The Fascination of Evil Ruthless Criticism

Translated from a radio broadcast by Gegenargumente Vienna, May 6, 2008.

Note: The Fritzl case hit the news in April 2008 when a 42-year-old woman, Elisabeth Fritzl, reported to police in the Austrian town of Amstetten that she had been held captive for 24 years in a hidden basement by her father, Josef Fritzl, who had repeatedly assaulted and raped her during her imprisonment. The incestuous relationship forced on her by her father resulted seven children and one miscarriage. Three of the children were imprisoned along with their mother for their whole lives; one died of respiratory problems three days after birth; the three other children were raised by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie in the upstairs home. Fritzl made it appear as if these children were foundlings from outside his home.

The Fascination of Evil

For once, there was some truly fascinating news from an Austrian province. The world press has invaded a small town in the Mostviertel to interview everything that moves, to sniff out and stare at every possible bit of dirt in order to supply the global community of decent people with all the material they desire for their moral voyeurism. The world looks at Amstetten and sees with disgust something it hasn’t seen in a long time: a family man raped his own daughter, not once but repeatedly over 24 years; for this purpose, he locked his little precious in a dungeon that he discretely constructed in the basement of their house. With his prisoner, the jailer established a second, secret, underground family and fathered her children. Over the years, he transferred some of the children of his own blood to his official family house by adopting them with the blessings of the authorities. It isn’t even known whether there are enough laws for all the crimes this brute committed. It’s incomprehensible! Someone who did something like this is not human: the monster, the devil, the beast of Amstetten is becoming ever more interesting: how did he manage to build his high-security wing, and do it by himself? How could he have provided all the extra supplies over the years for his unofficial family without anyone’s suspicions being aroused? And did nobody really not notice anything? Is that possible? A creepy feeling spreads: pure evil in our midst – unnoticed. You get a pleasant fright. How can decent people still recognize each other, when a man like this could pass in the guise of an upright citizen? Moral vigilance and a detective’s eye are necessary to see through the facade of decency. The whole town of Amstetten blames itself because it did not see through Fritzl the double family man when he was right before their noses. Every detail would have been important – what the small town missed is now doubly and triply made up for by the world media’s attention.

Certainly, not because it wants to explain the deed and the guy who committed it, but because it’s so nice to compare one’s own decency to this monster and to see that there’s nothing to compare. The monster is the complete opposite of everything that makes us human: no understanding whatsoever for the beast, no understanding of his act! It is incomprehensible; there can and ought to be no reasons or motives that make it comprehensible and in some way commensurable with the world of the good. Decent people have figured out everything they need to know when they figure out there is nothing to know; all that is needed is to express disgust and horror, perhaps supplemented by a little prayer: Lord, thank thee that I am not like that!

The community of decent people does not let its self-righteousness be shaken by minor challenges. After all, Mr. Fitzl’s neighbors say that he was something of a family tyrant. But does this explain anything? There lots of them, for sure, but they don’t turn their cellars into sex dungeons! One can’t be misled by statistics showing that they aren’t so far removed from the singularity of the “incomprehensible” act, so one obviously can’t concede that the crime has some connection with that exemplary form of life, the family. “It is estimated that every third to fifth girl is a victim of sexual abuse in the family” (Austrian Public Broadcasting). Yes, and? Then those monsters who rape their wives and abuse their daughters are just smaller versions of Mr. Fritzl. All this has nothing to do with the institution in which these monstrosities take place. The moral judgments stick to the monstrous excesses, making sure they are far removed from the normality of family life – to spare themselves from thinking about what they are really an excess of.

Fritzl the beast

The media’s guardians of decency find it particularly outrageous that Mr Fritzl justified his crimes with his fatherly motives. “It really is true: I always wanted to be a good husband and father” (Fritzl, News, No. 19, May 8). The defense plea is flatly rejected as an affront that does not deserve serious attention: the jailer and rapist a good father? The bigamist a good husband with his own daughter? A mockery! “Absurd explanations of something for which there can be no explanation.” (ibid.)

Now, nothing is easier than to see that the perp of Amstetten is in no way a normal father and husband. Not even the man of good intentions himself claims he succeeded in being a good father and husband. But all this doesn’t rule out the fact that this father-husband gone bonkers didn’t have to make a leap away from the morality of family life, and indeed precisely because he expected the same psychological reward of happiness which others also expect from this social institution.

