Published by Marie Claire Magazine September 2008
In April 2008 the world was astonished to learn of the depraved behaviour of a father called Josef Fritzl who had just been arrested in the small town of Amstetten in Austria. The legal charges brought against him almost required us to redefine the idea of fatherhood itself. For Fritzl stood accused of raping and torturing his daughter Elisabeth for more than two decades in a tiny dungeon hollowed out from a sub-basement of the family home. She enjoyed no daylight, no exercise and no friends. Keeping his wife in apparent ignorance, Fritzl would visit Elisabeth with as much nonchalance as most of us would step out for a pizza. And he got away with it for so long by being a clever liar in a backwater settlement that ‘kept itself to itself’.
All these months later, it remains difficult to grasp the vileness of his alleged actions. To abuse your own child when she turns 11 would be horrible enough, but then to lock her up from the age of 19 in order to perpetuate the sexual abuse, and to keep her in a darkened dungeon for the next 24 years, together with three of the seven children you incestuously impose on her, in a mockery of normal parenthood, surely this represents a crime against the soul?
Fritzl has attempted to justify his behaviour by saying it prevented Elisabeth from slipping into a life of ‘crime and permissive sex’. Since his remedy consisted of the most serious crimes and the most appalling sexual abuses his true motives stand exposed: he decided to steal his daughter’s youth, her choices and future ambitions in order to control her body for his own deviant pleasure. In effect, he tried to murder Elisabeth’s personality.
To add insult to gross injury, this makes her recovery that much more difficult. Think about it. She has no happy family memories to recall. She cannot summon supportive relatives to her side. He has poisoned all the emotional wells people normally need for survival. How can she ever trust anyone? How can she even play with her own kids without remembering they are his kids, as well as his grandchildren? How can she get any of this into perspective when his raping violence dominates all perspectives? And his trial is still to come. Sadly, we grow used to our chains if too much time goes by. I only hope Elisabeth Fritzl has not given up on us, and the love she needs, just because our world committed such villainy in the name of her father.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy www.bacp.co.uk www.philliphodson.co.uk