FritzlIn late April 2008 it was reported that a 73 year-old Austrian man and locally respected pater familias, Josef Fritzl, had been arrested on suspicion of having kidnapped and imprisoned his 18 year-old daughter, Elisabeth, and of having held her captive in an underground cellar complex for twenty-four years. Josef Fritzl was accused of incest, rape, coercion, false imprisonment, enslavement and negligent homicide and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. He had begun abusing Elisabeth, born in 1966, when she was eleven. Somehow resenting her independent spirit, he had clearly planned for her imprisonment. Once he had trapped her, he subjected her to continuous abuse and physical violence. His constant incestuous rape led to the birth of seven children (one of whom died shortly after birth) and one miscarriage. In the end, this monster’s monstrosities were uncovered when Elisabeth’s oldest daughter, Kerstin, suffered a life-threatening illness and had to be taken above ground to hospital for treatment (although, incredibly, already Fritzl had, in his manipulative madness, been planning for a ‘miraculous’ unification of his ‘underground’ and above-ground families). I have just finished reading The Crimes of Jozef Fritzl  Uncovering the Truth, co-authored by a Brussels-based journalist acquaintance, Bojan Pancevski (together with Stefanie Marsh). It is a thoroughly researched and very well written study of the origin and development of this human evil. How did a monster like Jozef Fritzl come into being? What made him behave in the way he did? Why did the society around him not suspect something sooner, given his past record and the strange events that repeatedly occurred? Marsh and Pancevski seek the answers in his own horribly abusive childhood (he later turned the tables on the mother who had beaten him so mercilessly by locking her up in the attic with a bricked-up window for twenty years), the simultaneous claustrophobia and comfort of Amstetten’s wartime tunnel air raid shelters and the mores of Austria’s post-war provincial society (Fritzl, for example, was sentenced to just eighteen months in prison for a cold-blooded rape). It is page 118 (of a 294-page book) before Elisabeth is imprisoned, and the next third of the book is largely an account of his daughter’s extraordinary fortitude. Though she was frequently in despair, her spirit never broke. Her profound humanity and maternal instincts somehow reconcile the reader a little.  But the last third of the book, devoted to psychiatric analyses and the trial, is perhaps the most depressing. Neighbours above the cellar prison had for many years heard all sorts of suspicious noises. But for collective incompetence, Elisabeth’s plight could and should have been brought to an end long before. As Marsh and Pancevski conclude: “Everything pointed to the fact that Jozef Fritzl was not in fact the brilliant operator that the authorities and the media had painted him. He was clumsy. He was a bad liar. He had left clues all over the place. But he had an unshakeable belief in his own fantasies, and he had been lucky. Even when everything had pointed to the fact that something very wrong was happening in the house in Ybbsstrasse, nobody had looked.”