‘Psychological Terrorism Is What Will Resonate': Debra Newell, Other Women Duped By Con Men Share Their Stories

“We’re seemingly different but all pretty intelligent, but we found ourselves in these situations. Is there a common thread?” author Abby Ellin asked.

By Gina Pace

Debra Newell got duped by “Dirty John” Meehan, but she’s certainly not alone.

A group of women, including Newell, who all had their own horror stories spoke Tuesday night at NBC headquarters to an audience of press, community leaders, and fans of the Bravo series “Dirty John” about getting duped by con men who stole millions while they were married to them, leaving them unwitting victims caught in a web of lies.

“With domestic violence, people always ask, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?” said Lisa Lawler, the founder of the White-Collar Wives Project, a blog and private 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. “And white-collar wives, they ask, ‘How could you not know?’”

Newell’s story became the subject of the hit podcast “Dirty John” as well as the inspiration for the Bravo series of the same name after her encounter with Meehan, a man who masqueraded as a successful doctor, but in reality was a grifter with a history of drug abuse, jail time, and harassment.

Joining Newell and Lawler in the talk was Laura Richards, an expert on domestic violence, and Libby Henry, who was a stay-at-home mom in Kentucky when her husband was sentenced to 18 months in prison for mortgage, bank, and wire fraud.

“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,” Henry said. She had $11.38 to her name when she left her husband.

"Dirty John" panel with Abby Ellin, Debra Newell, Laura Richards, Lisa Lawler, and Libby Henry.

The panel was moderated by Abby Ellin, a New York Times writer whose new book “Duped: Double Lives, False Identities and the Con Man I Almost Married,” explores the “art and science of lying” after she fell for a man who told her wild stories of international espionage. 

“We’re seemingly different but all pretty intelligent, but we found ourselves in these situations. Is there a common thread?” Ellin asked Richards, who has successfully fought to make stalking and coercive control — which is the broader pattern of behavior used to control a partner through tactics such as manipulation, humiliation, financial abuse, and gaslighting — a crime in the United Kingdom. 

“The commonality is you all ended up in the line of sight of someone who is narcissistic and psychopathic,” Richards 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.”

Richards explained the process of coercive control starts out slowly, and vulnerabilities someone may reveal through the normal process of dating are later weaponized against the victim. Eventually, the women will become entrapped, and leaving the relationship can mean physical violence or even murder.

Many who watch Newell’s terrifying story play out will wonder how they can avoid a similarly toxic relationship.

Richards said to be wary of anyone who tries to move a relationship very quickly. 

“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,” Richards said, paraphrasing the poet Maya Angelou. 

To learn more about Debra Newell and John Meehan, tune into “Dirty John: The Dirty Truth,” Monday, January 14 at 8 p.m Eastern, 7 p.m. Central on Oxygen.

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