In 2017, the Los Angeles Times featured a captivating series entitled “Dirty John” (beautifully written by Christopher Goddard) – this was accompanied by a podcast, and it has recently been adapted into a series on Bravo. I waited with bated breath for each new installment of the Times series to come out – and devoured it before I got out of bed. I wasn’t the only one: The series proved to be incredibly popular, as a podcast and a series and has even culminated in a book.
I know why I was fascinated – it’s what I do. I have spent the past decade steeped in the pursuit of understanding narcissism, psychopathy, and other antagonistic, invalidating and high-conflict personality style and their impacts on interpersonal relationships. But why is it such a cultural zeitgeist?
This idea of “psychopathy as entertainment” isn’t new. People have always had grim fascination with the darkest elements of society, from Jack the Ripper to legions of other serial killers and spree killers, sadists, corporate raiders. Investigation Discovery, which features 24/7 true crime, may as well be called “Psychopathy Central.” I often wonder if we tune in and read these stories as the equivalent of roller-coasters of the soul. For a moment as we free fall we get to experience curated terror – the story is dark and terrifying, but it’s not happening to us. We wonder – would I have spotted this pattern sooner? What would I do if I was face to face with a cold-blooded criminal? If I fell in love with a calculating and callous manipulator who lived a double life? We are also gripped with morbid fascination with the psychopaths themselves – their absence of anxiety, their ease with deceit, their cold efficiency – it’s often in stark contrast to our busy and interconnected lives full of stress, love, the needs of others, responsibilities, and our day to day anxieties.
But are we learning from these stories? When people tune in to Dirty John, they often believe they would not be “played” as the protagonist was, that they would have seen the signs, and noted the inconsistencies. Stories always make sense when told backwards.
My concern is that people keep watching various fictionalized and non-fiction stories about narcissists and psychopaths – but they aren’t learning. I get to see the real-life fall out of these relationships in my work. People who kept giving second chances, even when their instincts told them otherwise. People who listened to a tragic childhood story and allowed that to become a series of excuses for verbal abuse, physical abuse and worse. People whose family members enabled the dangerous relationship to unfold. People who believed over time that they didn’t deserve any more and started to believe the gaslighting and the emotional manipulation that an antagonistic, psychopathic or narcissistic partner delivered. I frequently refer my own clients to the Dirty John podcasts and narrative – for no other reason to remind them that they are not “foolish” but rather that they are human. And hopefully to teach them to never repeat the story.
But it’s happening too often – and our courts, legal systems, and law enforcement systems have not caught up. Most systems of justice are not set up for PREVENTION, rather they are set up for PUNISHMENT. Meaning that even when your instincts tell you that the story is veering into a dangerous place- too often, people in these situations are doubted, or have been emotionally manipulated for so long that they no longer trust their recollection of the facts. Sadly, in more than a few cases – it is tragically too late (homicides by long-term perpetrators of domestic violence), or the psychological damage to the partners, children and families escalates to a point of trauma that has long term consequences.
Stories like Dirty John are brilliant cautionary tales, but they only work if we heed them. Insecurity and invalidation are long games and they tend to be transmitted intergenerationally. Insecure people choose unhealthy and even dangerous partners. People’s fear of being alone can catapult them into relationships characterized by calculated control (he wants to be with me 24 hours a day – he must love me, he said he has never felt this way about anyone before, he asked me to marry him even though it has only been 2 months). If nothing else, we need to teach people to be in greater possession of their strengths and virtues and to never sell themselves down the river. Alone is better than abused.
Lessons are only useful if they are implemented. The proliferation of psychopathic cautionary tales out there mean that we should all be well schooled on what to look for and what to avoid – and NOT just in close intimate relationships but also in workplaces, family members, and friends. Be careful with your second chances. Trust your instincts. Learn to value yourself. Don’t let people off the hook with excuses like “that’s just how he is…”. These stories are incredibly compelling, but the last thing you want, is to become a cautionary tale yourself.
Goddard, C (2017, October). Dirty John. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://lat.ms/2smBP3B.