On the one hand, there is the matter of the firm bond that the involved parties promise themselves from the transformation of their love affair into a legally-sanctioned, perhaps even clerically-authorized marriage – or a “common law” equivalent. The wish for a romantic relationship to remain lasting is usually as strong as the two people’s feeling for each other; that goes without saying; but usually they don’t leave it at that. In modern society, the happiness of being in love is much too burdened with demands for compensation: it is the center of private life; and this is the special sphere in which one doesn’t simply enjoy life, but faces the huge task and challenge of organizing a purpose in life that outshines all the hardships of earning money, all the trials of competition – getting a job and keeping a job –, and all the demands of the daily “struggle to survive” that a civil society based on free enterprise holds in store for its inhabitants. Here, life must be worth it – because it sure isn’t anywhere else. Here, the pleasure that two people take in each other has a lot to cope with and compensate for. However, nobody is spared from learning that this pleasure is not suited for this purpose. The feeling inevitably suffers from the function of compensation which inevitably comes into play. And the next step follows, which as everybody knows leads quite directly to a nasty entitlement attitude towards the partner: to the point of view that he or she has to answer for their own pursuit of happiness in life and – the next step of escalation – is personally to blame when it comes up short. Once it has gone this far, then the cozy home which is supposed to be full of happiness is full of the harshest disappointments, which are more bitter than everything else that a person has to deal with outside the home as a good competitor; and the next transition takes place. It leads to well known, boring, and yet always painful variants of “marital strife,” the stereotypical sequence of quarrel, reconciliation, and resignation – and, on balance, the exact types of mutual claims and harassments and obligation to stay together that the bourgeois state puts under special legal protection, and not only has the strength of a social custom, but also enjoys universal recognition as a moral community.

With this, however, we are still far removed from the machinations of Mr. Fritzl and his dungeon for an incestuous second marriage; that would be a stretch. But in the sphere where the demanding cohabitation of the partners is charged with bitterness and tends to impose on the uncooperative will of the other or also takes revenge for its stubbornness – all this is within the sphere of marriage or civil unions in the broad average. It is then no longer an extreme exception when members (usually) of the “stronger sex” energetically exercise their right to satisfaction, which they have acquired by steadfastly living with their “old lady” and usually even formally by marriage, by removing the obstacle of the other’s will with superior physical strength and a greater propensity to use violence. At any rate, the bourgeois constitutional state in its sober way covers such aberrations in its “special protection” of marriage and makes some effort to regulate the sphere of private freedom between loving couples by means of prohibitions, including bold legal distinctions between a right to “execution of marital obligations” and “conjugal rape,” by regulating the loving couple’s granted sphere of private freedom. The success can be seen in, among other things, the women’s shelters which are everywhere and constantly refilled: the transition to the rule of force is always implicit in the customs of intimate happiness. In this respect, the “Monster of Amstetten” stands out mainly because of the consistency and circumspection with which the man extended his rule of force into his own underground legal sphere – and because of the long years in which he executed his claim to a married life that completely suited his taste and desires.

Besides being a good husband, Mr. Fritzl wanted to be a good father, so he had his own ideas about the responsibilities of the head of a family, about what he is allowed to do and what he is entitled to. He could, first of all, refer to the state’s authorization of being legal guardian: outwardly, parents are liable for the conduct of their children’s still irrational will; inwardly, they direct and define it. Until recently, the legislature called this correctional supervision of the child’s will what it is: “parental authority.” The parenting father (ditto the mother) makes his will into law for the child; he tells him what is good and what is bad, what to do and what not to do: “I know what’s good for you!” This includes whatever he wants. The little darlings are not only subjected to their parent’s moral views and self-image; whatever becomes of them in school, in work, and as humans in general is based on their parent’s wishes and plans. When they look after the underage child “for his own good,” they are at the same time fulfilling a great desire of their own. Children, it is said, are the greatest happiness that a parent can have: the father and mother realize and immortalize themselves in them, beholding and adoring their own excellence in a rejuvenated image. So the necessary scolding of the stupid kids goes hand in hand with the domestication and shaping of their little personalities in line with the needs of their progenitors. As the child grows up and forms its own will, its upbringing becomes a power struggle between the adolescent who doesn’t want to be told what to do and the parental authority who wants to be rewarded for his financial support and human care with obedience – even long after the offspring has grown up. Not always, but often enough, the thing gets out of control: the provoked master of the house no longer distinguishes whether the life plan he has chosen and is implementing on behalf of the child is in any way endangered – and not even if it is in line with the adolescent – but defends himself as a father (or a mother), i.e. defends the relation of rule in the family itself. The parent does not allow any questioning of his right to bear responsibility for the child, to make decisions for it, in short, he insists on the supremacy of his will: “As long as you sit at my table and live under my roof, I call the shots!” The direct confrontation of wills between parent and youth, this little war that is known to every family, usually ends with the defeat of the parents. The child breaks away from the family and goes his own way.

