Hello, everyone! The character of the con man looms large in American media. From classic novels like The Great Gatsby, to movies like Oceans 11, to tales based off of real-life con men like Frank Abagnale Jr. and Jordan Belfort, our hunger for stories about con men seems insatiable. Con men have become such a fixture in American media that the idea itself has become romanticized. In Hollywood, con men are beloved anti-heroes that win the hearts of audiences while their crimes, most often limited to white-collar financial schemes, are portrayed as a game of cat-and-mouse between a charming underdog and the big bad Establishment. By focusing on the big fish, these movies sweep the reality of con-artistry under the rug, namely the fact that con men often operate on a personal level, ruining lives without ever making the papers. The Bravo show Dirty John, based off the podcast of the same name and the real-life story of John Meehan and Debra Newell, eschews the glorification and instead focuses on exposing the man behind the myth.
We have a certain idea in our heads of what con men should be like. They are handsome, charming, well-dressed, and sophisticated, capable of swindling millions from their victims without causing alarm. Dirty John is not a story about that Hollywood con man. When we’re first introduced to John, he’s waiting to meet Debra Newell outside of her penthouse to walk with her to a restaurant for their first date. All though online he said he was a doctor, he arrives to their date wearing a ratty t-shirt and cargo shorts. Debra’s daughter, Veronica, mistakes him for a homeless person. Debra brushes this off as the consequence of a doctor’s busy schedule, but Veronica is suspicious. What doctor doesn’t have a car? And what doctor wears bargain-bin clothes?
While Debra is quickly whisked off her feet by John’s romantic overtures, her family is suspicious. John is loving to Debra, but hostile to her children. Only a few weeks after they start dating, John moves into Debra’s house, and soon begins driving her expensive car, monitoring her financials, and putting cameras in her house and office. He isolates her from her children and convinces her to marry him after only eight weeks of dating. Like a frog in a pot of water, Debra doesn’t realize that she’s boiling until it’s too late.
In some ways, Dirty John is a classic con man story. A mysterious charmer appears in the life of a wealthy woman, seduces her, and attempts to finagle her assets away from her. But John’s motive is never that clear-cut. As the series continues, John’s facade peels away to reveal the career criminal underneath. John has a history of dating average women, trying to steal their money, and harassing them once they catch wind of his schemes. He pretends to be an anesthesiologist in order to steal drugs from the hospital and sell them on the black market. He swindles his own sister out of her RV park, and puts his wife’s career in jeopardy by using her in order to gain admittance to hospitals. He is not a Robinhood figure, but a manipulative thief who takes advantage of women who are looking for love, and leaves their lives in ruins.
It’s difficult to reconcile John with the characters that we’ve been conditioned to admire. Hollywood con men are rarely violent, and they’re not serial predators. They don’t steal medicine from cancer patients, and they definitely don’t hurt their own family. It would be hard to root for them if they did. But a man like John couldn’t exist without the precedent of the larger than life figures lionized on the Silver Screen. Americans have always been taught to love smooth-talkers and self-made men who use their wits to game the system. The only thing that makes John a villain and a guy like Frank Abagnale Jr. a hero is that John operates on a micro-level, while Frank operates on a macro-level. The game they’re playing, however, is essentially the same.
Gender also plays a role in the success of the con man story. While there have been many famous con women in history, their stories don’t have the same appeal as the stories of con men. A con woman is more easily labeled as deceitful, while a con man is branded as complicated. The ease in which John was able to con so many different woman can also be traced back to his gender. By preying on woman under the guise of a relationship, John was able to skirt legal boundaries while still causing maximum damage to these women’s lives. His ability to so easily harass multiple women, stalk them, post non-consensual sexual pictures of them online, and attempt to destroy their careers, shows the weakness in the criminal justice system’s ability to prosecute crimes that take place during a consensual romantic relationship.
Another consequence of the mythos of the great American con man is our willingness to blame their victims. We see it as a survival-of-the-fittest situation, where if someone is gullible enough to be conned, they probably deserve it. Reading comments about the show, I was disheartened to see how many commenters blamed Debra for falling into this situation, with some even saying that they were rooting for John. This dynamic demonstrates how the myth of the con man is firmly embedded into our consciousness. We fail to see John as a predator, someone who takes advantages of the kindness and vulnerability of others, and instead view him as a hero taking the wealth of someone whose weakness makes them undeserving. While it is important that people try their best to have a strong bullshit meter, we shouldn’t victim-blame in these situations. Con men are so successful because they prey on people’s deepest desires and insecurities. Resisting that sort of manipulation, especially when it’s directed only at you, is extremely difficult. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a whole genre of movies devoted to these types of predators.
Dirty John sheds a new light on one of America’s favorite characters. Instead of glorifying John, they show him to be manipulative, violent, and predatory. Instead of white-washing his crimes, they’re shown in horrifying detail. Instead of making John the hero, they let him be the villain. And even though John’s past is shown to be complicated, the show never excuses his crimes or tries to make the audience feel sorry for him. This is the type of Hollywood treatment that all con man stories should receive. While movies like Catch Me If You Can and The Wolf of Wall Street are exciting to watch, they’re responsible for perpetuating the insidious idea that con men are the heroes of the story, and their victims are a bunch of rubes who deserved to have their lives ruined. We can see the effects of this genre in our cultural willingness to excuse grifting, corruption, and chicanery on a national scale. We need a cultural reset. By revealing the man behind the curtain, Dirty John is the first step in the right direction.