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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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State