During the last few days their have been three stories
centered on the grisly events in the town of Amstetten, Austria. The shockingly repellant father who victimized Elisabeth Fritzl made it on the news and drew gasps of horror and disbelief from all around the world. Austria is pretty far away from my country, but the news attracted eyeballs as much as it did universal revulsion.
The common question - Could something like this really happen in a society we ostensibly call 'civilised'? The answer, though difficult to swallow is a disbelieving, yes.
As the news of the horror gets fanned around and Austrian police and the media digs deeper, fresh nuggets of information are coming out each day. They do not lessen the horror in any way, but only deepen it. The chain of events defies all logic and perhaps our civilized minds cannot even begin to comprehend the motives behind the thoughts that turned a father into a monster.
Josef Fritzl has already earned the sobriquet 'Dungeon Dad' apart from universal wrath, but I wonder whether his depraved mind can fully grasp the depths of the evils he has committed on an entire generation of his kin.
The Telegraph reports
that kith and kin of the family knew that Elisabeth was being abused and yet nobody bothered to contact the police before or after her purported 'disappearance'. The town of Amstetten is a small and close knit one, so such ignorance is befuddling. Why did people turn their eyes away? Says a Joseph Leitner,
" I had a good friend from school who was really close to Elisabeth. I would say they were best friends - they spent a lot of time together. She confided in me, and told me what a monster Josef was - and what he had done to Elisabeth. But I decided I did not want to get involved. I did not want to get kicked out of the flat; I did not want to lose it. I kept myself to myself."
Deserving censure are the authorities too who did not investigate the matter fully when her 'running away from home' was first reported to them by Fritzl. They took the word of a man who already had convictions for rape, attempted rape and indecent exposure. Today, they have nearly 300 officers working on the case.
Alfred Dubanovsky now 42 was a school friend of Elisabeth. He believed that Elisabeth had run away to escape her father and her not so peaceful domestic life. He broke down in tears when he admitted that once he saw her father taking food into the basement by wheelbarrow after her disappearance.
Fritzl would often sleep overnight with his captives. He hadn't had any sex with his wife Rosemarie for 20 years. Police have cast doubt on Rosemarie's claim that she was unaware of what was going on downstairs. It was claimed by few that she took food to the cellar and also may have received shopping orders in the name of Elisabeth. Rosemarie's sister, Christine said
that Fritzl treated his family like a dictator and spent more time down below than upstairs. He used to insult his wife by calling her 'fat' and told her on many occasions that 'fat' people were below his 'standard'. Christine says that he treated his seven children through his wife like an army drill instructor.
Their are quite a few who believe that his ruthless ways are a result of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Austria. He would have been three in 1938. Amstetten was a hotbed of Nazism. In a setting which can be only described as a twisted fate, only a short stroll away from his death-chamber of a house is the site of a Nazi concentration camp where 500 women were imprisoned during WWII. Josef Fritzl had threatened to gas his victims to death if they ever tried to overpower him and escape. An electrical engineer he told them that he had installed a pump for the gas. Can his behavior be a remnant of that equally ghastly legacy?
Today, it is 24 years too late and we can't even say that all's well that ends well. The trauma continues and rehabilitation for Elisabeth and her surviving children would be extremely difficult if not impossible. This is a case which would make probably even the most hardened psycho-analyst cringe. And I don't think they would like to venture an opinion on the future. Austrian psychotherapist and university professor Rotraud Perner said
" A lot will depend on what the children have been told, whether the mother explained to them their life in captivity. They may have created their own illusory world. However, a normal life could be possible for them.”
Two of the children, Stefan and Felix learnt to speak from a television installed in the cellar. Police chief Leopold Etz who met the boys says that they talk to each other with animal like growls. One of the children walks on all fours like a monkey. The low ceilings in their prison left them all with cramped physical posture. Elisabeth had taught them to read and write but her own rudimentary knowledge slowly eroded. Their only contact with the outside world was through the television.
As we read about this story in the media, I am sure none of us can even begin to imagine the horrors this family had to go through just because one among them was a psychopath.