A domestic abuse survivor on why the show’s realism matters
NB – Contains spoilers
Watching Dirty John is hard. It’s scary and jarring and utterly disconcerting in the way it prods at thoughts and feelings I had almost forgotten about. The show is by far the most realistic televised depiction of the exact type of intelligent, strategic emotional and psychological abuse, which inevitably degenerated into physical abuse, I experienced over a five year relationship. The pinpoint accuracy of the process of love-bombing, the exuberant charm, perfectly pitched flattery, caution-to-the-wind head-over-heels emotional intensity that feels like everything you’ve ever dreamed of but never dared hope would come true, all laced with a cleverly subtle vulnerability to make you feel so needed and so special. It’s sociopathy as an art form. Eric Bana as John perfectly masters the tiny facial shifts that become increasingly familiar as you watch helplessly as the sociopath morphs from one incarnation of himself to another: the tragic, jilted ex husband, the bashfully-in-love charmer, the humbly over-achieving professional, none of which are real of course, but all of whom draw you into a web of lies that you ultimately become so unwillingly complicit in propping up that locating a single strand of truth becomes virtually impossible.
If this sounds far-fetched, one of the greatest strengths of the show is the way it breaks down this process for those who have been lucky enough not to experience these toxic people in their lives, without diminishing the intensity or severity of the con or degrading or ridiculing the victim. Connie Britton’s Deborah is a beautiful, successful woman-a self-made millionaire and loving single mother who is simply looking for love. She is smart, savvy and in control of every other aspect of her life, but her heart yearns for the completion of a life partner and the joy of a loving relationship. Like so many of us she is lonely, and that loneliness creates a vulnerability that allows Bana’s smooth-operating con artist to walk into her life pitching his stream of carefully calibrated lies and deceptions that make her believe she has finally found her white knight.
Of course, this is the easiest part of the story to understand-any human with a soul can see how easy it is to fall in love with the idea of a person that they have successfully peddled to you-a love created under false pretences. The challenge comes when Deborah discovers John’s secrets and begins to unpick the truth about his extremely unpleasant past and the con that she has been fed. Why does she stay? What could possibly possess her to remain with someone who has not only lied to her consistently about every single aspect of his life, but has a proven history of violence, sociopathy and drug addiction? How can she justify going back to him when her family, friends and law enforcement are all telling her to get as far away from him as possible? This is where the show really comes into its own. We see Deborah not as pathetic but as sympathetic. She believed in this man, in this love, with all her heart. She wants and needs it to be true because she has framed this narrative and taken it on as her own. He may have created the story, but he has sold it to her so effectively that she now completely believes in it, and to give up on it, to give up on him, would mean giving up on her own story-the story she wants for herself and her life. It would mean admitting she’d been conned, but more than that, she is terrified that nothing else will ever be as good, as fulfilling, as perfect as the story she’s been told. As Deborah uncovers the truth and confronts John, he throws himself on her mercy, lacing the facts she has with more lies to diminish his responsibility and throw doubt over reality. He also manipulated the power balance in the relationship so successfully that Deborah begins to feel in control. She feels strengthened by John’s pseudo-confession and the power it ostensibly offers her to accept or reject him. The sense of self she attains from taking on the role of his saviour is, if anything, at least as intoxicating as the initial process of love-bombing, and the scene where we see her nursing him through his cold-turkey withdrawal, taking charge of the situation and making herself indispensable to him is so real and recognisable to anyone who has been in this position: you feel that leaving someone you love when they are so vulnerable would be cruel and unfair, and you don’t even want to leave because you believe you are curing them, and that they will be a better person because of you and for you. At this point you are so hooked you are almost like an addict yourself.
