This Girl’s Life

Two British Authors Have Broken an Austrian Taboo with a Book on Natascha Kampusch - “Girl in the Cellar”

News | Margaret Childs | December 2006 / January 2007

Where does the boundary lie between freedom of speech and the invasion of privacy? This is the question that Natascha Kampusch’s lawyers and the publishers of Girl in the Cellar by Allan Hall and Michael Leidig are tackling.

The book – widely attacked by the Austrian media and threatened with court action by Kampusch’s lawyers – may have been released too early. And it has certainly been written without Kampusch’s involvement.

Hall and Leidig depict Natascha  as a "very unhappy child," who was "often left alone in her mother’s apartment" and who suffered from her parents’ marital problems. Links between Natascha’s kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil and her parents make up a significant portion of the controversial book, and much of the narrative details Natascha’s eight-year imprisonment and her relationship to her captor.

In an interview with the German newspaper Die Aktuelle, Natascha made very clear that she finds the book’s contents "scandalous." It is "full of lies and vulgarity," she said, and has hit her very hard. She insists she has spoken to no one about what happened to her during those eight years and therefore feels especially "shocked" that the book is selling "lies as if they were the truth."

Her lawyers have also tried to ban further publication of the book, although there appears to be no legal footing for such a motion in the United Kingdom.

Publishers Hodder and Stoughton report going through "all the legal requirements" before publishing and stress in their press release that "They do not intend to market the book in Europe outside the UK."

They are also not aware of any EU laws governing limitations on freedom of the press between member states, according to the publisher’s spokeswoman, Emma Knight.  "That’s not something we are dealing with," she said. The publisher’s lawyers have declined to speak to the press and Knight would not divulge the name of their law firm.

Over three months, the authors interviewed some 40 witnesses, and mined over 70,000 words from Natascha Kampusch that reached television and print. The protagonist herself, however, has never spoken to the authors.

One journalist assisting on the project attested to the thoroughness of the research.

After the book was completed, he said, "a group of several people read it through multiple times and checked that all facts and quotes were attestable." He also insists that all measures were taken "to make sure the content of the book was as truthful as possible."

A second lawsuit from the teenager’s father, Ludwig Koch, is also in the works. He is suing co-author Michael Leidig, claiming that his quoted interview never took place. Another journalist close to the project confirmed, however, that he had transcribed parts of the interview himself, and could "remember it very well, because Koch’s dialect is so hard to decipher."

Koch is quoted as saying that he thought he recognized Priklopil from a bar that he frequented. The information from this interview is one of the main sources for the direction the book takes on the relationships between Natascha’s family and Wolfgang Priklopil.

Natascha and her lawyers have insisted repeatedly that she did not want anyone else to write her story. This did not dissuade author Allan Hall.

"With that argument you could prevent any story," he said in an interview with the German Magazine Focus. "Every human interest story is going to be personal."

Hall was also less than impressed with the Austrian police. They "couldn’t even find a beer bottle in a brewery," he said. He wondered why the police hadn’t had dogs sniff through Priklopil’s car, while they were at his house back in 1998.

Girl in the Cellar is banned for sale or purchase in Austria, nor will or other UK online booksellers ship to Austrian addresses.

However The Vienna Review was able to pre-ordered a copy from to be shipped to Austria from the United States.

Does this change the legal situation? Not really. It is not illegal to own the book in Austria, only to buy or sell it. The publisher is not considered at fault, if the book is shipped to Austria by other means.

Back home, the Austrian media has demonstrated a certain amount of hypocrisy in its treatment of the Kampusch affair. At first, every sliver of information was hoarded and then exploited until, after repeated appeals from her psychologists, lawyers and media advisors to leave the young woman in peace, they backed off.

Subsequently, Austrian tabloids have tried to play it both ways, dutifully echoing many of the Lansky, Ganzger & Partner’s calls for restraint, and at the same time, as in a game of "Gossip," reprinted all the lurid speculations of the international media, including alleged parental neglect and  intimacy with her captor.

The fact that someone wrote a book is "no surprise," said Günter Traxler of Der Standard. What is shocking, however, is that Österreich, the only Austrian newspaper taking the book seriously, has merely repackaged interviews from the German periodicals Die Aktuelle and Focus. And the promised critical analysis of the text has instead been made up merely of translated interviews and reprints from the book.

Are the legal accusations all smoke and mirrors? Does Natascha Kampusch’s desire for privacy have any impact on the publication of an English language book in the United Kingdom?

Is the information in Girl in the Cellar accurate, or at least attestable? Did Ludwig Koch actually give an interview?

To be continued…

For an interview with Michael Leidig, see "Publishing Natascha" in Feb. 2007 TVR.

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