Monster in the room

The case of Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven children by her, is so profoundly shocking that it is hard to believe it happened.

Even accustomed as we are to reading about acts of incomprehensible cruelty — horrific events in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example — there is something about this case that the mind refuses to process. A window appears on the mental spreadsheet mansinhumanitytoman.xls when you try to enter the data: “The formula you typed contains an error.” It isn’t possible.

Whether because of the longevity of the abuse, the desperate fact of that appalling cellar hidden beneath the family home, the apparent normality of life on the surface, the sheer quantity of detail that has been made public (complete with photos), or all of the above, it seems almost impossible to acknowledge the truth that one human being can do this to another. In the face of irrefutable evidence, this leaves us with a single logical get-out: people do not behave in this way; Fritzl did behave in this way; therefore, Fritzl is not a person.

It’s a fudge, of course, but it seems to be a highly seductive fudge. Tabloid headlines around the world have repeatedly labelled him a monster. “Fritzl unmasked: the face of a monster,” screamed the London Evening Standard. “Cellar monster Josef Fritzl” was another British daily’s preferred epithet. Others found the word “cellar” a touch prosaic to describe a monster’s lair. Another described how Fritzl spent six years building his “monstrous sex dungeon”. Indeed, “dungeon” was widely adopted, helpfully suggesting, as it does, a fairytale world of ogres and monsters and sleeping princesses and absolute good and evil.

In reality there exists no definition, in moral terms at least, of what a human being is. We define ourselves by what we do and in defining ourselves we define humanity. “In fashioning myself, I fashion man,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it. But there’s no need to be an existentialist to recognise that people don’t come equipped with a user manual. In performing an action, horrific or heroic, we make that action possible. We say: “This is what people are capable of.” And there are no guarantees. We cannot simply reject those people who don’t behave according to our model. Which is what we are doing when we call Fritzl a monster. Fritzl is not a monster. And that’s possibly the worst thing about it.

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in Fritzl. I’m certainly not interested in debating whether or not he’s “mad” — which is really just another way of saying he isn’t a person. What concerns me is the impact of his behaviour on his children and the impact of our response to his behaviour. Assigning an abuser monster status, denying that he is a person, is not only a means of protecting ourselves from the truth, it is also a refusal to acknowledge the reality of the victim’s experience.

Generally speaking, survivors of abuse are acutely aware that their abuser is a human being. He (or she) is most likely to be a parent, relative or close associate of the family. But even in cases of a stranger abusing, the experience is above all one of betrayal — the appalling betrayal of one person by another. To be attacked by an alien from outer space, or indeed by a dungeon-dwelling monster, would certainly not be pleasant, but it’s altogether different from the reality of abuse. The sense of shame, humiliation and personal responsibility that many victims experience, the devastating impact on relationships, the shattering of trust — these are the consequences of a terrible empathy, the inevitable sense of recognition one feels when confronted by another human being.

Unfortunately, our determination to protect ourselves from the truth at all costs means that those who have often experienced abuse face further betrayals. When they try to seek help, they may not be believed, even by those closest to them. The judicial system fails them again and again and the mental health problems they may go on to experience serve to stigmatise them in a society that insists that only the “normal” are human. —

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