For Elizabeth Fritzl. (A Tribute)
Elizabeth Fritzl: The name at least has attained international celebrity status since the story first emerged in a media frenzy at the end of April 2008. An Austrian woman allegedly held captive by her own father for 24 years since the age of 18 in a dank, windowless, white tiled cellar beneath the rear garden of the family home in the small town of Amstetten, Lower Austria.
A young woman of just 18 years in August 1984 when allegedly drugged by her father, incarcerated in that makeshift dungeon (reportedly consisting of just one single cell at that time) allegedly kept in darkness for the first nine months, allegedly handcuffed and tied by electrical cabling to a pole, allegedly given the simple choice by her father of 'sex or starve', allegedly beaten, allegedly brutally and violently raped by him on average every three days. Imagine. For 24 years. Imagine ...
I had rotten father. A foul mannered, foul tempered, exceedingly foul mouthed, violent bully. I was an only child and my late mother would never, ever stand up to him on my behalf. In any event she died when I was not quite 11. And my late father was a remorseless psychological bully too. Every possible opportunity - every - to belittle, humiliate, denigrate, he would seize it. Both privately and in front of others. And following my mother's death in 1963 he lost no time in severing relations with my much loved maternal grandmother and the rest of that family. As soon as I could I left home. My name, legally adopted many years ago, is my late mother's family name. It is not that which appears on my birth certificate.
But this piece is not about me: This piece is for Elizabeth Fritzl. Would you believe Elizabeth Fritzl jokes are now appearing? Yes, they are. I've found one in one of the darker regions of the Internet myself, and it quite obviously originated in Great Britain. What kind of sick mentalities are there out there? Yet at the same time someone has elsewhere posted a 'lullaby for Elizabeth Fritzl' which they have composed, complete with a video of Alpine flowers beneath wide blue skies.
For the moment the Austrian abuse story has largely dropped out of mainstream news: But then that is ever the way with any news. If and when Joseph Fritzl stands trial - perhaps in the autumn - it will no doubt return to the front pages once more. In the meantime however it has been recently reported that Elizabeth has ordered the removal of her mother Rosemarie from the villa in the grounds of the Amstetten-Mauer Psychiatric Clinic where the family is being accommodated. It is reported that she is angry that the three 'upstairs' children still address their grandmother as 'Mum'. But it is also reported that Elizabeth cannot understand why her mother would never stand up to her father on her behalf, and also that - contrary to the official Austrian police view - she cannot believe Rosemarie Fritzl really had no inkling of the sexual abuse she allegedly suffered at her father's hands from the age of eleven. And it is reported too that the two adult 'cellar' children, Kerstin and Stefan, are so far proving reluctant to give corroboratory testimony against their father/grandfather to the investigating judge. How much more emotional trauma must this woman endure?
Men of my generation aren't supposed to cry. We were brought up not to. But look at those two published photographs of the cellar which Joseph Fritzl excavated beneath his Amstetten back garden that first appeared back in April: Mouldy, cement filleted white tiles. Cheap pine ceilings. A shower, and an avocado lidded toilet. A purple cuddly toy elephant atop a medicine cabinet. A little sprig of plastic flowers above a toilet roll holder. A few stickers and childish animal pictures upon the walls. And the other photograph revealing an incredibly narrow, fake marble walled corridor sloping down to another white tiled cell with part of a bed with three coloured star stickers above it visible. The pine panel ceilings, it is reported, are nowhere more than 5' 6” high. Imagine. 24 years ...
And there are now too the published letters written by Elizabeth to a male friend only weeks before her imprisonment which she signs as 'Sissy' and in which she talks about a new job, partying, and her new hair style. And the four so far published photographs of her. One as a nine year old: One taken from a school group picture: One a black and white snap of a shyly smiling, pretty girl of around fifteen. And finally a smiling, quietly attractive young 18 year old woman sitting on some steps beside a small garden swimming pool. She enclosed that one with her final letter to her male friend apparently, and apologizes in the letter for its slight darkness of tone. A man of my generation isn't supposed to cry. My father always told me not to.
