bad TV, movies

Judd Nelson as a rapey old man…

I finally finished binge watching Nurse Jackie yesterday. That was a surprisingly compelling show that aired on Showtime for seven seasons. I think I might have seen one or two episodes when it was current, but as is my habit, I didn’t watch the whole thing until I could watch it all at once. I think this habit comes from watching so many reruns in syndication when I was growing up. I like to digest whole series while I can still remember everything that happened. Makes it easier to spot discrepancies in story continuity.

Anyway, since I finished Nurse Jackie, it was time for something else to watch. One of the suggested shows on iTunes was a made for TV film called Girl in the Basement (2021), not to be confused with a 2005 slasher film by the same name. I read that the film, which starred Judd Nelson, Joely Fisher, and Stefanie Scott, was loosely based on the Josef Fritzl case out of Amstetten, Austria. The Fritzl case, as you might recall, involved a creepy father who abducted his own 18 year old daughter, Elisabeth, in 1984 and locked her in a homemade dungeon in his basement. There, she stayed for 24 years. Elisabeth and her children, all fathered by Fritzl, were finally rescued in April 2008, when the eldest of her seven children got very sick and needed to go to a hospital. Fritzl, now 85 years old, was finally arrested and is currently incarcerated in Austria.

I don’t have much patience or tolerance for Lifetime dreck anymore, so what made me decide to watch this? Well, I recently reposted book reviews I wrote about the Fritzl case. I was also living in Germany when this case was hot news. I grew up in the 1980s, and remember Judd Nelson as a rebellious teenager in The Breakfast Club and a philandering asshole politician wannabe in St. Elmo’s Fire. Judd Nelson plays “angry man” well. I figured he might be interesting as an Americanized incarnation of Fritzl… although how sad it is that he did it for Lifetime television. Ah well. I’m sure the money was good.

So I watched Girl in the Basement last night. It wasn’t an extraordinary film. I didn’t expect it to be, as it was made for Lifetime TV. Judd Nelson was nothing at all like John Bender from The Breakfast Club or Alec from St. Elmo’s Fire. He still plays anger and rage well. In Girl in the Basement, he plays a weird guy named Don Cody, a controlling asshole who seethes with barely concealed rage. Don and his wife, Irene (Fisher), have two daughters. There’s dark haired Sarah (Scott), and blonde Amy (Emily Topper). For some reason, Don is really hateful to Sarah. It’s never established why he’s this way, probably because the film is only 88 minutes.

Don is also very strict and mean to his wife and his other daughter, but he’s especially controlling toward Sarah. When she wants to do fun and normal things like go to parties and hang out with her age appropriate boyfriend, Christofer (Jake Etheridge), Don flies into rages. I don’t understand what Don and Irene are doing together. I never see a trace of what put them together, and there’s really no chemistry at all. But here they are, a manufactured family, and Don is a perfect shit to Sarah. Irene does nothing about it, yet doesn’t come off as especially weak, meek, or submissive. (note– I see the name “Sarah” is spelled Sara on the Lifetime site and on IMDB.com. However, in the note left with her baby son, her name is spelled with an “h”.)

Is it Sara or Sarah? I’m going with Sarah.

One night, just before her high school graduation and 18th birthday, Sarah is in her bedroom with her mom and sister, talking about the future. She can’t wait to move out of the house. She wants to get away from Don, who is a control freak and makes her life miserable. Irene and Amy agree with her. At this point, I wonder why the hell the three of them haven’t left the bastard. He’s certainly not a looker and he doesn’t treat them well. But they do live in a gorgeous house.

After Sarah graduates from high school, but just a few days before her 18th birthday, Don fools her into helping him carry a crate full of stuff to his man cave. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the family, a previous owner had a bomb shelter built into the house. It’s windowless and soundproof, and dismal. It looks kind of like a subway station without the kiosks and train tracks.

The room doesn’t have any ventilation, ambiance, or warmth. It certainly lacks the charming Pottery Barn touches seen all over the rest of the house, which I assume is in Georgia, since the film has a Georgia film industry tag on it in the credits. It’s funny, because I used to live in Georgia, and even before I saw that tag, I was thinking the scenery reminded me of Georgia. As Sarah is setting down the crate, Don asks her what she thinks of the mysterious room. Sarah says it “sucks”.

