Netflix’s Dirty John is a masterclass in coercive control

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Kayleigh Dray
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Eric bana in Netflix's Dirty John

Based on the true story of Debra Newell and John Meehan, the show – aptly released on Valentine’s Day – is a stark reminder that abuse doesn’t always have to be physical.

Despite enduring four failed marriages, Debra Newell (Connie Britton) never gave up on her dreams of finding ‘The One’. And, when she stumbled across the dating profile of handsome doctor John Meehan (Eric Bana) on a site for over-50s, she hoped that she had finally found him.

After exchanging messages back and forth, the pair met for the first time. Charming, attentive and witty, John more than surpassed Debra’s expectations, and love soon blossomed. It was only natural, then, that their relationship moved quickly. By their third date, he’d told her “I love you”, and, within the space of just two months, the pair were married.

Debra truly believed her new husband was too good to be true. Unbeknownst to her, she was right.

Warning: this article contains some spoilers for Netflix’s Dirty John.

Who was the real Dirty John, and how did he get his nickname?

Meehan used to run insurance scams and get deliberately hit by cars, employing techniques he learned from his criminal father. However, it wasn’t until he attended the University of Arizona that he got the nickname “Dirty John”, primarily bestowed upon him for the many women he slept with and the way he spoke about them afterwards.

Who was Dirty John’s first wife, and what happened to her?

Meehan married his first wife Tonia Sells ­– a practising nurse anaesthetist – in 1990. They were married for 10 years and had two children before they filed for divorce.

However, they did not part on good terms. When Sells learned that Meehan had stolen a box of surgical anaesthetics, she was forced to call the police and Meehan fled the state – but not before phoning his ex to warn her that she should make the most of her “time left on this earth”.

Thankfully, Tonia reported these threats and was granted a restraining order. As of the time of writing this article, she is alive and well and living in Ohio.

When was Meehan arrested?

He was found by police barely conscious and surrounded by drugs in Michigan some days later. After unsuccessfully trying to escape from custody, Meehan was sentenced to 17 months in prison. On his first day out, he set up a profile – which neglected to mention his opioid addiction, myriad felonies (stalking, weapons possession, etc.) and restraining orders, of course. And, from 2005 up until he met Newell in 2014, Meehan used the online dating site to “seduce, swindle and terrorise multiple women,” according to The Los Angeles Times.

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How did Meehan convince Newell that he was a doctor?

Meehan told Newell that he worked as an anesthesiologist in Iraq as a part of Doctors Without Borders, and made sure to wear hospital scrubs everywhere he went to maintain his story. When Newell complained about the way Meehan dressed, he had her buy an entire wardrobe for him. 

It is also worth mentioning that, whenever he’d leave the house for “work” each morning, Meehan was actually just leaving the house for a few hours before coming home and going back to bed. 

Eric Bana in Netflix's Dirty John

When did Newell’s family become suspicious of Meehan?

Newell’s daughters, Jacqueline (known as Veronica in the show) and Terra have stated repeatedly that they did not believe their stepfather’s lavish stories from the get-go. Indeed, as Jacqueline puts it herself in the podcast’s first installment, “The second I opened the door, I just kind of looked at him head to toe and thought to myself, Oh, this loser.” 

The two sisters began working with a private investigator in a bid to uncover all the details of John’s arrests and prison records, and even putting a GPS tracker on his car to prove he wasn’t going to work. They soon found that their new stepfather was not who he claimed to be – nor was he the kind-hearted romantic their mother believed.

As Meehan’s classmate Kevin Horan told The Los Angeles Times’ podcast of the same name (upon which the show is based): “He was basically this strange, lone-wolf guy that did all kinds of scandalous-type things, and it wasn’t just with women.

“I’m like, ‘That guy, you can’t trust him for nothing. He’s rotten top to bottom.’”

The evidence was astounding. However, Newell had been sucked into Meehan’s web of lies and her nefarious husband gradually unleashed a cycle of abuse and psychological manipulation that drove a wedge between her and her daughters, leaving her utterly alienated her from her loved ones. 

As such, it took about a year-and-a-half for Jacqueline and Terra to fully persuade Debra that all of their lives were in danger. And, by then, it was too late to prevent the spiral of events that led to the deadly incident on 20 August 2016.

How did Meehan manage to gain such control over Newell?

Meehan launched a charm offensive on Newell, and steadily built up information about her bank accounts, work habits, family dynamics, past relationships, and insecurities.

He used these details to mould himself into the perfect partner for Newell, portraying himself as a romantic and religious doctor who cared immensely about his family – which explains why Newell saw him as “too good to be true”.

“He socially engineered things, so he understood her likes and dislikes and he matched them,” criminal behavioral analyst Laura Richards explained to, adding that he used flattery to “love bomb” Newell and give her a false sense of security. 

“It was never just one thing that he did, and he was very sophisticated at this brainwashing of Debra,” Richards said. “You’re talking about a grown adult female that is being almost undone psychologically so that they lose their sense of self, what they love, what they like doing, their very essence of being.

