TW: domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment
The Netflix documentary, “American Murder: The Family Next Door”, directed by Jenny Popplewell, gives us an inside look at the Watts family and their picturesque American lifestyle. Chris Watts and his wife Shanann were parents to two little girls, Bella (4) and Celeste “CeCe” (3). With a baby boy on the way, they had nothing but good things ahead of them.
The film takes us through the events of what led up to the tragic disappearance and deaths of Shanann and her daughters on August 13, 2018. Popplewell provides the viewer with an intimate view of the case, using Shanann’s personal Facebook videos, text messages between Chris and close friends, police body-cam footage, and interrogation room tapes. The mystery unravels and the investigation reveals that Chris murdered his wife and two kids to start his “new life” with his then mistress, Nicole Kessinger.
Chris got his fresh start – but likely not in the way he expected.
His charges included three counts of first-degree murder; two counts of first-degree murder for causing the death of a person under the age of 12 while being in a position of trust; one count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased body. Chris pleaded guilty and is currently serving five life sentences with no possibility of parole.
Women who fall victim to acts of violence are often blamed for the actions of their perpetrators; Shanann is no different. The documentary sparked controversy regarding the reasoning behind Chris’ intent of killing his wife. Some sympathize with Shanann and her family, but the latter claim that she deserved it for driving him to his breaking point. Despite Chris planning and confessing to his crimes, many condemned Shanann and ridiculed her during the case. On occassion, Chris Watts’ own family berated her; Chris’ parents claimed that their son was in an abusive relationship with Shanann. They refuse to believe that he could be capable of this, regardless of the transparent evidence against him. The culture of victim-blaming seems to be an ongoing trend regarding the acts of violence towards women.
How is it that the murderer confesses to his crimes, yet the victim is still seen to be at fault? I’m not sure what I found more disturbing, the murders themselves, or the culture of victim-blaming that continues to surround Shanann Watts and her family to this day.
What is “victim-blaming?”
Victim-blaming is “the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for the assault.” This accountability comes in a variety of negative forms and can come from just about anyone. Unfortunately, most victims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence face victim-blaming after publicizing their stories. This is one of the main reasons why survivors don’t report these crimes to their families or the authorities. Victims would rather stay silent than speak up, out of fear of reprisal and retaliation.
Why is victim-blaming so common?
Most of the time individuals blame victims subconsciously. More upsetting is that it usually comes out of the mouths of people victims trust the most. Victim-blaming isn’t the simple act of pointing a finger at someone and saying they’re at fault for what they experienced. Some common phrases that exemplify a victim-blaming mentality and that are devaluing to victims and their stories are:
- Why didn’t you just leave?
- Did you do anything that could have been misinterpreted?
- What were you wearing?
- Did you say anything back?
- Why were you out so late?
You may believe that asking questions like these is harmless; that they are simply intended to help you comprehend what happened, but it’s not about you – it’s about the victim.
So why does society blurt out statements like these? Why can’t the act of empathizing with the victim be normalized? And why did victim-blaming become a trend in the first place?
According to Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, a psychologist from the University of Massachusetts, we as humans take on a “positive assumptive worldview.” Our psychological instincts want us to believe that the world is a good and safe place. The thought of something so shockingly-vile happening in the world is difficult to understand. We don’t want to believe that someone could be so inhumane to commit such an act.
This plays in part with another issue, hindsight bias. This is the tendency to believe that the victim should have been able to see the signs and predict the outcome of what was to come. Despite the psychological background, the commonality of victim-blaming should have never been normalized in the first place.
It’s Not Their Fault & It Never Will Be
Regardless of the reasoning, there is nothing that can justify the act of victim-blaming. There is no way to predict the outcome of a situation. And it is not morally correct to scrutinize the victim for something they had no control over.
No matter what time they were walking home, what they were wearing, what they did to provoke the perpetrator, or how much they had to drink, there is no reason to blame the victim. It is never the victim’s fault and it will never be their fault. Victim-blaming overshadows what the perpetrator has done. We need to stop questioning the abused and start holding the abusers accountable. Let’s give Shanann Watts, her two young daughters, and thousandths of other victims and survivors the peace they deserve.