Not so with Mr. Fritzl. He won this war, and did not allow his daughter to escape his custody even after she reached legal age. Going her own way was per se going astray, because she was escaping him. “I always brought her back home, but she always eluded me again. So I had to make sure to create a place where I could someday possibly keep Elisabeth by force from the outside world.” And he knew where: “The cellar of my house was mine, mine alone, it was my kingdom, only available to me.” (News, No. 19, May 8)

The crazy father even wants the young woman’s imprisonment to be seen as an exercise of parental responsibility: “I have always put a lot of value on decorum and good behavior, I admit.” (ibid.) Elisabeth’s misconduct, doing 24 years ago what 18 year-olds do – disco, alcohol, cigarettes, fast company, refusing to work – left him no choice. To insure that his Elisabeth couldn’t do the bad things that she would do if free, she was taken to the dungeon where the good father did the bad things to her that he felt entitled to. He took very literally the saying that parents breed good luck charms in their children: the fresh edition of his old lady tempted the husband and the claim on the daughter’s obedience and docility entitled the father. The fact that the daughter did not want this made precautions necessary: Fritzl realized his dream of family happiness in the homemade prison, protected it with an insurmountable lock system and death threats. He made the coveted daughter his slave and reserved her social contact to himself, the father and master. He secretly established a second world for himself, one where the unconditional authority of the head of the family still counted for something and gave its self-absorbed bearer the satisfaction he sought. For this guy, power fantasies and sexual desire, which he took out on his daughter, coalesced into a peculiar idea of happiness.

The exceptional thing about him is the extreme combination, as well as the methodical and systematic execution, of various notorious aberrations that are part of bourgeois sexual and family life: the tyrant did not make his family a prison for his wife and children in a metaphorical sense, but literally set one up. He did not attack his daughter in unbridled desire, but planned it with a cool head and created a permanent situation in which she would be unconditionally available. He did not become violent towards family members in the heat of passion, but established a rule over them which did not at all rely on the next of kin’s morality and obedience, but relied solely on its invincibility.

“Amstetten is everywhere”

Talk shows and newspaper articles are enthusiastically immersed in the extraordinary and bizarre nature of the crime, heavily emphasizing its singularity – and can’t see any connection whatsoever to the social institution in which all good people seek happiness. Something so bizarre can’t have anything to do with our lifestyle! However, the equally prompt calls for political action speak a different language. After all, harsher punishments and more effective state controls to hopefully prevent such incidents make no sense in view of an absolutely unique iniquity. What the bourgeois world rejects in theory, however, the state assumes in the practice of its family policy. The responsible minister in Vienna announces everything that she is going to change so that the “incest drama of Amstetten” remains an isolated case, and in her way tells us some things about family life in bourgeois society. In any case, she does not narrowly limit the steps from good family morals to evil to 4 Ybbsstrasse in Amstetten [Fritzl's address]:

“In the area of criminal justice, the Minister plans a new criminal offense against persistent violence, in order to apprehend those situations in which for instance women were subjected to years of violence by their husbands, but also violent relations in orphanages and nursing homes or kidnap victims. 'The whole history of the victim's suffering should find expression in the criminal trial', whereas previously the focus was on the single act of violence, as the last bodily injury. Various acts of violence, such as physical violence, coercion or insults, should be punishable with an appropriately severe punishment in their totality. Public prosecutors are being specially trained for it. Already since January 2008, there are special departments on violence in social relationships; as soon as this year, there will be custom-made training opportunities. Berger [the Minister] also wants to standardize and tighten the reporting requirements for certain professions such as doctors, psychologists – whereby a balance between the prosecution and the best interests of the child is to be found, as Berger pointed out ... On top of that, in progress is also an expert center for victim assistance, which the victim's hotline that has existed since July 2007 is going to be part of.”

Of course, expert psychologists immediately cast doubt on the effectiveness of the announced stricter punishments which will not deter “sex offenders” after all. This does not detract from the good cause, however: in demands for punishment, the state is called upon as a perhaps inadequate, but nevertheless protective authority against the brutal extremes of precisely that form of cohabitation between the sexes and generations which it establishes and promotes in law.