Merciless Control

Joseph Fritzl’s Crimes Shock all Austria; What Goes on in the Abuser’s Mind?

News | Margaret Childs | May 2008

Few can imagine the fear and torment Elisabeth and three of her children suffered before their release in late April – fear of their own father.  Joseph Fritzl, 73, was able to keep his daughter imprisoned in a basement dungeon for 24 years, during which she bore him seven children.  The discovery of their hidden cellar, which had gone unnoticed for so long, has reminded many of the recent Natascha Kampusch escape from eight years of captivity in a cellar in the Vienna suburb of Strasshof.

The Fritzl family lived in an apartment house in Amstetten, Lower Austria. Neighbours were shocked to find that this type of crime could go unnoticed for so long. Are Austrians too complacent to report something out of the ordinary?

Officials deny any negligence on their part, with the argument that there had never been complaints. On the other hand, who needs complaints when infants keep turning up on the doorstep? Well, the children were accompanied by letters, claiming that the mother had joined a cult and was unwilling to keep the children – a letter she was forced to write. Even fellow police detectives say that officials should have been investigated the family further.

Fritzl and his wife took in the three younger children through legal adoption and custody proceedings and offered them what seems to have been a relatively normal life. They each played a musical instrument and two took classes in tae kwon do. Their elder siblings, however, did not exist on record, and saw nothing of the world outside of the their cellar walls. Unlike Natascha Kampusch who was imprisoned at age 10, these children had never lived in the outside world and are now confronted with it for the first time, as young adults.

The trigger for the victims’ escape was the illness of Elisabeth’s eldest daughter, Kerstin, with a television – their one connection to the outside world – playing a key role, police said. After the 19-year-old girl was taken to the hospital, carrying another note written by Elisabeth, the authorities appealed for her mother to come forward. Elisabeth saw the broadcast, and persuaded her father to release her and the other two children. Officials declined to give a prognosis for Kerstin, saying she was in critical condition.

Two of the three children imprisoned in the cellar seem to be surprisingly healthy, if pale, according to the authorities. Elisabeth taught them to speak and they had access to a television.

But things could hardly be described as normal: The family was run as an extreme patriarchy, in which the father’s rule appears to have been law. Joseph Frizl began abusing his daughter at age 11 and moved her to the cellar at 18. The abuser’s intimidating persona kept his entire family in check. Even his wife, who claims to have known nothing of the cellar apartment, could easily have been forced not to notice.

"What is so disturbing about this case is the complete lack of feeling," says psychologist Franziska Tullmann. "A loss of the self" is what she believes occurred in the case of Joseph Fritzl. One possibility, considering his age, is that he developed this state of mind through a childhood trauma during World War II, a time where guilt and denial drove people into solitude, devoid of emotion.

"You can recognize the connection to childhood trauma," said another psychologist who asked to remain anonymous. "The emotional damage of the war could well be related to this. But you must be very careful. This is much more than a war neurosis. He is a patriarch, with a certain personality structure. There is so much planning involved; this is not just some poor, damaged war trauma victim."

The essence of the case makes it hard to think of this man as a human being. Most are simply horrified.

"These things leave you speechless; they are so impossible to understand," he continued.  "But it’s essential to remember that more than anything, this is a crime. There is no threshold of inhibition; you need a split personality, to lead this double life."

Perhaps most shocking was the remorseless abuse of his own children, and that, as a third psychologist pointed out, he would "place so little value on the lives of any of his female relatives."

If we have learned anything from the Kampusch case, it is that these types of human dramas fascinate the media, when the psychological and physical crimes are equally cruel. In such a situation, "I would go away," says Tullmann. Coming to grips with the outside world would be easier with a new name and new surroundings.

Even Natascha herself has offered to start a fund for the family with some of the money that was donated to her own cause.

Fritzl’s daughter, Elisabeth, now 42, is in psychiatric care, along with the rest of her "healthy" children. Their psychiatrist, Berthold Kepplinger, has told Der Standard that the family members seem reasonably "together," considering the circumstances. Experts caution that one has to see the Frizl family as an incestuous and therefore sick system; it is critical to afford the victims the right support and treatment. Also the physical scars and deficiencies from their long isolation could well be a problem as they have not been able to develop a proper immune system.

The abduction, sexual abuse and incest to which Fritzl confessed on Monday, Apr. 28, has left Austrians in disbelief. As of this writing, Fritzl is reported to have received a prison sentence of 25 years, effectively a life sentence for his abusive acts as father/grandfather. And neighbours watch the investigation, asking how such an atrocity could have occurred right under their noses.

This raises another troubling question: Why did two such horrifying crimes occur in quick succession in little old Austria?

There seems to be no easy answer, though officials insist similar crimes had occurred in other countries, such as Russia and Japan. The psychologist who treated Natascha Kampusch after her rescue believed that it was a matter of not having a tradition of "standing up for what you believe." He said that Austrians are very hesitant to confront authority and need to "learn to speak up" when they think something is wrong, to make sure things like this don’t go unnoticed.

A very troubling aspect of this case is the extraordinary organizational skill with which Joseph Frizl went about planning each birth and alibi, requiring vast intelligence and presence of mind. As Tullmann commented, "His ego became so powerful that it allowed him to accomplish whatever he could think of without allowing for any sort of sympathy."

Elisabeth Fritzl and her family have a very long way to go to reach any sort of normal life. Perhaps this case will serve a greater purpose, and raise peoples’ awareness of domestic abuse in general.

And in one bizarre footnote, many older Austrians remember how thousands of buildings were equipped with bomb shelters during the cold war; it was even a requirement in 1989.

Because of privacy rights, the records are not available. But it is possible that the Austrian government financed the beginnings of the Fritzl dungeon.

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