screaming at her to kill herself.
Dr. Breggin lays out a narrative that might be even darker than the disturbing texts that flooded the news. He accuses the prosecution of shying away from “the root cause of why [Roy] killed himself,” and of leading a witch-hunt against a very sick teenage girl. Michelle Carter started taking Prozac in 2011, when she was 14. Not long after, she attempted to hang herself. In October 2012, Conrad Roy was admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Dr. Breggin argues that this was all a “perfect storm of a tragedy,” that Carter, “involuntarily intoxicated” by prescription drugs, latched on to the idea “taken from [Roy], that he’s going to kill himself and all he cares about is doing it swiftly and quickly.” The doctor calls the relationship abusive, pointing to all of the times that Roy talked about his desire to attempt suicide, his depression and his ideations, all the while telling Carter that he’ll hate her if she ever tells anyone. During the trial, Carter’s lawyer argued that, for a year and half, Carter “never wanted [Roy] to die.”
Two weeks before Roy’s death, Roy texted Carter, “There’s nothing anyone can do for me that’s gonna make me wanna live.”
By encouraging him to take his life once and for all, Dr. Breggin hypothesizes, “She’s found the way to finally help…She’s thinking that it’s a good thing to help him die.”
Given the immense cruelty that Carter displayed, her possibly fatal encouragement and failure to alert the authorities or Conrad’s family, it feels dangerous to frame this as another tragic love story, the kind that Michelle and Conrad might have modeled themselves after in late-night texts. But it is impossible to deny that Carter and Roy were there for one another, that they often seemed to be each other’s only proof that they were not entirely alone. On the day that he died, as she repeatedly asked him when he was going to kill himself, urging him to do so, Conrad Roy texted Michelle Carter “thank you.” “For what?” she responds. “Still being here.”