The Gypsy Rose Blanchard story is super, super interesting from a lot of angles. Theres the Munchausen by proxy angle (Dee Dee Blanchard forcing Gypsy Rose to pretend to be a cancer patient, be in a wheelchair, have muscular dystrophy, etc). There is the abuse that Gypsy Rose suffered over several years which likely led to extreme trauma bonding and the formation of Gypsy Rose’s own manipulative and narcissistic tendencies and of course there is the Gypsy Rose and her then boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn killing Dee Dee angle. It is this angle that I want to cover in this article and I want to explore the killing of Dee Dee through the lens of Defeat and Entrapment Theory.
Defeat and entrapment theory was developed mainly to cover the limitations of learned helplessness theory. To better understand defeat and entrapment theory, it is first important to understand learned helplessness theory. In 1967, the now infamous researchers Seligman and Maier realized that if the dogs that they were studying were not presented with a means by which to stop or escape an electric shock (i.e., a way to escape their cage or a button/lever to push to stop the electric shock) the first time that they were shocked, then most of the dogs would lay down cowering and whimpering during subsequent electric shocks even if a clear and obvious escape route was provided (e.g., being able to jump to safety).
Seligman and Mair therefore interpreted the dog’s unwillingness to escape as a sign that the uncontrollable stress the dogs had repeatedly experienced had rendered them ‘helpless’ and ‘depressed’ which consequently LED TO THEIR FLIGHT/ESCAPE RESPONSE/MOTIVATIONS BEING PERMANENTLY DEACTIVATED. Seligman and Mair reported that MOST of the dogs would not escape even if given the opportunity. If most of the dogs did not escape, then logically a proportion of the dogs did escape. To date however, learned helplessness theory has not provided an explanation for why a proportion of the dogs in Seligman’s experiments did not have their flight/escape responses/motivations deactivated as implied by the theory.
This is where Defeat and Entrapment theory comes in. Defeat and Entrapment theory suggests that for some people (or for some of the dogs in Seligman and Mair’s experiments), the motivation to escape ALWAYS REMAINED ACTIVE and AROUSED even if an escape route is blocked. That is, for most of the dogs in the experiment, who were shocked repeatedly and unable to escape repeatedly, lost the motivation or instinct to escape the electric shock even when a clear pathway or escape option was offered (the walls of the cages were removed). These dogs just laid down and accepted their fate so to speak. The other dogs however, even after having been shocked and trapped in the previous stages of the experiment, took advantage of the opportunity to escape when presented with an escape option.
Learned helplessness theory has been proposed as an explanation for why people remain in abusive relationships despite the ongoing abuse and trauma they endure. Learned Helplessness theory however doesn’t account for the people who DO eventually leave their abusive relationships. It does not account for why some people, who haven’t been able to successfully escape in the past, continue to remain ‘hopeful’ of an escape in the future rather than just giving up entirely even when an escape opportunity is provided.
Defeat is commonly characterized as a loss in social rank or a failure to attain some valued status. These losses of rank or status however are of significant internal importance thus differentiating defeat from external attributes such as uncontrollability for example.
Alternatively, entrapment is characterized by a strong desire/motivation to escape an aversive situation which, if blocked for any reason, leads to the sensation of feeling ‘trapped’. Entrapment can be broken down into external entrapment and internal entrapment. For example, a person who is in an abusive relationship may feel trapped by external events or circumstances since a lack of finances for example would ‘block’ their ability to move into private accommodation or to geographically separate themselves from their abuser.
Likewise, immaturity or physical disabilities may ‘block’ a person’s ability to live without the constant presence of their abuser. Similarly, an abused person may feel trapped by internal events/circumstances such as trauma bonding or perceptions of having ‘failed’ as a husband/wife/partner/child. Within the defeat and entrapment framework, these blocks and feelings of both being ‘trapped’ and ‘defeated’ leads to the onset of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and other such conditions.
Defeat and entrapment theory perceives depression in a very unique way. Within defeat and entrapment theory, depression is proposed to be unconsciously manifested as a submissive behavior which is displayed in order to minimize conflict and restore social rank imbalances. For example, returning to an abusive relationship after a successful escape would inevitably lead the abused person to feel defeated, trapped and depressed. This ‘submissive’ act of depression can serve to reduce the ongoing conflict with the abusive spouse by displaying to the abusive spouse that they are no longer, at least on the surface, willing to try and escape again.
So, what does all of this have to do with Gypsy Rose’s situation and the eventual killing of her mother? Gypsy has stated on record that she had tried to escape from her mother several times but her mother always tracked her down. Gypsy has also stated on record that one of the reasons that she felt that she couldn’t escape was because her mother, Dee Dee, had gone through the process of having Gypsy legally declared as incompetent and so Gypsy Rose felt that no one would ever believe her story. Gypsy has also stated on record that the motivation for killing her mother was because she “Wanted to be free of her hold on me’.
If Gypsy Rose had developed Learned Helplessness as a result of the abusive relationship with her mother, she would not have devised yet another escape plan (murder). If Learned Helplessness applied, Gypsy would have given up entirely and so would have had her escape responses/motivations permanently deactivated after failing to escape the first two times. Given that Gypsy Rose continued to be motivated to escape her mother suggests that Defeat and Entrapment theory is a good framework to try and understand some aspects of Gypsy Rose’s situation.
One might ask “So why did Gypsy play along with the charade of using a wheelchair when she knew full well that she didn’t need it?” This ‘playing along’ would make sense if we consider how depression is viewed within defeat and entrapment theory. If Gypsy Rose felt defeated and trapped, especially after not being able to escape successfully (and so felt depressed), it would make sense to ‘appease’ her mother and minimize further conflict and abuse by going along with the charade until another escape opportunity presented itself.
It may well be that Gypsy Rose viewed her boyfriend as the only way to accomplish her escape plan (murder her mother). I will explore in another article about the possible personality traits and manifestations which may have led Gypsy to ‘recruit’ her boyfriend Nicholas to achieve her escape plan. I suspect that the constant abuse by her mother, along with being the proxy in her mother’s Munchausen disorder ‘taught’ Gypsy how to be cunning, manipulative and unempathetic and taught her how to view people as tools to use to achieve goals (money, attention, sympathy, etc). Stay tuned!