Newell added to that Meehan was controlling her “little by little” as he put cameras in their home, wanted to drive her to job sites, insisted on going to the doctor with her, planted seeds of doubt about the motivations of her loved ones, and ran most of her regular errands.

“At first you think, ‘Wow, this man just really cares about me,’ but what’s really happening is he’s trying to control me,” she said.

What is coercive control?

“A lot of people think that it’s about threats and somebody being very overtly abusive,” Richards explained to “But coercive control is much more insidious, it’s this drip-drip-drip, under-the-skin behavior, and the romancing can be part of the campaign. So people are like, ‘He makes you smoothies, he takes your stuff to the dry cleaner, what’s the problem? He’s doing these incredible things, what are you complaining about?’” 

As such, it can be difficult for many people trapped in toxic and abusive relationships to spot the warning signs. These can include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Your partner constantly criticises, humiliates or belittles you
  • Your partner checks up on you or follows you
  • Your partner tries to keep you from seeing your friends or family
  • Your partner has prevented you or made it hard for you to continue studying or going to work
  • Your partner unjustly accuses you of flirting or having affairs with others
  • Your partner has forced you to do something that you really did not want to do
  • Your partner has deliberately destroyed any of your possessions
  • You have changed your behaviour because you are afraid of what your partner might do or say to you
  • Your partner controls your finances
  • Your partner talks down to you
  • Your partner has strong opinions on what you should wear and your appearance
  • Your partner has tried to prevent you from leaving your house
  • Your partner has forced you or harassed you into performing a sexual act
  • Your partner has threatened to reveal or publish private information
  • Your partner threatens to hurt him or herself if you leave them
  • Your partner witholds medication from you
  • Your partner makes you feel guilty all the time
  • Your partner blames you for their bad moods and outbursts
  • You are afraid of your partner

On average, it takes a woman seven attempts before she successfully leaves her abuser.

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What happened when the truth was exposed?

Nothing, at first. Meehan knew how to spin the evidence in his favour, and told Newell that his checkered history with the law was due to the existence of multiple John Meehans. He also claimed that the eight cyanide capsules hidden in his storage shed were there because he had multiple sclerosis and wanted to be able to end things quickly if his health took a turn for the worst.

In April 2016, though, Newell was finally convinced of Meehan’s past, and filed to annul their marriage. It was at this point that he showed his true colours, threatening to bleed her dry in court and posting nude photos of her on Facebook.

Meehan also targeted her business on Yelp and threatened to call her clients twice a day to run her name through the mud. On 11 June 2016, Meehan waited outside her office, and when the coast was clear, he nabbed the car, drove it a block away, and partially torched it.

“What was real and what was not real? I thought, how could this man fake it to this degree? Did he love me or was this all a game?” Newell later told NBC News. “I realised I was his newest victim.”

What happened on the 20 August 2016?

Newell’s daughter, Terra, was walking across the top level of a carpark when she suddenly felt strong arms grabbing her around the waist. Struggling, she began to panic as Meehan hissed the words, “do you remember me?” in her ear and began stabbing at Terra with a knife hidden in a bag.

“It felt like I was getting punched over and over again,” Terra told Today. “I put my arm up with my purse above my heart and I tried to get away from him and I was screaming. He put his hand over my mouth and I bit as hard as I could.”

Assisted by her dog, Cash – who gnawed at Meehan’s ankle – Terra was able to fight her stepfather off and managed to kick the knife out of his hands. Picking it up from the floor, she realised it was “him or me” and stabbed him.

Where is Meehan now?

Meehan died in the hospital a few days after the attack. Terra was never charged in his murder, as her actions were determined to have been in self-defence.

Why did Newell decide to share her story?

Newell is speaking out about coercive control to make sure the voices of survivors of abuse are no longer silent.

“I want women to know they’re not alone and they shouldn’t be ashamed,’ she told “This could happen to anyone.”

Who stars in Dirty John?

As mentioned, Eric Bana stars as the titular con man, while Connie Britton stars as Debra Newell.

The cast also includes Jean Smart as Arlane Hart, Sprague Grayden as Tonia Sells, Juno Temple and Julia Garner as Veronica and Terra Newell, Jeff Perry as Michael O’Neil, Keiko Agena as Nancy, and Kevin Zegers as Toby.

How many episodes are there?

Dirty John is an eight-part one-off series.

When will Dirty John land on Netflix?

The true-life story will drop on 14 February 2019, just in time for Valentine’s Day. However, many US viewers have already seen the series, as it was originally broadcast by US station Bravo from late 2018.

If you are worried that you might be the victim of emotional abuse, it’s quite likely that you are. If these signs of an abusive relationship sound all too familiar to you, then get out of that situation as soon as possible.

Visit or call 0808-2000 247 for more information about coercive control, domestic abuse, and the help available for those affected.

Image: Jordin Althaus/Bravo


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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