Dirty John 2: the rotten, tragic truth about Betty Broderick
In a New York dive bar in the late Sixties, drunk on cheap beer and Paul Simon, a medical student asks his girlfriend to marry him. No, she tells him, she doesn’t want to get married – not until she graduates, at least. He pulls a sad face, then, cheering up, tackles her around the waist in mock attack: “I’ll never let you go Betty”, he whispers, over her delighted screams.
The line is a breadcrumb in a not particularly subtle trail laid by the makers of Betty, the second series in Netflix’s Dirty John – a lightly fictionalised true-crime anthology – to coax viewers towards a more complicated view of an apparently open-and-shut murder case. The anthology focuses on toxic relationships – the first series, released in the UK in 2019, told the story of a wealthy Californian designer called Debra Newell and the conman she fell victim to. Now, show-runner Alexandra Cunningham has turned her attention to a far more famous case: in 1989, wealthy socialite Betty Broderick took a revolver and shot dead her ex-husband Dan and his second wife Linda, in their beds.
Early in the morning, one Sunday in November, Betty dressed, got in her car and drove from her ocean-view home in La Jolla, San Diego to Dan and Linda’s house, which was just downtown. She let herself in using a key she had stolen from her older daughter. She climbed the stairs to the master bedroom and stood over the sleeping couple. Friends would later recall her saying that her eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness when she began shooting.
She fired five times in quick succession. Linda was hit in the neck and chest and died immediately. Dan was hit in the back and managed to roll onto the floor. Betty remembers his final words as “Ok, ok, you got me” as she fled from the house.
The grisly story made headlines for years, spawning countless longreads, several books and even a TV film. Some womens’ magazines took Betty’s side. One typical headline from the time reads “Why Did Betty Broderick Wait So Long to Kill Her Husband?” Others leaned into the crazed, jealous wife trope – “One Angry Betty” was a phrase often seen boldface. But Cunningham’s drama offers something new: a feminist bang for your bloodthirsty buck. She and her all female production team wanted to challenge the tabloid portrayal of Betty as “angry, crazy, hysterical, and fat” with a richer, more psychological depiction. The question that hangs over the show, which begins just before the murders and jumps erratically backwards in time, is: how did this woman become so desperate?
Only in recent memory has society’s definition of domestic abuse widened beyond the physical. In this series, we are given a laptop window into how Dan Broderick manipulated his wife long before either of them resorted to violence. In the first episode, he refuses to pay her lawyer’s stonking 10,000 dollar retainer, after first agreeing to, and then immediately offers to fund a skiing weekend for her and their children instead. This is coercive control, which has been a crime in the UK since 2015. It is a model of abuse not pegged to single incidents, but perpetrated slyly, over long periods of time. By controlling Betty’s access to money, Dan strips away her independence and chips at her self-worth. She ends up pitifully grateful to him for the treat of a holiday.
Cunningham’s repainting of Betty Broderick as a victim of abuse, as well as a murderer, is significant. Intelligent examinations of coercive control onscreen are necessary if society is to learn to recognise it. But by focusing so closely on the individuals involved, the series neglects a slippier and more powerful culprit in the case than either Betty or Dan: a rotten social system.
Elizabeth Bisceglia and Daniel Broderick came from similar backgrounds. She grew up in Eastchester, outside New York, and he was raised in Pittsburgh, but they had large Catholic families with a strong sense of traditional gender roles. They met in 1965, when Dan was a medical student at the renowned Catholic university Notre Dame and Betty was about to begin a degree in Education and English at Mount Saint Vincent, an all-women’s Catholic college in the Bronx. They were, socially, financially and educationally, on an equal footing.
But their marriage, in 1969, was a power shift. Interviewed in 1995, Betty recalled the moment that she realised: “Dan had the idea that (the wedding) changed everything. He let the maids go at the honeymoon house. I was supposed to . . . cook and clean.” For a girl from Eastchester, who’d been to private school and university while a maid did the domestic labour at home, this was not just a shock, it was a relegation.
For Dan, meanwhile, the marriage was a launchpad: supported by Betty, he abandoned his medical studies, went to Harvard and became an extremely successful lawyer, specialising in medical malpractice in San Diego, California, where they settled. Betty worked odd jobs to pay for their living costs through his years at college, while expanding her domestic role to childrearing, as well as cooking and cleaning. Dan worked with his head; Betty with her hands.
It is clear that the division of labour made Betty profoundly unhappy, over many years. Her daughters, whose names have been changed for the series, have spoken in interviews about her periodic violence towards them. One particularly disturbing incident involves a beating using a wire fly swatter. This aspect of Betty’s behaviour is glossed over by Cunningham, presumably because it would compromise the sympathy she builds for Betty. But the truth points not just to Betty’s capacity for violence but to her pent-up and deep-seated anger at her confinement to a purely domestic role.
Dan Broderick was old-fashioned. His Catholic faith meant he did not believe in birth control (although Betty did have one abortion, between the birth of her second and third child, in Cunningham’s version Dan prevents) and he became controlling and abusive. But the root of Betty’s unhappiness lay in confinement of her domestic role. She was not the only one to feel this way.
In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminist Mystique, which articulated the profound dissatisfaction women across America were feeling with the narrowness of their lives. It sold over a million copies that year. The federal government had made the birth control pill legally available in America in 1960, which should, in theory, have given women the opportunity to remain in the workplace longer. But by 1964, campaigners were pushing for a gender discrimination clause to be inserted into the Civil Rights Act, as women continued to face barriers to equal employment. Women earned 59 cents to a man’s every dollar and even progressive President Kennedy was on national television saying their “primary responsibility” was the home.
This was the world that intelligent, educated Betty Broderick was grappling with. Until the day she married she had every opportunity – and then she had none outside the home. The tragedy of the Broderick case is clearly in part the result of two extreme, damaged, guilty individuals. But with this series, Cunningham has missed an opportunity. Coercive controllers are finally – if slowly – beginning to be prosecuted. But the social structures that kept Betty Broderick trapped as effectively as any corset are still in the process of being dismantled. Over the age of thirty, there remains a gender pay gap in Britain, despite the fact that more women than men graduate from university every year. That is because women leave the workforce to bring up children. Their primary responsibility is still in the home.
In that scene in the dive bar, I felt as though I was supposed to be thinking “Aha! So Dan was always a little bit controlling. This was the start of his gradual coercion of Betty.” Instead I thought: “If she wants to get married as soon as she graduates, why on earth did she bother with a degree?” Betty Broderick was always trapped – but history should bear the guilt.