To Sarah’s hostile criticism of the shelter, Don says, “That’s too bad.” Then he swiftly locks her in the room, which is behind two doors with an airlock. The first door is hidden behind a sliding bookcase, while the second is locked with some kind of electronic keypad. Sarah tries the keypad, but then the power goes out. Don later tells her that after three incorrect code entries, the system is designed to turn off the power, which cuts off the fan– and the only ventilation in the room. Then, he screams at Sarah that he changes the code “EVERY DAY!! “

Sarah is well and totally fucked, both figuratively and literally. Don shows up with a birthday cake on her 18th birthday and forces her to blow out the candle. Then he hands her a plastic bag with a “gift” in it. He forces Sarah to open the gift, which turns out to be a bright red, low cut, spaghetti strapped number that looks like it came from the lingerie section of Target or Walmart. He forces her to wear the dress, then rapes her doggy style. He tells her to call him Don instead of the the more familiar “Dad”.

Naturally, Irene and Amy are wondering where Sarah is. They’ve called the cops, who tell them that because Sarah is over 18, there’s not much they can do. Don tells them that Sarah is living out her dream of traveling the country. Don also tells Christofer that story. For some reason, everybody takes his word for it, even though he’s famously horrible to Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah is in the basement, a room Irene refuses to explore, because Don told her they are rats down there. And she just can’t bring herself to determine that for herself… or call an exterminator.

It wouldn’t be a loose dramatization of the Fritzl story without pregnancy. Don rapes Sarah repeatedly– apparently doggy style– and she ends up having four kids- a daughter and three sons. One son dies at birth after Don beats up Sarah. Sarah convinces Don to take another one upstairs, because there’s no room for him in the basement. The baby boy is left on the porch with a note from Sarah, indicating that he’s her son. Irene takes him in without question. The other two kids grow up with Sarah, who proves to be an excellent mom… or as excellent as she can be under the conditions they’re in.

As time marches on, Sarah doesn’t change much. Her hair is a little grayer. Judd Nelson comes to visit his secret family. Don tells Sarah she looks like his mother– a woman he obviously hates. He says one of his sons looks like his father. As the kids get older and rebel, things begin to unravel. They finally fall apart completely when the eldest child has a near fatal asthma attack and Sarah is able to summon help.

That’s about the whole film. At the end of it, I was rolling my eyes.

A trailer for Girl in the Basement.

I don’t think the Fritzl story is one that can be summed up in 88 minutes. Granted, this was not strictly about the Fritzl story. It’s a cheesy Lifetime Movie interpretation. I certainly don’t expect a Lifetime movie to be anything earth shattering, but I do think this interpretation of a real life story is rather simplistic and kind of disrespectful. I’m sure a lot came into play as this film was being made. Budget constraints were no doubt a factor in how this story could have been told.

Maybe I’m naive, but some money probably could have been saved if the filming hadn’t been done in such a fancy and apparently newly constructed house. It’s hard to believe that someone had built a bomb shelter in it, because it looks a bit like a McMansion. Bomb shelters were more of a thing sixty years ago. We never learn what Don does to support his family in such a home, either.

My next complaint has to do with Amy and Irene, two women who are supposedly submissive to Don. But there’s never any time to establish why they are so submissive to him. In Fritzl’s case, his wife Rosemarie was known to be very unquestioning, old school, and submissive. Joely Fisher’s characterization of Irene doesn’t seem to be that meek. As I watched her, I kept thinking that she doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would just accept that her daughter ran off. There’s not enough time to show the motivation as to why she wouldn’t be tearing her hair out with worry… or why she would take Don’s word that their daughter had just run away, when she supposedly had a strong bond with her mom and her sister. And why wouldn’t a mom, crazed with worry and despair, not explore the basement, rats or not? Amy is shown checking things out down there, and she gets busted by Don, but I didn’t understand why these two women allowed him to be so secretive and never challenged it.

And then there’s the basement itself. I kept wondering how Sarah took care of her needs every day. We don’t see bathroom facilities. It is established that Sarah has to earn everything. She has to put on the red dress to be given a clock. She has to be submissive to Don to finally get an old television/VCR after several years in the basement. Through it all, she doesn’t change much. She doesn’t get paler or frailer. She doesn’t have any dental problems. She doesn’t seem to have much mental distress for what she’d been through. And the children are surprisingly healthy and normal for being so traumatized and seeing their mother beaten and raped repeatedly by their father.

