law, LDS, religion, true crime

Repost: Rape culture in churches

I am reposting this blog entry that originally appeared on October 16, 2016. I have no reason for reposting it, other than I think it’s an interesting piece. Bear in mind that it was written almost five years ago and I haven’t changed the content, so some comments may be outdated.

I just read a very disturbing article about a lawsuit that was just filed against a Jehovah’s Witnesses church in Weber County, Utah.  The lawsuit was filed by a woman who claims that she was repeatedly raped by a church instructor and JW officials later her made her listen to a recording of one of her assaults.  The woman seeks a jury trial and $300,000 to cover medical care, legal fees, and general damages. 

According to the article I read, the woman may or may not have gone to the police after she was allegedly raped by a church instructor.  The Salt Lake Tribune states that members of the JW faith are encouraged to bring problems to church elders rather than involving outsiders.  Having done my share of reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses and having had a relative who was once a member, I can affirm that this attitude is prevalent among people involved with the Witnesses.

In this case, the assaults against the woman allegedly took place after she went out with the instructor on a date.  He took her cell phone from her and said she had to kiss him on the cheek to get it back.  She refused, so he kicked her out of his car.  Later, he came back for her and the assaults apparently escalated from there.  When the assaults were brought to the attention of JW officials, they began an investigation…  but it was not an investigation against the perpetrator.  Instead, the young woman was investigated.  Below is a quote from the article linked above:

In April 2008, the Roy church formed a judicial committee to investigate whether the girl engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior — “a serious sin” in the religion. During the meeting that included her mother and stepfather, the lawsuit states, church leaders played a recording of one of the purported rapes, obtained from the instructor, for four to five hours “repeatedly stopping and starting the audio tape … suggesting that she consented to the sexual behavior.”

The woman alleges that she was raped several times.  Realizing the patriarchal culture within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s possible that she felt like she had to do what this man said.  She was likely taught to do whatever the church officials told her to do.  As the attacker was apparently her church instructor, she probably felt that she had no choice.  It really is a shame that people continue to get and stay involved in religious organizations that promote this kind of thinking and do nothing to empower everyone, not just the men. 

This situation among the JWs in Utah sounds an awful lot like the recent hullabaloo about Brigham Young University’s policy of bringing rape victims up on Honor Code violations.  Women who dared to report rape to the police or University officials were getting in trouble for putting themselves in situations where they might be assaulted.  For the record, I think these kinds of policies are disgusting and they keep our society in the Dark Ages.  

Of course people– male or female– who choose to sexually assault others should be held responsible for their actions.  At the same time, I don’t think it’s wrong for people to look out for themselves.  I wish these churches and universities like BYU would do more to promote personal safety outside of the religious sense.  I wish they wouldn’t simply tell women to protect their virginity and purity because that’s supposedly what God wants.  They should be empowering them to protect themselves because they don’t want to be victims of crimes. 

It’s interesting that this subject came on my radar this morning.  I just saw a Facebook post by 11th Principle: Consent about how rape culture develops.  Although I would absolutely never say that it’s okay to rape someone, I do think it pays to be careful.  One young woman made a comment about how she’d gotten very drunk at a party and was raped while she was unconscious.  She wrote that it was wrong that she was raped, but she shared some responsibility in the situation by drinking so much that she passed out.  She got a lot of indignant comments from people who said that no part of the rape was her fault at all; she bore absolutely no responsibility toward the crime perpetrated against her.

At the risk of pissing off a lot of people, I will go on record as saying that I agree that rape is never a victim’s fault.  However, I do think that everyone– males and females– should take some responsibility for their personal safety.  One of the comments I read on the 11 Principle: Consent Facebook page was this:

– if you went for a walk, but someone chose to stab you, should you have stayed in?

-if you decided to go for a drive, but someone drove into your car, is it your fault?

-if you went for a swim, but someone drowned you, was it your fault because you put yourself in a position where you could be drowned?

My response is that in the above examples, precautions could have been taken to lessen the chance of harm or mitigate the harm that did occur.  For instance, when you take a walk, you choose areas where there are people around.  You carry a cell phone that is charged and ready in case of emergency.  You tell someone where you’re going.  You might learn self defense.  These are things you can do to lessen the chance that you’ll be a victim.  You might still end up being victimized, but you will have taken steps to lessen the chance of it.

If you go for a drive, you wear a seatbelt (even though I hate them).  You make sure your car is safe to drive.  You don’t drink alcohol or take drugs before getting behind the wheel.  You make sure you are well rested.  You might still have an accident, but you’ve done your part to lessen the probability.

If you go for a swim, you make sure you can actually swim.  If you can’t, you learn how and stay out of the deep end until you have the appropriate skills.  You take someone with you when you swim.  You use floatation devices if you need them.  You might still drown, but the chances are not as high as they could be.

When it comes to assaults, sexual or otherwise, I think the same responsibilities apply.  Don’t get so fucked up that you black out.  Don’t go to parties alone, especially if you don’t know the people hosting them.  If you do get assaulted, it’s certainly not your fault.  But my guess is that you will learn from the assault and take steps to be sure it doesn’t happen again.  It sounded to me like the young woman who said she shared in the responsibility of her attack had simply learned from it.  She’d made a mistake by getting so intoxicated.  I have made the same mistakes myself on a number of occasions.  There, but by the grace of God, go I.  

Is it ever your fault if you get assaulted?  No.  The person who chooses to perpetrate a crime is always the guilty party.  But the point is, there are things you can do to lessen the chance that you will be a victim.  I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge that.  I don’t think that line of thinking promotes “rape culture”.  I applaud the young woman who realizes that she was wrong to get so drunk that she passed out.  At the same time, I think it’s sad that there are shitty people out there who would take advantage of a woman so distressed.

I’m reading the article about the lawsuit against the JWs just as everyone’s talking about Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room” talk.  I have friends of every stripe opining on a potential U.S. president talking about grabbing women by their pussies.  I have a number of very religious relatives criticizing Hillary Clinton because– well, probably because she’s a female liberal.  These same supposedly God fearing people see no problem with voting for a man who brags about forcing himself on women and grabbing their crotches.  But if a woman gets assaulted, instead of being outraged, they look for ways to blame her.  I don’t think that’s right.  But I do think there are things people can and should do to protect themselves.

As for the woman suing the JWs, I don’t think it’s wrong that she’s filed a lawsuit.  This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a pervert ending up in power.  It’s not just the JWs, either.  Lots of churches empower creeps who then victimize their supposed underlings.  I’ve read about plenty of religious organizations who don’t do enough to keep bad people from powerful positions.  I think they should be held accountable when these things happen.  Again, from the article:

A leader from the congregation apparently warned the girl’s parents in November 2006 that the instructor — who previously attended church sessions in Ogden and Oregon — was a “bad kid” who had “engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a female member of the Clearfield congregation.” The plaintiff says that warning wasn’t enough.

How did the guy end up a “church instructor” if church leaders knew he was a “bad kid”?  One has to wonder.  At the same time, isn’t it crazy that someone like Donald Trump, who openly admits to being a pervy creep– even if it was privately– might end up leading the country?  No wonder we have issues with so-called “rape culture”.

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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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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.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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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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