For weeks on end, prisoner 90632 sat hunched over a word processor at the Stein high-security facility, Austria’s Broadmoor.
Fellow inmates took little notice: Josef Fritzl’s name may once have inspired horror worldwide, but now he was just another old man, hammering away with two fingers on the keyboard and squinting at his output on a hazy screen.
Some probably thought he was using the outdated machine — which does not connect to the internet — to assemble legal arguments for his lawyers. Fritzl, 87, has long dreamed of release.
Instead, the creaking PC, hooked to a printer, was his last twisted chance for redemption.
Last week, the toxic seeds of his labour came to fruition with the publication in Germany of Die Abgründe des Josef F (The Abysses Of Josef F), a deeply disturbing journey into the psyche of a man whose macabre world blew up on April 26, 2008, when a clandestine cellar beneath his home in Amstetten, Austria, was discovered and his terrible secrets revealed.
Josef Fritzl pleaded guilty to rape, false imprisonment, manslaughter by negligence and incest, and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 years
Fritzl repeatedly raped his daughter Elisabeth (pictured), fathering seven incestuous children with her during her captivity
Some 24 years earlier, in 1984, Fritzl had rendered his own daughter, Elisabeth, unconscious with a rag soaked in ether and entombed her in an underground prison. He then repeatedly raped her, fathering seven incestuous children with her during her captivity.
Fritzl’s depravity made headlines around world. Following his trial — in which he pleaded guilty to rape, false imprisonment, manslaughter by negligence and incest, and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 years before parole — I chronicled the whole ghastly saga in a bestselling book, published by Penguin, entitled Monster.
Now, Fritzl is seeking things he feels have been denied him: understanding, sympathy, perhaps — even though he does not put it into words — forgiveness. Last July, when he had finished his manuscript, he wrote to Astrid Wagner, an Austrian lawyer and author of several books, one about a love affair she had with a serial killer, Jack Unterweger.
Wagner says she is attracted to wicked men like Fritzl because she ‘has always been fascinated by what motivates such criminals’. Fritzl told her he had written an autobiography and asked for help in finding a publisher and for legal advice. Wagner, 59, began visiting him at Stein and the resulting book, written by her, is an account of her impressions, interspersed with Fritzl’s own writings.
It is hard to imagine quite where The Abysses Of Josef F would fit on a Waterstones shelf. Fritzl’s contributions are part-fiction, part mea culpa. Fritzl’s victims would be horrified; a fact acknowledged by Wagner, who says she had to disregard the feelings of Elisabeth and her children — and of Fritzl’s wife, Rosemarie — in order to deliver what she believes to be a true account of the man and his crimes.
‘I did not consider the perspective of others — the victims and the relatives — of Fritzl,’ says Wagner. ‘Anyone who is offended by this [story] should not even read this book.’
In any case, she insists, her interest is not so much in Fritzl’s crimes but what makes him tick. The reader does not get the word ‘sorry’ from Fritzl, but there are passages of self-awareness in The Abysses from a man who, a psychiatrist who testified at his trial said, ‘will remain a danger to women as long as he has a pulse’.
Long before he put that ether-soaked cloth over his daughter’s nose and mouth, Fritzl had a record of sexual crime. In 1967, the year after Elisabeth was born, he broke into the home of a 24-year-old nurse in Linz and raped her, holding a knife to her throat.
In 1984, Fritzl had rendered his own daughter, Elisabeth, unconscious with a rag soaked in ether and entombed her in an underground prison
Fritzl had carefully prepared his underground prison, the heavy metal door that was hidden behind a shelf in his workroom
He was also named as a suspect in the attempted rape of another woman and suspected of indecent exposure. He served 12 months of an 18-month prison sentence but by the time the authorities came to investigate his family years later, the conviction was spent and had disappeared from his record.
‘For someone born to rape, I held out for a long time,’ he told the court-appointed psychiatrist who assessed him before trial.
‘There is an evil streak lurking inside me. I’m a torn person, with passions I can’t control. I regret with all my heart what I did to my family. But, unfortunately, I can’t make up for it.’
Fritzl, who has changed his name to Josef Mayrhoff in the hope that he can regain some anonymity if released, has recently been described as a frail, old man, possibly suffering from dementia. Wagner says she saw none of that: ‘No, this old man here is far from being a helpless old man. I felt energy. Willpower. Determination. No trace of dementia.’
Fritzl says: ‘The descriptions of sexual adventures spring from my imagination, although they are inspired by true events. It is dreams and mental journeys that make my everyday life in prison bearable.’
He was born in Amstetten in 1935 and raised mostly by his mother. His father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Fritzl was four. His mother was an austere woman who frequently beat him.
‘As a child, I always thought that I was unwanted,’ he writes. ‘I never got a kiss from her, and never a hug — although I tried so hard. I was afraid of her, terribly afraid, of her unpredictability, of her beatings, of her kneeling on me. And she constantly insulted me as Satan, as a criminal, as a useless thing. She forbade me to have friends.’
In revenge, he later claimed to have locked her in an attic with bricked-up windows for the last few years before her death, in 1980.
Fritzl took long vacations to places like Thailand, leaving his victims to deal with power cuts, rats, overflowing sewage and rotting food in their underground prison
That’s not something Fritzl mentions in The Abysses: instead, when writing of his early life, he concentrates on his adventures as a travelling salesman, representing a Danish concrete manufacturer. But his great step from dark fantasy to terrible reality — the imprisonment and degradation of his own daughter — is described thus: ‘At first it was just a mind game I played. But I got used to it. The idea, which had previously seemed so absurd, so monstrous to me, took shape.
