In the fifth episode of ‘Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story’, a court-appointed therapist tries to guide an increasingly agitated Betty Broderick (Amanda Peet) towards seeking custody of her kids during a property settlement trial following her divorce from Daniel Broderick (Christian Slater). Custody of children, her lawyer believes, will help them push for a bigger settlement. For a moment, Betty softens at the thought of her kids, but she immediately snaps out of it and leaves. Before leaving, she tells the therapist, “You make me not want to be angry…but if I am not angry, I am not going to make it.”
It is a scene that injects a great deal of complexity to Betty Broderick’s character in the second instalment of the ‘Dirty John’ anthology. Until that point, she had been the supportive wife who stands by her husband’s every decision, and later, the scorned wife who starts to unravel as her marriage falls apart. In this moment, however, rage becomes her power, and indulging this rage, a survival strategy.
The second season of ‘Dirty John’ is based on the story of Betty and Dan Broderick whose contentious five-year divorce, and its horrific aftermath, made headlines in the US in the 1980s. On December 11, 1991, the 44-year-old Betty was found guilty on two counts of second-degree murder for killing her former husband, Dan, and his wife, Linda Kolkena Broderick (Rachel Heller), and sentenced to a minimum of 32 years in prison. The series focuses on the chain of events that lead up to that fateful evening.
Series creator Alexandra Cunningham tells a true-crime story with a difference, shining a light on how years of emotional abuse and manipulation can shape someone’s behaviour to the point where they could eventually snap. When Dan Broderick decides to end his 16-year-old marriage with Betty, he not only lies to her about his relationship with his legal assistant Linda but also secretly plots ways to extricate himself from the marriage. Over several years, Betty becomes the victim of increasingly cruel gaslighting by Dan.
The series captures her growing panic, desperation, and powerlessness and how these feelings, over time, metastasize into blind rage. It asks the question: what can systematic abuse, and the rage it triggers, do to one’s perception of reality and the ability to hold on to sanity?
Part of the answer lies in the testimony by a psychologist at Betty’s trial on the long-term effects of gaslighting and marital infidelity. “The longer that the marriage goes on, the more the stake in it, in terms of children, stability, its central fabric. Everything is called into question: the victim’s self-esteem, their ability to trust themselves, as far as whether they even were a good parent, a good person, or whether they can be…The behavior of the infidel makes the victim feel crazy. As long as there’s no resolution for the victim, healing does not take place.”
Abandoned, alone, and constantly lied to, healing is not an option for Betty, and anger becomes her primary driver. A series of carefully-contrived actions push her over the edge. On the advice of his lawyer, Dan leaves home, telling Betty he needs space to think. He does not ever mention divorce but during court proceedings, puts this down as the date of separation. He goes to the doctor with Betty to discuss reversing her tubal ligation so they could have a fifth child while actively plotting to leave the marriage. He buys a new house for Betty to live in, pretending he would move into it as well. He returns to her after a drunken night, giving her hope that the marriage might still survive. He denies outright any relationship between him and Linda, going so far as to tell her, “I can’t prove that I am not doing something wrong”. It is at this point that Betty starts to unravel. Her anger is not a redeeming quality, and neither can it be used to justify her actions. But there is a lot to unpack in how she arrived at this pent-up anger and why it drives Betty to do what she does.
It forces us to think about systems — societal and judicial — that are stacked against her and built to favour Dan. Having devoted her entire life to her husband and children, Betty finds herself with nothing when all that is stripped away from her. The no-fault divorce laws of the US in the 1980s ignore the emotional abuse and gaslighting she goes through. The divorce settlement takes no account of the fact that she was the family’s sole breadwinner while Dan worked his way through medical and law school. Sure, her methods of retaliation are indefensible — she breaks restraining orders, steals the house keys, vandalises Dan’s new home, and at one point, drives her car into his front door — but neither can Dan’s relentless gaslighting. And yet, in court proceedings and outside, it is she who is routinely portrayed as “angry, crazy, and hysterical” and penalised for it, while he gets away with a divorce settlement that favours him. It doesn’t matter that Dan knew exactly what he was doing when he left the house at the beginning of his affair, or that he continually manipulated Betty. It doesn’t matter that he straight-up denies that Betty ever contributed anything monetarily to their marriage. It is Betty who is routinely chastised by the judge for bringing up Dan’s gaslighting.
“What man would not be angry at being treated like this,” she writes in her journal as Dan docks her alimony check every time she retaliates in a way he deems inappropriate or abruptly changes his mind when the court grants her custody of the kids for Easter weekend. “But women are not allowed to be angry because the men write the rules. The men write the rules and the rules are: you are allowed to defend yourself if you are a man…if you are a woman, you are supposed to go into a corner and cry and take pills and kill yourself.”
And this is what Betty refuses to do. She refuses to give up and cry quietly in a corner. Instead, she chooses anger as a way to “make it” through a system that is rigged against her from the start. Her legitimate decision to fight back earns her considerable vitriol. That anger may be a justifiable response to abusive behaviour is largely ignored. Again, this does not justify her actions. Indeed, during the murder trial she receives the kind of empathy that is unlikely to be reserved for women who are not white, relatively affluent, suburban housewives. But that still does not explain why her anger is punishable whereas Dan’s abuse is not, or why it makes her demands less legitimate?
In her book, ‘Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger’, Soraya Chemaly explains our aversion towards accepting the validity of women’s anger, “When a woman shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent, and unlikable.”
Every time Betty lashes out, she is held in contempt for what is considered a distasteful and improper display of anger. Her anger is not seen as a legitimate response to Dan’s abuse and manipulation, but something that is deserving of society’s collective ire and penalised accordingly.
This article was originally published in the Stylist.
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