Thursday, 1 May 2008

Look at me

Another day, another set of horrendous revelations from the Austrian town of Amstetten. Far from the optimistic first reports of the condition of Elisabeth Fritzl and her unnaturally conceived children, it's increasingly apparent that they have become physical and psychological wrecks, literally howling at the moon, who may never (except perhaps the youngest) recover from their ordeal. As to the motivation behind the embodiment of human evil who incarcerated them, there has been no shortage of "expert" analysis, none of it particularly enlightening, all of it pretending to science.

There's one person, of course, generally supposed to have a unique insight into the ghastly story unfolding before the eyes of a stupefied world media. And yesterday she was telling everyone who would listen precisely what it is all about. Like everything else that happens in Austria, or indeed the world at large, in the view of Natascha Kampusch the Fritzl family romance is mainly about Natascha Kampusch.

The Times yesterday had a particularly strange headline. "Natasha Kampusch says Fritzl children should stay in cellar", it ran, introducing an item about an interview the celebrity kidnap-survivor had given to Austrian TV. Why? Is she worried about the competition? A glance at this morning's "artist's impression" of the grey-haired, sunken-cheeked ruin of Elizabeth Fritzel might have served to reassure her on that point, while 19 year-old Kirsten, who might just have given Natascha a run for her money, lies comatose and probably unsaveable. For the moment, then, La Kampusch remains the public face of Austria's kidnap shame; and like the pro she is she's treating it as yet another marketing opportunity. Natascha offers sympathy. Natascha wants to meet the family to share her pain. Natascha sets up a fund to help the survivors. Natascha, Natascha, Natascha.

She turned up on Newsnight yesterday evening, in what was billed as her "exclusive first British TV interview", looking more expensively groomed than ever and showing the BBC's man round her Hello!-worthy apartment. She even tried out a few words of English. It was, like most interviews she gives, most revealing in what it did not reveal: anything remotely personal. She spoke deliberately, in the passive voice and the third person. Asked why such dreadful crimes might happen in Austria, she came out with a puzzling and half-baked analysis: "At the time of National Socialism the suppression of women was propagated. An authoritarian education was very important." Asked what she thought of the latest revelations, she quicky fastened onto the most salient aspect of the story:


Little by little I realised there were parallels to my own fate. So then the whole story affected me even more.

When asked how she coped with the pressures of the outside world, Natascha chose to interpret it as a question about dealing with fame (rather than, say, learning to lead a normal life) and replied that she was always aware that "we live in a media age". And asked what she thought the Fritzl family most needed now, she was in little doubt. "Silence", she thought. And time. Don't even think of trying to contact them, was her message to the global media. Here's my number.

I should stress at this point (because it may not be obvious from the foregoing) that I have almost limitless admiration for Natascha Kampusch, an admiration over and above the sympathy that any decent person would feel for her traumatic childhood. I am in genuine awe. But it's clear that she emerged from Wolfgang Priklopil's basement as comprehensively spoiled as any Hollywood child star or pampered trustafarian. In fairy tales, it's always a princess who is locked up in a high tower or made to sweep out the kitchen (or at least, like Cinderella, the high-born rightful daughter who's destined to marry Prince Charming). And it is the role of princess that Natascha has been assiduously cultivating ever since she cowered at the mercy of her socially maladjusted captor. When she eventually decided it was time to make her bid for freedom, she took nothing with her but the clothes she was wearing and a list of the lawyers and PR advisers that she intended to employ.

Unless or until Kampusch decides to tell the full, unvarnished truth about what befell her during those lost eight years (and possibly before) we remain, of course, in the realm of speculation. But details - or rumours - continue to dribble out. The Mail, with what seems like preternaturally inspired timing, carried a long article about her on Saturday (before the Fritzl story broke) which suggested, among other things, that for the latter part of her captivity Natascha spent relatively little time in the cellar and most of her days looking after Priklopil:

The files continue that by day she cleaned and cooked for him, and did nothing to distract neighbours from his blithe assertion that she was his girl friday. Moreover the police claim Natascha told them that Priklopil - who had never had a real girlfriend and was 26 years her senior - had no need to force himself on her because, sickeningly, he persuaded her to be a willing partner to their sexual encounters.


