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'Coercive control' potential factor in 'Dirty John' case of psychological abuse

Dr. Evan Stark and Dr. Lisa Fontes talk to Dateline NBC about coercive control, a type of abuse potentially a factor in the 'Dirty John' case.

John Meehan, a charming doctor, knew just how to treat Debra Newell. The relationship moved fast. They secretly married within two months. Debra was in love with John.

John Meehan and Debra Newell
John Meehan and Debra NewellCourtesy Debra Newell

But her daughters weren’t. Debra’s daughters started investigating, and discovered that John Meehan had a dark past. Debra wouldn’t believe it at first – but she was in love with a conman.

Millions of people heard Debra’s story in the podcast “Dirty John,” released by the Los Angeles Times and the podcast network Wondery in October 2017.

What Debra likely experienced with John has a name.

“The phenomenon is something called coercive control, which is a form of psychological control,” reporter Christopher Goffard told Dateline NBC. “One domestic partner exercises over another where the control is not necessarily by virtue of violence-- but relies on manipulation, gaslighting, things like that.”

The term coercive control, which is widely recognized in some European countries, has begun to trickle into the American vernacular, largely as the result of work by Evan Stark, Ph.D, MSW, and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. He is the author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.

“Coercion is fear, and control is deprivation. And it’s the combination of fear and deprivation that entraps someone so they are unable to effectively resist and leave,” Dr. Stark told Dateline NBC.


Lisa Fontes, Ph.D, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst knows this all too well. She says she spent four years in the grips of that same paralysis, in a relationship characterized by coercive control.

“During the relationship he was monitoring my every move,” Dr. Fontes said. “He had a key stroke logger installed on my computer, which of course I didn’t know about, and it felt like he could read my mind.”

For Dr. Fontes, labeling her own experience as coercive control only came once she was out of the relationship. Dr. Fontes, who has spent more than two decadesstudying the cultural issues involved in child maltreatment and violence against women, began reading Dr. Stark’s research. When she came across the topic of coercive control, she felt it matched her experiences and started her own research. That research later became her book. In the process of writing, she looked into different stalking technologies.

As Dr. Fontes researched the new technologies, she realized one of the clocks with built-in hidden cameras was the very clock she had in her room.

“I went up there and I’m looking at it and I’m like, ‘I don’t see a camera,’” Dr. Fontes said. “But I finally found it. There was a camera in this clock that he had installed in my bedroom.”

Dr. Fontes, who authored Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relations in 2015, says coercive control is “some combination of isolation, manipulation, intimidation, sexual coercion and sometimes physical violence.”

“A lot of times these relationships start very, very intensely. And that’s one of the red flags,” Dr. Fontes told Dateline NBC. “People barely know each other, and then one partner -- usually the guy -- you know, ‘I want to spend all my time with you. I want to spend all my time alone with you. Let’s move in together. Let’s get a bank account together.’”


“In most English-speaking countries -- not in the United States -- coercive control is recognized as a very serious criminal offense,” said Dr. Evan Stark, who has spent much of his life exploring the topic of Coercive Control and helped found one of the first battered-women shelters in New England.

In 2015, the United Kingdom passed the “Serious Crime Act” which, according to the government’s website, “creates a new offence of controlling or coercive behavior in intimate or familial relationships.” In other words, the law makes it so that repeated controlling behavior carries with it the possibility of prison time.

France also passed a law in 2010 deeming psychological abuse a “criminal offense.”

Dr. Stark says the United States has focused heavily on the legislation of violence in relationships, but has often neglected the psychological elements of abuse. The subtle nuances of relationships in which the physical violence is often infrequent or nonexistent pose a tricky scenario when it comes to the law.

Dr. Stark says the challenge with laws in the United States is that law enforcement often considers one-time incidents, instead of diving into the history of violence or psychological abuse in a relationship.

“When we treat it as a criminal offense, we treat it as if it were an isolated episode,” Dr. Stark said. “Since 99% of all the violence is trivial, it results in no penalties.”

New legislation such as the United Kingdom’s law has empowered police forces, Dr. Stark and Dr. Fontes both told Dateline NBC, to dive into the history of an abusive relationship and convict repeat offenders.

“The beauty of what’s happening in the U.K, is that it’s required police training,” Dr. Fontes said. “So the police have learned to use an incident of reported abuse as a window in which to see an entire relationship and its history and all of the possible ramifications.”


Dr. Stark and Dr. Fontes agree that one of the most difficult parts of coercive control relationships can be getting out.

Here are some steps Dr. Fontes suggests if you or a loved one is experiencing coercive control or abuse in a relationship:

  1. Talk to an expert: Get in touch with a domestic violence expert. Even if the victim has every intention of staying in the relationship, it is important to build an escape plan or talk to someone who might be able to help. (National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233)
  2. Stay involved: One of the characteristics of coercive control is often isolation from friends, family and loved ones outside the relationship. “Break the isolation,” Dr. Fontes said. “If you are concerned about somebody else I would say stay connected no matter what.”

  3. Remember: Someone might be watching: Be careful about typing emails or any other correspondence that might be tracked. Victims of coercive control or other types of abuse are often tracked digitally.

  4. You will love again: Dr. Fontes said if there was one thing she could pass along to a victim of coercive control, it would be this: “You will be strong, and whole, and have great relationships again.”