Here’s a book review I wrote for my original blog in September 2014. It appears here as/is.
I remember being as shocked as everyone else was in April 2008, when the world became aware of 73 year old retired engineer, Josef Fritzl. At the time, Bill and I were in the middle of our first time in Germany and I recognized St. Polten, the town where Fritzl was being jailed. I visited the town by chance in August 1997, on my way home from my Peace Corps assignment in Armenia. I remembered St. Polten as a charming place, not too far from Vienna. Now it was in the news because of Josef Fritzl, rapist, kidnapper, and murderer.
Josef Fritzl, an elderly man who had seemed so brilliant and respectable for most of his life, had just been outed as a monster who had held his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in an underground prison for twenty-four years. Not only had Fritzl kidnapped his own daughter, he had also repeatedly raped and beaten her. And he had also made eight children with her, one of whom was miscarried, one who died three days after birth, three who lived underground with Elisabeth, and the other three who were raised by him and his wife, Rosemarie.
Rosemarie, who had also borne seven children with Fritzl, was heartbroken on August 28, 1984, when her daughter Elisabeth went missing. She was unaware that her husband had built an elaborate dungeon underground on their property in Amstetten, Austria, and that her daughter was underground being raped and tortured. Fritzl forced Elisabeth to write a letter explaining that she had joined a religious cult and warning her parents not to try to find her. And Rosemarie, who had always been a very passive soul that never questioned anyone, took Elisabeth at her word. For some reason, it never occurred to her to question when three of Elisabeth’s seven babies were dropped at her doorstep with notes explaining that she couldn’t take care of them.
Though the Fritzl story is truly horrifying, I am a sucker for true crime. I decided to read John Glatt’s 2010 book, Secrets in the Cellar, which is about the Fritzl case. This book turned out to be a real page turner, not so much because of the way it was written, but because this crime is so extraordinary and horrible. Austria had already been reeling from the story about Natascha Kampusch, a ten year old girl from Vienna who was abducted, beaten, and enslaved by a stranger who kept her in an underground pit for eight years. As horrible as that story was, Fritzl’s story was far worse. He was doing these horrible things to his own daughter and the children he forced her to have with him.
Glatt does a good job of explaining how Fritzl came to be the monster that he is. Fritzl was born in 1935 and raised by an abusive mother who beat him savagely. As a young boy, he had witnessed firsthand the horrors of Adolf Hitler, but Hitler was apparently less terrifying than his own mother. Fritzl eventually came to adore and respect her as a “great woman”, even though she was very abusive and controlling.
Josef Fritzl was a handsome man who had a very strong libido. He was attracted to “nice” girls and dated often, finally settling on Rosemarie, a woman who was very passive and meek. By Glatt’s account, Fritzl was a very competent engineer who seemed very normal in most ways. But he ruled his house with an iron fist and was very abusive and cruel to his wife and their children. Fritzl was also a convicted rapist who frequently hired prostitutes, many of whom later told police about his sick fantasies. Fritzl may have also been responsible for other unsolved rapes and murders of women.
Elisabeth was Fritzl’s fourth child, born in 1966, and she resembled Fritzl’s mother. From her birth, Josef Fritzl became obsessed with her. By the time she was eleven years old, he had started raping her. Though he let her go to school and even become trained in the culinary arts, he did not want her to date boys. In August 1984, she was 18 years old and on the brink of escaping him when he asked her to help him move a heavy steel door to his cellar.
As they were moving the door, Fritzl overpowered Elisabeth, covered her nose and mouth with ether, and handcuffed her. He then moved her to the prison he had spent six years constructing. She would stay there for 24 years. Only when Elisabeth’s eldest daughter, Kerstin, became deathly ill did Fritzl finally let Elisabeth and sons Stefan and Felix leave the dungeon so that Kerstin could get medical care. It was then that the whole shocking story unfolded.
Imagine, for a minute, being kept in a dungeon underground for twenty-four years, not seeing the light of day or breathing fresh air. Then imagine being born in that dungeon and never seeing the sun or the moon or rain. That was the reality of what happened to Elisabeth Fritzl and the children who were kept in the dungeon with her. The youngest child was five when they were finally let out and being outside was like being in outer space. Elisabeth’s children had only seen the outside world on television. Kerstin, the nineteen year old daughter whose illness prompted their release, was kept in a medically induced coma for weeks after they were let out of the cell. She very nearly died never having known the pleasure of feeling sunlight on her face.
Secrets in the Cellar is well-written and interesting, though I did notice a few passages that became a bit repetitive. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that Glatt didn’t actually interview many of the people involved in this case. That’s not entirely his fault, since the Fritzl family was very heavily guarded and protected from journalists. On the other hand, what he’s written here most people could probably find out by reading news articles about the Fritzl case. The book just makes the story more conveniently packaged. Nevertheless, I am not sorry I read Secrets in the Cellar and I would recommend it to those who want to read about the Fritzl case. I’d probably give it three stars out of five.
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