It figures. Priklopil was probably less a paedophile in the technical sense than a fantasist who kidnapped Natascha with the long-term aim of turning her into a subservient Stepford-style wife. In so doing, he treated her like a doormat but also, perversely, as the centre of his universe. It was a twisted sort of love - not the love of a man for a woman, or of a father for his child, but perhaps analogous to the love of a child for a pet bird, who fondly imagines that it prefers the safe monotony of a tiny cage to the dangers of the outside world. But it was, nevertheless, love of a kind, enough to preserve Natascha's self-esteem and, indeed, promote the development of an intensely narcissistic personality. Nor was it unreciprocated. The Mail's David Jones spoke to psychiatrist Dr Kurt Kletzer:

Since a longstanding and close relationship clearly formed between Natascha and her captor, albeit one that was deeply unnatural, he says, she could probably now regard him as her primary influence, more important even than her parents... In her mind's eye, she will also feel bereaved by Priklopil's suicide - which explains why she has reportedly saved a photograph of his coffin on her mobile phone and feels the need to return to the empty house periodically.


At the time, her reaction to Priklopil's suicide was less one of grief or satisfaction than of annoyance, as though he had thrown himself under a train merely to spite her. Still, if she couldn't have him, at least everyone else in the world seemed to want her, a state of affairs that would have freaked most people out (even if they hadn't been held captive by a weirdo throughout their adolescence) but which struck Natascha as no more than her due. Her sense of priorities became very clear within a couple of days of her escape. It was not slowly to come to terms with the enormity of her ordeal. It was not to get to know her family, or mentally and physically recover, or to establish social relationships. All that would happen in due course. But the immediate priority was to grab the most lucrative possible magazine deal.

As I said above, I admire this woman. I think she's fantastic. But there is a monstrousness about her, a grandiosity of self-delusion that she shares with the megastars to whose condition she aspires. The experts, quoted by Jones, who fret that she has found it difficult to re-adjust to normal life ignore the fact that a normal life is the last thing she wants. Mentally she is still in the cellar, the centre of her own private universe, but it is now a luxury penthouse cellar and her one abusive companion has metamorphosed - as in some tranformation scene at the end of a pantomime - into an army of stylists and sycophants and hangers-on. Such a bouleversement would have broken most people. Anyone in possession of a more fragile ego - or who was less of a control freak - would by now have descended into a vortex of drugs, depression, self-harm, inappropriate boyfriends and cheap tabloid scandals. Look at Amy Winehouse. Natascha, by contrast, sails serenely on, secure in her sense of infinite entitlement.

I wonder, though, how she will cope with this latest challenge to her carefully constructed new identity. For she was accorded her great privileges by virtue of her status as a victim; the victim, moreover, of a unique and unimaginable horror. Yet suddenly her horror seems no longer unique and a good deal less unimaginable. The suffering endured by Elisabeth Fritzl and her poor children was, by common consent, some orders of magnitude worse than Natascha's subterranean incarceration, nightmarish though that undoubtedly was. If Kampusch was the heroine of one of the Grimms' darker tales - holding out at least the prospect of a happy ending - the Amstetten case has the doom-laden horror of one of the more gruesome Greek myths. And the world, with its endless appetite for more and worse, eventually grows tired of sugar-coated confections. Contemplating with open-jawed incredulity the latest shocking revelation from the house of horrors, the last thing the public wants to see is an old news story in a slinky new dress.

Sorry, Natascha. This isn't about you.

8 comments:

WeepingCross said...

I don't even know who this young woman is, which would surely be a comfort were she apprised of my ignorance. And indifference, come to that.

The Heresiarch said...

