Amstetten: Notes on a Catastrophe
It is not unusual for homes in Lower Austria, balanced as they were on the edge of the Iron Curtain through the long cold war, to have bunker-like cellars with thick concrete and steel reinforced doors. In 1978, Joseph Fritzl readily secured permission from the planning board in the town of Amstetten to build his bunker. In fact, he would likely have received a generous subsidy to help him along. The threat of a nuclear war was real. The construction of bunkers was encouraged.
Fritzl constructed his bunker as an extension of the cellar beneath the large building he owned at No. 40 Ybbstrasse which contained his home on the upper floors and several rental apartments below. To gain entrance to the bunker, you would have had to pass through five locked doors even to reach the extension and then to pass through three more metal and electronically operated doors. Only Fritzl knew the numeric code that opened the innermost door.
By most accounts, it was the middle of the night in late August of 1984, when Joseph Fritzl drugged, handcuffed and carried his fourth daughter, 18-year-old Elisabeth, whom he had been sexually abusing since her eleventh year, down into this bunker while his wife, Rosemarie, and Elisabeth’s three brothers and three sisters slept. Apparently, no one heard a thing.
For twenty-four years this sound-proofed bunker became Elisabeth’s torture cell and prison. For the first five of these years Elisabeth’s only contact with the outside world was her rapist father. And then she gave birth to the first of seven children he would force upon her. The first two, Kerstin, 19 (now lying critically ill in an artificially-induced coma) and Stefan, 18, would remain in the bunker with her. The next three would be removed and taken up into the light of day to be raised by their grandmother and grandfather/father. The twin of one of the “upstairs” children, ill at birth, had been tossed into the incinerator by Fritzl.
The last child, Felix, now five, whose fate it was to stay in the bunker, is said to have squealed “Is this heaven?!” on seeing the world above ground for the first time from the inside of the police van.
THE LIVING DEAD
Upon seeing her daughter, Elisabeth (who had become white-haired, stooped and toothless in the bunker), after twenty-four years, Rosemarie Fritzl is said to have cried out, “I had no idea.” Elisabeth Fritzl, now 42, is so pale she is translucent, like the living dead.
Some things are beyond the imagination, beyond any idea. Even when they are under your nose, so to speak. In your own cellar. It comes as no surprise—the evidence has been in since the beginning of recorded history—that patriarchal cultures commit unspeakable crimes against their daughters. What’s startling is Elisabeth’s life. What she endured and how that must have been and how she survived it. For twenty-four years.
Being locked in a windowless, sound-proofed, five and a half-foot underground prison consisting of three small rooms, a bathroom and a padded cell in which you are raped on a regular basis by your own father, is just something you can’t quite grasp as being humanly endurable. Giving birth in an airless tomb. Six times over. And then the children, new life, down there, from him.
Hearing of the quake in Sichuan Province with its tens of thousands buried alive, its children buried under their schools, the sick under their hospitals, the mind springs into action, we know what happened and we know what to do. There is work to be done, aid to be donated. But the Amstetten disaster calls out for an as yet uncalled-for response. Seismologists can’t help us figure it out.
The team of detectives sent in to investigate the bunker rooms in the cellar are said to have been forced to come up for air at least once an hour.
FREUD AND HITLER
Elisabeth Fritzl (Liesel, her father called her) had the cataclysmic misfortune, if we are to believe Joseph Fritzl, to remind him of his beloved mother. Raised alone by her, thus the only “man in the house,” as he puts it, Fritzl loved his mother in ways he refrained from acting upon. The daughter, Elisabeth, was to become “an addiction”—the “forbidden fruit” he could not resist.
In a very real way, which he himself has articulated by way of defense, the phenomenon, Fritzl, might be explained by the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s two most famous sons.
If one were to take Sigmund Freud’s theories to their most concrete and thus radical conclusion, you’d uncover Friztl in his bunker with the little family born of incest he buried alive there. The repressed and repressive bourgeois culture Freud put on the couch and dissected also produced Adolf Hitler. Seventy-five year old Fritzl volunteered under questioning that the iron discipline he maintained in his upstairs life was a value he learned as a boy under the Third Reich. Fritzl’s extensions under the earth were the ultimate extension of Nazi family ideology: a good wife and mother stays put in the home.
