Terra Newell of ‘Dirty John’ Took to TikTok to Share Her Trauma. Then She Became a Meme
“Hi, guys, I’m Terra, and I killed my stepdad in self-defense,” the woman in the video chirpily says. She has long, sweeping blond hair and is wearing a baseball tee, and with her upbeat demeanor she comes off more like an incoming sorority girl doing icebreakers at rush than a survivor of a horrific, widely publicized violent crime.
The woman in the video is Terra Newell, the former stepdaughter of con artist John Meehan, the subject of the hugely popular 2017 L.A. Times-serialized-investigation-turned-podcast-series-turned-Bravo-TV-show Dirty John. For years, Meehan pretended to be a successful doctor so he could prey on lonely middle-aged women, including Terra’s mother Debra, whom Meehan married. As the podcast and TV adaptation demonstrate, Meehan financially and psychologically abused Debra for years, tearing the Newell family apart until she finally left him in 2016. An irate Meehan attempted to abduct Terra Newell (as played by Julia Garner in the series) in a parking lot in 2016, leading her to fatally stab him in self-defense.
Terra’s introduction to TikTok struck a chord with many Dirty John fans, who duetted and stitched it mocking the video’s seemingly unself-conscious sunny tone. But in an interview with Rolling Stone‘s internet culture podcast Don’t Let This Flop, Newell tells co-hosts Brittany Spanos and Ej Dickson that while she was a little hurt by some of the responses to the video — specifically, from people who did not know her backstory, and told her she should be in jail for what she did — she was simply taking to the platform to share her trauma in her own way.
“My brain probably went back to like AA meetings, even though I don’t belong to AA. And I was just like, how do I say this?,” she says. “So I was just like, ‘well, I’m Terra and I’ll tell them what I did. I killed my stepdad in self-defense.’ I just wanted to do a short, simple video.”
A crime TV obsessive — she frequently speaks about how shows like Burn Notice and Dexter taught her the knife skills she needed to defend herself from her own attacker — Newell says she was encouraged to join TikTok by another real-life true crime survivor, Collier Landry, whose father was convicted on one count of aggravated murder and one count of abuse of a corpse for brutally murdering Collier’s mother in 1990. (His story was later featured in the Investigation Discovery documentary A Murder in Mansfield.) She says that when her story has been adapted, details are altered or left out for narrative or legal reasons. Yet “coming on TikTok, I’m able to tell me a story from start to finish of how I want to tell it. When you tell your story on a different platform that you don’t own, they’re gonna take it and edit it, how they want to….but me on TikTok, it’s me telling my story,” she says.
Newell says she did sell her life rights after the LA Times story was published, for a lump sum of about $120,000. Yet despite profiting to this degree off her story, she says she has been struck by how much media organizations profit off true crime narratives, seemingly without giving much thought to the victims. She is not currently monetizing her TikTok presence, but it’s something she’s interested in pursuing further down the road. “If Dirty John goes to season three, they may continue to make residuals off it,” she says of Bravo. “So it’s unfair that these victims and survivors have these stories out there and they’re not really being told a a hundred percent from their [perspective] and there’s people just reaping the money off of it.”
As a platform that is notoriously obsessed with true crime (and has led to many true crime survivors and families of survivors being harassed), TikTok may seem like an unlikely venue for Newell to share her story. Further, the explosion of the true crime genre in general has prompted critiques from many suggesting that the commodification of real-life survivors’ stories may be exploitative or unhealthy. Newell largely dismisses these critiques.
“If you’re watching these shows. you get so much more [than just a vicarious thrill],” she says. “You get to learn, ‘Oh, I could survive this way if I’m ever in this situation, ” and you get to learn empathy. You want to support the survivor, or at least that’s how I feel when I see a true crime show and so-and survives, I just want to hug them. I want to send the message and let them know that they’re supported.” She sees herself as a representative for family members of survivors of domestic abuse: “I really want people to know that this is my reality,” she says.
This week on Don’t Let This Flop, Spanos and Dickson also discuss the return of the TikTok dance with Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” the bizarro drunk aunt energy of Cara DeLevigne, and Patti LuPone’s mask outburst.
DLTF is released Wednesdays on all audio streaming platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Stitcher and more.
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