For much of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, the eponymous character (Amanda Peet) seems like just another “scorned” woman who in 1989 murders her rich ex-husband, Daniel (Christian Slater), and his younger new wife, Linda (Rachel Keller), after years of his infidelity and a merciless divorce settlement. Then it adds a layer to her story when the possibility of “gaslighting” is introduced in Betty’s defense during her criminal trial, prompting audiences to consider another provocation of her violence.

Inspired by the real-life mother of four sentenced to 32 years to life in prison, Dirty John aims to question her mental fitness prior to the murders. Did Daniel constantly accusing Betty of being “crazy” whenever she justifiably confronted him about his affair with Linda during their marriage—and throughout their divorce when she rages out against his lies and seizing custody of their children—contribute to her unraveling? According to Tarra Bates-Duford, a forensic psychologist specializing in severe mental illness as well as a marriage and family therapist, the answer is a categorical yes.

“Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their memory, perception, and sanity,” she explained to Psycom. In Betty’s case, that was compounded by a preexisting personality disorder that barely gets a mention in the series. “She was already a malignant narcissist,” Bates-Duford said. “She had a need for order. When she was being gaslighted by her husband, it created a loss of control for her, which exacerbated her underlying issues.”

That sense of control was essentially a mandate for many women in the 1970s and 1980s when Betty and Daniel were married. Through flashbacks, Dirty John attempts to explore how societal and familial pressure dictated that Betty be the perfect mother, wife, and socialite. That includes making sure their children had everything they needed, she supported her husband even when they were both broke college students, and that their friends could always count on her to throw together pristine soirees.  When all of that is taken away from her when Daniel leaves her, accuses her of being unstable, and downsizes his alimony—all of which ostracizes her from her kids and friends—she can’t handle it.

Though Betty’s anger and disappointment leading up to the crimes may seem like a natural reaction for a woman who’s been jilted—and her plush life stripped from her—that needs no medical intervention, Bates-Duford said otherwise. “It may not make sense to others, but her extreme behavior was in response to being tricked,” she said. “When Daniel convinces her that [his cheating] wasn’t happening only to later divulge that it was, it created rage—hence why she spiraled out of control.”

Through Peet’s portrayal, we see Betty dissolve into a panic, trying in vain to assure herself that her husband is still faithful. But the dread consumed her every thought, even when she is on a casual outing with her friends. They eventually grow weary of her constant interrogation and increasing blow-ups, making her out to be the irrational one—and causing her to wonder if that is true.

The ultimate form of gaslighting for Betty, though, seems to be the lie that society told her; that she could have it all if she behaved a certain way and followed the rules outlined for the dutiful homemaker. “She was raised to support her husband and family, and that she would endure the blessings after,” Bates-Duford continued, adding that Linda coming into the picture throws this entirely off track. “Betty felt another woman had stepped in and stole the life she thought was guaranteed to her.”

That life, as Dirty John conveys, includes the fancy house, cars, luxury vacations, country club membership, and designer wardrobe. Betty is distraught even when she just fears Daniel might be cheating on her, because all of this—which became her entire identity—could be in jeopardy. “The fact that Daniel didn’t acknowledge [his infidelity], to someone who has ego issues and control, Betty felt that everything was falling apart,” Bates-Duford added. “So, she needed to regain that control.”

Dirty John traces her actions leading up to that fateful night in 1989, when her rage absorbed her entire being. For instance, Betty drives her car through Dan and Linda’s home, where she once lived. She sneaks into their home multiple times and vandalizes it. She abandons her court-ordered psychological treatment, prompted by Daniel, when she thinks her judgment is being scrutinized. She decides to represent herself in court when she realizes all other representation is compromised by Daniel’s irrefutable reputation as a lawyer himself.  And she can barely focus on her children during the rare occasions when she is allowed visitation.

“It wasn’t the family situation that she had been used to,” Bates-Duford said. “She couldn’t see past her pain. Even when the children are there, she’s thinking about when they have to leave.” Betty is ultimately isolated and overwhelmed by the fact that she is fighting a losing battle as her children become more comfortable with their new surroundings. “Of course, the other woman is going to be happy because she’s calibrating the fruits of Betty’s labor,” Bates-Duford added. “The kids see this other woman as easygoing and look at their mom like she’s become undone.”

Though Dirty John makes little effort to defend Daniel’s actions, Bates-Duford admits that she doesn’t think he intentionally tries to gaslight Betty. He is, after all, professionally trained to skew the truth in his own favor. “Some people assume that when someone suffers from a personality disorder, that’s just who they are,” Bates-Duford stated. “I believe Daniel lied to Betty to throw her off the path. But he didn’t know how that combination of him lying and her personality type would [cause her to] explode.”

Like Bates-Duford explained, murder is obviously a severe reaction to gaslighting and loss of control, but to someone like Betty whose personality disorder is unchecked and even unacknowledged, it could seem like her only choice. Dirty John begs the question how many other women, especially of the same era, experience the same thing and have yet to identify it.

“I think the more we’re hearing about gaslighting, the more we’re able to really be of service to someone,” Bates-Duford said. “The fact that we’re shedding light on it makes us more thoughtful about how we see people, individuals and their families.”

Last Updated: Jun 2, 2020