Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
I write to you from a small, easily ignored, rock in the Caribbean Sea. Your trial and conviction for the most astounding crimes did register on our consciousness. Don’t get me wrong now – you were hardly the number one topic of conversation at the One Love Rum Shop in Holetown. A cricket coach who does not know the Duckworth-Lewis Method and cost us a match was the one we were busy putting obeah on. But you still made the airwaves during rush hour traffic last week. Funny thing is no one wants to talk about you. I tried having a conversation about you but my friend changed the topic to the more pressing issue of carbon emissions from parents leaving car engines running while waiting in the school car park for Marlon and Michelle at the end of the day. Perhaps we feel it is unnecessary to think about you because you are quite simply an aberration, a sordid monster. Would any human, any man, any father, do what you did? No. That you have two arms, two legs, and one head is a mere distraction. You must be an evil jumbie in the perfect guise of a good citizen.
But you are human and you and I have more in common than I care to admit. You hid your face with a blue binder because you were embarrassed. You broke down when forced to confront Elizabeth’s version of almost a quarter century of unbelievable horror. You changed your plea to guilty. You whispered sorry. These are all very human actions and reactions of a conscience plagued by guilt. You should not have done these human things. They deprive us of the easy, and I dare say, more convenient path, which brands you a green-vomiting, demonic alien beyond our comprehension. It is this inability to dismiss you as other that causes me the most distress. Could I do what you did Herr Fritzl? If you are as sane as I then the answer must be yes. The lasting harm that you have inflicted must be harm I too am capable of inflicting. And how can I acknowledge this evil within and live with myself?
But hopefully if I tried someone would notice and stop me. Maybe moving two hundred tons of earth, to enlarge rooms no one ever sees, does not get the net curtains twitching in Amstetten but in Black Rock it might raise a few eyebrows. And if I regularly bought groceries from Supercentre for twice the number of people in our household The Husband might follow the trail of breadcrumbs. If First or Second Born suddenly went missing and I said they had joined a cult several members of the family would go in search of them immediately. In short I’d like to think that, as a society, we care enough not be passive bystanders. But the world of is, and the world of ought, never meet. Society ought to be concerned. But when faced with the unsavory harm that we do to each other like rape, and incest, and domestic violence, we often turn away. The earth can get moved. The groceries can keep coming. The child can disappear. For twenty-four years. It worked for you that conspiracy of silence, didn’t it? Given Austria's history you were probably banking on it.
But should that silence be broken we like our victims to be very quiet and very broken. Like the perpetrator, victims are sullied. Dirty. So even though you raped Elizabeth over 3000 times in a purpose-built dungeon it was the murder of your baby son by neglect that got you life imprisonment. But Herr Fritzl I have trouble seeing this murder as the worst of your crimes. Take baby Michael’s death out of the equation and I would still want you to spend the rest of your life incarcerated. Actually at times this seems too good a fate. In spite of all my understanding of the right to life, a part of me wants your life in exchange for the living death you caused your family, locked behind eight doors and tortured in a cramped, airless, underground cave, crawling with rats for company. For twenty-four years. What does it mean to inflict or to receive torture for twenty-four years? What does time look like under these conditions?
Your crimes have come to light at a time when the world is in turmoil, spiraling downwards before our eyes. Enough is enough. We demand a happy ending Josef. You will stay behind bars until your last breath. Professionals will queue up to interview you to the very end. You will tell them of your warped childhood and how mother beat you. You will become myth. We will only remember the moment of supreme courage when Elizabeth faced you and forced you to acknowledge what you had done. We will hope that the youngest boy who is just six will lead a full and happy life. And we will never ask any difficult questions of how a society allowed you to do what you did, for as long as you did. Those questions are too painful for a shamed Austria. If they are too painful for Austria then why should we, continents away, care? After all, Josef Fritzl, there are no monsters like you on this idyllic, small rock.