Have you ever met a person like Dirty John, the subject of the LA Times' maddening new podcast? I’m willing to bet you have come into contact with at least one person in your life that cannot take responsibility for their actions, who is manipulative, emotionally abusive, and unfortunately smart. This intelligence helps abusers calculate their every move, ensuring that they can continue to control and coerce their victims.
The new true crime podcast Dirty John has been on the top of the iTunes charts for weeks. It is the strange tale of a wealthy Newport Beach woman named Debra Newell who met the man of her dreams on an over-50 dating site. They married almost immediately, and he and went on to manipulate her and terrorize her family at large. “Dirty” or “Filthy” John Meehan was a fake doctor, seasoned con man, and creative drug addict, who used his charm and arsenal of careful lies to steal from the women he claimed to love. He also used intimidation, blackmail, and veiled threats to get what he wanted, and to get anyone who was in his way, out.
Journalist Christopher Goffard, the host of Dirty John, previously wrote another in-depth piece titled Framed, about a couple who fit this description, though at a less severe degree than John Meehan. It is the story of the framing of an innocent PTA mom who made a small mistake and of the powerful husband and wife that would stop at nothing to see her fall.
I’m no psychologist, but I do know something about narcissists as I have had one (diagnosed) in my proximity for a very long time. John Meehan reminded me again and again of this particular person. Narcissists are good talkers. Charmers. They know how to make you feel valued, important, even loved. But a hollowness exists in all their grandiose statements about you. They see you only as an extension of themselves, as something that can be used to further their own wants. They do not feel empathy, and so it is difficult to figure out if they can indeed feel love. That is the question that lingers at the end of Dirty John, as Debra watches the video of her wedding, in which John is beaming down at her. She asks, “Doesn’t he look happy?”
Narcissists can also turn on a dime and become so sadistic, so cruel, that it is beyond shocking; it is scary. Anytime they are challenged they will go to unbelievable lengths to silence whoever is questioning their behavior. We see this in both Dirty John and Framed; ten-fold revenge is a way of life, and oftentimes they seek it for the smallest things—things that a conscious person could easily let slide.
Even though we despise them, we are also obsessed with these types of people: serial killers, mass shooters, con men, certain politicians and newscasters, volatile celebrities, even the fictional characters that many television shows are centered around. I am too. I am also interested in why we are interested in them.
It seems that sometimes, we are so completely focused on people that are, most likely, beyond any type of rehabilitation. I am hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which someone like Dirty John, someone like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, suddenly has a true change of heart and is able, once again, to see the effect their actions have on others, and then actually care. We may see examples of their changes, like the Son of Sam finding God in prison and apologizing for his actions (in a handful of heavily publicized TV interviews), or the BTK killer teaming up with a writer to attempt to understand why he did the things he did, and to help stop future serial killers. But these actions are likely extensions of their narcissism, attempts to stay relevant, attempts to manipulate their image, rather than genuine personality shifts. One wonders what would happen if their new personalities were tested.
I think our obsession with these people might be because, deep down, we want to save them, or at least prove that we can. We want to prove that no matter what, no person is completely gone, completely lost to their own inhumanity. But psychologists agree that those who fall into cluster B personality disorders, especially severe cases of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Anti-Social personality disorder, are incredibly fixed. They will, most likely, not be not changing anytime soon. That is not to say that it is impossible, but it would take a huge amount of will from both patient and therapist, the kind that would be difficult to muster from someone as stubborn as a narcissist.
These negative traits are at the core of their being, an early technique for dealing with the fear of vulnerability. Narcissists make the subconscious decision to never be vulnerable again, and they do so by controlling and making their victims vulnerable. This lulls them into a false sense of power which is really just an elaborate bandage over a self so terrified, it has to create its own reality and live there. Still, it’s hard to muster sympathy for someone who causes pain to other to alleviate it within themselves.
This type of personality is found everywhere, from Dirty John’s almost-homeless, transient status, to the couple at the center of Framed: well-educated, high-powered lawyers in a California suburb. It is so important to trust your gut when entering into new relationships, as evidenced by the Debra's amazing daughters, Terra and Jacquelyn Newell, whose intuition and action lie at the center of Dirty John. They both knew something was wrong, that John Meehan could not be trusted. But for some, care-taking roles are as deeply ingrained as narcissism, and the wool can be pulled over their eyes easily, as we see with John’s wife Debra.
It is a dangerous pairing, one person too giving, another, too prone to taking. It is common, and though usually not as dramatic as Dirty John, it can be painful to watch from the outside, and very painful to live inside of. Even if you have a healthy sense of self with balanced with proper boundaries, able to care for both yourself and others, you may find yourself accidentally tangled with people like the couple in Framed.
Perhaps the only thing we are more interested in than narcissists themselves are the people who stand up to them, which is why I loved Dirty John so much. If you haven’t yet listened, know this isn’t your typical true crime podcast. It will teach you the difference between petty revenge and true vengeance. It will teach you about intuition and strength. For once, you might just end a true crime podcast with a smile on your face.