I think this film would have been a lot better as a miniseries or a two-parter. And I think it would have been better not set in the United States. I think it was supposed to be set in the year 2000 or so. Things haven’t changed that dramatically since 2000. I mean, most of us have quit using VCRs and landlines. But other than that, there isn’t much of a change to show how many years they were supposedly trapped in the basement. I can’t believe the police wouldn’t have done more, especially after she was gone for so long. They wouldn’t have brought dogs in to sniff?

It was interesting to see Judd Nelson again. I wasn’t that impressed with him in this film. I know he can do better. Given better writing and a bigger budget, this could have been a compelling film, and Nelson probably could have done a good job playing Don. In this incarnation, his version of a Fritzl-like monster dad is just silly, melodramatic, and frankly, disrespectful to Elisabeth Fritzl and her family. She probably would just as soon not have her trauma turned into cheap, Lifetime entertainment. And before anyone points out the obvious, I know I shouldn’t have watched it myself… but I was curious to see Judd Nelson again. It’s been years since I last saw him in anything.

This is how I want to remember you, Judd.

Judd Nelson is a legitimately good actor, especially when he’s playing rage. This movie is kind of an embarrassment. I’m sure he did it strictly for the money. On another note… I remember when Lifetime was a health channel and had shows like Good Sex with Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Golden Girls reruns on it.

I know… I should have known better than to watch this movie. It’s been a long time since I last enjoyed a Lifetime movie. There was a time when they weren’t as over the top as they are now. It seems like nowadays, all of the channels and streaming services want to make their own stuff. I’m sure it’s more lucrative for them to make their own content. However, I think of some of the really excellent miniseries and movies of the week that were aired years ago, when there was more money to make them and less competition. This would have made a good miniseries. It should have definitely been longer than 88 minutes, so we can at least figure out how these people would be so completely fucked up to the point at which this scenario could be pulled off the way it was. As it is now, even with suspending disbelief and knowing that there was an actual real life case this was based upon, this film is utterly unbelievable.

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rock stars, true crime

R. Kelly… the making of a monster.

The first part of today’s post is reposted from my original Blogspot post from January 2019, when I binge watched Surviving R. Kelly, which aired on Lifetime at the time. Two years ago, Bill was away on business and I found myself watching too much TV. Last night, I finally binge watched the second part of the series, which aired in early 2020. I’m reposting my thoughts about the first part, because I think it’s relevant to the rest of my thoughts about this case. The featured photo is a screen grab from Dave Chappelle’s parody about R. Kelly’s abuse.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks watching more television than usual.  Yesterday, I binge watched Surviving R. Kelly which recently aired on Lifetime.  Although I am a musical person, I never paid a whole lot of attention to R. Kelly.  The only thing I remember seeing about him was a Mad TV parody song and a South Park episode.  I don’t think I’ve ever even seen Dave Chappelle’s take on his outrageous behavior toward young black women and girls.  Oh, and of course I’ve heard some of his music.  There is no denying the man is musically gifted.  Unfortunately, he’s also a predator.

R. Kelly as depicted on MadTV.

It was interesting watching that series, especially since I’ve also been watching shows about cults.  I’ve also started reading a book about a woman who was raised in the Children of God cult, which I blogged about last week.  Consequently, I now have cults on the brain.  I even dreamt about them this morning. 

After hearing some of the stories of the people who have been caught up in these restrictive groups, I’m beginning to think most of my problems are really small.  Imagine, being so warped in your thinking that you allow someone like R. Kelly to lock you in a bedroom and force you to use a bucket for a toilet.  Imagine letting someone like him do the most demeaning things as he calls you vile names and forces you to debase yourself.  The women were all young, beautiful, and talented, and most of them hoped he could help them launch their own careers.  I suppose on one level, they might have been trying to take advantage of a man with power that they wanted to share.  But then R. Kelly used his gifts to harm them.

People made a lot of jokes about R. Kelly back in the day… it was no laughing matter.

