I think we’ve all been in situations, at one time or another, when someone comes to us with this impossible situation and we’re stuck trying to figure out how to help them. There is always this fear that if we try to help, we’ll end up severely pissing them off, scaring them off, or making the situation worse, especially if that person is a close friend. Especially if what they’re telling you has your stomach churning with fear for their lives, and for those of their children.
As someone who has lived through domestic violence, as someone who made excuses and refused to report, and as someone who didn’t even realize how bad things were until it was far too late to do anything, I have learned to recognize the red flags in life. Once you start seeing them, they’re everywhere. Your friend mentions that their boyfriend rages if the house isn’t spotless, and that red flag pops in your head. Your coworker talks about how their husband screamed profanities at them for asking a simple question, and you immediately start wondering how and when this is going to escalate. Even when they’re brushing these instances off as jokes, inwardly, your entire body is coiled with tension, waiting for the moment when everything changes.
In Denver, Colorado, just a few short months ago, the deaths of Shanann Watts and her two daughters, Bella and Celeste, along with her unborn son, shocked the nation. It wasn’t the deaths themselves that were shocking, as horribly sad as they were, because death is a natural part of life, even when lives are ended so quickly. What shocked people was that the person at fault for these deaths, Shanann’s husband and the father of her children, Chris Watts, didn’t seem like the type.
They were a beautiful family. Their social media accounts were filled with their bright, happy, smiling faces, they were excited about the birth of their third child. Family and friends adored them, loved them as a couple.
But then, he just snapped.
And they were dead.
The police are still investigating and trying to find out why. Why would a man kill his wife and young children?
They found money troubles, a bankruptcy filing, large amounts of student loan debt, the burden of yet another mouth to feed.
But everyone said the same thing.
I never saw it coming.
She always seemed so happy.
She never hinted that things were bad.
And then the after-the-fact, “I knew its” come out.
He was always standoffish.
He was so quiet.
There was something wrong with him. His smile didn’t reach his eyes.
Hindsight is 20/20, but why do we keep waiting for people to die before we start connecting the dots? Why are we waiting until after the fact to start thinking about all the things we’d missed?
Somehow I ended up on your blog…I was scrolling through and found one that caught my attention. By the third paragraph, I couldn’t see through the tears–finally someone knows how I feel, who can relate, a woman that sounds like she has, is, or was going through the same SHIT as I am.
Still half-asleep and not to wake up my husband who was still asleep next to me, I’d heard my phone ping just minutes before my alarm was set to go off. I’d just launched my blog that week, and I was so excited that someone outside my local friend group had even seen it, much less connected with it. I typed a thank you response, asked her to like my page, and saw that she’d sent me a friend request on Facebook, which I accepted since she was local and in a local mom group with me. Let me reiterate: I do not know this woman.
She immediately replied back. We messaged back and forth for a bit. Let’s get coffee, she responded. Here’s my cellphone number. Call me. Let’s stay in touch! And then she sends me a video. This is yesterday and my kids and I will be leaving for Florida for a few days this weekend. “FUCK YOU!” The male voice screamed through my phone’s speaker.
My husband startled awake and flipped over to watch the video with me. It was crooked and unfocused, clearly taken by someone who didn’t want to be obvious that they were recording. In the background, a baby was crying, obviously scared from the yelling. A dirty pair of work boots were in the corner of the frame as the male continued yelling obscenities.
“Oh, fuck,” I said to my husband. My eyes were wide and I looked to him for confirmation of what I was watching. “This lady is in trouble.”
You need to leave. NOW. Not in a few days. NOW, I texted back. She told me she was nervous to get into legal trouble if she left, because she has young children involved. I asked, after asking advice of a good friend who works with social services daily what I should do to help, whether she’s ever spoken with a domestic violence specialist. I prepared to send resources to help her. And then she sent me a photo of her boyfriend resting his chin on the barrel of his rifle. His face was dark, his eyes were troubled and you could fucking see the demons surrounding him.
My heart started racing and I wanted to puke. Or cry. Maybe both. I’m not trained for this, wasn’t prepared for this. I couldn’t leave her without a response, but what the hell was I supposed to do? I told her to call the police. She said she had. I told her to call the magistrate and file for an emergency protective order. She said she’d tried that. She said she’d gone to his case manager with that photo, reached out to everyone she could think of as far as up to the White House and nobody wanted to help. I didn’t believe that.
How could you show professionals these things and nobody helped? I was terrified that this was going to be my something was wrong with him moment. I didn’t want to hear that a young family had been killed in a murder-suicide, that she’d reached out for help and I hadn’t done anything out of fear. So I called the police myself. I gave them the limited information that I have about this woman I don’t know who reached out to a stranger with a blog for help. I offered to send them the photos and the video that she’d sent me. The officer who called me back didn’t seem as concerned as I felt he should’ve been.
“So, you don’t know this woman?” he said lazily.
“No. She just messaged me this morning and I was able to figure this out from her Facebook page.”
“Uh huh,” he paused.
“So from what you’re saying, he hasn’t actually been violent with her.”
“…I have a picture of him holding a gun to his neck,” I said. I couldn’t believe he was dismissing me. “I have a video where he is screaming profanities at her and physically intimidating her with his body while she begs him to stop.”
“Right,” he sighed. “I’ll have one of our crisis officers give her a call and hopefully give her some resources.”
“–She said she felt like he was escalating and was days away from snapping. There are young children in the home.”
“Like I said, I’ll give her a call.”
The twenty-five minutes I just spent talking with the officer you contacted was a joke, she messaged me. I clicked on her profile and saw that I’d been blocked. A week later she emailed me, told me she’d taken her kids and gone to Florida but she “wasn’t giving up on [her] soldier.”
I have no regrets for what I did. I’d do it again, and I still feel that curdling in my stomach whenever that mental image of her husband’s face as he holds the gun to his neck pops into my head. I would rather have someone angry with me for doing the right thing, even if nothing came of it, than to be on the sideline hearing others say, she never hinted that things were bad, knowing that really, she had.