Whatever became of Elisabeth Fritzl?
Her 24-year ordeal of captivity and rape in that cellar in Amstetten is beyond belief. But Josef Fritzl's daughter is fighting back
21 March 2010
She lives in a brightly painted house in a tiny hamlet which the Austrian media, when they mention it at all, refer to as "Village X". The two-storey family home is kept under constant CCTV surveillance, and any strangers caught lurking nearby can expect to be picked up by the police within minutes.
The concern about security, above all the fear of an all-pervasive, ruthlessly prying media does not end there. In addition to security guards, the citizens of "Village X" have formed a sort of Dad's Army to keep journalists and other sensation seekers at bay. "There are only a few villagers and they are all in with the police," recalled a photographer who was unfortunate enough to be sent on a mission to "Village X" last month. "I was quickly surrounded by people who told me: they don't want to talk to you, they don't want to see you – please get out of here," he said.
A family fortress in a village whose name can never be mentioned is the home Elisabeth's Fritzl today shares with her children. Except nobody calls her Fritzl anymore. She has been given a new identity. She is 44, but the only photographs of her ever published show her aged 16 and under. "Village X" is only a few kilometres away from the almost inadequately named "House of Horror" across the Danube in the nearby Lower Austrian town of Amstetten. It was at Amstetten's Ybbsstrasse number 4 that Elisabeth Fritzl spent 24 years of her life being held like a caged animal in an underground cellar where she was raped an estimated 3,000 times by her father, "Incest Monster" Josef Fritzl.
In that dank subterranean warren, Elisabeth bore Fritzl seven children without any medical help whatsoever. Three of them were sent "upstairs" as small children and lived comparatively normal lives being looked after by Fritzl's unwitting wife, Rosemarie. She had been duped into thinking that Elisabeth had run away from home to join a religious sect and had only returned to dump her newly born children on her mother's doorstep. Incredible as it seems, the Austrian social services believed the story. But the other four children Fritzl fathered through his incestuous relationship were never allowed to leave the cellar. One of them, a baby boy, suffered severe breathing problems after birth, so Fritzl let the child die rather than call a doctor because he was afraid of being found out. He burned the infant's body in a wood-burning stove.
Elisabeth Fritzl's ordeal defies adequate description. Two years ago she finally managed to escape the underground prison where, for almost a quarter of a century, she had lived alone and then shared with her three "cellar children", Kerstin, Stefan and Felix, then aged 19, 17 and five. A year ago last week, Josef Fritzl, then 73, was tried in a court in the Austrian city of Sankt Pölten where a jury found him guilty of mass rape, incest, wrongful imprisonment, coercion and murder by negligence. Dr Adelheid Kästner, the psychiatrist who interviewed Fritzl extensively before the trial, concluded that his terrible experiences as a child at the hands of a brutal and unloving mother had driven him to want to "control somebody completely." That "somebody" turned out to be his daughter Elisabeth whom he kidnapped and imprisoned in a cellar and began raping when she was 18, although the abuse started when she was just 11. The court sentenced Fritzl to life imprisonment. He is now held in a special facility for "mentally abnormal criminals" at Austria's Stein prison.
For the outside world, the first tangible signs of a return to something approaching a normal life occurred in late 2008 after Elisabeth and her children were deemed sufficiently recovered to be given a new home in "Village X". By July last year Elisabeth had struck up a relationship with Thomas Wagner, a security guard with the Austrian firm A&T securities. He is 23 years younger than her. Wagner was assigned to the family shortly after the move to ensure their safety. "It may seem remarkable but they are still together," said a source close to the medical team that monitors the family. "Thomas has become a big brother to the children," she added. Elisabeth is reported to have radically scaled back the therapy she undergoes for post-traumatic stress disorders as her relationship with Wagner has progressed. The three "upstairs" children's contacts with her and their "downstairs" brothers and sister have also gradually increased.
Last month, the near perpetual news blackout imposed by Elisabeth on herself and her family was broken by Josef Fritzl's sister-in-law, a woman who chooses to identify herself only as Christine R. Her description of Elisabeth's everyday life two years on from her escape revealed that it was astonishingly normal.
"Elisabeth likes to go shopping a lot," Christine R said, "She couldn't do that while she was locked in the cellar for those 24 years. She loves jeans with glitter pockets and she passed her driving test without difficulty. Now she's looking for a car. The kids are all going to school and working hard," she added. Christine R said Elisabeth was without any financial worries because the Austrian authorities had provided her with the €60,000 (£54,000) in child allowance that she was denied during her time in the cellar. "Felix, the smallest one, has got a PlayStation," she added.
Such a life was unimaginable in the spring of 2008 when Elisabeth escaped from her underground prison, her skin ashen coloured because of decades without sunlight and a diet of cheap supermarket food. She was placed with her three "cellar children" under the care of a battery of social workers, therapists and psychiatrists at a clinic outside Amstetten where she lived in hospital rooms overlooking trees and a wide lawn.
Felix was reported to have spent much of his time stroking the grass on the lawn in sheer wonderment. "For them a passing cloud is a phenomenon," remarked Berthold Kepplinger, the clinic's chief physician at the time.
The doors linking their rooms in the hospital apartment that they went on to inhabit were kept open at all times. A radio or television set was kept on most of the time, providing some sort of link with the outside world, just as it did in the cellar. Elisabeth was gradually reunited with her three teenage "upstairs" children; Lisa, Monika and Alexander. Her three cellar children began to get to know the brother and sisters they had never met. They found it difficult to call Elisabeth "Mutti" (Mum). But even more problematic was Elisabeth's relationship with her mother, Rosemarie, 66. She could not believe that her mother had not known the truth, that Rosemarie was not in league with Josef in some way.
Soon after her release she started to develop an obsession with cleanliness, showering up to 10 times a day. Her children were traumatised in different ways. The cellar children found it hard to relate to their siblings who had led normal lives. What, they asked, was the reason? The upstairs children felt guilty for having been spared.
Yet, only two years on, the family's recovery is palpable. Perhaps most remarkable is that Elisabeth has become friends with her mother.
According to Christine R, Rosemarie fled the home she shared with Fritzl more than 18 months ago, and tries to augment a meagre pension by selling homemade bags and her paintings of flowers. But nowadays she visits Elisabeth and her family at least once a week. "Whatever suspicion there was has gone," says Christine R.
By any standards, Elisabeth Fritzl's fight back to a comparatively normal life must count as a near miracle. Her struggle began in early April 2008, when she persuaded Fritzl to take their daughter, Kerstin, to hospital after she fell unconscious from acute kidney failure. Before that, she had reacted to the imprisonment by having fits and shredding her clothes and stuffing the remains in a toilet. Almost as soon as she was admitted to the clinic, doctors became highly suspicious and alerted the police.
But psychiatrists such as Dr Adelheid Kästner say that Elisabeth's second and probably most significant catharsis occurred at her father's trial almost exactly a year ago. The press and public were banned from the court to allow a videotaped recording of Elisabeth giving evidence to be played. Elisabeth crept into the court in person to witness her father's reactions. Then Josef turned round and saw her for the first time since her escape. He broke down and wept. At that moment Elisabeth knew she had won.