True crime is a sticky thing to be fascinated by. There’s undeniably a reactionary streak to the genre—oftentimes, it seems to be for people who love to clutch their pearls and fervently remind themselves that this is why we need more guns and police. Fixation on individual criminals and only the most heinous crimes can be used as a great way to ignore cultural forces which propagate crime in the first place, and the systemic injustices which allow some to get off scot free while others are forced to spend life in prison for negligible offenses. All that readily acknowledged, there is something undeniably satisfying about peering into tales of murder and deception. Podcasting as a medium can actually be given credit for transforming true crime for the better. LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT does an excellent job making fun of serial killers while also regularly demonstrating that failures of law enforcement so often allow killers to flourish. Similarly, CRIMINAL is a great podcast which gently probes our notions of what actually constitutes as crime, subtly challenging the widening gap between what is just and what actually happens in our justice system.
Stepping into the ring this week is DIRTY JOHN, a podcast which definitely skews towards the pulpy and the salacious side of true crime. The Los Angeles Times has pulled together this sickly fascinating story of John Meehan, an astoundingly manipulative con man who seems to have taken pleasure in seducing and blackmailing women for decades. The story begins following Debra Newell, his most recent victim, who married John and took him into her life after knowing him for only a month. Why Debra fell so hard and so fast for a man who was clearly deceitful is the main question of the podcast, and episode after episode has unpeeled the layers of her complicated life and relationships with her family with finesse. What makes this series particularly interesting is that each episode has been released one day a week in conjunction with articles in the LA Times, presenting a new blending of journalism which feels innovative.
There is very little of the show that is focused on any bigger picture notions of what a fair and just society should look like. Make no mistake, this show definitely falls into the pulply schlock side of true crime. That being said, it does take careful pains to humanize Debra, to justify her actions even when they may seem entirely irrational at first glance. There is undeniably a voyeurism to the show, and some listeners may ultimately find it exploitive, but the juiciness of the story definitely does not diminish the fact that host Christopher Goffard never lets us forget that real human beings are at the heart of this winding adventure.
This has been a brutal and awful week; there’s something about escaping into the evils of individual men that I find comforting in comparison to dwelling on the systemic political evils swirling all around us. Somehow, diving deep into one man’s madness always feels like a relief when the whole world is on fire.