What I Learned About Toxic Relationships After My Mom Married Dirty John

My real-life education on everything from gaslighting to trauma bonds

Terra Newell
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readFeb 17, 2020


Photos courtesy of the author.

Terra Newell is best known for defending herself against her mother’s estranged ex, “Dirty John” Meehan. Now, Terra shares what she’s learned about the toxic relationships of her past, and the desire to empower women that drives her future. Below is her story as told to Gina Ryder, edited for length and clarity.

People know me as the daughter of the woman who married a man who tried to kill me. People also know me as the girl who stabbed and killed Dirty John Meehan in an act of self-defense. But I’m also a young woman who is slowly healing and searching for a healthy relationship. I want to build a family. I believe someone amazing will come into my life, but it hasn’t been easy to get here.

If you’ve watched Bravo’s Dirty John series or listened to the LA Times podcast of the same name, you know this man stalked and threatened my family, even telling my sister to jump off a building. He also “joked” about shooting my sister. He met my mom in 2014 just two days after his release from a second prison term, where he was serving time for stalking a woman and being a felon in possession of a firearm. In 2002, he pleaded guilty to drug theft. A disgraced nurse anesthetist, he stole painkillers from his patients and later lost his medical license — which, of course, he failed to mention to my mom. Instead, he said he was a doctor.

I’ve learned that toxic relationships are often fast-moving. Your blinders turn on and you get swept away.

I could go on and on about how terrifying Dirty John was, or about the bad men from my mom’s previous four marriages. But I’m cautious when I talk about my family because I still have relationships with them. What I can share is that my mom had a bad picker. An empath like me, bad men were drawn to her. I learned about toxic men by having them in our lives. I didn’t think that these relationships could happen to me, but when…