book reviews, true crime

Repost: Repost of my review of Natascha Kampusch’s 3096 Days in Captivity: The True Story of My Abduction, Eight Years of Enslavement, and Escape

And finally, my reposted review of Natascha Kampusch’s book. Natascha Kampusch was also abducted and kept in a dungeon in Austria for years. Incidentally, today is the 23rd anniversary of Natascha’s abduction.

I always wanted to be a mother, but given the recent awful stories about child abductions that have become so widely publicized, maybe it’s better that I’m not one.  Thanks to the constant influx of news we get these days, I think if I were a mother, I would worry all the time about my kids.  When I was growing up, I had the freedom to pretty much do as I pleased.  I was all over my rural neighborhood and sometimes didn’t come home until after dark.  Today’s kids, by and large, don’t seem to have that same level of freedom.  Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous… until I read about people like Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, or Natascha Kampusch

In 1998, Natascha Kampusch was a chubby ten year old girl living in Vienna, Austria with her mother.  As she writes at the beginning of her book, 2010’s 3096 Days in Captivity: The True Story of My Abduction, Eight Years of Enslavement, and Escape, Natascha’s early life wasn’t very fulfilling.  Her parents were divorced and did not co-parent very effectively.  Her mother wasn’t especially kind to her, especially about her weight issues.  Her father was uninvolved and treated her like an inconvenience. 

In fact, on March 2, 1998, the day her life changed, Natascha was fresh from an unsatisfying visit with her father.  She dressed for school, ate breakfast, and headed on her way.  She had no way that Wolfgang Priklopil was waiting for her with his white van.  The kidnapper grabbed Natascha and forced her into the vehicle.  He then drove her to his home, where he had built a tiny dungeon especially for her.  The dungeon had just five square meters of space, but it would become her home for the rest of her childhood. 

Over the next eight years, Natascha would come to love the simplest things in life, things that many people take for granted.  She grew to love listening to the radio, which the kidnapper had originally set to only pick up stations that came from the Czech Republic.  Not knowing Czech, Natascha had no access to information.  Natascha grew to relish the very few times when she had a full stomach.  Wolfgang Priklopil had an eating disorder and misery loves company, so he shared his food issues with Natascha.  He forced Natascha to stick to very strict starvation diets, which caused her to lose all that extra weight her mother used to criticize her for.  The kidnapper hated women, which may have been why he forced his captive to starve.  When she started to get too “strong” for him, the kidnapper would withhold food again, until she was on the verge of collapse.  He meant to keep her weak, compliant, and I daresay, boyish, a look that even extended to Natascha’s hairstyle. 

The kidnapper was extremely paranoid of anyone finding out that he had Natascha with him.  Conscious that crimes are often solved by hair samples, Priklopil forced Natascha to wear bags on her head.  Later, he forced her to cut off all her hair until she was bald.  He convinced her that if she tried to escape, people would die.  He claimed that all the doors and windows in his house were rigged with explosives.  In time, the kidnapper forced Natascha to do work.  

Natascha Kampusch did not leave the kidnapper’s house until she was 18 years old, and even then, he was always with her, warning her against alerting anyone that she needed help.  He would not let her call herself by her name or talk about her life prior to her time with him.  Like so many other kidnappers, Priklopil knew that he had to erase his victim’s past.  And yet, somehow, she was able to keep a sense of dignity.  When her kidnapper demanded that she kneel and refer to him as “My Lord”, Natascha refused to do it.  On August 23, 2006, she finally found the strength to escape.     

My thoughts

Natascha Kampusch relates her amazing story in highly intelligent, dignified, and descriptive prose.  Despite being pulled out of school at 10 years old, Natascha Kampusch is very educated, in part because the kidnapper gave her books to read.  At the end of the book, there is a note that Natascha Kampusch wrote the English version of her book.  It is very well written, albeit in a rather formal style.

I appreciated Kampusch’s analysis of what had happened to her.  She relates the experience in a rather detached way, yet manages to offer a clear story of who her kidnapper was.  In riveting detail, she explains what it feels like to starve.  She relates how terrified she was when the kidnapper would become enraged and beat on her. 

I also found it interesting to read about how people treated Kampusch when she was rescued.  At first, people were very kind to her.  But when she didn’t hate her kidnapper the way the public felt she should, they turned on her.  Some people accused her of suffering from Stockholm syndrome, which she denies.  I have to admit, her reasoning makes a lot of sense.       

Priklopil committed suicide right after Kampusch escaped.  When Kampusch heard the news, she was supposedly grief-stricken about it.  The public didn’t understand how she could grieve for a man who was so cruel to her.  But Nastascha explains that for eight years, her whole world revolved around her kidnapper.  Her time with him was a significant part of her life and he wasn’t always cruel.  There were times when he showed her small kindnesses, for which she was always very grateful.  It seemed to me that Natascha came to the very true realization that no situation is all good or all bad.  And no person is all good or all bad. 

