The #MeToo movement has shown that everyone, from A-Listers to your neighbour, can be a victim of abuse. Which is why the incredibly binge-worthy Netflix and Bravo show Dirty John, where a successful, well-off career woman falls for an abusive con artist and sociopath who threatens her and her family, shows we are getting better at talking about these stories. As an abusive relationship survivor and as a writer of a novel inspired by that experience, the show gave me a lot of feels and prompted me to share my thoughts on it.
*This post was sponsored by Panasonic UK. You can watch Dirty John on one of their 4K LED TV Panasonic screens for an enhanced binge-watching experience!*
This post contains no spoilers or majorly triggering scenarios. It does however feature my own opinion stemming from my own personal experience – I haven’t written any academic papers or done any research studies on this. I’m just working off what happened to me, and the experiences other women in similar situations have shared with me.
What’s Netflix Dirty John about?
Inspired by a true story turned into a true crime podcast, Netflix’s Dirty John follows super-successful interior designer Debra Newell (Connie Britton) and a con-man posing as a doctor (Eric Bana).
Debra has two beautiful daughters, a beautiful house and a successful business, but she comes from four failed marriages and a series of unsuccessful dating experiences. Enter John, a charming, sweet talking doctor who claims to have served for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq and only wants to treat Debra as the queen he thinks she deserves to be.
As trailers and a few alarm bells placed throughout the series will tell you however, John isn’t what he says he is. Only six weeks after they started dating, John manipulates Debra into renting a new beachfront house and into marrying him in Las Vegas, as her daughters grow increasingly suspicious.
What Dirty John shows us about abusive relationships and manipulation
Watching Dirty John as an abusive relationship survivor gave me many feels. Initially, there was anger – towards him, of course, but also towards the main character Debra: how could she not notice he was manipulating her? Immediately after, however, I started getting goosebumps as I recognised the typical patterns of manipulation that I was partly subject to in my own relationship.
In the series, John always claims to be doing what’s best for Debra, while actually trying to isolate her from her own family in a variety of ways. Verbal attacks and cruel jabs at family members such as her daughters or her nephew create a drift between them and Debra, as they would rather avoid hanging out with her and John to dodge his unpleasantness. This, and John’s use of the shame Debra feels for dating him when details from his past start to emerge, mean she soon starts to withdraw from her loved ones.
John often plays the victim card, acting as if the whole world is out to get him, and as if Debra is the only person able to save him, understand him and to help him clear his name. These techniques were used against me, and are often used towards women in physically and emotionally abusive relationships to put them under the abuser’s control.
So when I felt contempt towards Debra’s naivety, I had to look deep inside and admit that I felt the same contempt towards myself, for not having recognised the signs of manipulation earlier. This is a feeling many survivors have, and it’s a learned behaviour stemming from abusers constantly trying to shift the blame for their actions on you.
Situations like the ones described in the series, and my own situation, too, show how coming from a position of emotional vulnerability sometimes makes you fall hard for people who claim to love you. Whether Debra or I could have spotted the signs of manipulation or not does not make the abuser’s behaviour less wrong, and it doesn’t mean the abuse is our fault.
Why shows like Dirty John matter
Stories of survival are often told from a single angle: that of the broken, innocent victim, who became the victim of a monster. The victims depicted are often over-powered by strength, and come from a position of social or economical vulnerability. Often however, it’s more complicated than that.
Dirty John is the perfect example of how anyone can be manipulated into an abusive relationship. It was very refreshing to see a successful, loving, glamorous woman like Debra – someone who could be your mother, your friend, your sister or even you – go through something so many of us have been through.
One of the main issues I’ve always had with the way survivors are depicted is the sense of failure or powerlessness surrounding them. They either failed to notice the signs of abuse, failed to stand up for themselves once the relationship became abusive, or they were blameless lambs who couldn’t have acted otherwise.
These narratives are damaging for survivors because they take agency away from them. Most importantly, more often than not these narratives are explored without any layers, without any surrounding circumstances, just as a plot device – and they always tend to focus on women from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is a problem because it paints a damaging picture of backgrounds that veer away from the average white middle class upbringing. It makes people from non-privileged backgrounds feel like abuse is what they should expect from their lives; it’s also damaging for people from privileged backgrounds because it portrays abuse as a class issue rather than as a behavioural issue that can affect and be performed by anyone.
It was refreshing to see the relationship taking centre stage in Dirty John, and even more refreshing to see a group of women fight back through adversity. It was also important to show an average, even privileged family go through the main events in the series, because it shows John’s behaviour is the problem – not its victims’ reaction to it, or their background.
Dirty John IRL
I have kept this post relatively spoiler-free and I won’t start spoiling now. However, as I mentioned before, Dirty John is a true story first told through a true crime podcast by Wondery and the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Goffard. Debra and her daughters were involved with the making of the TV series, and their story is recently being re-told through TV appearances and features – so take a look once you’ve finished watching!