The other day, I posted a review of John Glatt's true crime book, Secrets in the Cellar, a book about Austrian madman Josef Fritzl. I started reading another book about Fritzl called I'm No Monster. I think Glatt must have also read this book, which seems to be more comprehensive and original than Glatt's book was. I'm not quite finished with the book yet, so I'm not ready to review it. I'm just writing about Josef Fritzl today because the more I read about him and his double life, the more creeped out I am.
Here was a man who appeared to be completely normal and respectable on the outside, yet he had all these dark thoughts and bizarre desires. What would drive a man who imprison his own daughter for twenty-four years in an underground cellar? How could he live with himself, knowing that another human being was underground bearing his children all alone, deprived of sunlight, fresh air, medical attention, decent food, and social interactions with others?
I know Josef Fritzl is not a normal person. He's definitely narcissistic and almost certainly a sociopath. He clearly saw his daughter, Elisabeth, and the children he made with her as objects that belonged to him. While I can understand how the three kids who lived in the cellar with Elisabeth coped-- they knew nothing else-- how in the world did Elisabeth not lose her mind?
Even in prison, when prisoners go to "the hole", they come out after a few weeks or months. Elisabeth spent twenty-four years in an underground cellar, where she was subjected to constant rapes by her own father. He tormented her with lies about how if she tried to escape, poisonous gases would kill her and her kids. Or she would be instantly electrocuted. He beat her and the kids, but then he'd also beaten Elisabeth's mother, Rosemarie.
To me, Elisabeth endured a far worse ordeal than any prisoner. It's a testament to her strength that she was able to survive and not be completely crazy in the aftermath. There she was in an underground cell designed by her father, right under the apartment block where he housed transients for years.
And yet, to hear Fritzl explain himself, he did Elisabeth a favor and "saved" her from drugs by banishing her underground. It's terrifying to think about how believable and respectable this monster appeared to be. It makes one wonder how many more people are like him in the world.
I also wonder what it must have been like for Elisabeth to emerge from that prison after twenty-four years. She missed out on her youth, sequestered in that hole with rats and other vermin. How did it feel to have the warm glow of sunshine on her face and wind in her hair. What was it like to breathe fresh air? She had known all of these things before and had taught her children about them, but when they finally experienced it, it must have been like walking in space with no space suit.
What was it like for Elisabeth's mother and siblings and the three kids she had that were allowed to grow up above ground? I especially wonder how Rosemarie coped when she found out that her husband had been imprisoning and raping their daughter for so long. It's bad enough to be the spouse of someone who cheats with someone not in the family and doesn't commit felonious acts in the process. How could she deal with knowing her husband had been abusing their daughter, making babies with her, imprisoning her daughter and her grandchildren underground, and this had been going on for twenty-four years! How did Rosemarie not lose her mind?
I'm sure that if Josef Fritzl had committed his atrocities in the United States and he was in a death penalty state, he'd have been executed by now. While I'm no fan of the death penalty, I'm not sure I would feel sorry for him. On the other hand, being incarcerated for the rest of his life might be the most fitting punishment for Josef Fritzl. However, due to his advanced age when he was finally caught, it's unlikely that he'll be in prison for as long as he kept Elisabeth underground. And his time behind bars is no doubt less traumatic as well. He won't be forced to give birth alone in the dark, cut the umbilical cords of his own children, or watch and worry helplessly when they get sick.
Josef Fritzl evidently has no conscience anyway, so even if he were a mother of a sick child, it's unlikely he'd do anything about it except to maintain his control over someone he saw as a possession. Much like maintaining a vehicle or a household, he'd take care of those kids only out of obligation, because if they died on his watch, he'd cease to own them anymore. It would represent a loss of power, not the loss of an emotional connection.
The more I read about this case, the more horrified I am by it. At the same time, it's morbidly fascinating. Josef Fritzl evidently had an abusive mother who was sent to a concentration camp for refusing to accommodate authorities during World War II. She was always a cold, abusive woman and came back from the camp even weirder and more abusive. Josef never knew his real father and didn't get to bond with his father figure, so he was influenced by his mother, who by all accounts was not a nice person. While that's no excuse for his behavior, it does go to show how important empathetic parents are to their children and how abuse can lead to the formation of monsters.