I admire Natascha Kampusch’s logic and dignity and wonder at her ability to survive and analyze such an ordeal.  I read from a different source that after Priklopil died, Natascha Kampusch became his heir.  She now owns the house where she was held prisoner… a place she never wanted to live in for which she now must pay utilities and taxes.  Life is bizarre.

Overall

As horrible as Natascha Kampusch’s experiences were, I am grateful that she wrote this book.  I found her story fascinating. 

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true crime

Repost: More on Josef Fritzl

This isn’t a book review; it’s more commentary on the Fritzl case. I wrote it in September 2014 and it appears here as/is. I’m adding it in case anyone’s interested in my specific thoughts about this case.

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. 

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: Review of I’m No Monster: The Horrifying True Story of Josef Fritzl

Here’s another reposted review about Josef Fritzl. It was written in September 2014 and appears as/is.

If you’ve been reading this blog recently, you know I’ve been reading about Austria’s infamous Josef Fritzl, a man who imprisoned and raped his daughter, Elisabeth, in an underground cellar for 24 years.  Fritzl had seven children with his wife, Rosemarie, and seven more with Elisabeth, not including one that was miscarried.  Six of Elisabeth’s children are still living.  One of the seven, a twin to her son, Alexander, died just a few days after he was born in the cellar.  Three of Elisabeth’s children were raised above ground, while the two eldest, Kerstin and Stephan, and the youngest, Felix, stayed underground with their mother.

The first book I read about this case was Secrets in the Cellar by John Glatt.  I followed up with I’m No Monster, written by Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski.  Overall, I think I’m No Monster is the better book, although I did notice there were some typos and errors in it.  For one thing, the authors repeatedly refer to St. Poelten as St. Pollen.  I almost wonder if the word was “spell checked” as they wrote it and they never noticed it.  For another thing, there are some awkward sentence structures in the book that could have used editing.  The writing is also frequently somewhat repetitive.

The information presented within the book, however, is very interesting.  The authors go into more detail about Fritzl’s upbringing that Glatt omitted.  For example, I didn’t know that Josef Fritzl’s mother had spent time in a concentration camp for not housing German officials.  She had been a very cold and abusive woman before she went away, but was much worse when she came back.  Fritzl was supposedly beaten bloody by his mother until he finally got big enough to fight back.  He was left with emotional scars that supposedly drove him to violate his daughter.  He has been quoted as saying he was “born to rape” and having Elisabeth gave him someone to victimize, as sick as it is.  I didn’t get as much of a sense that the authors of I’m No Monster were injecting their own opinions about the case as much as Glatt did, although obviously neither book paints Fritzl in a positive light.   

The authors of I’m No Monster also write about the community of Amstetten, where this crime took place.  It is apparently a very straight-laced kind of town at a perfection junction between Germany and Italy.  It even sounds like the kind of place I might want to visit sometime.

Now that I’ve read two books on Josef Fritzl, I think it may be time to move on to another topic.  I hate to say I enjoy reading about true crime, though I do find the people involved in these cases fascinating.  Josef Fritzl is a liar and a narcissist.  According to this book, he wanted to be studied by the top psychologists and psychiatrists and was even working on his own memoirs…  As if being infamous gives him the right to become a celebrity of sorts.  Maybe reading books about Josef Fritzl is counterproductive in that sense, since it gives criminals notoriety that they don’t deserve.  For me, personally, reading these books offers a glimpse into the mindset of criminals.

Anyway, I would recommend I’m No Monster, though I do think it could have been better written.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: John Glatt’s Secrets in the Cellar– the horrible story of Josef Fritzl and his double life

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.

A 60 Minutes Australia story about Josef Fritzl.

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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true crime

Repost: Another “crime blast from the past”…

Here’s another repost from my original blog. This one was written on January 15, 2019. I’m leaving it as/is.

This morning, as Bill and I were enjoying biscuits and gravy, we got on the topic of Jayme Closs, the thirteen year old girl who was abducted from her parents’ Barron, Wisconsin home on October 15, 2018.  Jayme Closs, whose parents Denise and James Closs were murdered by her 21 year old captor, Jake Patterson, managed to escape her kidnapper last Thursday.  She was being held about 70 miles from her home and Patterson apparently got complacent.  Jayme got help from a woman who was walking her dog past the place where Patterson had been keeping her.

I will admit, I haven’t really been keeping up with this story, since I’ve been busy with our move.  However, I did read about her escape and I remembered hearing about her abduction in the fall.  I made the mistake of reading some of the comments on the news articles written about this case.  A lot of people were posting that they thought maybe Closs and Patterson had an affair.

For the record, I DO NOT believe that to be the case.  I think even if that was the situation, Closs would be a victim.  Closs has said she hadn’t known Patterson before he took her and murdered her parents.  Patterson has, himself, apparently told police that he spotted Closs getting on a school bus and decided he “wanted” her.  I don’t think Jayme Closs aided and abetted Patterson in any way.

