Review: The Crimes of Josef Fritzl

Crimes of Josef Fritzl, The: Uncovering the TruthThe Crimes of Josef Fritzl
by Stefanie Marsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Crimes of Josef Fritzl / 978-0-00-730056-3

When the horrific news broke that a violent and psychotic father had been found keeping his daughter locked in his cellar for over two decades, and had frequently raped and beaten her, I - like many others - was shocked. In the aftermath of the horrifying incident, I assumed that the man was some kind of criminal mastermind, that his wife / children / neighbors (in short, all the people who would have been best poised to understand the situation and stop him) were all naive, simple, frightened, or - worse - openly complicit. In this terrifying account of the crime, however, authors Marsh and Pancevski make a compelling and sickening case that the complicity of the community was closed, rather than open - a complicity of failing to care, nor to take seriously crimes against women.

Josef Fritzl was not a criminal mastermind who kept his sexual violence carefully hidden. He was known to accost women in parks and was stopped on at least one occasion by the police for attempted rape - Josef was let off with a caution. When he methodically stalked a woman for months, broke into her home, and violently raped her at knife-point, he was incarcerated for all of 18 months. Ten years later, his record was completely expunged - the Austrian legal system having felt at the time that rapists rehabilitate themselves over time, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Neighbors and family members were well aware that he beat his wife and children, and at least two major players in his daughter's life knew that he was sexually molesting her from a young age. When Elisabeth fled home at age 16, the police dragged her home to her father without investigating why she might have left; when she disappeared completely two years later, Josef's flimsy tale of a "cult" was taken at face value. When children started mysteriously showing up on the doorstep "from Elisabeth", social workers were uninterested in investigating; when "Elisabeth" began to mail letters to home, postmarked in cities less than 5 miles away, cities where Josef had frequent business, the police never questioned it.

And when the world turned upside-down and Elisabeth was finally found and her story told, the whole incident was immediately sewn up as secretly and tightly as possible. Most of Josef's family, including his wife, were never interviewed formally by the police; none of the police involved with Elisabeth's "disappearance" case were formally questioned. It was the adamant opinion of the authorities that "these things" - things like rape, murder, kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture - "just happen" and that there is nothing, really, that can be done to prevent it.

And that attitude will horrify you more than anything else to do with this case.

Documented in vivid detail, "The Crimes of Josef Fritzl" should be required reading not only for anyone interested in this horrific (yet not so unique as I had thought) case, but also for anyone interested in understanding why vigilance and prevention are at least as important crime-fighting tools as apprehension and incarceration. In closing, I would love to quote a passage near the end that sums all this more nicely than I ever could:

"In fact his life was a catalogue of violent, strange, and suspicious behaviour, much of which had attracted the attention of the police: he was known by a number of his friends to be a physically abusive husband and father; he had a conviction for violent rape, had twice more been arrested for sexual offenses, and had been suspected of arson...He had spent long periods of time in his cellar: his tenants and neighbours had seen him going down there late at night with a torch and bags of groceries...Even when everything had pointed to the fact that something very wrong was happening in the house in Ybbsstrasse, nobody had looked. But when, a few days before Josef Fritzl was tried, in the second week of March 2009, Austria's Minister of Justice was interviewed again, she was adamant: 'You can never really prevent these kinds of cases.'"

~ Ana Mardoll

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