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.
Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times