Dirty John: A Cautionary Tale

What started out as a true as a true story reported out by LA Times journalist Christopher Goffard turned into a podcast, a Bravo miniseries, and a cultural phenomenon. For those not in the know: TRIGGER WARNING. Dirty John is the real-life story of how Debra Newell and her daughters Terra and Jacquelyn heroically survived (but just barely) the machinations of a real-life con man who targeted women of means.

Since I first head the podcast I’ve been riveted by this story like thousands of others, and for good reason. It struck a cultural nerve, in my opinion, because coercive control, stalking, and intimate partner violence have always been there, it’s just that there’s now (finally!) public discourse about them. Dirty John‘s real-life villain, John Meehan, is a textbook narcissist/psychopath/abuser and the best illustration you can get of dating red flags in terms of love bombing, manipulation, power and control, and narcissistic rage. This is a story that didn’t even need dramatic embellishment, and perhaps that’s what its success is partially attributable to, but I think it’s more than that. It’s getting to the point where abuse is affecting everyone–either we ourselves or someone we know has been in abusive relationship, and I applaud the Newell women for telling their story so publicly.

While this story contains violence, the coercive control John Meehan exerted upon Debra Newell, a smart, savvy, successful business owner, didn’t need to be backed up with physical violence. He used a far more common and potent weapon–love bombing–to get Debra firmly in his grasp. It was her love and acceptance he used against her. Being a kindhearted person who believed that people deserve a second chance, the story shows that while there were red flags at their first meeting, John charmed his way out of it. If only real life had a rewind button, I’m sure we’ve all done the postmortem on an abusive relationship and recognized where we should have hit pause and run the other direction. We can also recognize the cultural narratives and myths–everyone deserves a second chance; love heals the wounded; if someone has a difficult past their terrible behavior should be excused; good women can turn the bad man around–that influenced us when our own stories played through to their eventual tipping point.

Personally, I’ve become more of a “trust but verify” kind of human being after my own experiences, and while I think being a loving and kind person is wonderful, I don’t think it should come at the expense of one’s own safety, integrity, or wellbeing. And the first person who owe that love and kindness and compassion to is ourselves. If someone treats you disrespectfully, especially early on, cut bait. If someone asks for a “second chance” within weeks of knowing them, run. If your date makes a strange comment that bothers you, be pushy and ask questions, and if you’re not satisfied by the answers, walk out. Womxn are often not taught how to be assertive, and while being kindhearted and warm works great with people in your circle of trust, you don’t owe all that to people you barely know, and that is far from “being mean.” Trust grows organically with consistent, safe behavior over time. If someone is trying to “hotwire” trust with you too quickly, be very wary of that person. Verify what you can about them. Talk to the people who know them. It’s okay to vet people you don’t know well, and if they’re a person of good character, they won’t mind. In fact, they’ll understand, and they’ll be asking the same of you.

You may have heard the phrase “experience is not transferable,” but again, I think this is a myth. Do we always have to learn from direct experience, or might we able to learn from each other’s most difficult stories, before something worse happens to us? I firmly believe that we can, and I’m grateful for women like Debra and Terra Newell for allowing us into their most vulnerable of stories. Debra Newell was simply looking for a companion to share her life, and her daughters were simply trying to protect their mother, and they collided with an abusive person with very bad intentions. We can’t control everything, but we can open our collective eyes and see the roadmaps these stories have laid out before us, as well as listening to and not overriding the little voice inside that says, “that’s weird. Something feels off.”

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