3 MAY 2008, Page 24

This Austrian horror gnaws at our fears about how we treat our own children

Josef Fritzl’s unspeakable crimes against his daughter not only sicken us, says Rod Liddle. They sharpen our confusion about day-to-day parenting in the modern world You may, by now, be losing track of Austrian nutters who lock women in basements. The latest is Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter Elisabeth imprisoned in a dungeon for more than 20 years and fathered a total of seven children with her. The last nutter you read about, meanwhile, was Wolfgang Priklopil, who abducted a young woman, Natascha Kampusch, and kept her beneath a manhole cover in his garage for eight years. Both crimes are, of course, beyond appalling: it takes a lot to get Austria on to our front pages, usually either something with Nazi overtones or, failing that, paedophilia. Fritzl’s, though, is the more fantastically grotesque and scarcely believable; his first sexual assault on his own daughter occurred when she was just 11 years old, something which he has already — apparently quite cheerfully — admitted. Indeed, Fritzl has shown not the slightest remorse, claiming that the incarceration of his daughter was initially a sort of noble piece of tough parenting occasioned by her allegedly unruly behaviour. ‘She was a difficult girl,’ he told the police, and being locked up kept her away from drugs. The police, meanwhile, have described Fritzl as an ‘arrogant’ man; yes, that sounds about right, I should think.

The fact that these two similar-ish cases occurred in Austria is a red herring; the country’s statistics for crimes of a sexual nature, crimes against children, crimes of violence and indeed murder are all well below the European average. In fact the Fritzl case seems, despite the lack of a murder, to have far more in common with the crimes perpetrated by Fred and Rosemary West at their terraced house in Gloucester which kept us all transfixed a decade or so ago — the absolute lack of normal parental feelings towards their children, the blitheness and lack of remorse with which they admitted their crimes. And the sense, maybe, of their casual wickedness having an exponential character; that once one act of wickedness had been committed it broke down a sort of barrier which allowed more and worse acts of wickedness to be committed. Sexually abusing his 11-year-old daughter was not Fritzl’s first sexual crime; there were others before, which the police knew about.

I am not sure we even recoil from this sort of stuff any more, so familiar has it become to us — though there is no evidence that there are more Fred Wests and Josef Fritzls around these days than was the case, say, 50 years ago. They are still singularities, even if we are occasionally tempted to suspect that it all happens more often than we care to believe and are occasionally supported in this thesis by our zealous social services departments, which hold all parents in suspicion. Meanwhile, incest has long been our favourite crime, by which I mean the crime which most excites and repels us — even more than murder. Only one or two societies in the world lack a comprehensive incest taboo and Austria, I think, is not one of them. Low IQ is often associated with those who break incest taboos in the West; but then low IQ is associated with most crime in general, the prison population having an IQ perhaps 10 per cent below the national average. The exception to this rule is, oddly enough, serial killers, some of whom are known to have high IQs.

But there is one thing about this apparently vile singularity, the Fritzl case, which has a degree of resonance with us all — I mean, aside from the grotesque detail of his crimes. It is there in his statement to the police, the notion that he needed to lock his poor daughter away to keep her out of trouble. It has been evident for some time that we have a dangerously ambivalent attitude towards children and, by extension, parenting: we do not seem to know quite what to do. We are simultaneously out rageously indulgent towards our offspring and — tormented by the invisible presence of paedophiles lurking behind every bush — terribly restrictive. Children have become more precious to us than ever before — so precious that we may not be allowed to photograph them taking part in a school sports day, for example. At the same time, we are not allowed physically to chastise them and are even warned that too stentorian a ticking-off might have future damaging effects — and then we are reminded, when they go off the rails, as they increasingly seem to do, that we should have been more responsible parents in the first case, more disciplinarian.

The kids, meanwhile, are materially indulged to a degree unimaginable when I was a child, only 30-odd years ago; they are bombarded with commercial entertainment and deprived of that perfect childhood luxury of intense boredom. They are treated — by advertisers, nutritionists, teachers and indeed parents — as if they were surrogate adults, with the rights of adults to make intelligent decisions of their own. And when they fail to do so, we are shocked. As I say, we are terribly confused; the kids have got us all in a lather.

This last year has seen a whole raft of prominent (and extreme) criminal cases which gnaw away at our own insecurities over children, over what to do with the kids. Peel back 12 months to the time a little English girl went missing from the Portuguese holiday resort of Praia da Luz; the sniffer dogs growling at the boot of the car, the open window, the Tapas Nine drinking their wine 100 yards away. Madeleine McCann was certainly precious to her parents Kate and Gerry; she had been conceived after lengthy fertility treatment; they wanted her a lot. But clearly they did not want her all the time, otherwise they would not have left her in that apartment bedroom. If this seems harsh, my apologies — but it is a judgment which I suspect fits another few million parents in Britain today, parents who love their kids and would do absolutely anything for them — most of the time. Ambivalence.

It may well turn out that the Shannon Matthews case was altogether less ambivalent and Josef Fritzl substantially less so still. But we have been gripped this last year by reading, pretty much every day, what other parents do to their kids, either by accident or design. It has fascinated and appalled us in equal measure — at least in part because we are not sure what to do with them ourselves.