Yesterday, we discussed the hit podcast turned hit TV show “Dirty John”… And I opened up on my own experience surviving a version of the coercive control abuse that was at the center of Debra Newell’s relationship with John Meehan. Yet because there is still so much more to unwind in John Meehan’s twisted tale of deceit and violence, I figured it would be worthwhile to take one more day to unspin all the spin that’s become part of this pop culture phenomenon.
Gaslighting and coercive control
“Dirty John” Meehan was an expert manipulator. He somehow convinced a multitude of people to believe him: family members, romantic partners, medical professionals, and even judges. At the same time, he aimed to discredit his opponents, even making people doubt themselves.
There’s a term for this: gaslighting. Gaslighting is a key component of coercive control where the abuser has the victim question one’s own reality, thereby making it easier for the abuser to manipulate the victim into staying in the abusive relationship. John regularly gaslit Debra and first spouse Tonia Bales by accusing them of harming him while claiming that all the other people he harmed were really destroying his life. It wasn’t until they discovered evidence of John harming other people (for Tonia, the drugs he stole from patients; for Debra, the violent threats against her daughters) when they cut him off for good.
Yesterday, I revealed how I went through a similar trajectory with my mother. She constantly complained about others harming her, then convinced me that I was in the wrong and that I was harming her with all my scandalous behavior. It wasn’t until I was out of her house and no longer in her custody when I began to understand her extensive pattern of deceit.
So can we finally #BelieveWomen (and others who have survived abuse)?
Until very recently, abusers could get away with their crimes fairly easily by convincing law enforcement and community leaders that their victims were “crazy”, that the victims were trying to harm them, and that whatever happens behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors. Even now, even in the #MeToo era, we continue to hear these lines of argument, most prominently in defense of President Donald Trump and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh against (their respective) multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment. And over the course of the “Dirty John” timeline, we saw how many women were sidelined as John Meehan came up with new excuses to blame them for what were actually his own misdeeds.
By refusing to believe the victims of abuse, it’s easier for us to rationalize our inaction. After all, they’re the ones who are “crazy” and “obsessed”. I can only wonder how the survivors of Robert Hansen felt when they continually warned Alaska law enforcement of his literal hunting down of women, only for him to get little more than slaps on the wrist until he was finally convicted of multiple counts of murder and rape in 1984. I also can’t help but think of how fellow serial killer Ted Bundy evaded capture throughout the 1970’s as folks who met him described how he was so “charming” and “good looking”.
Perhaps these seem like rather extreme examples, but it’s important for us to remember just how far this abuse and violence can go so long as we rationalize doing nothing. Closer to home, an American experiences sexual assault every 98 seconds. Even closer to home, Nevada has ranked as one of the worst states for domestic violence, and that violence knows no boundaries on race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, and/or socioeconomic status.
More on that last point: Ditch the stereotypes and do something to stop the violence.
When outside observers peered into my home environment, they probably saw a loving, if awfully eccentric, mother doing her best to care for her “socially awkward” child. What they didn’t see was that very mother berating my father, sometimes to the point of throwing objects at him or concocting salacious new allegations to use against him. She would later turn to me with her coercive control, all the way to the final night when she struck me with her cane, then turned the cane on herself while screaming, “Stop hitting me!” While that move ultimately backfired in that it resulted in my removal from her custody, it’s left me with psychological scars that may heal, but never really disappear.
Though “Dirty John” Meehan often didn’t fit into the traditional stereotype of “obvious domestic abuser” or “dangerous predator”, that doesn’t mean his abuse was any more tolerable than our stereotypical mental images of “obvious abuse”. Whether he was continually threatening Tonia Bales, attacking Meg Maggart with his car, or falsely claiming Debra Newell was somehow assaulting him, he was continually abusing other people and engaging in frighteningly predatory behavior. We should keep this in mind next time someone claims an abuser isn’t really abusing other people because “he doesn’t look like one”, or because “she’s so doting and loving”, or because “you just have it out for him”.
If you want to know more about the real story behind the hit Bravo show, Oxygen’s full two-hour documentary is now available for online streaming and the LA Times has its full version of the “Dirty John” series available on its site. If you know anyone who’s currently experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence, the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence has a list of resources available across the state. And if you want to do more to help, check out the Nevada Coalition’s action page for ideas on getting more involved.