There’s lessons everywhere if you pay attention. While the Dirty John podcast is certainly a cautionary tale of love and deception, it is also a lesson in the harm that bad religious teaching around forgiveness leads us into.
Dirty John, an addictive six-part podcast series, held me captive from the first few moments of its introduction. Christopher Goffard, author of the series for the L.A. Times, narrates this true crime story as told through recollection from Debra, her family, and a band of characters. It’s a harrowing account of Debra Newell, a four-time divorcee in LA who meets John Meehan, her knight in shining armor – or so she thinks – on an over 50 dating site. Debra quickly becomes smitten, ignoring the series of red flags in her new beau from the start.
“I Still Loved Him”
Without giving too much away for those who have yet to listen, we learn that Debra Newell’s family history is colored with both the intense religiosity of Christian family values and the trauma of homicide. Cindi, Newell’s sister, was murdered in 1984 at the hands of her abusive husband Billy Vickers. Arlane Hart, mother to the Newell sisters, serves as a walking demonstration of the trouble with Christian forgiveness.
Before her unfortunate demise, Cindi shared her fears with her mother and indicated that she wanted a divorce. She details how her husband, a man she married in her teens, has become increasingly possessive over every aspect of her life. Arlane recalls her son-in-law saying, “I can’t let her go.” On March 8, 1984, Vickers put a gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger before turning the gun on himself.
Abuse, Faith, and Absolute Forgiveness
One of the most troubling, frustrating aspects of this story is the matriarch’s obstruction of justice in her daughter’s death. Arlane Hart says that when informed of her daughter’s death, she immediately began to pray for God’s presence to help her deal with everything to come. Cindi’s husband and murderer recovered from his self-inflicted wound and was charged with first-degree murder. On a call with Arlane Hart, he apologizes for killing her daughter. Hart’s response? “I told him, ‘I still love you.’”
Hart was so forgiving, in fact, that she informed the district attorney handling the prosecution of her daughter’s murderer that she wished to testify on Vickers’ behalf. When called to testify, she painted a picture of her daughter as a wife who had mistreated her husband and caused him to act in a way that was out of character. With the help of her testimony, Vickers spent less than three years in prison.
Arlane Hart, and subsequently the children she raised, believed that Christian forgiveness comes at the expense of justice. She believed that there was good in all people, the love covered a multitude of sin, and that no person is incorrigible.
Hart’s unbiblical doctrine of absolute forgiveness seized the justice that Cindi’s life deserved. Many believers have been taught that they must forgive any and all grave offenses immediately, even in the absence of repentance. Moreover, this ideology of absolute forgiveness forsakes that the act is not intended to justify or deter the natural consequence of transgression.
Devaluing Women’s Intuition and Discernment
The women in ‘Dirty John’ repeatedly show an ignorance of intuition and spiritual discernment; an ignorance for which they pay a hefty sum.
Cindi told her mother that Vickers was becoming increasingly controlling. He dictated what she wore, where she went, and with whom she kept company. Cindi told her mother she feared he would escalate into violence, a fear that ultimately turned out to be warranted. Yet, Arlane ignored Cindi’s intuition and Vickers’ foreshadowing statements because she didn’t “feel” he could ever do her harm.
Debra ignored the intuition of her daughters concerning John Meehan. She states repeatedly that she followed her heart and not her head, even when presented with plain evidence of trouble. It was a sentiment that was shared and endorsed by none other than her mother Arlane Hart who, at one point, is the only advocate for John in Debra’s family.
The Perversion of Faith for Control
Debra Newell’s repetition of her mother’s behaviors isn’t all that hard to understand. Arlane indoctrinated her daughter with the idea of absolute forgiveness. It is a doctrine that appears to beset her entire dating life but certainly in her relationship with Meehan. The societal devaluation of women – our intuitive nature, emotions, and ability – is neither new nor exclusive to any demographic. However, the addition of a religious component pushes it into a new realm.
As frustrated as Newell left me in listening to her saga, I cannot help but consider the impact of the psychological harms of Evangelical Christianity. It’s clear that Newell is a victim of multigenerational patterns of abuse enabled by faulty religious teachings. I’d venture a bet that her four prior divorces left her self-loathing over the repeated failure to “get it right”. By Newell’s own admission, she struggled with her inability to forgive Bill Vickers’ in the way her mother did.
Being raised in a variant of faith that requires a literalist approach rather than a progressive, humanistic view, it’s reasonable that Newell chose to “lean not on [her] own understanding.” Instead of listening to reason and discernment, she decides (on multiple occasions) to follow her “Mama ‘nem” Jesus and forgive – and reconcile – with her abuser.
There’s so much to unpack in ‘Dirty John’ and these thoughts just scratch the surface. If you haven’t yet, check out the newest true crime obsession now. Dirty John is available now on iTunes [listen], Google Play [listen], and other major podcasting services.