Sunday, October 15, 2017

dirty john and the domestic sphere

Yesterday I cleaned the house while AK took Dash to Orange County for some tia time, and I binge-listened to the L.A. Times’ Dirty John podcast. I’m one of those true crime podcast junkies: I was into both seasons of Serial, I squeal and laugh along with the sloppy-funny hosts of My Favorite Murder every week, and I loved falling deep into the Southern gothic tragedy of S-Town.

Orange (County) is the new noir. (Photo credit: Christina House, L.A. Times.)
At first Dirty John seemed like a well reported but relatively unremarkable imitation of other true-crime cultural phenomena, right down to the Making a Murderer-esque soundtrack. The title character is not an affable possible innocent a la Serial’s Adnan, nor a tortured genius like S-Town’s John B. McLemore. Dirty John is a fairly typical conman with some power and anger issues, who has perhaps seen too many mob movies. It’s not that I don’t think literal psychopaths are interesting (if my not-completely-scientific study of My Favorite Murder is any indication, the equation for psychopathy seems to be horrific childhood abuse plus head injury, which is reason #493 Dash doesn’t get to play football). It’s that psychopaths are kind of defined by their immunity to outside influence, and I’m interested in the ways people are shaped by culture, systems and family.

Debra Newell, part of the interesting part. (Photo credit: L.A. Times.)
Then I realized that Dirty John was not the interesting part of Dirty John. (Some vague spoiler-esque comments follow, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.) Having worked with formerly incarcerated people for a few years, I thought a lot about the injustice of the justice system and the humanity of criminals. To the point that every now and then, I’d be surprised all over again by the realization that Victims are real people too. My Favorite Murder—in its tripping-over-its-own feet, non-didactic way—does a good job reminding its audience of this. Also that victims of violent crimes are disproportionately female. Also that they are sometimes as fucked up as anyone.

At first I thought Maybe I’m unimpressed by Dirty John because it’s about one psycho asshole, and it doesn’t reveal anything about a system or a culture. Then I realized Duh, the system at work here is the family system he insinuated himself into. And maybe I think of family as uninteresting because I’ve been taught to devalue the domestic sphere.

Once I shifted my focus, I was fascinated. Debra Newell, an Orange County interior designer who’d had chronic bad luck with men, is the mother of two daughters with the most intense SoCal upspeak you’ll ever here: Jacquelyn, who takes no shit, and sweetheart Terra, who seems a little dumb, who lives for dogs and The Walking Dead.

Long ago, Debra’s sister was murdered by her controlling ex-husband. Debra’s Christian mother decided to forgive her son-in-law and even testified on his behalf in court. This family culture of forgiveness seems to impact Debra’s willingness to “see the good” in Dirty John long after most people would have given him the boot. Without revealing the ending, I will say that Jacquelyn may not be the only family member who realizes that forgiveness can be a slippery slope to victimhood.

Georgia and Karen staying sexy and not getting murdered. (Photo credit: Entertainment Weekly.)
Almost a month after leaving Homeboy, I’m still processing my time there. I’ve complained—both good-naturedly and seriously—about our lack of systems, and how we haven’t totally realized you can’t run an $18 million organization like a one-man-show in the back of a church. But Homeboy’s reluctance around rules goes beyond nonprofit growing pains. I also witnessed how sometimes our mantra that “You’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done” got flipped into “You can keep treating people poorly with no consequences.”

I don’t personally know where or how to draw the line. But I know that empathy for perpetrators (who inevitably were victims first) can’t carry more weight than empathy for victims. Or maybe that we can love perpetrators all we want—deeply and truly—but only victims should be in the business of deciding what’s forgivable and when.

The domestic sphere. But imagine that instead of rolling dough, I'm microwaving mac n cheese.
I was thinking about family systems in a less dramatic way (though it felt very dramatic at the time, largely because I missed a dose of Effexor) on Monday night, when Dash was losing his shit over the fact that I wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk before bed. He kept yelling, “I need milk! I’m talking to you, Mommy!” His face was red and puffy. He sobbed and pounded on his bedroom door. I held my ground because I think that’s a thing I need to do more, but wondered as always: Really? Is this the hill I’m going to die on? 

I offered water and applesauce and goldfish crackers. I kept my voice calm and may have literally said at one point, “There’s no way out of pain but through it, but I am here with you.” I fought the urge to cry and make it all about me, and encourage him to take care of my feelings, the way my mom sometimes did, unintentionally, to me. He continued to rage, tragically and adorably. I felt like shit.

Last week AK and I debated the merits of timeouts, or lack thereof. She knows more about child psychology and development than I do, and sometimes that makes me feel like a loser, although no one but me is stopping me from reading a few childcare books.

I started feeling that by discouraging me from giving Dash a timeout for biting me, she was taking his side and leaving me to take care of myself. My therapist rightly pointed out that I was casting AK in the role of my mom, who I believed always took my younger sister’s side. Cathy was smaller and needier, and I was up shit creek, as far as I was concerned. (This is why I pay my therapist the big sliding-scale bucks.)

Of course that was my highly biased, sibling rivalry-influenced child-view of things. My mom loved me like crazy, and certainly didn’t turn me out on the streets as soon as my sister came along when I was three. But a piece of me still totally believes that’s how it was, and that part was wild and desperate on Monday night as I threw myself under the bus for a wild and desperate little kid.

First, second and third.
But we heal the damage of past relationships through current ones. I hope that Dash’s cheery, utterly forgiving (forgiveness at its best) greeting the next morning helped both of us heal. He realized that the person who wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk—the person who couldn’t or wouldn’t magically make him feel better—was still there for him. I realized that his needs wouldn’t kill me.

I won’t give away the ending of Dirty John, but I’ll say this: It’s very satisfying. Debra and her family reclaim the narrative for themselves, along with a cameo from a truly badass junior lifeguard named Skylar and a miniature Australian shepherd named Cash.

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