WARNING: This post contains several spoilers for the “Dirty John” podcast.
Last year as the L.A. Times recounted the chilling tale of how psychopath “Dirty John” Meehan deftly embedded himself in the life of wealthy divorcee, Debra Newell, the story captivated the world. Our fascination wasn’t just because the story ended in Meehan’s grisly demise at the hands of Newell’s daughter, but because so many women have fallen victim to a psychopath at some time in their lives. Many find the experience deeply wounds their self-esteem, leaving long, snarled scars of shame and confusion. That shame sometimes extends from not heeding warnings from family and friends.
Why Wouldn’t She Listen?
Newell’s daughters, Jacquelyn and Terra, warned their mom repeatedly that something was amiss with Meehan’s behavior. His stories and behavior just didn’t add up. Even her nephew, Shad Vickers, confronted Meehan, demanding that he prove he was who he said he was.
Of course, he didn’t. Instead, Meehan turned hostile and violent.
The truth is that, once a “Dirty John” has someone in his sights, it’s hard to penetrate the fog that he creates around his target. He has the neurological and biochemical advantage thanks to a common strategy.
The Strategy of a Psychopath
Psychopaths share a strategy that makes it virtually impossible for the target to get perspective and walk away. That strategy includes the following, well-honed tactics.
Oozing with charm, psychopaths bombard their targets with affection and attention, telling them everything they want to hear. They might send hundreds of texts in the first week of dating, idolizing the target and treating her “like a queen.” If the object is at all receptive, the initial phase of falling in love — or at least infatuation — is activated. And according to Harvard Medical School, this depletes the serotonin in the victim’s brain, which incites the obsessive thoughts we associate with romance. Serotonin depletion accompanies an explosion of dopamine, creating an impenetrable mental fog similar to being high.
As Newell said, “Even if (John Meehan’s deception) was true, I wouldn’t care, because I love him.” That was only weeks into the relationship.
Psychopaths are often fantastic in bed. The amazing sex can contribute to the mental fog. Like the high you get from certain drugs, sex bakes your brain with dopamine and oxytocin. And part of the reason the sex is so good is because, according to clinical psychologist Seth Meyers of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, “Like much of their behavior, psychopaths have mastered the art of performance.” Meyers explains that they perfect their performance to get whatever they want — power, money, attention, etc.
And they’re probably having sex with multiple partners at any given time since they crave stimulation. Practice makes perfect, indeed.
They don’t just move fast in bed. Psychopaths tend to accelerate the key stages of relationship development. He might be proposing by the end of the first week and moving in by the third. Everything moves at lightning speed — all while the target is biochemically compromised.
Newell noted this same behavior on her first date with her Dirty John. By the second and third dates, Meehan was saying he wanted to marry her. And they did marry — secretly. They knew Newell’s family would have objected because Newell was a successful businesswoman and Meehan was a parasite.
But Is He a Psychopath or Sociopath?
According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), both sociopaths and psychopaths fall under Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD). Most mental health professionals treat ASPD as a continuum, with no clear cut-off point when they call someone a sociopath rather than a psychopath. Further, FBI profilers, criminologists and law enforcement have their own definitions.
Regardless of what term you use, check the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to see how many boxes his behavior ticks, such as:
- grandiose self estimation
- pathological lying
- cunning and manipulativeness
- lack of remorse, guilt and empathy
- parasitic lifestyle
- sexual promiscuity
- failure to accept responsibility for own actions
What to Do if You or a Loved One is Dating a “Dirty John”
Chances are, if you’re dating a psychopath, you might not able to see him for who he is. And even if you can, you might be too ashamed or scared to get away. Your friends and family, however, can take action and hire a private investigator like Newell’s family did to get the facts. But they might not need to go to that expense.
Run a Background Check
An online background check costs a fraction of what it would for a P.I. to do the same work. If the information is available, you’ll be able to find:
Criminal and court records. Look for restraining orders. If all you see is a Offense Code, you can Google it to learn what the crime was. Or search for the Case Number on the website for the Superior Court for the county where the crime was committed.
Current and past addresses. Has he moved a lot? Who has he lived with? One of the addresses on the background check Newell’s family ran included a jailhouse.
Relatives. Psychopaths often claim that their family members, especially parents, are dead. They use it as a ploy for sympathy and a way to keep their target away from the truth. A background check can be a reality check.
Wealth. While a background check might not tell you exactly how much money he makes, it can reveal if he’s ever owned property under his name.
Take Back Control
While psychopaths can be emotionally and financially destructive, they can occasionally be violent. In the end, Meehan tried to murder Newell’s daughter, Terra, who wound up killing him in self-defense.
It’s terrifying to watch a loved one fall into a relationship with a predator, and even more so to be the target. But with facts in hand, family and friends can help stop the terror — before it’s too late.