Food for Thought
The Monster Behind the Mask
In recent weeks, the world has watched, transfixed, as events unfolded in the small town of Amstetten, in Austria. Revelation after grotesque revelation served to affirm the appalling realisation that we are likely to sleep much better at night without appreciating the horror of what lies hidden in the shadows of the human mind.
The facts of the crime are by now well-known, so I will provide only a summary: a 73-year-old Austrian man, Josef Fritzl, has kept his daughter Elisabeth trapped in his cellar since she turned eighteen; thereafter abusing and raping her repeatedly, as a result of which-- over 24 years of enforced subterranean life-- Elisabeth gave birth to seven children.
|Austria's house of horrors ... Elisabeth Fritzl, her father Josef, and the basement
where she was kept.
One of those children died in his infancy, consigned to the incinerator by his father. Of the remaining six, three were taken above ground to be “adopted” by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie (whom the police believe to have been unaware of the real events taking place), while the other three children stayed trapped in the cellar with their mother, Elisabeth, never having been out in the daylight -stunted, unhealthy and communicating with each other in a private language of growls and cooing sounds. According to Fritzl, the three babies who were moved upstairs were taken there “because they cried”, and he was afraid that someone would hear them. It seems like a strange explanation, given that presumably all babies cry!
To explain away Elisabeth's disappearance, Josef Fritzl concocted the fiction that his daughter had run away from home at the age of eighteen to “join a cult”. It seems everyone believed him, especially since Elisabeth had previously run away on two other occasions, when the police found her and brought her back. However, as we now know, this story was very far from the truth.
Elisabeth Fritzl has made it clear that the sexual assaults she suffered at the hands of her father began at the age of 11, and continued in the years that followed. That was the reason she tried to run away, although she was too afraid to tell anyone about it. Her best friend at school, Christa Woldrich recalls how terrified Elisabeth was of her father, and how she always had to be home within half an hour of school ending. Christa never met Elisabeth's father herself, but states that he was a constant presence in their relationship, an unarticulated threat that hung over them.
In fact, Fritzl sedated his daughter when she was 18, dragging her down to the cellar and keeping her shackled to a pole, with a bag over her head, for several days. One of the many ironies of this case is that the impenetrable cellar where Fritzl held his daughter was partly constructed with government funds, and he was viewed as a good “family man” for building this bunker to protect his loved ones in case of nuclear fall-out! Construction of the cellar was initiated when Elisabeth was 12 years old i.e. a year after her ordeal at the hands of her father began, and gives an idea of how far ahead Fritzl was planning.
After her incarceration, the choice for Elisabeth was between starvation and submitting to his assaults, and it was clearly not much of a choice since the molestation had already begun seven years previously. It is unbearable to think of this girl spending 24 years in a cramped cellar where she could not even stand up straight, and imagining how she had to put up with constant physical and psychological abuse from this madman, giving birth time and again without any medical help. Fritzl claimed he prepared Elisabeth for the births by giving her books, towels and various sanitation items - in the years that she spent in the cellar, the only medication available to Elisabeth was aspirin and cough medicine!
The reason the situation came to light was because Elisabeth's eldest daughter, Kerstin, became very ill, and she was finally able to persuade her father to take the girl to hospital. When it became evident that Kerstin's problem was a result of genetic problems (related to being a child born out of incest), her mother was asked to come forward and explain the circumstances in order for her to be treated properly. Twenty-four years after she first went into the cellar, Elisabeth was finally allowed out in order to go to the hospital, where-- after obtaining a promise from the doctors that she and her children would not have to see her father again-- she told them the ugly truth.
And yet, after all that, a defiant Josef Fritzl has told the investigators that he has nothing to be ashamed of, that he “looked after them well” and “saved Elisabeth from getting involved in drugs”…! He insists that he is “not a monster” and his bizarre justifications for his behaviour range from his insistence that he always wanted a big family to the grotesque comment that he wanted children with his daughter to an utterly absurd assertion that Austria's Nazi past was to blame for his warped character.
The mind boggles at the cruelty and sheer madness of the acts that he committed, but the fact remains that beyond the psychosis of Josef Fritzl, there ARE other questions to be asked here. Whether they will be answered, given the less than helpful responses of the Austrian authorities (who have until recently spent their time reiterating that everything, including the adoptions, were done fully “by the book”) remains to be seen.
In cases like this, it is sometimes found that the culprit is a loner, and it is that very isolation that allows him to carry out these crimes. It is also said that such crimes are easier to commit in western countries where people live more private and separated lives. This logic is far from infallible. For one thing, even in crowded urban centres like Dhaka, where privacy is a rare luxury, there are enough instances of wife beating or physical torture of househelp that goes “unnoticed” until tragedy strikes.
During an interview some time ago, a factory worker told me that in the lodgings where she shared the room with two other girls, the man of the household would regularly rape his younger sister-in-law while his wife was at work. Despite the audible pleas and screams of the teenager, no-one in the apartment building felt able to intervene. The woman I spoke to argued with her roommates about the matter, but as she said, in the final analysis, who would they go to for help? Clearly there are instances where society is quite capable of looking the other way when certain kinds of crimes are committed. Although without a doubt, the Fritzl case goes well beyond what would be “acceptable” in any society.
There are also other elements of the case which seem bizarre. This man lived with his wife and six other children (not to mention three “grandchildren”) right above the cellar where he kept his daughter and the three remaining children he had with her. Additionally, Josef Fritzl had dozens of lodgers over the years, all of whom-- along with his official family members-- were strictly forbidden from going anywhere near the cellar.
Elisabeth and her three children remained trapped in a labyrinthine underground prison, behind a total of eight doors, including a set of reinforced concrete and steel, remote-controlled doors, the combination of which was known only to her father. For the children, born into captivity, escape would have been unimaginable; it was the only life they had known. And for Elisabeth beaten and abused - any thoughts of escape would have been effectively dispelled by Fritzl's threat to gas them to death if they made any attempt, and the possibility of a slow death by starvation if he became angry and decided to abandon them.
Of course, this does not totally answer the question of why none of the people living in the house ever suspected that anything was happening in the cellar. For Fritzl's wife, Rosemarie, and the nine children living upstairs, it is clear that he was a difficult and highly authoritarian man-- emotionally, and perhaps also physically abusive. Rosemarie's sister, Christine, described how terrified the children were of their father and “grandfather”. In the final analysis, perhaps like neighbours and relatives of some households in Bangladesh, it is easier NOT to think too much about certain things. Yet none of the lodgers, some of whom reported having seen Fritzl take groceries into the cellar, appeared to think his behaviour sufficiently strange to merit investigation either. How was this possible?
(To be continued...)
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