Why Josef Fritzl thought rape was a ‘lovely idea’

Mar 18, 2009
Coline Covington

By keeping his daughter in a dungeon, Fritzl was exercising the control denied to him by his mother, says Coline Covington

Light out. Rape. Light on. Mould. Rape. In front of the children. The Uncertainty. Birth. Death. Rape." This is the mantra that kept Elisabeth Fritzl sane for 24 years locked up in her father's cellar.

Above ground, everything seemed normal. Below ground, it was a horror story. At the opening of Josef Fritzl's trial this week, Christiane Burkheiser, the state prosecutor, passed around a shoebox to the jury containing objects taken from the cellar. Whatever was in the shoebox, the jurors reacted with disgust.

There is a curious symmetry about Josef Fritzl's two families. Fritzl lived upstairs with his wife, Rosemarie, where they had raised seven children and subsequently adopted three grandchildren. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his family upstairs, Fritzl also lived downstairs in the cellar with his daughter, Elisabeth, where she gave birth to seven children after being raped continuously by her father.

The two families seem to represent two parts of Fritzl's personality: the public face of the family man described as affectionate with his grandchildren and honest and polite at work, and the perverse face of the man in the cellar who was "addicted" to sex with his daughter and kept her and three of their seven children captive in horrific conditions with no warm water, fresh air or daylight for 24 years.

Fritzl has been assessed as having a "profound personality disorder". His lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, urged the jury "to keep emotion out of this". On the other hand, Mayer attempted to portray his client as having normal feelings of care and concern for his cellar family.

Mayer argued that "a man who put so much effort into keeping two families cannot be called a monster. If I only want a daughter as a sex slave, I don't let her bring children into the world. You'd let them starve."

He has emphasized that Fritzl "felt remorse for his personality and what it did to his victims". The implication is that it was Fritzl's "personality" that harmed his victims, not Fritzl himself. And perhaps there is some truth to this as it emerged that Fritzl's cellar life may well have been the enactment of a perverse fantasy life that Fritzl had to keep locked up inside him and that he dared not expose to the light of day.

He is a captive of his mother, locked in her world, with no father to intervene

Fritzl's story, according to Mayer, is that he had a miserable childhood brought up by a mother who made it clear that she had not wanted him and a virtually absent father. Fritzl's mother forbade him to have friends and beat him until the age of 12 when, apparently, Fritzl threatened to beat her back.

He is depicted as a captive of his mother, locked in her world, with no father to intervene or protect him against her assaults. The similarity of Fritzl's cellar world is obvious, although the shoe is on the other foot. In Fritzl's cellar he was the one in control. Fritzl admitted to Mayer: "The cellar in my building belonged to me and me alone - it was my kingdom, that only I had access to."

In his cellar world, Fritzl was not only in complete control but he could wreak revenge on the mother who imprisoned him in his childhood by his repeated attacks against his daughter which he also admits he was addicted to.

He could play the part of the mother who tortured and emotionally raped her child and he could also become, in his fantasy, his mother's partner and have babies with her, triumphing over his need for a father.

Fritzl claims that his sexual relations with his daughter were consensual, despite her testimony that she was chained to a wall. The act of raping his daughter was addictive not only in the omnipotent excitement it gave Fritzl but it also provided a way for him to discharge his hatred towards his mother while at the same time keeping the relationship alive.

Better a hateful relationship than no relationship at all. Fritzl had constructed a fantasy life that in many respects replicated his childhood but was also a denial and a triumph over the reality of his childhood.

Just as in his past there had been no father to protect him from his mother's hatred, in the cellar there was no metaphorical father, no super-ego within Fritzl to protect him or his daughter and children from their imprisonment in a world of hate.

As long as Fritzl could perpetuate the sado-masochistic world of his childhood in the cellar, he was safe from having to face the grim reality of a hateful mother and an indifferent father - a reality that might have tipped him over into psychosis.

Fritzl allegedly thought it was a "lovely idea" to have a family in the cellar. And for Fritzl it was just this - by keeping his fantasy family in the cellar he could keep his madness locked up and safely contained in the confines of his unconscious. His remorse and his concern are most probably genuine for what happened to his daughter and the children he sired with her (including one baby who died after he refused to call for medical help).

Fritzl has previous. He was convicted of raping a woman in Linz in 1967

At the same time, he needed to use his daughter in creating this fantasy world so as not to go completely mad. At an unconscious level, it seems that the rest of the family upstairs may have been complicit in keeping Fritzl's madness below ground in their denial of what was going on.

Rosemary, Fritzl's wife, does not seem to have questioned either her daughter's disappearance, running off to join an extremist sect, or the appearance of grandchildren that suddenly turned up for adoption. 

Fritzl's criminal behaviour has a history. He had been convicted of raping a woman in Linz in 1967 and served a term in prison for this. This seems to indicate that he had little control over his impulses and may well have been anxious that this could happen again.

"Around 1981 or 1982", as Fritzl admitted, he started preparing his cellar for its first occupant. In 1984 Elisabeth disappeared. At his trial, after his face emerged from hiding behind that blue folder, Fritzl remained expressionless to the public except for an occasional smile - perhaps at his own triumph in achieving 24 years of outwitting reality.

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