At Vancouver Podcast Festival, Christopher Goffard's series Dirty John explores dark psychology
Christopher Goffard has seen a lot in his years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times—a lot of duplicity, greed, menace, and heartbreak. Even so, he must have been taken aback when, tipped off by an L.A. prosecutor, he began peeling apart the case of John Meehan, a sociopathic con man whose career cut across the U.S. for decades, with seeming impunity, before coming to a bloody end in a Newport Beach parking lot in 2016.
Goffard’s research soon focused on a woman named Debra Newell, Meehan’s final mark. The journalist convinced her to speak with stark honesty about how her life as a smart, successful businesswoman had been hijacked by the swindler’s relentless campaign of lies, romantic flattery, and threats. It was a tale with spiralling twists and a powerful psychological undertow. From it, Goffard created not only a series of feature articles but also a highly popular six-part podcast (15 million listens and counting), both called Dirty John—a title you may recognize from the hit Netflix dramatization, which Goffard also helped to write.
He’ll be describing this process in two events at the upcoming Vancouver Podcast Festival, set to run from Thursday to Sunday (November 7 to 10) at venues around town. In anticipation, here are his replies to just a few of the questions that crossed the Straight’s mind while binge-listening to Dirty John.
Q. How has working on this story affected your view of human nature?
A. It’s not so much this story but more than two decades writing about crime that have affected my already dark view of human nature. I’m pretty much the opposite of the trusting Debra Newell.
Q. As the story and podcast gained popularity, strangers began coming forward with their own experiences with John Meehan over the years. Are you still hearing from people who knew and were harmed by him?
A. A few weeks ago I heard from another of his ex-girlfriends. She said he had a strange habit of wrapping a forearm protectively around his plate of food when he ate. She realized later he had picked up this habit in prison. I still get tons of emails with the subject line “the next Dirty John”, and people want to share stories about monstrous and abusive partners—so I think the podcast struck a chord in that sense.
Q. Debra Newell seems completely open about her relationship with Meehan, even at the risk of portraying herself as naive or duped. Were you surprised by how forthright she was?
A. It took months of interviewing her to assemble what I needed for the podcast and she became more comfortable with me as it progressed. In my experience you always get better stuff in the fourth or fifth interview with a person than you do in the first. She took a lot of flak from people who couldn’t grasp why she’d done what she did—falling for Meehan when there were so many holes in his story and then forgiving him even after she knew he was lying. I think it was gutsy for her to tell her story, and I’m still getting emails from people who say it made them realize they were not alone.
Q. What have you learned about storytelling as you’ve moved through different media, from a series of articles to a podcast and then to a TV series about Meehan?
A. One thing you learn with a podcast is that there’s nothing more beautiful and compelling than the human voice. When you’re writing for print you can maybe suggest the cadences of speech and the emotions of the speaker but you can’t make people hear it. So there’s an automatic intimacy in podcasting that’s harder to achieve in print. On the other hand, the printed word (my domain for most of my career) has its own advantages—you can write long and elegant and syntactically complex and lyrical sentences that you’d avoid in audio because it would be hard for the ear to follow. Try listening to a William Faulkner book on tape and see how far you get before you need to rewind.
Q. Is Dirty John a cautionary tale about trust and forgiveness?
A. It’s possible to read it that way, yeah. Also as a story about deception and self-deception and certain mysteries of psychology that make it possible.
Christopher Goffard will discuss Dirty John at the Rio Theatre on Thursday (November 7), and teach a master class at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Saturday (November 9), as part of the Vancouver Podcast Festival. See the festival's website for details.