Chris Watts, of Colorado, now has been charged in the murders of his pregnant wife Shannan and daughers Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3. Already calls are coming into my office from media outlets asking all the usual questions about Watts: If guilty, how could a man do such a thing? Wouldn’t there have been signs, all along, that Watts was deranged? Would he have to have been in the grips of a mental illness, if he committed the crimes with which he is charged?
I’ve never met Chris Watts and won’t pretend to be able to give him a formal diagnosis. But, having interviewed many killers over my 25 years as a forensic psychiatrist, and having written the New York Times bestseller Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, I can offer some perspective.
The key to understanding how events like the Colorado murders can occur is to understand that there are people on the planet whose empathy has been extinguished and who are, therefore, free (in a horrible way) to extinguish others.
These psychological vampires—the walking dead, if you will—are almost always created in childhood or adolescence, when they experience trauma that makes them bury their feelings, deny their pain and build walls to keep out much or all of what we think of as genuine human emotion.
Once a person has been extinguished, emotionally, he or she may not experience the suffering of others as much of a hurdle to achieving peace of mind, actualizing a new romance (a la Scott Peterson with Amber Frey) or settling a score. For a man like Chris Watts (if guilty), or Scott Peterson, the last breaths of family members may even complete a tragic circle, wherein their own psychological deaths (in their families of origin) are mirrored by the final breaths taken by their new family members.
Was Chris Watts mentally ill? As a forensic psychiatrist, steeped in interviews with well over 100 people who have committed heinous acts, I am not prepared to accept that anyone who kills his family could do so in his right mind.
We’ll learn, again and again, that the worst tragedies in our world aren’t the result of guns. No legislation outlawing a weapon can stop murder. Psychopathology is the common denominator amongst these tragedies. And Inside the Mind of Chris Watts, just as was true Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, would lie the answer to his violence.
Keith Ablow, MD is a forensic psychiatrist and the New York Times bestselling
author of “Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson” and “Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony.”