Perhaps I expect too much prior knowledge from my heretics. It was quite a big story a few years ago, but no doubt you had your mind on higher things.

Anonymous said...

right on! couldn't agrea more

valdemar said...

I don't agree, Heresiarch. Wait a few years, or decades, then make sweeping assertions about NK's character. Her worst moments may well be ahead of her.
But, assuming you're right, why attack one person for partaking of the gormless, shallow celebrity/victim culture that we are all encouraged to wallow in?

And maybe I'm going a bit musical theatre, now, but it's a bit harsh to condemn a girl for wanting to look her best when she's on the proper BBC telly.

The Heresiarch said...

Worst moments ahead of her? I doubt it. We'll see, but I think if she was going to lose it she would have done so by now. This is one cool customer.

I don't attack her character, by the way, merely notice what it appears to be. I think it's reasonable to judge people by their outward behaviour. My question is, why has she re-emerged now? She has no insights to offer - or, if she does, she isn't offering them. My understanding is that her people approached the main media outlets and let it be known that she was "available". If she's not merely trying to preserve "market share", she's certainly acting as though she is. Being famous and the centre of attention seems to be important to her sense of personal identity. Can this be good for her, long term?

Have you seen her website, by the way? It closely resembles that of a high-priced callgirl.

valdemar said...

Just had a look at her site. Clearly the number of mentions she gets in the media validates her existence.
For all her undoubted self-control, I wonder how she'll cope when the attention fades away to nothing, as it surely will? There are always more victims.

vuurfee said...

With all do respect, she was captivated by so many years by a complete stranger. I don't think she deliberately wants to be out in the spotlight now. Or in an other way, she wants to compensate those lost years by getting all the attention she needs. Let her be, I'd say. She never had a decent childhood, does it surprise you that she may seem a little greedy?

However, I am a psychologist to be so I always look for answers in behavior. :-)

alexr said...

I just stumbled on your brief but throughly soundly-thinking essay on Kampusch over a year after you wrote it, but it was a real oasis for me. I imagine both you and your regular readers are familiar with that quasi-compulsive condition one sometimes finds oneself in of vainly scouring the Internet for some confirmation that one isn't, on some particular issue, the only sanely-thinking person on the planet. I too had pretty nearly been spared Ms. Kampusch (only "pretty nearly", as I live in a German-speaking country where she's been practically unavoidable for several years). But I felt a surge of disgust some degrees less mild than usual at the latest "Kampusch story" - she's now gone and actually BOUGHT the house where we're still expected to believe she underwent an "indescribable ordeal from which she will never fully recover" - and was compelled to go some way into the whole shameful and ugly circus around her during the years since her "escape". I found myself growing increasingly furious over the fact that, while any one of the enormities that are on public record about this girl - the formulaically opportunistic proclamations of a wish to use her entirely-unearned wealth to "ease suffering" which have remained, for years, unbacked by any actual disbursements; the hideous spectacle of her expedient, temporary, transparently emotionless alliances, in the cause of the further self-enrichment of all involved, with the various other members of her deeply dysfunctional family - would be enough to sustain the unrelenting vilification of, say, Paris Hilton or a dozen comparable figures for months on end, one can actually scour the Net for hours and find almost NO instance of the name "Natascha Kampusch"'s being brought into even approximate contiguity with the words "greed", "nasty", "deceitful" or "self-serving". I really felt a sense of almost physical relief in finally finding stated in your blog what surely everyone with half a mind and any sort of halfway intact sense of moral smell MUST perceive to be in fact the case about her. As you point out, there are surely reasons why she became the deeply distasteful individual who is now, grotesquely, the object of so much adulation. And yes it would be heartless to judge and condemn her without regard to those reasons. But the same surely applied and applies to her kidnapper - and I haven't noticed anyone either at the time of his suicide or since exhorting us to be mindful of the grotesque life-circumstances that may have contributed to HIS becoming the repellent individual he certainly was.