Back in 2016, right before Donald Trump was elected president, writer Jesse Barron was living in New York City, reading articles about a girl up in Massachusetts. Blonde, with striking features. Police reports from her full of her texts from her to her then boyfriend from her. Diary entries from the young man. The tragic end: Following a mountain of exchanges sent between the two teenagers, Conrad Roy took his own life from him and Michelle Carter was being tried for her involvement in her decision.
By the time the trial began in 2017, Barron was entrenched in the town where the relationship between Roy and Carter blossomed, working on a feature that would eventually run in Esquire. As is normal on a project of such depth, Barron formed a relationship with the Roy family, and waded into the murky waters of how the ways that someone uses their technology can—or can’t—be considered a manslaughter. The resulting magazine piece—”The Girl From Plainville”—remains one of the most shocking, nuanced features in recent memory.
Five years later, that story has been adapted for Hulu’s The Girl From Plainville. Barron joined the team at the platform as a consulting producer, entrenching himself in the story again—this time in the writers’ room. Excerpts and notes that previously went unused for the written story were dredged up and utilized for the on-screen depiction of the fatal relationship. With the feature in the past and the semi-fictionalized depiction in front of him, Barron joined Esquire over the phone to discuss how the story has changed since its release, and what it takes to bring humanity to true crime TV.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Esquire: “The Girl from Plainville” was the first big feature that I sat down and read when I started at Esquire. Tell me a little bit about that reporting process.
Jesse Barron: I started in the fall of 2016. I was living in New York, and I was reading these news articles from Massachusetts about a girl who had been indicted for her boyfriend’s suicide. I grew up in Boston, and I was a magazine writer, and I knew the south coast of Massachusetts where this had taken place. The police report contained excerpts of Conrad’s diaries that he had sent to Michelle. Suddenly, this story that had seemed like this local crime story was this relationship mystery between these two kids who grew up an hour south of where I grew up.
I started to spend time in the town, and I would go to pretrial hearings in the winter. It was just Michelle’s blonde head and these big, burly lawyers and the judge. And we were all sitting in this courtroom trying to figure out this woman, this girl—she was a woman when she was indicted but she was a kid when this happened. I just knew that this was an important story about technology and suicide and fantasy and being a teenager in Massachusetts.
Watch The Girl From Plainville on Hulu
I got an assignment from Esquire, and then in the early spring of 2017, I started to feel like I needed to live there. If I’m going to do this, I need to meet everyone: all the friends, all the classmates. I need to be where these kids were and go to the bars where they waitressed during the summer. And go to the gyms where their parents are. Go to church where their friends go to church because I felt like I had to immerse [myself] in the story to tell it.
I would go to the gym and I’d be running next to Conrad’s dad. And I would go to the bar and it would be Conrad’s mom and her friends of her. And I would go to the public libraries and read the yearbooks from the kids and take photos and put all the names into Nexus, and I started door-stepping all of the kids in the story. I always say that journalism is 95 percent being annoying, five percent writing. And I really heavily learned on the 95 percent at that point.
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I feel like it’s got to be a balancing act of finding the trust necessary to be able to tell that story but also not getting so close to it that you are the story, or any bias develops. How do you maintain that balance?
I think that you always get to the end and feel like you could have done it better or you missed something. You could have had a deeper perspective on it. But the thing about getting involved in it and getting immersed in it is, I think, this kind of reporting makes that inevitable. And I think that you just accept that you’re going to be emotionally invested in these people’s lives and that you’re going to have to step back when you’re writing.
I think that’s really hard, and it’s what makes our job complicated. I mean that’s what’s hard is that if you’re doing reporting like this where you’re talking to people about… People who have suffered the worst thing that can happen to you which is the death of a child, right? Or a child on trial. These are people who are in enormous distress. And you’re entering their lives. It’s inevitable that you’re going to feel for them and that you’re going to be emotionally involved with them. And then the hard part is that your allegiance shifts from them to the reader at the end. That’s hard, but that’s our job.
As this crosses over from a magazine piece to a television series, I feel like there’s got to be a bit of that cliché of “kill your darlings” involved emotionally. It becomes someone else’s story along the way. How has that gone for you?