We, the audience, are painfully aware that John is continuing to lie and manipulate Deborah, as well as continuing to use drugs, and any of us who have been through this know, this is just the start of the process. How many times you go around the Ferris wheel before you realise that nothing will ever change may vary, but the turning of the wheel remains the same. The lies, tricks and traps that are laid out for you, the subtle process of separating you from friends and family, expertly executed by John as he uses online stalking and intimidation to attack Deborah’s children as they try to guide her out of the relationship. It is easy to understand how and why friends and loved ones may end up distancing themselves from such a patently toxic person, for fear of being damaged by their behaviour as much as frustration with the victim’s perceived complicity. The very nature of that complicity does, in fact, make the victim more vulnerable and in need of help, but of course the cycle of lies, abuse and pushing other people away means they become increasingly less likely to receive it. Once the trap is set, breaking out of it becomes more and more impossible as you have fewer and fewer external resources to rely on, and ultimately more and more to lose in terms of self-respect and sanity. Taking the huge step of admitting that you are being conned and abused requires extraordinary levels of strength and courage, something that is often overlooked by people who have not been in this position, and Dirty John’s acknowledgement of this difficult reality is another of its huge strengths.
The complex role of family complicity in domestic abuse is also very well-handled in Dirty John, albeit in a bit of a Hollywood-ised fashion. We see Deborah’s very religious mother Arlane as a source of both strength and weakness to her daughter. While Deborah and Arlane have a close relationship, Deborah’s need for Arlane’s approval can cloud her judgement, and Arlane’s particular interpretation of Christianity, which has enabled her to publicly forgive and exhonerate her son-in-law for shooting and killing Deborah’s sister does not exactly provide Deborah with a strong moral compass to look to when dealing with abusive men. When you are in an abusive relationship and you go to friends and family for support and guidance, when they tell you to stay with your partner because they love you, because you shouldn’t be alone, because they like them or because you made a vow when you married they are letting you down-full stop, end of story. Whatever their motivation, be it illogical optimism, wilful ignorance, misplaced loyalty or sheer laziness, they are still letting you down. As we see how Deborah’s family history helps to enable John’s position it is striking to note the difference between Arlane’s response to the relationship and that of Deborah’s children who see right through John very early on. This difference in generational perspective is encouraging to me, and I’d like to think it’s an indicator that the bad old days of the older generation believing that any relationship is better than no relationship, especially for a woman of a certain age, are coming to a close. It can be very difficult to ask for help when you’re in an abusive relationship, and once you’ve built up the courage to go to someone, being told to be grateful for what you have cos you probably won’t do any better is a huge blow that can set you back months or even years. Your friend or family member is basically doing your abuser’s job for them.
One of the most striking things about Dirty John is the realism in the little details. The show is loosely based on real events as covered by the LA Times, and the writers exhibit exactly the correct balance of delicacy and perception required when presenting such harrowing events for those involved and anyone with similar experiences. When we see Deborah starry-eyed with love, and John slowly testing out his powers of metering it out, feeding her attention and affection until she becomes as hooked as if she’d eaten the fruit at Goblin Market, it is agonisingly familiar. When we see him flexing his emotional muscles, forcing her to take his side against her daughters for fear of the withdrawal of that love, there’s a painful stab of memory of your own version of that situation. When Deborah misses him so much that she goes back to him by choice, even though she knows about his violent, criminal history and lies about it to her children we’re squirming as we remember the untruths we had to tell to cover up our weakness and shame. While part of the watching process is cathartic, another part is agonising-raking up feelings of helplessness, horror and fear. Watching won’t sooth your PTSD but it will make you feel less alone, less stupid, less like a victim and more like a survivor. And for those who are fortunate enough never to have been in this situation, it will help you to see survivors as they really are-strong, courageous and ultimately ordinary. Dirty John is a cautionary tale, but it’s a tale that could happen to anyone. Whether you’re a Newport Beach millionaire or a London office worker, you can end up looking for love in the wrong place. If this show helps one person spot an abuser before they get their hooks in, or one friend help another out of this situation it has more than served its purpose-making a real, horrible human situation recognisable and understandable.