5 May 2008, Comments Off on Lightning


Author: Helen

It came as no surprise to me that Michael Haneke‘s name came up in this LP discussion about the horribleness in Austria. Haneke directs bleak, distressing films like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher– which I think are wonderful, but horrible to watch– he’s Austrian, and it’s easy to imagine the filmmaker and the twisted paterfamilias growing from the same social matrix.

When I read about the incarceration and rape of Elisabeth Fritzl, though, the comparison that came to my mind (and we’re always reminded of film when things get bizarre and surreal) wasn’t Haneke’s films so much as a 1988 Dutch movie, George Sluizer’s The Vanishing.

The upstanding citizen Josef Fritzl reminds me very much of the psychopathic Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Without getting into spoiler mode, Raymond commits a crime which is somewhat worse than the real Josef Fritzl’s – at least, I think so, but maybe not; it’s impossible to weigh the relative grisliness of their actions. Let’s just say that the two share some characteristics.

In The Vanishing, Rex (Gene Bervoets) the boyfriend of the missing girl and the perpetrator meet and talk. She has been gone for three years, and Rex suspects that Raymond has killed her, but he doesn’t yet know the detail. He says something to the effect that Raymond’s actions are so random and unpredictable that any attempt at analysis seems futile. “I don’t hate you,” he says, “I don’t hate lightning.” The implication is that some people, once their disconnection from normal boundaries or behavioural limitations is complete, are unpredictable to the extent that attempts at understanding or prevention are doomed to fail. (Well, incarceration is a good start, but in Raymond’s case you’d have to catch him first.)

I think Josef Fritzl is an example of that lightning.

The daily news is full of the idea that the police, social workers or neighbours should have somehow headed this man off at the pass, and the fact that they didn’t shows Austria up as a cold and atomised society. This ignores the problem of identifying these bizarre happenings in the first place. As one LP commenter points out, Fritzl’s very respectability and banality (like Lemorne’s in the film) worked in his favour. There’s also a major logistical gap in this idea of society keeping tabs. Discovering what Fritzl was up to would have involved entering his house, searching every room, poking about in his basement and doing a sweep for hidden doors, maybe breaking stuff in the process. Would he have allowed that? Would we do that to all the neighbours in our street? Of course not. (What would it be like if we did? If “the authorities” were empowered to do such a thing, what would our society look like then?)

We can’t do that, is the short answer.

I don’t mean to come across as a do-nothing or imply that we should tolerate such behaviour. But I certainly think preventing it is a bit harder than calling for a more caring and close-knit Neighbourhood Watch. Because once someone has become as psychotic and as entitled as Josef Fritzl, they really are as unpredictable as lightning.

For mine, the only way we can stop the Raymond Lemornes and the Bradley John Murdochs and the Josef Fritzls of this world is to get better and better at bringing up our boys. Starting with scrapping the remnants of the old patriarchal model of women and girls as property.

Comments (0)

  • Laura says:

    There’s also a major logistical gap in this idea of society keeping tabs.

    The police returned Elisabeth to the house after she’d run away – presumably they didn’t know that her father was a convicted rapist. Because, as you know, the record was destroyed fifteen years after the conviction was recorded.

    I don’t think this is a logistical gap at all. It’s a question of how much individual ‘freedom’ and ‘privacy’ a society is prepared to trade off, in the case of known recidivist sex offenders, in exchange for limiting their opportunities to do it again.

    In America the cops go around telling the neighbourhood when a sex criminal moves into the street. I think this is good. I know not everyone agrees. But it’s nothing to do with logistics, it’s a political decision. I shall shut up now.

  • Bernice says:

    Mmmm. I agree with Laura that a critical issue in this case is that the father had a string of criminal convictions that should have at the very least had his daughter’s initial disappearance investigated much more thoroughly. And should have rung alarm bells when he was applying to adopt his “grandchildren”.

    It’s also becoming clear that people did know – family & probably the lodgers, and possibly even the neighbours. It’s not just about how the state may have failed in its duty of care, but also the question of individuals “not wanting to get involved.” It appears that no one raised their suspicions which might offer a degree of diminished responsibility to the state, but what does it say about his individual freedom having more weight than his daughter’s?

    It’s one thing to actively pursue a policy of rehabilitation as the Austrian system does, but I’m shocked they keep no records of convictions for a class of crimes which have high levels of re-offending. Though I don’t agree with Laura’s point about notifying the neighbours. I’d suspect that what occurs is the state abrogating its responsibility to treat & monitor sex offenders & leaving it to the baseball bat wielding locals to sort it out.

