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Unsettling Documentaries About Families That Pack An Emotional Gut Punch

While we may laugh or scoff at families on reality TV, in the end, the genre is entertainment - a reminder that everyone’s family is a little kooky sometimes. But real-life families in documentaries often hide far darker secrets. We want to believe family is everything, and even if you don’t always like family members, you still love them at the end of the day. Maybe that’s why it’s so heart-wrenching when a family member does the unthinkable and violates that deep, innate trust. 

This list features documentaries that reveal some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking ways people have harmed their own families.

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  • The Family I Had
    Photo: FilmRise

    The Family I Had

    The Family I Had turns its lens on one of the most shocking family murder cases in recent history, in which 13-year-old Paris Bennett took the life of his 4-year-old sister, Ella, in 2007. The film opens with Paris’s 911 call as he confesses to stabbing his younger sister 17 times. Paris said he had a hallucination of Ella with a demonic face, and attempted to administer CPR to her, but it was later revealed that no hallucinations took place, nor did he attempt to revive his sister. 

    Most chilling of all, however, are the words of Paris's grandmother, Kyla Bennett, who said she always knew something was off about Paris: He banged his head on the wall in anger; drew disturbing pictures of deceased families; feigned choking his sister; and attempted to stab his mother, Charity Bennett, a few months prior to the murder. Paris was admitted to a mental health facility for the attempt, and although Charity was allegedly warned of Paris's homicidal tendencies, she still chose to bring him home. To this day, she doesn't think leaving him at such a facility would have changed anything.

    Now diagnosed as a sociopath and serving 40 years in prison, Paris still shows much animosity toward his mother, and although Charity has forgiven him, she fears for her safety when he is eligible for parole in 2027: "If he was free, I would be frightened of him," she said. "The fact that he is incarcerated gives me peace of mind, but I worry about his own safety."

    • Released: 2017
  • In Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, Kurt Kuenne tells the story of his childhood friend, Andrew Bagby, hoping that Bagby’s son might know his dead father. When a volatile relationship soured, Bagby’s ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner shot him five times and left him facedown in Keystone State Park in Pennsylvania. 

    After learning she was a suspect, Turner fled the country, carrying Bagby’s unborn child with her. A legal struggle ensued as Bagby’s friends and family sought not only justice, but also custody of the child. While awaiting extradition, Turner gave birth to the child and named him Zachary. Amid the legal battle, Kuenne interviewed Bagby’s parents and gathered as much information as he could so that Zachary, once he was old enough, could know his father. 

    Turner was initially arrested and custody was awarded to Bagby’s parents, but she wrote a letter to the judge and convinced him she was not a threat to society, so he let her out on bond. She also sued for partial custody of Zachary and won. Then, on August 18, 2003, Turner jumped into the Atlantic Ocean with Zachary, 13 months old, in a murder-suicide.

    The story reveals gaping issues in the Canadian legal system.

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  • Abducted in Plain Sight
    Photo: Netflix

    Abducted in Plain Sight tells the story of Jan Broberg, a girl abducted twice by her much older neighbor, Robert Berchtold, in Idaho. When the Berchtold and Broberg families initially became close, there was no reason to expect sinister intentions. But as Berchtold grew closer to the family, his behavior slowly became more insidious, from making advances on Jan's mother, Mary Ann, to coercing her husband, Bob, into providing sexual favors, and even convincing her parents that he should sleep in Jan’s bed for “therapeutic reasons.”

    Berchtold first abducted Jan, then 12, on October 17, 1974, under the guise that he would take her horseback riding after school. He drugged her, staged a fake kidnapping to make it appear as if they were both taken, and took her to Mexico, where they could be legally married at the time. Berchtold brainwashed Jan into believing that she needed to have sex with him not only to save an alien race, but also to protect her family from going blind or dying. The Brobergs flew to Mexico to retrieve their daughter, and when Berchtold returned to the US, he was charged with kidnapping. 

