‘Do I feel sorry for Josef Fritzl? A small part of me does’

It feels too simplistic to talk of “evil”, but Josef Fritzl said he always knew there was an “evil streak” inside him. “He said that it was hard to control,” says Dr Heidi Kastner, the forensic psychiatrist who interviewed him at length. “He told me that for someone who was ‘born to rape’ he controlled himself for a long time. He said he could have done worse.”

It is hard to imagine what he meant. As crimes go, few can be as horrific as Fritzl’s. Over just three and a half days this week, Fritzl was tried and found guilty on all counts of a crime that went on for 24 years — imprisoning his daughter in a bunker under his house in the town of Amstetten in Austria, repeatedly raping her and fathering her seven children, and of causing the death of one of the children, Michael, soon after he was born by failing to get him medical help. At first he denied this last charge, but on Wednesday he changed his plea.

He did this after watching his daughter’s harrowing video testimony, and after Elisabeth, who is now 42, had attended the courtroom in person. Was that why he changed his plea, I ask Kastner. “Maybe. It could have been part of it.” She refuses to say if she has met Elisabeth.

As expert witness for the prosecution, Kastner first met Fritzl last May, in prison. She had to interview him alone six times before producing her report, in which she concluded he was sane enough to stand trial. “I was wondering whether he would talk to me,” she says. “I was relieved when I met him because he was very polite and he told me that he had decided he would tell me everything. He said he wanted a clean slate.” What was he like? “He was very …” she searches for the word. “Ordinary.”

If you were to create the character of Kastner in a crime novel, I doubt you could come up with anything better than Kastner in real life. She is fiercely clever, and quick with a wry laugh. I look around her office in a psychiatric hospital in Linz, 47km from Amstetten, and notice the Prada handbag, the fur coat, patent shoes, perfect dark-painted nails, a cigarette habit and a stack of Bach and Mozart CDs, which she says, are one way of dealing with the horrors of interviewing some of Austria’s most disturbed criminals in her 11 years as a forensic psychiatrist. She lists the other ways: her friends, her dog, her garden.

When she interviews a criminal, she usually starts with their childhood, but with Fritzl she started with his mother’s. “I don’t know why I did that but it turned out to be a good decision. What I learned was astonishing.” His mother’s father, a domineering man, was married to a woman who could not have children; he had affairs with other women, then forced his wife to adopt his children (Josef Fritzl’s mother was one such child). It isn’t hard to see that in forcing his wife, Rosemarie, to adopt three of his children with Elisabeth, claiming they had been abandoned on their doorstep, Fritzl was repeating his family history, but Kastner says he never made that connection.

Fritzl described a childhood that was unhappy and abusive. Isn’t it a cliche to blame the mother? “It’s a cliche, but he did not fit that cliche,” she says. “He didn’t blame his mother. He didn’t say he acted the way he did because of his childhood. He couldn’t connect his childhood experience with what he did afterwards.” There were reports that when Fritzl and Rosemarie were married, they went to live in her house with his mother, whom he kept prisoner, bricking her into a room in the attic — Kastner says this wasn’t true. “But I think he was angry towards her. He always suffered from the feeling she never liked him. He told me that whenever they needed something — money or something — it was always Rosemarie who went to ask, because she would never give him anything.”

There are plenty of people who have abusive childhoods who don’t go on to imprison and rape their children. What was it about Fritzl that made him do that? “To me, [his childhood] is part of the explanation but you can’t explain it to the last drop,” says Kastner. “He had a predisposition to act [like that] but he could have acted otherwise and you can’t explain everything.” That he was in control the whole time, she says, with meticulous attention to details, signals that he was not mentally ill.

What Kastner calls his “criminal career” began when he was a young man. Fritzl would follow women in the park, walking behind them, his hand in his trousers, masturbating. “He never tried to touch them,” says Kastner. “One of these women turned around and confronted him and he never did it again.” Instead, he moved on to other acts. He was taking evening classes and would walk home late at night. “He would stop by windows that were open and listen to people having sex,” says Kastner. “On one of these evenings, he broke into a flat through the window and raped a woman. I don’t know if he raped other women as well — he didn’t say — but it is quite possible.” He served a prison sentence for this rape in 1967, something the authorities didn’t take into account when Elisabeth went missing and when they allowed him to adopt her children.

Why Elisabeth? Kastner says she doesn’t know if he had already been abusing her — she had run away from home as a younger teenager — but she says he had her in mind. She was the fourth of Fritzl’s seven children and, according to Kastner, the one who was most like him. “She was as stubborn and strong as he was. If you want to exercise power and break somebody’s will, it is more gratifying to break a strong person’s will than someone who is broken easily.”

One day, when Elisabeth was 18, Fritzl covered her mouth with a cloth soaked in choloform until she fell unconscious, then dragged her into the cellar he had spent two years preparing. It had a metal door that was operated by a number code only he knew. The entrance corridor was just 83cm wide; none of the ceilings was higher than 1,7m. It was soundproofed and there were no windows.

The rapes began a day later. Kastner says that at first, Fritzl knew what he was doing was rape, “then he convinced himself that it was a mutual relationship”. Between 1992 and 2002, Fritzl fathered her seven children. “I think he convinced himself he loved them,” Kastner says. “He told me that he loved Elisabeth. He saw her as his wife, not his daughter. But most of all he saw her as his possession.”

