In the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, there are questions that people are reluctant to ask – or, at times, even to think about.
Aside from Josef Fritzl’s lovely little trips to sex resorts in Thailand, and the fact that he bought sexy clothing and underwear while there for his ‘bit on the side’ (whom we now presume to have been his daughter), there are other issues.
Why, my friend E asked last Sunday, did Elizabeth and her oldest son not overpower her father? The answer to that one became clear very quickly – because if they had, there was still no way out of the cellar. With some eight doors between them and the outside world, three of which were reinforced, they could not have hoped to escape without the combinations that only Josef Fritzl knew. And how would they have obtained these without torturing him?
There is also the question of how much Rosemarie Fritzl may have known. The police have not yet questioned her, as far as I know, and probably the only people fit to judge her are the family themselves. It’s possible, I think, that this was a household where you learned very quickly not to ask questions. Some wonder if, in all this time, she never went down to the cellar when her husband was away, but even if she did, it’s possible there was nothing to be found. The door was secret and hidden behind bookshelves, and this only led to other doors, even if she could have opened it.
There is also the question of whether Elizabeth’s children witnessed her being raped. The unfortunate answer is that they probably did. For the first nine years of her captivity, there was only one room in the cellar, so her children must have been present when the rapes occurred. Only later did Josef Fritzl extend his dungeon to create extra rooms, including – horror of horrors – a padded punishment cell.
No-one as yet has raised the question of whether Fritzl also raped his daughter/grand-daughter Kersten, or any of his other children. But given that he started on Elizabeth when she was 11, and the convictions and accusations of rape of other women that now surround him, it might be a reasonable thing to ask. Few men of this sexually insolent nature stop at one crime when it’s easy to commit several.
There is also the question of the fact that a sexually mature boy and girl, aged 19 and 18, have been locked together in a cellar throughout their lives, including their puberty, with no model of appropriate sexual behaviours to follow. Well, we all know what that may mean, and I hope that any issues arising from this will at least be explored humanely by the authorities rather than being swept under the carpet because no-one can face up to it.
The UK is pretty good at that carpet-sweeping act. Back in the 1990s, the trial of the murderers of James Bulger entirely ignored evidence that the children who killed this toddler had also sexually assaulted him before he died. This, the judge evidently considered, was meat that was too strong for the jury to hear, and not material to the case. And yet their sexual mind was crucial to any attempt to understand either them, or the crime they committed, or to have any hope of rehabilitating them. Better just to lock them up and do nothing? How does this help anyone?
The same Victorian sensibility hampered the handling of the West affair. Fred and Rosemary West, who raped, tortured and murdered at least 10 women and buried half of them in the cellar (building their children’s playroom on top of it) also sexually molested their own children and killed their daughter Heather when she tried to resist.
As far as I know, no counselling was offered to the West children, all of whom were abused. And although one’s heart bled in sympathy at their plight, my blood also froze when one of the boys, Stephen West, was jailed in 2004 for having sex with a minor. Fred West and Rosemary West themselves were both raised in violent and incestuous households and they meted it out, in turn, to their children. The patterns that can emerge from this kind of abuse can leave a dark stain on a family for generations.