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Coercive Control: Dirty John Meehan

Updated: May 13, 2022

Most people found the story of Dirty John in one of two ways: the podcast or the Netflix series. Though the podcast inspired the series, each has a different vibe. And then there’s the podcast not quite as many have heard–The First Wife: John Meehan's Reign of Terror. And that adds even more to the story.

If you aren’t familiar, John Meehan (nicknamed Dirty John) had a long history of deception and violence against others, including his own family. He married twice, and both of his wives tell stories of watching him unravel. In 2016, Meehan attacked Terra Newell, his second wife’s daughter, and she killed him in self-defense. Tonia Bales, Meehan’s first wife, and Debra Newell, Meehan’s second wife, have both publicly shared their terrifying stories about life with John with the hope of helping others avoid or remove themselves from an existing abusive situation.

If we had one takeaway from John Meehan’s story, what would it be? Avoid online dating? Listen to your friends and family when they tell you your boyfriend is a bad guy? Deeply question any financial obligation you’re asked to make in a relationship? I suppose if we live our lives in fear and suspicion, we’ll miss out on a lot. So perhaps this can be a good reminder to listen to your gut and ask questions. When I think of Debra’s story especially, the term coercive control comes to mind. Few victims can see it when it's happening, so maybe these stories can help us identify dangerous situations and intervene safely as soon as possible.

What is coercive control? America’s Conference to End Coercive Control shares this definition from California SB 1141, a bill designed to expand California’s Family Code:

The bill defines coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty and includes, among other things, unreasonably isolating a victim from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.”

John Meehan's story is on a lot of platforms. How did you hear about Dirty John? And which telling resonated most with you?

The Initial Podcast: Dirty John

Wondery launched Debra Newell’s story about her relationship with John Meehan in October 2017. This was the first time we heard about how they found each other online, had a wonderful and then awkward first date that turned into a whirlwind romance. Hearing Debra’s own words, guided by reporter and host Christopher Goffard from the L.A. Times, makes the incredible story that much more harrowing. And for every person who hears stories like this and thinks, “That would never happen to me,” her willingness to share makes it that much easier for all of us to see just how easy it is for skilled con artists to be successful in any situation.

The Netflix Series: Dirty John (Season 1)

What was different when, in 2018, Netflix told the same story? When I think about how mediums affect stories, it’s helpful to compare how the same story is shared in a book, on TV, or on a podcast. If the story is the same, why do people come away remembering different elements of the story?

Here’s food for thought:

  • With few exceptions, time is an important factor in telling a story. If you create something on Netflix, you plan a certain number of episodes that are all a certain length–which also means that each episode has to end at a moment in the story that makes sense. If you’re working on a podcast, there are usually episode length norms and, again, breaks in the story have to make sense and need to leave people eager to return when the next episode is dropped. If you write a book, there’s a cost associated with the length and most publishers have an opinion about what book size will sell. You may have to “kill your darlings” as they say in the book business, which means cutting pieces of your story so that you have an overall better story. What do we lose when we trim content?

  • References on different mediums aren't always available. If you have a visual medium, you can show someone peering around a corner. In a book, you can write about it. In a podcast, the host or the person being interviewed needs to describe it. The same scenario can feel completely different simply because of how it is delivered.

  • Celebrity involvement can make or break your connection to the story. Do you love or hate Connie Britton? That could change how you feel about Debra Newell. Are you a fan of Christopher Goffard? Maybe that means you trust his work and commit to the story quickly. Our own biases contribute to how we process the real story (whether we realize it or not).

I watched the Netflix series in a pretty short period of time–probably not a binge, but my interest was piqued and I thought it was very well done. I found myself remembering pieces of the story I had forgotten, and I suspect there was content in the series that I hadn’t heard before.

The Second Podcast (from the first wife): The First Wife: John Meehan’s Reign of Terror

In July 2021, Audible recommended Tonia Bales The First Wife and I will be forever grateful. (That podcast I will admit...I did binge.) In 1990, Bales and Meehan married and her story shines a new light on who John was. So often we meet criminals after they have been publicly exposed, and it can be easy to think that their bad acts must have been obvious. When people like Tonia come forward, they help us all understand just how subtle severe issues can be and how a person can evolve over time.

Additionally, I loved that Bales had criminal behavioral analyst and international crime expert Laura Richards provide commentary after each episode. Tonia would tell a portion of her story and then Richards would talk to her about the psychology of what was happening. It added so much credibility. Also, it was a fascinating addition to the podcast and, especially for anyone interested in the psychology of criminal behavior, it really made her podcast stand out.

The Book: Surviving Dirty John: My True Story of Love, Lies, and Murder

In August of 2021, Debra Newell published a book about her life with John, providing another look and another medium for us to understand her story. I haven't read it yet, but it is definitely on my list.

Other Media

I think I knew this was bound to happen, but I admit that I’m referencing an episode of Dr. Phil earlier in the blog than I thought I would. But I wanted to round this post out by sharing a few clips from his show that are interesting additional supplements to the case.

Tonia Bales, John’s first wife, put a wiretap on her phone and provides us with a terrifying insight into the kinds of things John would say. For me, hearing John Meehan’s words–which I had read before hearing the clip–was a game-changer. Tonia’s voice, calm and collected but still fearful, and John’s voice, angry as he rambled on attempting to clarify what he was saying while maintaining his threatening tone, provided a stark contrast within the tense phone call.

Terra Newell’s interview on Dr. Phil provides another interesting take on the impact crime has on others. She details how John attacked her and how she (with the help of her valiant dog) eventually killed him in self-defense. Hearing her tell her story, you can easily see how she never imagined she’d be in a situation where she’d have to take someone else’s life to save her own.

The different ways we can experience these stories affect how we perceive and remember them. The Dirty John case is one with a lot of resources, so if you haven't taken a look yet, you have plenty to choose from!

Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

Usually, I like to share a detailed summary of a crime/criminal for people who are unfamiliar with the case, but John Meehan’s story gained so much attention, I think it’s pretty hard to find someone who’s completely unfamiliar with his story. Instead, I’d recommend this timeline–a helpful tool for keeping everything that happened straight. For this story, when things happened is almost as important as what actually happened.

If you have other related resources to share, please drop them in the comments!

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