“Tell Them You Love Me”: A Look at a Controversial Documentary


“Tell Them You Love Me,” a 2020 documentary directed by Nick August-Perna, has sparked debate and ignited discussions about race, disability, power dynamics, and the ethics of facilitated communication. This article delves into the complexities of the film, exploring its central case, the critical response, and the lingering questions it raises.

The Story at the Center: Anna Stubblefield and Derrick Johnson

“Tell Them You Love Me” chronicles the controversial relationship between Anna Stubblefield, a white Rutgers University professor, and Derrick Johnson, a Black man with cerebral palsy. The film explores the accusations against Stubblefield, who was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting Johnson in 2014.

The crux of the case hinges on facilitated communication, a controversial method intended to help non-speaking individuals express themselves through a spelling board or other assisted means. Stubblefield, who believed Johnson was intellectually capable through facilitated communication, claimed they were in a romantic relationship. Johnson’s family, however, vehemently contested this, arguing that his limitations rendered him incapable of consent and that Stubblefield had taken advantage of him.

The trial itself became a battleground for competing narratives. Stubblefield’s supporters saw her as a champion for the disabled, while Johnson’s family painted her as a predator exploiting a vulnerable man. The documentary delves into these opposing viewpoints, presenting interviews with Stubblefield, Johnson’s family, legal experts, and disability advocates.

Critical Reception and Unanswered Questions

“Tell Them You Love Me” premiered at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival and was later picked up by Netflix. The film garnered significant critical attention, with praise for its unflinching exploration of a complex case. Reviewers commended the documentary for raising important questions about race, disability, and the boundaries of love and care.

However, the film also attracted criticism. Some viewers questioned the director’s approach, arguing that it gave undue weight to Stubblefield’s perspective while neglecting the emotional toll on Johnson and his family. Additionally, concerns were raised about the ethics of portraying a non-speaking individual’s alleged romantic desires, particularly given the controversies surrounding facilitated communication.

The documentary leaves many questions unanswered. Was Johnson truly capable of expressing romantic love through facilitated communication? Did Stubblefield genuinely believe they were in a relationship, or was there a manipulative intent? The film doesn’t offer definitive answers, instead challenging viewers to grapple with the ambiguities of the case.

Beyond the Headlines: The Debate on Facilitated Communication

Facilitated communication (FC) is a method where a facilitator assists a non-speaking individual to spell out words or phrases through a letter board or other means. Proponents of FC believe it allows people with severe communication disabilities to express themselves and have a voice.

However, FC has been a subject of intense debate within the disability community. Critics argue that the facilitator can unconsciously influence the spelling, projecting their own thoughts onto the non-speaking person. There have been documented cases of abuse where facilitators have allegedly used FC to fabricate narratives or express their own desires through the disabled person.

“Tell Them You Love Me” thrusts the debate on FC back into the spotlight. The film raises concerns about the potential for manipulation, particularly in relationships where there are power imbalances, such as between a caregiver and a disabled individual.

However, the documentary also presents a nuanced perspective, highlighting the desire of some within the disability community for autonomy and the right to express complex emotions like love and desire.

The Lasting Impact of “Tell Them You Love Me”

“Tell Them You Love Me” may not offer clear-cut answers, but its lasting impact lies in its ability to spark conversation. The film compels viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about race, disability, and the complexities of human relationships.

Here are some key takeaways from the documentary:

  • The importance of informed consent: The case underscores the need for robust safeguards to ensure genuine consent in relationships involving individuals with communication disabilities.
  • The limitations of facilitated communication: The film highlights the ongoing debate about FC’s efficacy and the potential for manipulation.
  • The power dynamics in caregiver relationships: “Tell Them You Love Me” encourages viewers to be critical of power imbalances within care settings.
  • Reframing narratives about disability: The documentary challenges viewers to consider the emotional complexity of disabled individuals and their capacity for love and desire.

Ultimately, “Tell Them You Love Me” raises more questions than it answers. However, by sparking conversation and encouraging critical thinking, the film serves a valuable purpose in pushing boundaries and fostering empathy within the disability rights discourse.

While the documentary focuses on a specific case, it raises broader questions about human connection, vulnerability, and the complexities of love and communication.


Q: What is “Tell Them You Love Me” about?

A: The documentary centers on Anna Stubblefield, a university professor specializing in communication and disability studies, and Derrick Johnson, a non-verbal man with cerebral palsy. Anna becomes Derrick’s communication facilitator, and their relationship becomes central to the case.

Q: What is the legal case at the heart of the documentary?

A: Anna was accused of sexually assaulting Derrick. The prosecution argued that Anna took advantage of her position of trust and power over Derrick, who communicated through facilitated communication (FC). Facilitated communication involves another person interpreting a user’s attempts to communicate, like pointing at letters or pictures.

Q: What are some of the ethical questions raised by the documentary?

A: The documentary explores several ethical concerns:

  • Consent and power dynamics: Can someone with severe communication limitations truly give consent to a sexual relationship? Does a caregiver’s position of power over a client create an inherent imbalance?
  • Reliability of facilitated communication: The documentary highlights critiques of FC, questioning its accuracy in representing the user’s true desires.
  • Race and disability: Both Anna and Derrick are African American. The documentary raises questions about potential racial bias in how the case was handled.

Q: The documentary seems biased. Is there another perspective?

A: The documentary primarily focuses on Anna’s perspective and her defense team’s arguments. Critics argue it doesn’t give enough voice to Derrick’s family or explore the possibility of genuine harm.

Q: On YouTube, some viewers say Anna is manipulative. Others believe she’s innocent. What’s the truth?

A: The documentary doesn’t definitively answer the question of Anna’s guilt or innocence. The jury found her guilty, but the verdict was appealed. Anna maintains her innocence, claiming a loving relationship with Derrick. Ultimately, viewers are left to form their own conclusions based on the evidence presented.

Q: Does the documentary mention alternative explanations for their relationship?

A: The documentary explores various possibilities:

  • Genuine emotional connection: Anna claims Derrick initiated the relationship and expressed his feelings through facilitated communication.
  • Misinterpretation of cues: Some experts believe Anna misinterpreted Derrick’s non-verbal cues as romantic interest.
  • Desire for control: The prosecution alleged Anna’s desire for control and manipulation led her to exploit Derrick’s vulnerability.

Q: After watching the documentary, I’m left more confused than ever. What resources can help me understand these issues better?

A: Here are some resources to explore:

  • Articles: Look for articles on legal cases concerning facilitated communication and disability rights.
  • Documentaries: “The Invention of Lying” (2010) explores the controversies surrounding facilitated communication.
  • Disability Rights Organizations: Websites of organizations like the National Association of the Deaf or the American Association of People with Disabilities can offer perspectives on communication and power dynamics within the disability community.

Q: Where can I find more information about the legal case itself?

A: Finding in-depth details about the court proceedings can be challenging. However, some resources might provide information:

  • Legal databases: Legal databases like Westlaw or LexisNexis might have access to court documents, but these services require a subscription.
  • News archives: Search online archives of newspapers near where the case took place to see local news coverage of the trial.

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