I think, aside from the stories I heard from the victims themselves, I was most affected by what their families were saying.  I can’t imagine the anguish they felt, especially the ones whose daughters basically disappeared.  I remember one mother saying that when a child has died, you know what’s happened to them and you know they won’t be back.  It’s much worse when a child gets involved in a “cult” that separates them from their families.  You don’t know what has happened to them, where they are, or if they’ll be back someday. 

In a way, I think Bill can relate to that thought.  He lost contact with his daughters for years.  They wouldn’t speak to him, and their mother basically prevented him from having anything to do with them at all.  It’s only been within the past couple of years that he’s been able to reconnect with one of his daughters.  So much of what I heard R. Kelly’s victims say, Bill has heard from his younger daughter.  These types of abusers convince their victims that no one will help them and no one loves them, at least not the way the abuser does.  It really does a number on a person’s psyche.

I was angry with my husband’s daughters for years, mainly because they were hateful.  In the back of my mind, I knew they were being victimized the same way Bill was.  But it still made me angry, because I felt like they knew better.  But honestly, I don’t know.  I think being around abusers can really fuck up a person’s mindset.  It’s frustrating for people like me, who don’t have a loving relationship with the victims.  It must be soul crushing for a parent.  I know it was for Bill.  It’s much worse when there’s sex involved.  For R. Kelly’s victims, it was all about sex, control, and power.

I listened to the mothers of R. Kelly’s victims, and a couple of the fathers, too.  Some of the family members had the distinct displeasure of seeing their loved ones engaged in videotaped sex acts with the singer, which later ended up as porn videos for sale to the masses.  I can’t even imagine how devastating that must have been on so many levels.  Perhaps today, I should watch something a little lighter, like 80s era sitcoms.

In any case, Bill’s weird schedule is done for this week.  We’re leaving town tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to it, because I need a change of scenery and a chance to have some fun.  Hopefully, we’ll have decent weather.  Next week, he’ll be TDY in Germany.  The week after that, TDY in the USA.  Then, it should be smooth sailing for the next couple of months. (ETA: in 2021– boy do I miss being this carefree… but I sure hate the long TDYs)

And now, my thoughts in 2021, having seen the second part of this series…

Yesterday, as I recovered from my traumatic morning and irritating visit to the vet’s office, I came home and watched the second half of Surviving R. Kelly, which aired on Lifetime about a year ago. In that series, survivors and R. Kelly’s relatives talked about what went wrong with R. Kelly to cause him to hate women so much.

R. Kelly grew up in a house full of women. From the age of eight until he was about fourteen, Kelly was sexually abused by an older female relative. He was also sexually abused by male relatives. He never said anything about the abuse, but it obviously affected him. As he developed his obvious musical gifts, writing beautiful, inspirational hit songs like “You Are Not Alone”, which Michael Jackson made a hit, and “I Believe I Can Fly”, which is a staple at graduations, a hatred was simmering inside of him.

As I listened to the stories told by R. Kelly’s victims, young women who had been asked to meet him or work with him and were lured into his “sex cult”, I was reminded of so many other stories I’ve heard. In my post from 2019, I mentioned my husband’s experience with his ex wife. Bill has told me many times that he believes his ex wife hates men. That hatred comes from years of abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect and nurture her.

This morning, I reposted several book reviews about the Josef Fritzl case. Fritzl, as some may remember, is an Austrian man who kidnapped his own daughter and kept her underground in a dungeon for 24 years. He repeatedly raped and impregnated her. But before Fritzl was a monster, he was also an abused child. He was raised by a woman who beat him. The beatings only stopped when he finally got big enough to fight back. But Fritzl’s mother was also an abuse victim. According to one of those books I read and reviewed, Fritzl’s mother spent time in a concentration camp for refusing to house German officials. She had been cold and abusive before she went to the camp, but was much worse when she came home.

It’s no secret that child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is devastating and damaging on many levels. Hearing so many stories of people who turned out to be manipulative, cruel, and predatory, I notice how many of them turned into legitimate monsters when they became adults. It’s like they revisit the horrors of their childhood on anyone they can. R. Kelly’s victims were mostly women who worshiped him for his talent and celebrity. He started with them the way many toxic people do… luring them with promises of help with their careers, superficial charm, and “love” that they weren’t getting at home.

