Netflix’s Bad Vegan & Tinder Swindler Shed Light on Coercive Control – The Hollywood Reporter
Two recent Netflix true-crime titles have explored a form of domestic abuse that many people don’t know about: coercive control, which, according to Laura Richards, a criminal behavioral analyst formerly of New Scotland Yard who also trained with the FBI and created and hosts the Crime Analyst and Real Crime Profile podcasts, means “a set of behaviors that’s designed to isolate, to entrap and to exploit — but most of all, to dominate another person.”
In 2019, Bravo debuted Dirty John, based on a podcast of the same name by the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Goffard, which chronicled wealthy interior designer Debra Newell’s relationship with John Meehan, a con man with a history of manipulating and deceiving women using coercive control. Now, documentaries like The Tinder Swindler and the docuseries Bad Vegan have delved deeper into this type of behavior, which can come in the form of threats, intimidation, manipulation, isolation and gaslighting and can include monitoring and gaining control of finances, eventually eroding the victim’s autonomy, agency and self-esteem.
“The issue of coercive control has come up in many of my cases across my time at New Scotland Yard,” explains Richards. “Domestic abuse is about power and control, and coercive control is an extension of that. It’s a much more dangerous type of behavior when we see it, and we have case upon case in America.”
In The Tinder Swindler, Simon Leviev (born Shimon Hayut) found women on Tinder, love-bombed them with lavish gifts and trips and then persuaded them to give him money by telling them he was in trouble — and never repaid them, leaving his victims with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He would then take the money he’d gained from his deception to lure his next victim. “These women are all altruistic, empathetic women, and that’s what he trades on,” says Richards. “It’s a terrible thing when someone’s empathy and compassion for another is what’s exploited. But oftentimes, that’s at the heart of coercive control.”
Pernilla Sjoholm was one of Leviev’s victims, and she is still paying off her $45,000 debt. “For someone to be able to do that to a human, [the type of person whom] you would [think is] of lower intelligence, is something that I am very embarrassed about even today,” Sjoholm tells THR. “And this is why I also talk about it so much, because it could literally happen to anyone. I did not realize that [I was being manipulated] while I went through it, but of course now, looking back at it, I’m like, how could I not have seen it?”
Sjoholm says Leviev manipulated her by caring about what she liked, for example. “Being in Rome, I’m a sucker for history, so he had arranged a car just to take me through all the sightseeing spots,” she says, adding that he also acted as though he felt sorry for himself and pretended “he didn’t have any real friends and that I was the only person who actually cared, while other people just wanted to use him.”
Pernilla Sjoholm, one of Simon Leviev’s victims, on The Tinder Swindler.
Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection
According to The Times of Israel, Leviev conned $10 million out of his victims across Europe. He was sentenced to two years in prison in Finland in 2015 and 15 months in prison in Israel in 2019. After serving five months of his sentences, he is now free but wanted in many other countries for fraud.
Bad Vegan follows the story of Sarma Melngailis, who had a restaurant and a juice bar in New York, both of which closed in 2016 after staff walked out over unpaid wages. Melngailis was convicted in 2017 for fraud. But there’s more to the story, as highlighted in Bad Vegan: Melngailis met and married a man named Anthony Strangis, who told her he was a political operative and would make her and her beloved dog immortal if she passed a series of tests, which mostly involved transferring money from her restaurant accounts to his personal ones. They were arrested in a Tennessee hotel room in May 2016. Strangis pleaded guilty in 2017 to four counts of fourth-degree grand larceny, spent a year in jail and was sentenced to five years’ probation; Melngailis spent four months in prison and is on a five-year probation period. While she paid her employees what they were owed, she is left with millions in debt after Strangis spent and gambled away her money.
To Richards and many domestic abuse experts, Melngailis’ relationship with Strangis showed clear signs of coercive control.
“With Bad Vegan, I was watching it and thinking that Sarma seemed very disassociated. She seemed to me like she was in trauma,” says Richards. “The fact she didn’t have answers for things, but she didn’t try and make things up, was a clear sign of authenticity to me that something had happened, and even she didn’t really know how she got there. That’s normally the sign that someone has been gaslit successfully and manipulated to the point that they can’t even understand where they were and how they got to where they are.”
