The Pod Nod: Dirty John Retaught Us How To Empathize With A Victim

Get ready for your next obsession. If you’re familiar with the true crime circuit of podcasting, then you’ve at least heard about Dirty John. I’m here to tell you that this is your next podcast binge. If you were obsessed with Serial and S Town or if you simply like a good true crime story, then look no further than this story chronicled by The Los Angeles Times about a con man named John Michael Meehan.

Given that this is a pod nod, we will avoid any spoilers of the miniseries, but we won’t be shying away from our opinions about this series. Hosted and written by Christopher Goffard of The LA TimesDirty John is a story about obsession, grifting, emotional abuse, stalking, and toxic masculinity. We follow top interior designer Debra Newell and her family as they recall interactions with Debra’s boyfriend, John. What starts as just a simple date between two people who meet on an online dating site turns into a whirlwind romance between Debra and John. It quickly sours as we see John’s darker side and the obsession that he has with Debra.

At times, while listening to Dirty John, I caught myself with a very visceral, emotional reaction to Debra’s story. Between her giggles of reminiscing her time with an abusive con man and certain revelations about her sister’s court case, Dirty John is not just an introspective look at a sociopath, but also a deep dive into an imperfect family.

Which is not to say that perfect families exist. But my biggest take away from Dirty John — aside from some more anxiety about online dating — was how I view a victim and how potentially polarizing the podcast can make the victim of such a brutal and extensive crime. Debra is, unquestioningly, a victim of John Meehan’s machinations. He stole her time, her trust, her money, and her family from her. He embedded himself in her life and made her question everything about herself.

Still, as a listener, I found myself frustrated with Debra. I found myself upset that she didn’t see the clear signs of danger, despite knowing how difficult that is when you’re in love with someone and under their spell. Listening to Dirty John was a lesson in understanding the victim. Sympathy comes from understanding, and I wasn’t alone in being frustrated at Debra. Friends that I recommended the podcast to were live-texting me their frustrations while tweets on Twitter echoed my sentiment to a hyperbolic degree. Even Real Crime Profile host Lisa Zambetti agreed to some extent during her interview with Christopher Goffard alongside Jim Clemente and Laura Richards. 

I learned something about myself, because despite my deep love and interest in true crime, despite my belief in victim advocacy and stance against victim blaming or shaming, I found myself reminding myself not to blame Debra for being the victim of a master con man. It’s a testament to Goffard’s ability to weave an intricate and detailed account of Debra and John’s story that I got so emotionally invested, but it’s also a fault of the society we live in that defaults me to blaming the victim.

Indeed, the format of the storytelling, a podcast, helps to blur the lines. While The LA Times has also published the story on their site, the podcast adds a layer that is missing from the written words, just like the published story fills in gaps in the podcast. Voice is a key element of podcasts, obviously, but hearing Debra’s account straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and hearing her daughters and her mother speak added a level of intimacy. Just like the photos of John and Debra acted as visual aids for the theater of the mind, hearing Debra’s voice, her lawyer’s voice, even Goffard’s voice, made the story addictive.

I found myself gobbling up the six-episode miniseries and desperate for more. I wanted to talk about it, I wanted to tweet about it, I told every true crime lover I knew. I can’t remember the last time a podcast had that effect on me, so what are you waiting for?

Spodlights

Don’t just take our word for it, The Guardian, Bustle, Mashable, and USA Today are also obsessed with it.

I will admit that a small bit of prejudice did come from Debra’s daughters’ Californian drawl. It grated on me, but I will look past it.

This podcast further proves that Vegas marriages are always a bad idea.

Also, it proves that there is some good that comes from being paranoid and watching a lot of The Walking Dead.

Can we please talk about the origin of that name Dirty John? If you’re ever dating anyone with a moniker that starts with Dirty, just don’t.

As stated above, the Real Crime Profile podcast is actually great. The hosts include an expert FBI profiler who is also working on Criminal Minds, a criminal behavioral analyst, and the casting director for Criminal Minds.

Never trust a man who immediately just lays down on your bed and says, “This feels incredible.” And then WON’T GET OFF.

Never trust an anesthesiologist with messy pant legs.

Always trust your instincts.

Listen on: The Story | Website | iTunes