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    Helen, thanks for clearing up something that I was fuzzy about till now, namely that there were two quite distinct strands to that ‘is it or isn’t it about Austria qua Austria’ discussion. I don’t agree about the ‘cold and atomised society’ — Austria no more than any other European or even just Western country — but what I do still think is that the Nazi past is a legitimate element to bring in to the discussion, and not least for its attitude to women. A brutal and grotesquely patriarchal regime enables certain behaviours and allow certain pathologies to travel down certain paths. Something like the Third Reich at the height of its power opens up a space for certain behaviours to be thinkable — right up to and then beyond your ‘lightning’ threshhold.

  • Helen says:

    I’m shocked they keep no records of convictions for a class of crimes which have high levels of re-offending.

    Absolutely agree. My feeling is that the level of concealment that these people go to makes the step between suspicion and confirmation logistically very difficult. But the MSM approach was that the friends and neighbours were just too apathetic. My point is that for friends and neighbours it really is impossible. We can’t get a search warrant and to uncover Fritzl’s activities would have required a proper search.

    Pav, I am very fuzzy about it all myself, my only clear opinion is that IBTP and if boys are brought up differently then that will do a better job of heading people like that off at the pass. But we’ll always have the minority who are truly disturbed.

    Another facet to this is that social services in just about every Western country are just underfunded, full stop. So a lot of stuff goes hidden with foster care and adoption I think.

  • kate says:

    I suppose I tend to think about how well I know my neighbours, or rather, how well I don’t know them. Would I notice? Probably not. Next door leaves his telly on loud all night, so presumably he has trouble sleeping. I know he leaves for work early and wakes my kid up, but I don’t really know what his relationship is to the teenagers who come around. I assume they’re his kids and that they live mostly with their mother. I only know his name because I have received his mail in error.

    So I wouldn’t know if he was assaulting someone so long as he made an effort to do it quietly. I also wouldn’t know if he was horribly ill and needed a neighbour to bring him some dinner or nick down to the shops for milk. Which is far more likely to happen at some stage. Maybe all of us need to make more of an effort to get to know the people we live near, so that we can look after each other, so that women don’t just go missing without anyone thinking it’s their job to go looking and asking questions.

  • 8 million Austrians and one who has committed this horrible crime in the last 20 years or so.

  • Rayedish says:

    Good post and very nicely summed up in the last paragraph. Most men do not think (consciously at least) that women are their property this message is still being reinforced though cultural undertones found in art, media, music, movies, literature, etc. I do not think that this is peculiar to Austria, but is in fact a facet of western culture. What else can we do about it other than bring up are boys and girls to be respectful and respected?

    Francis this is the fourth case of incarceration of girls/women found in Austria in the last twelve years.

  • Guido says:

    As other comments have stated here a hideous crime does not mean that the whole society is sick.

    They may have their Josef Fritzl and we have our Ivan Milat. I am sure that some overseas people may have wondered what type of society has spawned someone who would hunt, torture and horribly kill young backpackers.

    In regards to the neighborhood issue, I think there is a inherent belief that the place where you live is ‘nice and safe’ and that the threats are elsewhere.

    Often when a crime is committed in suburbia the interviewed neighbours express their shock that something like that could ever happen there ‘It has been such a nice place to live’ they say.

  • Ariel says:

    Yes, I agree that this is a great post on the issue and wholeheartedly agree with the final paragraph – if we pay more attention to the way we bring up boys and the way that they see and treat women, it will be the best foundation for treating this kind of problem. There will always be disturbed individuals, of course, but men who see women as property are much more likely to do this kind of thing – more to the point, men or a society who see women as property are more likely not to speak out if they know about something like this happening in their neighbourhood (‘it’s their business’).

    I remember that once (years ago, in one of those divided Carlton terrace houses) I heard the man next door to me beating up his partner – screaming, crying, terrified shouts of ‘No! No!’, loud bangs, sobbing. I called the police and the partner came to the door saying everything was fine and I felt a bit stupid. But would have felt far worse if I did nothing. It’s better to be interfering than to be complacent in a crime.

    Maybe the Nazi issue contributes as much to the neighbours knowing that atrocities were happening and nothing as anything else – history repeating, on a domestic scale?

    There is a novel released this year, Monster Love, about a couple who lock their child in a cage and leave her to starve to death in a nice suburban neighbourhood, which reminds me a little of this – echoes of ‘how could this happen?’ and the way people notice fragments of something wrong and don’t act for fear of intruding. It’s a very good – if grim – book.

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