Thanks to true crime and two shitty Johns, we’re finally talking about domestic violence

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I can’t decide if it’s comical or a little inconvenient that the two abusive husbands we’re talking about are white men named John, because it’s tempting to generalize. But when Dirty John dropped on Netflix and Lorena arrived on Amazon Prime just in time for Valentine’s Day, it seemed like a sign that we need to continue the conversation about abusive relationships that we started with You.

I’ve said it before, but I disagree with the accusations that You glamorizes an abusive relationship, because I think it portrayed something more realistic: how difficult it can be for someone to realize that they’re in a toxic situation, much less un-ensnare themselves from the clutches of a violent abuser. In You we witnessed a clearly violent relationship between Joe’s neighbor Claudia and her boyfriend Ron, which served as a foil for Joe’s subtly toxic relationships with his girlfriends. Joe told himself that he wasn’t a bad man like Ron because he would never hurt the woman he loved, and therefore he’s a good guy. People apply all kinds of slippery logic to abusive relationships, especially when they don’t look as outwardly and obviously dangerous as Ron and Claudia’s.

Joes and Dirty Johns and John Bobbitts can be worse than Rons, because they don’t always leave evidence of their crimes. It’s incredibly difficult to prove stalking or spousal rape in court, and perpetrators like these men go uncaught every day. Each of these shows portrays abuse differently, but they all make the same point about the abusers: If you look the part of a decent guy, no one will suspect you of being a monster. I would argue that Dirty John Meehan took that violent deception to a new level.

With Dirty John, Debra Newell elevated a woman’s story of surviving an abusive partner from Oxygen fodder to national news.

I loved the LA Times podcast, but admittedly I had low-ish expectations for Bravo’s dramatization, and I imagined something more luridly Lifetime than my preferred True Detective brand of stoicism and philosophizing. Boy, was I in for a surprise because the TV show is more upsetting than the podcast. Hearing a narrative of the story is completely different than hearing John growl threats at Debra and her family, watching him corner her into a room and chase her out the door. The way the show illustrates John’s violence, the fear is palpable and powerful enough to melt away any unhelpful notions the audience might have about what they would do differently in Debra’s shoes. If your husband set your car on fire and the police couldn’t summon a response, do you really know where you’d turn for help?

While the podcast did a fantastic job of summing up John Meehan’s devastating trail of deception, the show brought depth to the story by highlighting the impact and legacy of domestic violence in the Newell family’s history. The podcast touched on the murder of Debra Newell’s sister Cindy by her husband, but the show recreated her final days so that the audience could experience the toll that her death took on her family. When we hear on the podcast that Debra’s mother characterized Cindy’s murder as an “intense love gone wrong,” it’s an upsetting statement but easy enough to move past. Bravo spends time on this detail, illustrating Debra’s mother’s struggle to reconcile the loss of her daughter with her desire to forgive her son-in-law. Her complicated feelings toward her daughter’s murderer are echoed by Debra later, as she begins to uncover John’s violent past. She loves him, she said a vow, and if her new husband is a changed person, doesn’t he deserve a second chance with her?

“Doesn’t he look happy?”

The show was terrifyingly effective in portraying the insidious cycle of violence, illustrating how well-meaning people find themselves trapped in something dangerous: slowly at first, and then very quickly. It’s the way abusers say that they want to change and promise they won’t hurt their loved ones anymore. How they worm their way back into people’s sympathies, especially by asking for help. I particularly loved the line one doctor said to Debra when she tried to help John enter rehab, because it could ring true for anyone in an unhealthy relationship with a messed up person:

You’re also allowed to not help him at all.

No one stays because their partner hurt them. They stay because they hold onto hope that the person they loved is still in there, somewhere. Maybe if they can just weather out this storm, everything will be okay again. In more than one sense, the hardest part of dealing with domestic violence is having hope.

Here’s something to be hopeful about: Now that we’ve entered a #MeToo era of reckoning, it’s encouraging that the world is (a little more) ready to listen and let another survivor, Lorena Bobbitt, reclaim her story.

Lorena is an unflinching and difficult watch. Everyone knows the punchline, but no one remembers the harrowing abuse at the heart of the assault that made them both famous. At the time, the public didn’t care to have a conversation about the abuse Lorena suffered or John’s history of violence against her. The media actively butchered her story and turned her into a joke, and in the end all that mattered was John Bobbitt’s penis.

If you think you remember what happened between her and John, you’re probably wrong.

Twenty-five years later, this shrewd documentary from producer Jordan Peele is a painful reminder of how horribly the world treated Lorena after her desperate attempt to save her own life. Listening to her testimony of what John Bobbitt did to her is heartbreaking, but seeing her break down emotionally while she relives those experiences in trial feels almost obscene.

We were being entertained on the fodder of someone else’s real human suffering. It’s still going on. And I don’t know when we’re going to wake up.

Regina Keegan in Lorena

Juxtapose Debra Newell’s experience of domestic violence with Lorena Bobbit’s. Two women: one white and one Hispanic; one a citizen and one a legal resident; one a wealthy business owner and the other a manicurist; one who had family in town and resources to find new housing and obtain legal help, the other trapped and tortured by physical and sexual violence. Both had their lives destroyed by the husbands who purported to love them but threatened to kill them. And both women had to endure the whole world exclaiming about how stupid they are and why didn’t they just leave? If you’re paying attention, their reasons are crystal clear.

Both women said they found healing in telling their stories, and we owe it to them to truly listen.

Did you watch? What do you think?

Bonus listen also from Wondery: Over My Dead Body, a true crime podcast about a love story gone wrong.

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