When the real Debra Newell (played by Connie Britton in Dirty John) told the audience she was 63 at a panel talk on Tuesday, pretty much everyone in the room gasped. She doesn’t look it; she’s got long, blond hair and is impeccably dressed and youthful looking. She also doesn’t look like the “type” of woman who would fall for a con man like John Meehan. But she explained exactly how it can happen and is hoping her story will help other women identify red flags and abusive relationships long before they become life-threatening.
Newell joined a group of women, including author Abby Ellin, who just released the book Duped: Double Lives, False Identities and the Con Man I Almost Married, which gathers the stories of multiple women who have been conned out of millions by the men they loved. Also on the panel were Lisa Lawler, the founder of the White-Collar Wives Project, an online support group she started in 2013 three years after her husband of 26 years was arrested for embezzling $2.5 million from a Massachusetts health care company, Laura Richards, who works with British investigators to pass stronger domestic violence laws in the U.K, and Libby Henry, a Kentucky stay-at-home mom whose husband was sentenced to 18-months in prison for mortgage fraud. He stalked her repeatedly and now lives in the same neighborhood as her. She often sees him still watching her and is pushing for tougher stalking laws.
The women found a common thread in what happened to them, and discussed staying too long in relationships knowing something was wrong since the very start. Lawler explained that these women tend to follow their hearts and not their gut.
“With domestic violence, people always ask, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?” Lawler said. She says she even knew about her husband’s mistress while they were married, but let it slide because she thought it was a phase for him that would eventually pass. She thought that was the worst of it. Meanwhile, he was embezzling millions from the company he worked for. “White-collar wives, they ask, ‘How could you not know?’” She thought her beautiful life was the result of her husband's hard — and honest — work, she explained.
Henry says she was in the same boat because her husband handled all the finances while she raised their child. “I was so financially illiterate, I thought two plus two was bubble gum, but that was OK with me. I had the Mrs. Degree. I had a job but didn’t have a career,” she said, adding that she suffers from PTSD following her divorce. She had $11.38 to her name when she left and says with the help of friends and family she was able to get back on her feet. She's helping to fight for tougher stalking laws in the United States and is currently working on a book about her experience.
As for Ellin, who moderated the panel, she found herself intrigued by the stories of a man she dated who said he was involved in international espionage. “We’re seemingly different but all pretty intelligent, but we found ourselves in these situations. Is there a common thread?” she asked the women.
“The commonality is you all ended up in the line of sight of someone who is narcissistic and psychopathic,” Richards (who has helped investigators identify the personality types con men prey on) said. “People think of domestic abuse as physical violence, but psychological stuff is the most damaging and the stuff that stays with you for life. Bruises will fade and bonds will mend but psychological terrorism is what will resonate.”
She advised the women to “take your time … there’s no need to rush things. Be very slow about who you invite into your life and very quick to reject them. If someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” she said, adding that most of these types of relationships end in physical violence and murder.
As for the women, they were all turned off dating for now although Ellin joked that she is currently into younger guys who aren’t that intelligent.
Debra Newell said she is currently not dating and, when someone asked her if she was in touch with John Meehan, well, she told the ending to that story in two words. If you don’t know it, watch the finale of Dirty John (at 10 p.m. on January 13).
We won’t spoil it for you.
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