Can you recall all that happened in your life during your first 24 years of adulthood? Assuming you are old enough, that is. How many other people did you interact with? Hundreds? More? How many 'special' people? Family, close friends, lovers? Me, I left home. With friends I walked and climbed all over Britain. Ran marathons too. Rode motorcycles. Had two fondly remembered girlfriends before meeting 'The One'. Climbed the property ladder. Married. Laid the foundations for my current business. Became a father. Took up creative writing! And sure, some bad stuff too. Who hasn't? Encroaching deafness. And, albeit a long while ago now, cynical sleaze corruption in the workplace.
But this piece isn't about me: It's for Elizabeth Fritzl. Deprived of liberty, choice, humanity and all normal human contact. Deprived of daylight, fresh air, exercise, medical and dental care, mental stimulation, and emotional and romantic love. Forced to give birth in that cramped, dank, oxygen starved cellar to seven incestuously conceived babies allegedly the result of multiple paternal rapes. And forced to do so moreover unattended and presumably without painkillers. And see one baby boy allegedly die at three days old, and allegedly be unceremoniously cremated by Joseph Fritzl in his heating furnace. It has been reported that Elizabeth stated that she held a funeral service for that child, one of twins whom she named Michael, in her prison. Imagine, if you can. 24 unremitting years, the best years out of anyone's lifetime, whilst the world moves on oblivious to your plight. Just imagine.
And yet Elizabeth Fritzl stayed strong. Could you have? I strongly doubt that I would. More likely consumed and overwhelmed by self pity and insanity. Or suicide. But not Elizabeth Fritzl. She kept herself and her growing number of 'cellar' children clean. She bottle fed and cooked for them. She taught them to speak, taught them grammar. Earlier media stories to the effect that the children communicated in feral grunts and howls have since been thoroughly discredited. She taught them to read and write, holding proper classes as far as was possible in the given circumstances. She taught them mathematics. And taught them all that she could recall from a world that ended in 1984. With no medical training and no medicines other than over the counter aspirins she nursed those children through numerous bouts of flu and other infections and coped too, so it is reported, with her daughter Kerstin's increasingly severe bouts of epilepsy. She made up stories about pirates and adventurers to focus their minds. She maintained day to day routines to structure as far as possible their unnatural lives. She must have overseen the older two through puberty. She must have negotiated and extracted every meagre concession she could for her children from their alleged captor: A radio, a T.V., a video cassette player, an aquarium, and - lastly apparently - a washing machine. But at a price of course. Never forget what Joseph Fritzl's alleged primary purpose for his on average once every three day cellar visits was ... over 24 years.
She must, surely, have screamed at those mildewed white tiled walls in fear, concern and frustration over her beloved children's well being on occasions. But she never gave up on them, nor on herself as she was all that they had, and never once stopped fighting for them.
When the two 'cellar' boys were removed from the house of horrors on the night of April 26/27th 2008 and conveyed to the Amstetten-Mauer Psychiatric Clinic by police car, one of the police officers involved was quoted as reporting that five year old Felix, upon seeing the night sky and the moon for the very first time asked: “Is that God up there?” And elsewhere, so I've read, Elizabeth had reportedly taught the three 'cellar' children that: 'Heaven is up there', meaning above. She must have held onto her faith then, despite all. But surely too, if she believes in God must she not many times have despaired and felt utterly abandoned by Him? And yet still she remained steadfast and strong for her children.
The scars left by a case such as this will in all probably never entirely leave those innocents it was perpetrated upon, nor the wider family caught up by it. Although we must still hope that they will. But if someone were to ask me to list the most remarkable, exceptional, and above all inspirational fellow human beings within my lifetime, I truly think the name Elizabeth Fritzl would head it.
For all the evil detritus that the human race sometimes throws up - from Joseph Fritzl to the Internet 'jokers' mentioned near the beginning - I remain convinced that there is still a greater majority of decent, caring humanity, even within this very far from perfect world in which we all live. I would hope that you would agree with me on that. And if I may be permitted to invoke it, I would like to say that that the aforesaid greater majority of decent, caring humanity humbly salutes you, Elizabeth!
Even now the press is clamouring for interviews, the paparazzi reportedly still seeking that first big money shot. Elizabeth has stated via her lawyer that once Joseph Fritzl's impending trial is over she wants only to live out the rest of her days with her children in ordinary anonymity. It can only be fervently hoped that she gets her wish granted.
(If you would like to review this work then please do, but rather than leave a review for me perhaps you might like instead to add some words of your own for Elizabeth Fritzl? With thanks, Hugh Hazelton.)
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