I just finished Netflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door, which tells the story of the murder of Shannan Watts and her two children by her husband, Chris Watts. The documentary is told through Shannan’s own voice as we see old Facebook videos of her and text messages that were provided by her family. The opening scene is especially heartbreaking as you are there in the shoes of a police officer who is initially performing a welfare check, knowing she is dead as an audience member. We see Chris Watts rush home and play the part of concerned dad and this time, we know for sure he is the killer. How can a man kill his wife and strangle his children whom he had just tucked into bed the night before?
At the end of the documentary, it states that the suspect who kills their spouse and children is usually male and it is almost always premediated. Chris cheated on his wife and was in love with another woman, so he decided to kill his family to start a new life, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Some people believe Shannan was bossy or ‘bitchy’ and she herself states she wore the pants in the relationship, leading some to think she caused Chris to cheat on her. I would say otherwise. Chris decided to cheat with another woman who also seemed very strong-willed, so I think he is attracted to ‘bossy’ women, so it wasn’t that aspect that led him to cheat and devise a plan to kill her.
It seemed he did love his mistress and refused to have sex with his wife or call his children when they were on vacation. So why not just divorce them? He was leading a dual life, but he wasn’t dual in nature. This was a man who prided himself as being honest, hard-working, and a good citizen. That is why he agreed to talk to the police, take polygraphs, and talk to the news. He believes himself to be a good person, and that’s what good people do. Good people also don’t cheat, so he could never admit it to his wife no matter how many times he asked. That is the reason why he killed her and the kids: to assuage the guilt he felt as he was not a good person. However, if they simply disappeared, he would never have to answer those questions.
Instead of being honest with his wife, he lied to her time and time again because he could not be honest with himself. He could not admit to himself that he was a cheater and a bad parent. He could not see himself as the person who tore apart his family, so he did everything he could do to make the problem go away. He randomly asked why he couldn’t save his own kids, but the moment he put them in the back of his truck with his wife’s body, he no longer saw them as children. You place children in the backseat in their car seats, and he did not. He had already distanced himself from them. He knew exactly what he was doing when he drove to that site.
You could see in his demeanor and his words that he was not a good actor. Even his neighbor noted that he was not his usual self. He was in the process of distancing himself from the murders so he wouldn’t have to reckon with the idea that he was not a good person. His whole identity rested on the notion that he believed he would always do the right thing and he didn’t have the strength to admit that he had made a mistake. He didn’t want to see or acknowledge his mistakes, so he brushed them under a rug where he didn’t have to deal with them.
He was a person who was eager to please and perhaps because his mother was controlling, he sought out women like her and did not voice his opinion when he was unhappy. This led him to suppress his true desires and needs. When he met his mistress, it all came to the surface and he finally felt alive again. He felt seen. Acknowledged. And still, he knew what he was doing would devastate his wife, so he lied. Not because he didn’t want her to find out about the cheating, but because he didn’t want his facade of being the perfect husband and father to come crumbling down. He just couldn’t live with that idea. Instead, he choose to do the unthinkable.
In murdering his family, Chris did what he never wanted to happen: let the world know that he was a terrible person. It didn’t matter how much he acquiesced to the police or reporters anymore, because they all knew who he really was. And why are we so fascinated with him? Because we never expect the all-American family man to commit such a heinous act? If we can’t believe that, it will be harder to believe the victims of such crimes and what has been perpetrated upon them. There are no monsters walking among us, only broken people who are afraid of the truth and it’s time we realize this can happen anywhere.