For someone as practically minded as Fritzl, the arrival of children could have been dangerous, but his need for control was too strong. “The more subjects you have, the greater power, the greater realm,” says Kastner. “Also, it was his notion of having a family.”

Kastner points to his ability to block out the parts that didn’t fit his version of the truth. He did admit that he brought pornographic videos to the cellar and made Elisabeth act them out, but denies her testimony that he would withhold food and electricity as punishment. “That wouldn’t fit his ‘picture’,” says Kastner. What emerged from Elisabeth’s testimony was a sickening existence. The absence of dental care and the rotten teeth spat out into the sink. The rats, the damp, the dark, the lack of air, the fear that if they tried to escape the door was rigged to kill them.

According to Kastner, Fritzl believed he was providing a “normal” family life, full of acts of kindness. “He said he brought Christmas trees and an aquarium,” says Kastner. “They had ‘family meals’ and he helped the children with their ‘schoolwork’.” He once brought handfuls of snow to the cellar to show the children what snow was, and he would bring Elisabeth photographs of her three children who were living upstairs (ever practical, they had been chosen according to which child needed most medical care). “He brought her pictures of them playing by the pool in the sun — the contrast with her life couldn’t have been greater. There is always this double-sidedness, this sadistic streak, of what he did.”

He would often spend nights in the cellar, and on one occasion he spent several days with them. By then, he was working as a salesman — he would tell his wife he was going away for a few days, then later phone her from his office downstairs pretending to be in a hotel. I suggest to Kastner that it must have been stressful to keep his double life for so long. “You would imagine, but he had this ability to block things out. He said that as soon as he locked the door down there, he locked a door in his brain too. He would have barbecue parties in his garden and he said, ‘You wouldn’t have thought I would be able to have parties with them just under the garden there, but I never thought about them’.”

There were times when he came close to being found out; once when he met his wife in the supermarket when he was buying food for Elisabeth and the children. “He said ‘She didn’t even see me, she looked right through me,'” says Kastner.

Did he ever plan to release them? Kastner nods.

He was getting older and finding it difficult to maintain this life and there was another turning point — for whatever reason, Fritzl became attached to the youngest child, Felix, soon after he was born and decided Felix would inherit his business and properties. “He knew he couldn’t do that if he grew up down there, not attending school.”

But then the eldest girl, Kerstin, became gravely ill and events escalated beyond his control. Kastner says she believes him when he said he never considered allowing Kerstin to die. “He wants to exercise power and if you kill someone, you exercise great power but then it’s over. It’s not in his mind to have these singular moments; he wants continual power.” She adds that “even he has some limits of wrongdoing and killing is not in his repertoire. As far as I can tell, he never actively killed anybody.”

Kastner says he never considered himself “a monster”, and says it is dangerous to label people as such. “He is human. The worst things that happen to people are done by other people. Evil is human.” British newspapers, particularly, haven’t been able to resist the idea that Fritzl is the product of some warped Austrian psyche. “That is nonsense,” says Kastner. “It’s not an Austrian specific to lock someone up, to rape your daughter. It happens all over the world.”

We may do well to remember that in Sheffield last year, a British man was convicted for repeatedly raping his two daughters, whom he kept virtual prisoners, fathering nine surviving children. If Austria has a problem — and indeed Britain — it is that it is so normal to have a family ruled by a domineering father, and where violence against women is an everyday occurrence.

Kastner’s phone rings and she has a quick conversation. “My favourite judge,” she says, smiling, when she finishes — she had been speaking to Andrea Humer, who presided over the trial. “Everybody who was involved in this case has been changed by it. It does something to you.”

How? “It sometimes makes me very sad. From when I first met him to when I first gave my expertise to court — four months — I woke up thinking about it and I went to bed thinking about it. It was there all the time. I am very glad it’s definitely over.”

You have to wonder what it does to us, too, that we have gobbled up the facts of this case so voraciously. Do we really need to know, for instance, that Elisabeth was raped 3 000 times, or that she suffered injuries from the instruments her father used? Kastner says she feels the closed way in which the trial was handled was right. “It doesn’t help anybody to know all the horrible details.” Evil is a fascination for us, she says, “it helps focus all the evil outside on a specific person. That’s the one that’s bad; we’re the good ones. So it helps you to feel good and it serves some atavistic need in all of us. This is probably why executions were — and in some cases still are — public.”

Theoretically Fritzl, 74 next month, could apply for parole in 14 years, but his lawyer said he expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. Kastner says she “wouldn’t be surprised” if he committed suicide.

“His house of cards has come down, he has lost everything.”

Does she feel sorry for Fritzl? “Sorry?” she repeats to herself. There’s a long pause. “A small part of me feels sorry for him because he didn’t choose to have that kind of upbringing and that kind of disturbance. He chose to exercise it and for that he is guilty, but what he is inside, he didn’t choose.” I once interviewed a doctor who treats rape victims, who not only sees hundreds of women every year, but also around 700 children. She told me that even after all that, she still has faith in human goodness.

Does Kastner? She nods. “I do. It’s important that you do because if you don’t, you get cynical and it changes you in a way you wouldn’t want to be changed.” – guardian.co.uk

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