While certainly not categorized as an easy watch, Netflix’s Tell Them You Love Me has swept the world by storm, delivering a disturbing and chilling deep dive into a true story that explores the dark truth about autonomy, ableism, and race. The documentary follows the story of a white, abled former professor Anna Stubblefield, who was accused of sexually assaulting Derrick Johnson, a nonspeaking Black man with cerebral palsy.

What Happens in ‘Tell Them You Love Me’?

The neurological disorder cerebral palsy left New Jersey native Derrick Johnson nonverbal, a life lived unable to communicate any thoughts or desires. Rutgers University-Newark ethics professor Anna Stubblefield became an important factor in his development after his brother, John Johnson, one of her PhD students, pleaded she work with his brother. He learned of facilitated conversation while taking her course on philosophy and disability studies and had hoped it could be a saving grace for his brother. After she spoke with Derrick’s mother, Daisy Johnson, it was decided that Stubblefield would be Derrick’s facilitated communication assistant.

While his family had long accepted the fact that his intellectual disability and lack of motor control meant he would never be able to communicate, much less provide consent for anything, Stubblefield provided the family with an immense sense of hope. Under her guidance, Johnson began showing major signs of progression, expressing more and more interest in writing, reading and learning. Both Daisy and John tried to learn to facilitate for him as well, though they were never able to get as much out of him as Stubblefield allegedly was. Johnson enrolled in an African American Literature course with Stubblefield facilitating and attended FC conferences where Stubblefield shared statements that he had supposedly written.

Things began to take an eery turn, however, when Stubblefield began communicating things through Johnson that aligned more with her interests rather than his. During a car trip, she claimed Johnson preferred classical music to the gospel station his family was playing. She also told them he liked red wine better than beer, wanted to be a vegetarian, and desired to move out of his mother’s house.

Eventually, Stubblefield shared with John and Daisy that she and Johnson were in love, that she was going to divorce her husband for him, and that they had made love, prompting his family to report Stubblefield to the police.

What Is Facilitated Conversation?

Also known as FC, facilitated conversation is a method that falls under the wider umbrella of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) methods, which the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) defines as “all of the ways that someone communicates besides talking.” 

In practice, FC is when a person has their arm physically supported by a facilitator while they point to letters on a keyboard, spelling out words and sentences. It’s designed for those who are unable to communicate via conventional methods due to a lack of speech and motor control. The method has proven helpful for many; however, when Stubblefield was charged with first degree aggravated sexual assault, the court ruled that no evidence related to FC would be considered, because the process was not recognized by science. 

‘Tell Them You Love Me’ Ending Explained

Unlike many other true stories, this is one in which justice seemingly prevails… at first. Stubblefield was convicted of her crimes in October of 2015, serving two counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault. Though she was sentenced to two 12-year terms, she was released after two years when her initial conviction was overturned and pled down to a lesser sentence.

Where Are Derrick Johnson and Anna Stubblefield Now?

After her release, Stubble Field claimed to have taken a waitressing job; however, she was relieved of her duties when a customer recognized her. She currently works from home but has expressed that she misses teaching, as it was a significant part of her identity. As for her relationship with Johnson, the two have not seen each other since 2011, as Johnson still lives in New Jersey with his mother, Daisy, and spends time with his family often. Understandably, he no longer uses facilitated communication.