    Jan still believed Berchtold’s lies, however, and ran away in the late summer of 1976, when the second abduction took place. Berchtold enrolled Jan in an all-girls Catholic school in Pasadena, CA, and attempted to hide her location, but the FBI eventually found her and brought her home. Her belief in the alien story was so intense, at one point she planned to kill herself and her sister, Karen, to complete the “mission.”

    It wasn’t until Jan was 16 that she finally realized the alien race story was a lie and she started the long road to healing.

  • When filmmaker Andrew Jarecki started to make a short film called Just a Clown, highlighting children’s birthday entertainers in New York City, he got more than he bargained for when he researched popular clown David Friedman ("Silly Billy"). In fact, it changed the entire framing of the film when he discovered that David, his brother Jesse Friedman, and his father Arnold Friedman had been charged with child sexual abuse. Jarecki made Capturing the Friedmans instead.

    The case began when the US Postal Service intercepted a child pornography magazine sent to Arnold in 1984. When the Friedmans' home was searched, investigators found even more inappropriate content, and learned Arnold taught computer classes to preteen boys at his home. As victims were interviewed, accusations came to light that Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, had sexually abused them. The community could not udnerstand how this "everyday" New York family could harbor such a horrifying secret. 

    The documentary features unsettling home movie footage taken by Arnold’s oldest son, David, that shows family conversations, dinners, and arguments.

    In an effort to help Jesse’s case, Arnold’s wife encouraged Arnold to confess. He pled guilty to multiple charges of sexual abuse and sodomy, but his plea did not lessen Jesse’s charges. In 1995, Arnold took his own life. His left his $250,000 life insurance policy to Jesse, who was released from prison in 2001.

    • Released: 2003

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  • Three Identical Strangers
    Photo: Neon

    Stories of siblings discovering one another later in life are not unheard of - but triplets separated at birth for a secret, unauthorized scientific study? Not so common. The saga starts with Bobby Shafran, who was mistakenly identified as someone named Eddy Galland while attending a New York community college. When the two adopted men met, it was clear they were twins, and the media jumped on their story. David Kellman saw the coverage, and when he noticed his matching resemblance and adoption background, he realized the men were actually triplets.

    The documentary reveals that the triplets were part of an unsanctioned “nature-versus-nurture” study in which each infant was purposely separated, placed with families of different socioeconomic classes, and regularly interviewed to track the differences and similarities. The experiment was never disclosed to the parents, however, and the three infants were essentially used as human science experiments.

    Although the brothers celebrated finding one another and even opened their own restaurant, Triplets Roumanian Steakhouse, their reunion was not always ideal. All three struggled with mental health problems, and Galland took his own life in 1995. The documentary leaves viewers to wonder how much of a part the experiment played in their quality of life.

  • Doppelgangers and changelings in myths suggest that the idea of a loved one being an imposter is an ancient, innate fear. The Imposter brings that fear to the real world through the story of French con artist Frédéric Bourdin, who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, an American boy who disappeared at age 13 in 1994. 

    Strangely, Bourdin didn’t even match Nicholas's physical description and was found in Spain. Barclay had blue eyes and blond hair, while Bourdin had brown eyes and dark hair, not to mention he was 7 years older than Nicholas and sported a strong French accent. Yet he convinced several family members and even officials in Spain and the US that he was the missing boy. Bourdin also claimed he was kidnapped, sexually abused by Mexican, European, and US military personnel, and transported to Spain. It wasn’t until a suspicious private investigator and FBI agent discovered the truth that Bourdin confessed.

    The film shows a mixture of news footage from the time, interspersed with interviews of Bourdin and the Barclay family, and there’s an unshakable uneasiness in how Bourdin explains in startling detail each stage of his deception. Director Bart Layton says of Bourdin's demeanor:

    He invites sympathy. He has this childlike quality about him, and he can be very charming. And at other times he can be quite repellent because he can be remorseless and you're reminded about what he did.

    It’s undeniable that Bourdin caused the Barclay family pain by providing false hope that their son had been found. Viewers are left to make their own judgments about Bourdin’s true intentions and morals.

    • Released: 2012