CulturePop Culture Dirty John Reveals How Society Helps Abusers Co-Opt The Victim Narrative

Dirty John Reveals How Society Helps Abusers Co-Opt The Victim Narrative

In Dirty John, he checks all the boxes of an abuser. In his version of the story, however, he is always the victim.

Posted by Rajitha S

It is good news that John Meehan, a.k.a Dirty John, died a ruthless death in the hands of a young woman who stabbed him, in a bid to survive his attack.

However, what we must not forget is that there are plenty of Dirty Johns, still treading the paths of our close female friends, charming them with their smooth talk and pretty looks, manipulating them (read gaslighting), and going on about their business.

For those who are wondering who this Dirty John is, here goes.
Like several other concepts and stories that became popular recently through Netflix – the Ted Bundy Tapes, the story of a serial killer or the Kon Mari concept of keeping only things that spark joy, the story of John Meehan is out on Netflix too. This is the true story of a man with a multi-layered personality. His full-time job is to hit on women who are self-made and financially independent but are craving for a man’s care and love.  

The show, called Dirty John just completed its first season. To the joy of viewers, and others who knew this story which shot to fame earlier through a hit podcast series, John’s not alive anymore.

Phew! That’s the only way we can end the trauma of victims who are mentally abused, right? Also, this may be the only way that terror among victims goes away? Maybe not.

While Meehan is dead, and there is no immediate threat to the family of Debra Newell, the last woman smitten by Meehan and also the one who got his story out to the press in 2016, teaches us several lessons that we need to take away from the show.

The two attorneys discuss how Newell ‘led’ John on for so long, till the point where he attempted to physically hurt her daughter.

There are a few things that most women encounter often, but tend to push these ‘red flags’ under the carpet. This is also what every other person tells the one that’s abused.
“Didn’t you see this coming?”
“I told you so.”

“Why didn’t you walk out?”

Reeling backwards, one of the scenes in the final episode hits this very note. The scene that follows the killing of Meehan by Debra Newell’s youngest daughter is where Newell breaks down in the ladies’ room of the courthouse in California. In the background two attorneys discuss how Newell ‘led’ John on for so long, till the point where he attempted to physically hurt her daughter. There are always red flags with people like John, says one attorney.

Also read: Stalking, Hypermasculinity & Other Problematic Elements in Indian Cinema

But isn’t that where we, as a society, collectively fail. That is how it all begins and that is where the abuser systematically builds his power over the victim. John is no exception. In fact, exceptional at that. He checks all the boxes of an abuser. In his version of the story, he is always the victim. He is compassionate, kind and also thrives to provide for his family. Despite this, life has always been ‘unfair’ to him. Like the ex-wife, who is a psychopath and does not let him into her life anymore. She’s so cruel, she doesn’t allow him to meet his children even. Sad, isn’t it?

John is also a drug addict, who steals from the hospital where he works as an anesthesiologist. The fact is, it was this cruel ex-wife, who put him through school so that he becomes an anesthesiologist. John is also the person who acknowledges his weaknesses and seeks to transform for the sake of the one he loves. He acknowledges that he is a drug addict and for Debra, he will stop.

He was in Iraq, working for the US Army and then Doctors Without Borders, when he returned and met Debra. Impressive no? He also shows up for his first date in shorts. Strange? But, he is apologetic. He walks into a charity event as Debra’s date in dirty hospital scrubs, that’s how dedicated he is to his work.

He is always available for Debra, (what if in dirty scrubs?) physically, emotionally, saying the things she wants to hear. The charm is in the simple, routine things he does for her every day, like a refreshing morning drink when she opens her eyes, or testing the temperature of water before she steps in the shower.

What he does when she isn’t around is track her movements, her bank transactions, her phone calls while munching on a snack. He creates situations to create fear in her, comes to her rescue and then becomes her safety net – gaslighting at its best.

He rehearses his day, anticipates situations, creates situations and then plays them by the script. His charm allows women to play their part too. It is not the fault of any of the women. They are just kind, giving, and forgiving.

So was Newell, who despite finding documents on his arrest, restraining order by the police from John’s ex-wife, lets him back to her life because she believes that he can change. Rather, she believes that her love can change him. John has the last laugh here, literally.

Then comes the attack on the family. He attacks Newell’s protective and outspoken daughters and also her nephew. He walks into their lives, digs deep and then uses their weaknesses and vulnerabilities against them. Before they know it, they are all in fear of what might his next move be.

A lot can be said about John’s personality through his childhood. John’s father sought to earn money the easy way, using John as the pawn. He leads John to put himself in dangerous situations, like inserting a glass piece in a Taco, letting him bleed and then suing the Taco place. In other instances, John also breaks his leg. The reward – a portion of the money and some words of praise from his father. John also takes one particular advice seriously – never get back at your victim, but the family.

Unlike the laws in many countries, which cannot yet decipher mental abuse, the police try several times to put him behind bars, but fail. He served jail time, but no remorse.

A way out is to lend an ear to these women, provide them with the support they need to empower themselves and walk out.

A number of police officers and lawyers are left speechless trying to decode his next move. Unlike a serial killer, who has a defined type for his next victim, no one knows what people like John are capable of doing.

While Newell finds a way to share her story with the world, there are several women around us caught in this web. While it is easy to recognise these abusers, it takes immense courage to get out of the warp of fear and guilt which the abuser makes the victim believe to be love – the kind that is ‘undying and unconditional and the only kind of which they are worthy.
While it is common for women like Newell to love unconditionally and forgive numerous times, there is a need for a family like that of Newell’s or friends, who call out these abusers.

Instead of calling out the victims and placing the responsibility of the relationship on the women (most times), it is time we shift focus. It is not always that Dirty Johns are killed or die their own deaths. They keep going, woman after woman.

A way out is to lend an ear to these women, provide them with the support they need to empower themselves and walk out. This is likely to happen when there is a safe space for them to speak up so that people around understand that mental abuse and gaslighting is common. If there are enough stories out in the open, then there is a possibility for a dialogue which could enable a policy/laws to address this issue legally.

Also read: Victim Blaming: A Trope As Old As The Hills

Psychological abuse by those in power, against women and men who are vulnerable, is more common than we know. And with all the great talk about women empowerment, this is just as essential. It can begin with the way Newell did, by giving space to victims to share their stories.

Rajitha S is a former journalist with a national daily and is currently on a break teaching mass communication to undergraduates at a private college in Bhutan. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured Image Source: What’s on Netflix

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