Helping Elisabeth Fritzl

Top psychologist Anne Carpenter - a specialist in helping adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse

The story of Elisabeth Fritzl, the 42 year old woman who was imprisoned in a cellar and raped by her father over a 24 year old period, is so shocking it is inconceivable to most of the public.

While this is clearly an extreme case of sadistic emotional and sexual abuse the need to treat victims of child abuse is unfortunately commonplace within the mental health field.

And, in the last 30 years, academics and clinicians have developed a greater understanding of the complicated psychology of abuse survivors.

Clearly this woman is likely to require extensive help and support to come to terms with her dreadful ordeal. However, those involved in her recovery will need to be cautious and sensitive particularly as she will have grown used to her emotional and physical needs being over-ridden by her abuser. In fact, she may be unable to articulate or even recognise them.

She will be feeling a range of conflicting and confusing emotions – shock, disorientation, anger, guilt, sadness as well as happiness and relief. It is likely that she will shift rapidly from one emotion to another in the early stages of resolution and as such, above all at this time will need gentle support from those caring for her.

Miss Fritzl will have to be gently encouraged to express her own needs and make her own decisions. Living in a cramped cellar away form normal social contacts will mean she has lost many basic life skills: meeting people, shopping, using a telephone, even crossing the road - all will be strange and daunting tasks.

Intensive psychological therapy is often inadvisable in the immediate aftermath of extreme trauma, particularly at a time of extensive police and media interest. Research on counselling in the immediate period after distress warns against probing into feelings too deeply and too quickly.

Any disclosure of abusive experiences can lead to the individual feeling that they are being abused all over again. People often describe traumatic “flashbacks”, where they feel as if they are being pulled back into the past and are being abused again. They may experience sounds, smells or sensations which can feel distressing; as if they are losing their minds. Such experiences are quite normal and are the mind’s ways of rationalising and understanding the incident. They are, however, very alarming.

Disclosure of such events is particularly difficult where someone is not used to being treated with respect. She may expect to be punished or blamed. Miss Fritzl may even anticipate repeat abuse from those looking after her as it is what she has been accustomed for most of her life. She will look to therapists to tell her what to do, where to go, what to eat, who to speak to. In other words; will have lost all initiative. This is why the preliminary stage of providing gentle support is so crucial in helping her resolve and understand her feelings. At this stage, all involved should be telling her they believe her and know this is not her fault.

Sexual abuse survivors commonly express feelings of extreme guilt: Guilt that they didn’t stop the abuse; guilt that they “let” it go on for so long; guilt that the abuser has been arrested. The public commonly ask “Why didn’t they stop it?” It is vital that such a question is not put so bluntly to Miss Frutzl.

Working with abuse survivors and sex offenders has helped clinicians understand the very complex relationships that exist between them. “Stockholm Syndrome” was identified in the 1970s and recognised that, where a victim is dependent on their abuser for their very survival, a curious, almost infantile, attachment can develop. The victim may hotly defend the perpetrator and even apportion much of the blame to themselves; particularly where they have been told by the abuser that they are to blame. Again, such attachment is normal and Miss Fritzl will need help to express such feelings. This will not be possible if she feels that she will be labelled as “mad” or complicit. No-one freely consents to such horrific abuse.

The final issue which she will face is in taking on her role as a mother to her six children. Children about whom she may have ambivalent feelings. Some were cared for by her parents; some may also have been abused; some were also the victims of the sadistic decision to imprison them in a cellar; all of them are active daily reminders of her unwanted incestuous relationship. The children will, of course, also need extensive support.

Miss Fritzl’s reintroduction to Austrian society will be long and traumatic. It may even be as traumatic as her first few months in captivity. She will need above all to be protected from the eyes of the world as she is helped to reconcile the very complicated and often conflicting emotions that she will experience.

From a world where she will have felt very alone, she will need to learn from her carers and therapists that, while her case may be extreme, child abuse is unfortunately not unique and her feelings will be very similar to those commonly expressed by our many abuse survivors.

Anne Carpenter is a Consultant forensic clinical psychologist employed within the Forensic Mental Health directorate of Glasgow and Clyde health board. For over 20 years she has worked with victims of child abuse, female offenders and mentally disordered offenders. She has worked extensively with Victim Support Scotland and is a member of the Parole Board for Scotland.
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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.