Natascha In Wonderland

The World is Watching as Kampusch Walks Through the Looking Glass

Opinion | P.C. Prebensen | October 2006

A surreal event shook up this city on Aug. 23 when a young woman knocked on a neighbor’s window in the Viennese suburb of Strasshof and was vaulted on to the international stage. She identified herself as Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped eight years ago at the age of ten, now resurfacing disoriented, but alive, and remarkably whole.

Within hours, the circus had hit town.  The kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, had thrown himself in front of a train, and the national and international press was baying at Natascha’s heels, as Austrian officials led her to safety.

The media frenzy and wild speculation that ensued in the following days and weeks, while understandable, was not a pretty thing.  Within hours, the 18-year-old’s representatives had received more than 400 interview requests, and everyone and anyone with even a slight connection to the case was relentlessly hunted down and bombarded with questions.  Astronomical offers were thrown at Kampusch for an exclusive interview, as if she won an Oscar, rather than emerge from eight years of severe trauma.  In the end she gave three interviews:  Two in print and one for broadcast.

The television interview was broadcast on ORF on Sept. 6 in Austria and Germany and subsequently sold worldwide to approximately 120 media outlets for 290 Euros a minute.  All proceeds are being forwarded to the Natascha Kampusch Foundation for abused women in Africa and Mexico.  The two print interviews, in the Austrian tabloid daily the Kronen Zeitung and the Austrian weekly magazine NEWS, were given in exchange for a package of benefits including housing support, a job and help with her education.

But does Natascha Kampusch know what she is doing? It is of course incredibly charming that she wants to help abused women in developing countries. But it seems to also show a degree of naiveté, possibly inevitable after being locked inside a five square meter dungeon for most of the last eight years of her life!  Yes, she educated herself through books, yes, she listened to the radio.

None of that changes the fact that for most of her formative years all her conversations were conducted with a deeply disturbed man, who had kidnapped her, forced her to sleep in a cell, and threatened her with death.

Natascha Kampusch is 18 years old, but in many ways one can assume that she is still a child of not much more than ten.  Some of her statements point to that.  For example, one of the "silver linings" of her being kidnapped is that she never had to deal with the normal problems of youth, such as the temptations to drug and alcohol use. That sounds like the opinion of a child.  We all remember being ten, when pleasing our parents was still everything, and we promised ourselves never to take a sip of alcohol.

Then came our teen-age years and that perception changed.  Dealing with choices about drug and alcohol use is part of growing up, it is part of the fun, challenge and danger of being a teenager. Natascha Kampusch never had to make those choices, never had the chance to make those choices.

In the short time since her release, she has suddenly had to make enormous choices such as what to do with the fortune being thrown at her, what to tell the world about who she is and about the nightmare she has been through, and which words to use to describe the dungeon and despair in which she lived.  And as she will find out as she catches up with today’s world, and it catches up with her, she might want to do something less selfless with the money she has been given. After what she has gone through, no-one would blame her.

But only time will tell. Perhaps her lawyers have been wise enough to give her a way to change her mind one day. And as Natascha Kampusch will surely be surrounded by people studying her for years to come, all we can hope for is that she is able to live as normal a life as possible – and not be hounded by the media.

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