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The Dirty John story resonates with all of us – here’s why

Dec 13, 2021

Carr & Co

By Hayley Ellison, Consultant

By now, you may have listened to the Dirty John podcast by Wondery or watched an episode of the series (or the whole series) on Netflix. I am certain that, at the very least, you have heard people chatting about the story of John Meehan and Debra Newell.

For those of you who do not know the story, I will give you a brief overview. Debra Newell is a successful business owner who met John Meehan through online dating. When they start dating, John sweeps Debra off her feet and appears to be her perfect match. Until everything unravels. Sadly, for Debra, John exits her life in a more explosive and dramatic manner than he entered it.

So why do I believe that the story in Dirty John resonates with us all? I think that each of us either knows or has known someone who is being or has been subjected to the same treatment or has the same vulnerabilities as Debra. Alternatively, some of us, have been in the position that Debra was in.

  1. We are far more open to strangers entering our lives.

We live in a society where we are routinely rebelling against the childhood caution we were all given that we “don’t talk to strangers.”

While many people may try to distance themselves from Debra’s story, in the age of online dating, it is pretty clear that, as a society, we fundamentally are making the kind of choices that Debra made by meeting John for that first date.

Think about it, how many people do you know have swiped right in the quest to find Mr or Mrs Right, then met up with that complete stranger hoping they were “the one”? Alternatively, how much of our personal lives are now openly shared on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook? We are becoming increasingly willing to let strangers into our homes.

This is not to say that our decisions in using applications such as Tinder, Uber or the like are wrong. I am simply saying that before you judge the dating choices made by Debra, remember the choices that we each make daily.

  1. We spend too much time focusing on our preconceptions of what a victim and perpetrator might look like

We spend our time stereotyping victims and perpetrators of family violence based on our preconceptions of how we think they look or behave. In almost all cases, the perpetrator and the victim will not match our preconceptions.

Look at Debra. She is a successful, beautiful, intelligent, strong and wealthy business owner – which I am sure is not the identity of the stereotypical victim you have in your mind is it? What about John? The charming, professional and well-presented doctor. He is hardly the stereotypical perpetrator many people have cast in their minds.

  1. While we know that physical violence occurs because we can see it, we fear emotional abuse or coercive control more

Why? Because we can’t see or understand coercive control and statistics inform us that it is alarmingly prevalent in abusive relationships. For example, a review of domestic related homicides in NSW found that in 99% of cases, the relationship was characterized by the male abuser’s use of coercive controlling behaviours towards the victim.

Medical News Today defines coercive control as “a form of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence. It describes a pattern of behaviours a perpetrator uses to gain control and power by eroding a person’s autonomy and self-esteem. This can include acts of intimidation, threats and humiliation.”

John constantly manipulates Debra and as you watch the series, you can see John successfully wear her down to be subject to his control as their relationship progresses. John isolates Debra from her family with each lie and tactic he employs.

This resonates with us all because we have all had a friend, a colleague or a family member who are or who have been victims of this kind of control. Some of us have experienced that feeling of hopelessness while we have tried to help the victim to see what they are being subjected to.

Coercive control continues to be a significant issue in Australia and there is a push for legislation to be introduced to criminalize it.

  1. Through the sharing of intimate photographs and more of our lives online we are more vulnerable

The issue which we see Debra encounter where John shares an intimate image of her by emailing it to her clients is not a new or unique issue. It is an issue which is arising more frequently because of our increased willingness to “share” more of our lives on social media and with others.

According to data gathered by RMIT University, 1 in 5 Australians have experienced image-based abuse and almost 1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed online or by some form of technology.

In February 2019, the Criminal Law Amendment (Intimate Images) Bill 2018 was passed through State Parliament. This Bill makes the non-consensual distribution of intimate images or “revenge porn” a crime which attracts jail time of either 18 months or three years and/or a fine of up to $18,000.

  1. It shows just how difficult it is for victims of family violence to leave

In the series, you see Debra’s family and a lawyer engaged by Debra, desperately trying to convince Debra to walk away from John.

All of these attempts to convince Debra to leave are sadly unsuccessful.

The grip that John holds over Debra is terrifying to watch. It is the stark reality that victims of family violence are facing, as it is understood through research and statistics that it takes victims of family violence an average of 6 attempts to leave the relationship for good, with some victims sadly not being able to make it out alive.

Debra’s courage to speak out about her relationship with John and the damage which it caused her family should be applauded. Dirty John brings the issue of coercive control to the forefront of our minds, which is exactly where it should be.