Jerhonda, one of the women whose story I listened to yesterday described her mother as “uncaring”. She said her mom literally wasn’t interested in where she was or what she was doing. I was astonished by her story. She is a beautiful young woman, talented and intelligent, who had no adults in her life who cared about what happened to her. She fell into R. Kelly’s clutches. He was very nice to her at first, and seemed to care about her. It was like a drug, that regard that her mother had denied her. Once he had her trust, he her where he wanted her. That’s when Kelly changed and became an abusive monster.

Dave Chappelle makes fun of R. Kelly… This is much less funny now that I’ve heard from the women who were his victims.

Story after story was the same… and when one of the women was finally brave enough to say something to authorities, they didn’t believe her. So many of those women wound up suing R. Kelly and getting settlements that required them to stay silent. One woman named Lanita Carter, 24 years old and the mother of three when she met Kelly, was hired to braid his hair. He barely paid her for her work, but because she was associated with him, she picked up more clients. She fell prey to him, too… and finally had enough when he ejaculated on her face. He asked her for a “head massage”. She said she didn’t give massages, and he clarified that he was looking for her to massage his other “head”. He demanded oral sex and spat on her repeatedly.

Carter woke with her eyelashes sticking together with Kelly’s semen. One would think this egregious assault– especially one that could have significant health consequences would be enough to garner interest from the police. Imagine someone having so little respect for another human being that they’d do something as horrible as what Kelly did to Carter. She wasn’t the only one who received that extreme level of disrespect, either. R. Kelly was notorious for debasing his women with his body fluids. I can only guess it comes from lingering hatred of someone who abused him when he was a powerless child.

But when Lanita told the police about what R. Kelly did, they interrogated her. And when they went into R. Kelly’s home, they demanded that she give them information about the place that only someone who had been there would know. Carter was able to give them the information. They gathered evidence… but Kelly still wound up being sued instead of incarcerated for what he did. And when Carter spoke to the Chicago based personal injury lawyer who arranged settlements with Kelly, she wasn’t believed because– get this– she was TOO OLD! Carter eventually got two settlements from Kelly– one for $650,000 and the other for $100,000, which Carter got because Kelly wrote a song about having sex with the woman who braided his hair. Kelly was allowed to maintain the status quo, victimizing more girls and young women. In her interview, Lanita Carter says that the money didn’t heal the damage done to her.

I was also moved by listening to the women talk about how Black people, particularly women, are discouraged from reporting crimes to the police. This is because Black people are typically “over-policed” in the United States, and calling the police is seen as a betrayal of the community. So predators like R. Kelly, who are already surrounded by “yes people” due to their talent, money, charisma and fame, continue to get away with abusing other people unabated.

R. Kelly comes unglued during an interview with Gayle King.

It wasn’t until the first part of this documentary series was released that R. Kelly was finally arrested and held accountable for his crimes against women. It’s shocking that it took so long and the cooperation of a cable channel to make R. Kelly accountable to the law. He is now in prison, awaiting a trial on federal charges. His music is tarnished, and he’s left so many victims in his wake.

I couldn’t help but notice one victim, Joycelyn Savage, was so entrenched in R. Kelly’s lies and abuse that at the end of the documentary, she was still in Trump Tower. She was still loyal to R. Kelly, and her anguished family continued to pray for her return. Savage is one of several of Kelly’s victims who came from a caring family. I was struck when I heard that Kelly had a place in Trump Tower. It seems rather appropriate that a notorious sex offender would live in a building named after another notorious sex offender and egregious hater of women like Donald Trump. And when I heard her insist that she was “happy” with Kelly, it reminded me of listening to people entrenched in cults.

People are still championing R. Kelly, just as they are championing Donald Trump. R. Kelly is truly disgusting… but the person he is didn’t form in a vacuum. He was a victim of abuse. I’ve heard so many stories about “monsters” who were victims when they were children. This is why I think we must pay more attention to child abuse. It’s not something that should simply be survived. I think about how many people could have been spared the horrors of R. Kelly’s adult attempts to exorcise his demons if someone had simply helped him escape his nightmarish childhood.

If you can stomach watching the series, I recommend it. It’s a good warning about child abuse, as well as becoming too adoring of stars. They have clay feet, just like the rest of us do.

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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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