Most of you, surely, have heard by now of the case of the Austrian ’house of horror.’ For those diligently engaged with final projects, or still in the throes of post-thesis regalia, however, I will explain in brief. Last week, after a critically ill 19-year-old from Amstetten (in southwest Lower Austria) was admitted to a local hospital, medical inquiries regarding her alarming oxygen deprivation led to the discovery of a woman who had been imprisoned by her father for the past 24 years.
Of course the critically-ill Kerstin, at 19, could not have been imprisoned for quite that long. The full story, more depraved than any nightmare I’ve ever heard recounted, was laid bare when a 73-year-old man, Josef Fritzl, confessed to having imprisoned his now 42-year-old daughter Elisabeth—Kerstin’s mother—for the past two dozen years.
Police have reported that in 1984, Fritzl drugged and handcuffed his daughter, and then locked her in their cellar. He told his wife, Rosemarie, that Elisabeth had fled the family for a cult. Over the next 24 years, Elisabeth was jailed in—literally—a secret underground lair where she gave birth to seven of her father’s children, including twins in 1996. (One of these twins died and was promptly incinerated by Fritzl, in the very oven Elisabeth used to cook meals for the children that she shared with her father). Elisabeth raised Kerstin with two brothers, now 18 and 5, while Fritzl brought up—brought upstairs, more precisely—the three other children with Rosemarie, in more “normal” familial conditions.
The story of the Fritzl family is one of the most horrific news items I can recall. Each day, newspaper headlines tell of murders, natural disasters, corruption, war, even genocide; acknowledging these sad verities certainly takes its toll. Still, though, no one involved in the Fritzl case was actually murdered, there is something about this account that scars and scares me more than faceless tales of faceless brutality, those many horrid stories about people unknown to me who were horribly victimized and abused.
The fact that this story centers on a nuclear family is what makes it quite so difficult for me to digest. What I find perhaps most eerie in Fritzl’s entire elaborate plot is the intricacy of the cellar he created, the full sickness—and sick fullness—of his double life. As images of the apartment show, Fritzl installed tile and wood trim; he decorated with posters, paintings and colorful fun stickers. The disconnect in this man’s mind is jarring; why grant a television and radio, why give a deep freezer and washing machine, why bring back bags of presents from a trip (a sex holiday) to Thailand—why so much as bring food to a child, if you are actively, forcefully, hideously limiting his or her life experience? Where is this grisly father’s understanding of life? I want to be able to place it. My inner sense of rationality wants to be able to begin to find some reason in all this.
There’s something fundamental in this tale that I cannot fathom. I assure those of you who don’t know me well that I am no delinquent pervert, and yet I want to, somehow; I deeply want to understand how a man—a human, no matter how “inhuman” our language might dub his acts—could perform these deeds. I feel almost obsessed when I consider the questions this story provokes. How could a man create an underground dungeon, and threaten to kill his victims—a ghastly combination of children, mate and grandchildren—with gas? How could a woman bear to deliver seven of her father’s children, and then raise some of them, cooking for them, singing them lullabies, teaching them German and writing skills? How can the 68-year-old Rosemarie go on, after learning these catastrophic truths about her husband, her children, her grandchildren? How can we grapple with the dimension of evil in this tale, or with the wars and famines that we read about—that are all I can read about—every day?
I’m not sure precisely what notion of human nature I believe in, but it is surely challenged by this gruesome story. Love of family, in my eyes, stands as one of the sole human constants; even tyrannical despots, I have maintained, love their kin. The Fritzl drama thus fundamentally calls into question my most elemental notions of humanity and familial love. I am no Sophocles, and of course there’s no way I could ever understand, or help another to understand, a human tragedy of these proportions. Yet I seek to do so, I seek to know what it could possibly be like for be Kerstin, the 19-year-old, to emerge into the light of day for the first time.
I would not go so far as to analogize the (figurative) light that Wesleyan has pushed me to face with the (literal) light Kerstin now faces. Yet I will say that this admittedly creepy desire to understand the Fritzl story, and then my reaction to this desire, holds within it the most valuable lesson I have learned in my four years at Wesleyan. That may sound peculiar, and certainly it is sappy, but I think what I have most valuably taken from this school—besides our college’s inimitable ironic know-how, plus manifold tales of drunken late-night food binges—is the ability to shape a rich, complex, nuanced frame of world around me. Here I have learned not to be overwhelmed when I hear stories like this, or at least not to be overwhelmed permanently. Wesleyan has taught me how to integrate these inhuman, if not all-too-human, events into my consciousness—and then to go forward from there, and try to effect change for the good.