Elisabeth, already beaten into the kind of shy, submissiveness that often signals abuse, needed disciplining. She’d taken to drinking and had run away twice. She needed to be kept away from the influence of the outside world—by force, if necessary, Fritzl has explained. He built the prison as her punishment, to be sure, but also as a bunker to protect her and as a womb from which a second family might spring from his loins. He wanted her children. Fritzl told authorities he did his best to make it nice for them down there. He brought Liesel flowers and the children stuffed toys. Eventually, he brought them down an old television set—their only view of the world outside. He told authorities how he would watch sports and videos with the children, while Liesel cooked them “their favorite meals,” and then they would all sit down together and eat. While he raped her in the padded cell, the children watched that television.
The Austrian journalist, Franz Schandl, asks why we are so surprised. After all, the primary crime scene is the family. “The nucleus of protection is the nucleus of attack,” Schandl writes.
AUSTRIA AND US
Friztl, already a convicted rapist it turns out, constructed an elaborate lie to explain his daughter’s sudden disappearance that summer of ’84. He told the Amstetten police department and apparently his wife, that Elisabeth had sent word of having joined a cult in a foreign land, and that they were under no circumstance to look for her. He forced her to write a letter in her own hand as proof. And he later elaborated on this remarkable lie—producing letters, again forced from her own hand, announcing that Elisabeth couldn’t care for this or that baby and begging her parents to raise them. None of this was ever questioned. Nor were the appearance of the babies on the doorstep, seemingly out of nowhere. The authorities stamped approval of the first child’s adoption and the fostering of the two who followed.
While the nation’s current chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, vows a campaign to resuscitate his country’s “image problem,” a number of prominent Austrians have weighed in on “The Land of Dungeons” in ways sure to undermine his efforts. And how could one not begin to wonder whether something might be terribly wrong? Two short years ago saw the at-that-time unparalleled horror of the Natascha Kampusch case, in which a ten-year-old girl was abducted in a Vienna suburb and held in an underground bunker for eight years before escaping. As in this case, nobody seemed to question what in hindsight appears to be disturbing, telling signs.
As the writer Thomas Glavinic puts it, “Austrians hardly ever notice anything that might cause them discomfort.” Didn’t the Austrians welcome Hitler, their native son, with open arms? And then choose to play the victim role later, burying the discomfort of their complicity? Meanwhile, the nation’s Nobel- prize winning author, Elfriede Jelinek, equates the Fatherland, Austria, with the psycho-sexual oppressiveness of a fascist father, with Fritzl as its inevitable incarnation.
“I’m no monster,” Fritzl explains, while Glavinic asks of his countrymen: “How many more of the 700 people officially missing in this country are sitting in some underground prison as we speak?” And how many, he might have added, will join them now that the genie is out of the bottle?
The foundations are shaken and not just in Austria. Perhaps, if we listen too closely, we will hear someone banging on heating pipes for hours on end as the bunker family is said to have done, below our own feet.
No one mentions a happy ending to the story of Amstetten because there isn’t one. The capacity to endure the unthinkable disturbs as much as it provides solace of any kind. Elisabeth Fritzl and her bunker children are now above ground with us. One remains near death, the others are said to be adjusting quite well, “given the circumstances,” to the light and space and noise and air. Little Felix coos with delight at the world—at the sun and moon and stars. At cars and cell phones. If there is anything we can salvage from the horror story of Amstetten to go on with, it resides in that little soul whose chances for recovery are seen as realistic.
Lydia Stryk is the author of over a dozen plays including Monte Carlo, The House of Lily, The Glamour House, American Tet, and An Accident produced at, among others, Denver Center Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Magic Theatre, and in Germany at Schauspiel Essen, Theaterhaus Stuttgart and the English Theater Berlin. She lives between Berlin and New York. www.lydiastryk.com.