So I think it’s exactly as you say. There’s stuff that you lose. There’s this feeding frenzy of intellectual property in Hollywood. There’s so much autopilot and trashy, garbage true crime that I just feel like doesn’t serve anyone and is exploitative. I was sensitive about that. And I also was aware of the cliché of if, when your thing gets bought, like the drive from New York—now I live in LA—but drive from New York to LA. [You] throw the book over the fence, catch the bag of money, drive back to New York. They used to say just don’t get involved because it’s going to be destroyed, right?
But this is different because the central heart of this story is the relationship between these two teenagers that no one can access without dramatizing. That’s what makes this truly different. And that’s not a line. I really believe that this is a story where the core of what happened is inaccessible to nonfiction in some fundamental way. I’m sure there’s going to be things that people who are represented in the series don’t like or they disagree with. And that’s true for nonfiction, too.
I think with stories like “The Girl from Plainville,” you have these characters that almost seem too well written to be believable. Do you know when you spot something that works in cinematic written feature pretty much immediately?
I think not everybody is a subject for nonfiction or a subject for a great article. I think that’s part of what makes our job difficult: that the qualities that make a story like this have the combination of being very specific, being universal, being moving, and being complicated. Those qualities are not evenly distributed.
When it comes to being a “consulting producer,” what does that role consist of?
I was in the writers’ room as a consultant. And I was there just to learn about TV. But I was actually pretty involved, I think, for a mere journalist. I was fairly generously admitted into the process. So the writers had all my notes: my interviews, my transcripts, my actual physical handwritten notebooks. They had access to all of this material that I had cut from the article or that my editor at Esquire, Bobby Baird, tried to wisely [edit down] so that we could actually tell the story in 7000 words. And so stuff that Bobby and I got rid of in the original article has a second life in the show.
There’s people and threads in the show, people that were dropped that became… like, Conrad’s grandmother, who is a woman that I have enormous admiration for and affection for, was a relatively small part of the article. But I had spent a lot of time with her and I would talk about her a lot in the [writers’] room and she became part of the show. So there were things like that that we were able to salvage and give a second life.
Do you feel like there was any kind of shift in how the story was told as you’re telling the story this time versus when you were telling it the first time?
And it is. So you have to go back. The way this story initially broke was like, this girl is a psychopath, ice queen monster. That’s what it was. We’d be sitting in court with the newspaper guys. Everyone hangs out in a trial. So we’d be sitting in court and everyone’s talking and filing their stories. And then the next day I’d go to the gas station to get my coffee and my paper and the headline in Boston Herald would be like, “HEARTLESS.” Right? That’s what this story was at that time. So I felt like even going ten percent and making her understandable and talking about her fantasy world of her and glee and interviewing some of her friends… even turning it ten percent at that time felt radical.
Now we’ve moved beyond that, right? Having the show come out in 2022, there’s more awareness that these mass media narratives aren’t always true. And there’s more awareness of what the media does with young women, especially. And so I think the bar is higher to be complicated in this version because it is not enough to just say, well, she’s human, right? “Humanizing” someone is no longer a radical act on television, right?
What do you feel like has changed about this story since you’ve written it?
Five years. I mean there’s huge changes that have happened. And at the same time, I think we’re still pretty much in this world. So I think the fundamental thing about this story is that people can have different realities simultaneously through technology. I think this story even gets deeper and it’s like you can have two completely different versions of reality on technology together. That’s what this story is talking about.
Michelle had this love story. She had a fantasy story about love and about glee, a TV show that she was obsessed with. And she had this whole amalgamation of teenage fantasy that she was operating in. And Conrad was in immense distress, and they couldn’t connect. That’s part of the tragedy. And so I think that is still the world that we’re in, in some ways.
I think much more broadly, we’ve become more aware basically of the cost of technology, psychologically, for children and teenagers. And I think we’ve made this Devil’s bargain where the adults make a profit at the expense of the kids’ mental health. And I think that’s become much more clear since this story came out. That really is quite stark. You have these tech companies that are making obscene amounts of money and their shareholders are making obscene amounts of money. And the cost for kids and teenagers—maybe for teenage girls especially, but for boys as well—the cost for them in terms of suicidal thoughts and feelings of inadequacy and self hatred and self esteem issues? The cost for them is unbearable.
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