I still remember the first time news broke about an Austrian man who kept his own daughter captive in an underground dungeon for 24 years, never letting her out, constantly raping her and eventually fathering seven incestuous children with her. It was a story so sickening, so unimaginable that even the most morally depraved horror novelist could not have come up with it. If it were made into a movie critics would laugh at it for being too unbelievable. And yet it was absolutely true.
Monster by British journalist Alan Hall is a valiant attempt to understand Josef Fritzl, the man who shocked the world with the most atrocious crimes against his own flesh and blood. I was initially skeptical about the book because of the speed with which it was released, concerned that it might be no more than a half-baked effort to cash in on everyone’s interest in the story. I was wrong.
While the book was published relatively close to the initial revelation (roughly 7 months), Hall has packed a great deal of insightful information into the 288-page book, complete with exclusive interviews (with neighbours, former tenants, childhood friends, police officers), photographs of those involved and diagrams of the dungeon. Of course, an early publication also unfortunately means that there are many details left uncovered. There are no interviews with any members of the Fritzl family, and no information relating to the Fritzl trial as it had yet to commence.
Hall takes an analytical approach that begins with Fritzl’s childhood, going into depths on his obsessive relationship with his overbearing mother, Nazi influences, and the fact that he was a couple of years older than his classmates. These were the type of things that may have shaped his controlling personality and his abnormal yet insatiable sexual appetite. Hall then ventures into Fritzl’s adulthood as he becomes an ingenious engineer (the skills from which would later be utilised to create the foolproof dungeon) and marries a subservient, unquestioning wife who bears him seven children, including Elizabeth, the daughter he would begin abusing at age 11 and imprison from age 18.
The book then takes a dark turn and begins detailing Elizabeth’s ordeal – the constant rapes, giving birth to her father’s children alone (armed with nothing but some primitive medical materials and an old book to guide her through), raising 3 of them by herself underground (and losing 4 – one to death and the other 3 brought above ground). All this time, Fritzl went about his business as usual, renting out the apartments above to unsuspecting tenants, fooling police into believing Elizabeth had joined a cult, building extensions to the dungeon and visiting local brothels and taking debaucherous sex trips to Thailand.
It all ends when the health of Kerstin, Elizabeth’s eldest child, begins to fail and Fritzl has no choice but to seek professional medical attention. The doctors grew suspicious of the girl’s unusual physical condition and alerted the police – things snowballed from there and soon the shocking details were revealed to the world. At the time of publication, the entire underground and above-ground families were in a secure medical and psychiatric facility receiving treatment.
I’m a fan of Hall’s writing style. It is professional, easy to read and well-structured. There were no boring bits that I wanted to skip.
A story like this would be no stranger to hyperboles. Alan Hall does a good job of keeping his emotions in check and ensuring that Fritzl’s tale is told with a steady level of objectivity. From time to time he wavers, but for the most part the writing remains journalistic and objective.
At the end, Hall does offer his personal views as he is particularly critical of Austrian culture – which he believes is partly responsible for the Fritzl case and several other similar cases of horrendous abuse, such as the Natascha Kampusch case (which Hall has also written books about). Hall believes that since World War II, Austrians have tended to mind their own business and preferred to sweep things under the rug rather than bring them out in the open. It is this culture, coupled with appalling police inadequacy and a justice system that is over-protective of criminals, that allowed someone like Josef Fritzl to get away with it for 24 years. Regardless of whether you agree with Hall, he does put forward a compelling argument.
Monster is a solid book suitable for those with an interest in the Fritzl case. It answers a lot of the questions that I had about the case – such as (1) how Fritzl’s wife Rosemarie could possibly not have known what was going on, (2) how Elizabeth was unable to escape, and (3) how come the dungeon was not uncovered sooner (for those interested, see the end of this post for answers).
Unfortunately, the book was published before Fritzl stood trial, so I’m sure there are more details that were uncovered later not in the book. Nevertheless, I found it a fascinating read, the type of book that you could finish in a single sitting on a rainy afternoon or night alone at home.
4 out of 5 stars
[Answers to my own questions: (1) Rosemarie was terrified of Fritzl and never questioned him despite his rape conviction and prostitute visits. Fritzl also kept her busy and away for large chunks of the year running his motels. Elizabeth had also run away before. All those that know the family are convinced she had absolutely no idea. (2) Fritzl was a genius engineer who built the dungeon to be completely escape-proof and sound-proof. There were 8 doors to the dungeon, including 2 that were electronic - and only he knew the codes. (3) The police bought Fritzl's story that Elizabeth had run away to join a cult, and Fritzl's prior convictions were erased under Austrian law. He purchased supplies from various far-away places to avoid detection. He forbid his family (who were totally obedient to him) and his tenants (who were terrified of him) from going near the dungeon. Various people who saw him and had suspicions never bothered to contact police.]