Talking about this case and the speculation that Closs had something to do with it did make me remember a case that happened in Virginia back in 1990, though.  The incident occurred in Middlesex County on November 10, 1990.  I was a freshman in college and was about a month from finishing up my first semester before I would be coming home to Gloucester County for Christmas break.  To get home from Longwood University, I’d be skirting nearby Middlesex County, although I don’t think the route I took actually took me through there.  I did drive through Middlesex years later when I lived in northern Virginia and came to Gloucester to visit.

On that November day in 1990, 14 year old Jessica Wiseman and her boyfriend, 17 year old Chris Thomas, killed Wiseman’s parents, 32 year old James B. and Kathy Wiseman.  The Wisemans had objected to Jessica and Chris seeing each other, so the young couple decided Jessica’s parents needed to die.  Chris and Jessica went into her parents’ bedroom and shot them both, although Kathy Wiseman was able to run into Jessica’s bedroom.  She was shot again, and that killed her.

At the time of the crime, no one in Virginia under age 15 could be tried as an adult, regardless of how serious the crime was.  Jessica Wiseman was tried as a juvenile in a closed court.  She was declared a delinquent and spent the rest of her teen years in a juvenile detention facility.  She was freed on July 26, 1997, which was her 21st birthday.

Chris Thomas was 17 years old, though, so although he was technically a juvenile, he was eligible to be tried as an adult.  He pleaded guilty to killing James Wiseman and not guilty to killing Kathy Wiseman.  He was convicted of both killings and sentenced to death.  At the time, Virginia juries were not permitted to sentence a killer to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  They were faced with the choice of sentencing Thomas to death or allowing for parole, which could have meant he would have been released as soon as twenty years after conviction.

Attorneys for Thomas have said that he was trying to protect Wiseman by taking the blame.  Two women who were imprisoned with Jessica Wiseman also said that she was the one who had actually pulled the trigger, not Thomas.  I’m not sure exactly where the truth lies, although it does seem unfair to me that Jessica got to live her life while Thomas lost his to state supported homicide.  Thomas was scheduled to be executed in June 1999.  The execution was put off until January 10, 2000, when Thomas was 26 years old.  He ate fried chicken for his last supper.  

I remember when this case was news.  In those days, I used to read the Daily Press every day.  There was a columnist named Jim Spencer who wrote opinions for the paper.  My dad didn’t like him because Spencer was an outspoken liberal.  I, on the other hand, was drawn to Spencer’s columns.  I usually read them whenever I noticed them.  In 2003, Spencer moved on to Denver, Colorado, where he wrote for the Denver Post.

As I was reading up on the Wiseman murders this morning, I happened to find an old column Spencer wrote for the Denver Post in 2007.  He was reporting on another murder that had happened in Denver that reminded him of the Wiseman case, which he’d also written about.  I did know that Spencer had moved out of Virginia, although I hadn’t been following his career from afar.  I went to see if Spencer was still in Denver, but it appears that he was a victim of downsizing.  I think he has managed to find another job in journalism, although it took awhile and he had to detour into a different field.  Looks like he now reports in Washington, DC after a stint in Minneapolis.

It actually makes me a little sad to read about Jim Spencer’s situation.  Good journalists are a dying breed.  Nowadays, people don’t want to pay for a newspaper subscription.  While it’s true that more writers can be read with the advent of blogging and self-publishing, it’s much harder for legitimate authors to make a decent living.  These old stories become relics of the past, with fewer skilled people to write them.

I find true crime fascinating.  Everyone has a story.  People involved in true crimes especially have stories.  Some of the stories are more tragic than others.  What happened to Chris Thomas doesn’t seem fair to me.  I am not a fan of the death penalty in all but the most extreme cases.  I don’t think he should have been executed for killing the Wisemans.  Moreover, he was technically a juvenile when he committed his crimes.  While I would expect most juveniles to know that killing is wrong, I also know that young people do not have fully functioning brains until they’re older.  It also doesn’t seem fair that Thomas was executed while his girlfriend only did about seven years in a juvenile facility.  But then, I guess there is a pretty big difference in a person’s maturity levels between the ages of 14 and 17.

As for Jayme Closs, I have nothing but compassion for her.  She must have gone through hell.  What a blessing it is that she was able to find help after escaping her captor.  He is in Wisconsin, so unless there is a federal angle applied to his case, he’ll probably rot in prison for a long while.  Wisconsin no longer has the death penalty.

I may have to start following the Closs/Patterson case now…

Here are the original comments from this post.

jonoJanuary 17, 2019 at 5:42 PM

Since it happened not too far from here (as the crow flies)it has dominated the local news. Jake will not likely see the light of day again other than obligatory time in the prison yard.

We have been watching the long, slow death of real journalism for some time now. There are still many good ones out there, but the masses seem to prefer entertainment to good reporting. It is very sad.

  1. I hope he doesn’t. He needs to be put away for a long time.
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