Adds Richards: “I did see her as a victim. That was clear to me. The more I collected evidence around Anthony Strangis, the more I realized he was very good at manipulating people. Sarma ended up being gaslit and manipulated, and he understood what she wanted and what she needed. She ended up having a relationship with someone who kept moving the needle. [There is], in any relationship, reciprocity. You both have your needs and wants. He got to understand what made her tick, and he magnified it back to her with promises of certain things. The more that she was in it and isolated from others, the more she bought into what he was saying. Yes, she put money into his account, but it makes no sense why you would create and then blow up your own legacy, which is effectively what she did.”
Like many coercive control victims, Melngailis didn’t see warning signs until it was too late. “I probably didn’t recognize red flags early on, or if I did, I rationalized them away, which is, unfortunately, what happens if you’re not fully educated,” she tells THR. “That’s why it’s really important for people to not only see these stories, but then have it spelled out, like, ‘See what happened here? That’s an element of coercive control, and if something like that is going on in your relationship, you should stop and examine it.’ … Whatever [Strangis] did got me conditioned to not object and get angry, which would normally be my instincts in a situation if somebody was telling me what to do. There were certainly a lot of red flags in terms of his not being who he said he was, but again, he rationalized that away because he pretended to be somebody whose existence involved being a covert, mysterious operative of some kind.”
Richards believes that women are more prone to being coercively controlled than men because of the power imbalance and structural disadvantages and equalities that keep them entrapped, as well as the grooming and conditioning of girls from an early age. In fact, according to DomesticShelters.org, one in three women who experience domestic abuse report coercive control, as compared with one in 20 male victims of domestic abuse. “Every message for a girl growing up is to be kind, to be empathetic, to put others’ needs above your own. And even in relationships, we are taught to be the homemaker, the nurturer — and when we’re not, people judge us as being very cold,” says Richards. ” ‘She’s very calculating. She’s very strategic.’ They don’t judge men in the same way.”
Sarma Melngailis (right) on Bad Vegan.
Courtesy of Netflix
Melngailis agrees, adding that it’s also about levels of trust. “I guess there’s a correlation between people who are categorized as empaths or on the spectrum that they’re more easily manipulated or duped. They’re more gullible,” she says. ” ‘More gullible’ makes it sound like you’re saying ‘more stupid,’ but I think it’s that you’re more trusting. It’s harder for you to come to the conclusion that somebody is lying, because you’re like, ‘Why would somebody do a bad thing?’ You’re not so quick to think, well, this person might be a con artist, or this person might be lying.”
In 2013, Richards set up an advocacy service in the U.K. called Paladin, which was the first national service for victims of stalking, after she successfully spearheaded stalking law reform. “If the victim was being abused by a current or former partner, and there was no physical abuse, the police would say there was nothing they could do,” says Richards. “We had to wait for them to separate and be stalked before police took action. Then they would call it stalking and would consider it a crime.” Richards began a coercive control law reform campaign to modernize legislation, and her team surveyed survivors and produced overwhelming evidence of the criminalization gap highlighting how the system routinely failed victims of nonphysical abuse as opposed to physical injury. Ninety-eight percent of victims said the law should be changed and coercive control should be a crime, presenting overwhelming and compelling evidence to the U.K.’s Home Office during a period of 12 months that demonstrated coercive control should be a stand-alone offense. In 2015, the new offense of coercive control was implemented. Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland have followed suit, learning from England and Wales. More recently, the law was updated to include financial and economic abuse. Since then, interest has risen to expand the law to other European countries in order to, as Richards says, “reflect the realities of women’s lived experience of abuse. It’s all about modernizing legislation to take account of what women experience.”
The U.S. has not been as fast to act. According to Richards, there are no federal laws that cover coercive control, but several states have taken action since the airing of Dirty John and the Oxygen companion documentary Dirty John: The Dirty Truth, on which Richards was a producer. In California, specific language was added to the Family Code in 2020, permitting courts to consider coercive control as evidence of domestic violence in family court.
Changing legislation around domestic abuse and shedding light on people’s stories is instrumental to preventing future cases like this, both Melngailis and Richards say.
“The more that we have podcasts and multimedia explaining coercive control, the better,” says Richards. “The legislation must catch up all over the world and must reflect women’s experience of abuse and violence. It is a global problem, and we are at epidemic levels of male violence toward women. It can’t just be physical abuse that is captured within the criminal justice system.”
Adds Melngailis: “What’s really important is emphasizing that it [can also happen] to intelligent, accomplished women. Maliciously controlling relationships is a thing, and that can happen to anybody. It’s happened to people who are attorneys, prosecutors — incredibly independent, strong women. Being strong, intelligent and independent is by no means something that’s going to protect you. What’s going to protect you is eyes-wide-open awareness and being very cautious about who you allow into your life.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.