Warning: Spoilers for Dirty John Season 2 ahead.
As the iconic Oprah Winfrey once said, Betty Broderick “had what a lot of women have, is this picture in their mind of the romantic, fantasized, perfect life. I call it the June Cleaver syndrome.” That is to say, the lovely young socialite in San Diego who married a man named Dan Broderick in 1969 had no plans for her husband to leave her. It’s doubtful she had plans to murder him in his sleep too. But as the second season of true-crime anthology series Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story shows us, that’s somehow exactly what happened.
In the show, Amanda Peet and Christian Slater play Betty and Dan, a couple whose love, forged from an encounter at the University of Notre Dame, seems practically idyllic. He’s an accomplished lawyer with degrees from Harvard Law School and Cornell School of Medicine; she supports his career and cares for their four kids at home. But when Dan hires 21-year-old Linda Kolkena as his personal assistant, the fissures begin to show. When Betty suspects infidelity, all hell breaks loose.
If you weren’t around in the 1980s, you might not have witnessed via newspaper and television headlines this all-too-real, highly publicized divorce case, which lasted multiple years and wrapped up in 1989. As Amy Wallace reported for the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “In 1985, after 16 years of marriage, Dan filed for divorce, sparking five years of battles so violent that Broderick vs. Broderick became known as the worst divorce case in San Diego County.” Throughout this period, Betty made a number of brow-raising choices that might have hinted at the coming tragedy: She reportedly drove her car into the front door of Linda and Dan’s house, left obscene messages on his answering machine; defaced the interior of the home they’d shared, and, yes, told her children she would kill their father.
In November 1989, she followed through on her threat: She let herself into Dan and Linda’s home with her daughter’s key, and shot them both while they slept.
But the trial was not as one-sided as we might assume today. Wallace wrote, “Overnight, Betty became a symbol of the rage—and desire for revenge—so familiar to divorcing couples. … But many women saw themselves in Betty—a wife who refused to be broken when, at her husband’s whim, she was deprived of family, friends and a way of life.”
“I have never had emotional disturbance or mental illness—except when he provoked a ‘disturbance,’” Betty told Wallace. “My ‘emotional outbursts’ were only a response to Dan’s calculating, hateful way of dealing with our divorce. He was hammering into me and everyone else that I was crazy. … How long can you live like that?”
But as the years have passed, the fervor around the case has slowed. Betty was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 15 years to life in prison, and she is still serving them at the California Institution for Women. She was denied parole in 2010 and 2017 due to lack of remorse or understanding of wrongdoing, and won’t be eligible again until 2032.
Her children—Kim, Rhett, Kathy Lee, and Daniel Broderick—have shared varying opinions on their mother in the years since her conviction. Kim took the stand during her mom’s trail, and also told Wallace, “Mom was always kind of weird. Mom would get mad at Dad all the time. Once Mom picked up the stereo and threw it at him. And she locked him out constantly.” Kim went on to pen a book called Betty Broderick, My Mom: The Kim Broderick Story.
In 2010, when Betty was denied parole the first time, her children were split on whether she should be released: Two wanted her out; two did not. Kathy Lee, in particular, advocated for her mother to come and live with her. “She should be able to live her later life outside prison walls,” she said.
In a separate interview with Winfrey in 2005, Rhett said, "She's a nice lady. Everyone here would like her … if they spoke with her on any topic other than my dad. Keeping her in prison isn't really helping her. She's not a danger to society—the only two people she was a danger to are dead."
In a 2009 story for Los Angeles Magazine, Wallace revisited the case, concluding that much of the recent discourse around divorce and, in particular, revenge—Wallace cites Thelma & Louise, The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” and Sleeping with the Enemy—can be traced, in part, to the Betty Broderick story. “Betty is by no means responsible for all of this, but her fame helped fuel it,” Wallace wrote.
So while the criminal herself remains in jail, the anger she sparked is still inciting conflict, including, no doubt, the response we’ll see when Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story launches later tonight on USA.
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