‘One day I knew what I had to do. All that remained was to wait for the right opportunity. On that rainy Saturday morning the time had come. The thought had become action.’
Fritzl had carefully prepared his underground prison, the heavy metal door that was hidden behind a shelf in his workroom. It had a keyless, secret code entry known only to him. He persuaded Elisabeth that the door was electrified, so she would be killed if she tried to escape.
‘The next morning, I filed a missing person report with the local gendarmerie,’ Fritzl says. ‘The officer carefully logged everything and declared: “She’s over 18 and can do whatever she wants.” Fritzl made Elisabeth write letters to her mother explaining that she needed time away from home, then posted them in faraway towns. He told neighbours she had run away to join a cult.
‘It wasn’t easy, because the thoughts of what I had done were constantly circling within me,’ he says. ‘I was constantly energised. There was no one I could confide in. I had to look ahead and continue on the path I had chosen.’
Over the next 24 years, Elisabeth had seven children: one of whom died at birth. Three were taken upstairs to be brought up by Rosemarie as ‘foundlings’, while three lived in the basement.
Fritzl visited his captives at least three times a week, bringing food and sometimes flowers, he says, for Elisabeth. Yet he took long vacations to places like Thailand, leaving his victims to deal with power cuts, rats, overflowing sewage and rotting food in their underground prison.
Out of sight was out of mind: ‘When I was away, I pushed away all my problems. Also, my secret. Everything was far, far away. Otherwise, I would have gone crazy!’ he writes. ‘Only sometimes when I was alone, gloomy thoughts haunted me. I immediately repressed them by distracting myself and thinking of something else…’
He seems to have consoled himself with sex, claiming to have had ‘dozens of sexual affairs on business trips’ and to have had children with ‘several Indian women’.
Fritzl spends most days alone with his TV and PC and grows vegetables in the prison garden
Fritzl also says he is proud to have fathered an adult son, who was conceived — according to him — during a secret affair with a Ghanaian woman who is now a respected lawyer.
Who knows how much of this is true? Wagner says ‘glossing over’ much of his life is what has enabled Fritzl to live with himself.
‘Josef Fritzl is only human, not a beast,’ she says. ‘He is a man who has not mastered his inner demons. He is a master of suppression.’ Fritzl himself says: ‘In reality I am a good person.’ He also describes himself as a ‘responsible family man’ with ‘immense professional successes’. He has received ‘hundreds’ of letters, many from women who are ‘in love with me’.
Fritzl could certainly be confident and persuasive. Over the years, with Rosemarie believing Elisabeth was with a cult, he persuaded her to take in three of Elisabeth’s children — ten-month-old Monika; Lisa, nine months; and Alexander, 15 months — who appeared on the doorstep accompanied by a note written by their mother or a phone message, presumably recorded by Fritzl.
Why they were chosen and Kerstin, now 34, and her brothers Stefan, 33, and Felix, 20, were left below is not clear. Another baby, Michael, died shortly after birth in 1996: Fritzl cremated him in an incinerator in the back garden.
Fritzl also managed to hoodwink the authorities so that he and Rosemarie became recognised foster parents to the children. He now wonders if his wife could forgive him. ‘Even though everything was so long ago, my wife is still inside me,’ he writes. ‘More than before. You probably become more sensitive with age. I’m worried about how she thinks about everything now. It would be nice if she would come and visit me. I think it’s time to talk about what happened. To make a clean slate, so to speak.’
Fritz’s secret world came at last to an end when Kerstin, then 19, became dangerously ill with kidney failure. He allowed her to be taken to hospital by ambulance, where a doctor became suspicious. When Fritzl allowed Elisabeth out of the cellar to visit the hospital, the police were waiting.
He says that for some time, he had been trying to think of a way to bring Elisabeth and the remaining children’s imprisonment to an end. ‘Those around me noticed my inner restlessness . . . I toyed with the idea of exposing everything and fleeing justice abroad. Still, it wouldn’t be easy. The public opinion of the entire world would portray my act as a unique monstrosity, that of a beast.
When Fritzl allowed Elisabeth out of the cellar to visit the hospital, the police were waiting (Pictured: Scene outside the house where Elisabeth was raped and held prisoner)
‘And what would become of my family? The media mob would hunt them down, maybe the youth welfare office would seize the children. Eventually, my whole family would fall into the abyss!’
Elisabeth has a new identity, as do the six children she had alone in the darkness that was her home for 24 years. There will never be any reconciliation for Fritzl. Elisabeth and the children have been resettled in a small Austrian village. The state paid £700,000 for a house guarded by a high fence and CCTV cameras.
The house has no internal doors, which might be a reminder of their underground prison — and, most importantly, no cellar.
It also has three bathrooms: cleanliness was a constant problem in the cellar and, initially, Elisabeth was said to shower up to ten times a day. She has now got that down to two.
Kerstin is understood to have a secretarial job. Felix, who touched the hearts of the policemen who rescued him when he pointed to stars in the night sky he had never seen before and asked, ‘Does God live up there?’, is said to have virtually forgotten his experiences in the cellar.
Doctors monitor the family for genetic deformities and illnesses which can strike children born of incest: so far, it is understood none has been found.
‘Elisabeth’s life revolves around their lives,’ a carer once said. ‘They were her reason to stay alive in the cellar and they are her reason to carry on now. I have never met a stronger, more single-minded mother. She is truly awesome.’
Fritzl spends most days alone with his TV and PC. He grows vegetables in the prison garden.
Forty miles away in Amstetten, Ybbsstrasse 40 stands as the mute reminder of the horrors that played out beneath it for a quarter of a century.
It was slated for destruction but eventually sold, renovated and now houses ten luxury flats. The basement, however, has been permanently filled with concrete.