Monday 28 January 2013

Miss Natascha Kampusch – Alice in Wonderland makes The Great Escape

The background to this ordeal is well-known. A 10 year old Austrian girl was abducted by a lone captor and kept prisoner for eight and a half years, or precisely the 3,096 days which she took as the title of her autobiography. Her composure when she was first interviewed on television after her release, and the quality of her speech and vocabulary astounded everyone.  There was immense interest as to how she was able to survive, and understandably the focus was on the horrific trauma and the resilience she showed under almost unbelievable stress. Although I have met Natascha and sat in on a long television interview she gave in London in 2010 I do not have any privileged knowledge about her, have not had a private conversation with her, have not been part of her of her clinical management, and am basing my comments entirely upon facts which are in the public record, particularly her many interviews and her autobiography.

3,096 Days. Penguin 9 September  2010

The reason that Natascha Kampusch survived, and did not become a corpse in a cellar, is that she out-psyched her captor, despite him having absolute physical control over her, and despite her being a young and helpless child.

She was far brighter than him, and had a far more balanced personality. Intelligence is always protective in psychological disorders, because the intelligent can try out different ways of looking at the situation, can formulate and put into effect different strategies, refine those strategies as circumstances demand, take a long term view and restrain immediate impulses. She realised that one day she would replenishment her personal capital, and that helped her deal with long periods of being emotionally overdrawn. Miss Kampusch was working on her abductor from the start, and managed to survive the most dangerous first 24 hours of her kidnapping, when being murdered and dumped in a lonely wood was the most likely outcome.

And what a task! She was at the mercy of a deluded, socially isolated, paranoid, obsessional-compulsive, who felt so totally inadequate he wanted a child-slave to dominate, in compensation for his lack of status in society, and his inability to get women of his age. Self conscious about his appearance, particularly his nose, he presented himself in public as conventional, conformist, and even dependable in the eyes of his one friend and occasional work mate. However, an un-named policeman in his neighbourhood whose report was ignored saw him, perfectly accurately “as a ‘loner’ who has extreme difficulties relating to his environment and problems dealing with other people… with a penchant for children with regard to his sexuality”. In private he was a tormented and tormenting bully, with an inner life of self justifying delusions. His obsession with cleaning rituals took up much of his time, and he had a rigid world view and a heartless lack of empathy which would have driven even the most dedicated mental-health professional to distraction. I doubt that many would have maintained professional calm if forced to spend a day or two in the same room with him on their own. He was a grisly festival of psychological disorders, but he held the power of life or death over her. His madness was her most essential reality.

In the early years of her captivity she had allowed him to accept her as a child. Such was his retarded emotional state that they were almost equals in developmental terms, though he was in full physical control of whether she lived or died. It was a Mad Hatter’s tea party, with two children eating meals together. Once she was old enough to menstruate he became violent because he was confronted by a real woman. Menstruation made his obsessional-compulsive disorder even worse. More cleaning rituals and general abuse were heaped on Miss Kampusch as a consequence of her achieving this normal milestone. As the years of abuse and semi-starvation went by eventually she let him hope that the story would have a perfect ending, and sometimes believed it herself. The child-slave would metamorphose into the submissive young girlfriend, obedient to his every wish. He would be able to show her off in public, and very cautiously started doing so.

In all this, the cost to her was great, as with all escapes from hell. She had to become a slave so that he could be satisfied as Master, and would then gradually accept what she was teaching him: that she had needs and wishes and ideas which he might allow her to enjoy, within his own very strict limits. The captor was by far the most essential element of her young life, and he accounted for well over half of her conscious memories, and all of the most terrifying ones. He subjected her to considerable physical abuse, and had ample time to demolish her boundaries, her memories and her world view (saying her parents would not pay a ransom for her). His relentless torture resulted in her accepting a new name, symbolic of having abandoned her old self. This is fairly common among the few known cases of early childhood abduction. The child apparently accepts being a new person with a new life, when the alternative is death. However, she got him to comply with her intellectual requirements. The captor brought her most of the books she needed. In this very odd way she had her own home school. She watched highly educational programs. She was a scholar monk: in a cell, mortified in her flesh, liberated in her mind.

Questioners who lack understanding often ask abused victims why they do not escape. It seems so obvious one should do so, yet thousands of women who undergo physical abuse from men often do not, or flee only to return, hoping for the best. They have been ground down into such a state of dependency and self hatred that they cling to the abuser, since he is sometimes kind enough to forgive them for their many faults. In these dreadful relationships it is the intensity of the emotion which seems to bind victims to their tormentors, rather than whether the emotions are positive or negative.

Questioners want the details of her confinement, the more intimate the better, but are not so interested in nuances of emotional experience, particularly when they go against their expectations. They feel it legitimate to ask this young woman exactly what was done to her as a defenceless child, questions they themselves would avoid about an unhappy love affair. The public want those juicy bits for their own needs, and the long pondered dilemma of how to survive against impossible odds is of secondary interest. Also, they ignore the impact of moments of reprieve, which Primo Levi so graphically described, those small islands of relief in a raging sea of horror, which make any sort of life have its half-happy moments.

Identifying with a captor is often a sensible survival strategy. Even to do that, and survive, it is necessary enter the captor’s world. In his self-concept, the captor imagined he had done Miss Kampusch a favour by saving her from sex, drugs and rock and roll. He had also, in his mind, saved her from the gang, entirely mythical, who had contracted him to kidnap her, and whom he used as a further threat to terrify her into submission. He was profoundly paranoid, and saw himself as the victim of a society which did not appreciate him, even though it very clearly had no reason to.

Questioners are very happy to accept the “Stockholm syndrome” as the explanation for Miss Kampusch’s unwillingness to join the public in absolute condemnation of the captors’ acts.  However, Miss Kapusch is making a more subtle point. Entirely unwillingly, she had more intensive exposure to a highly deranged individual than is normal even for experienced health professionals. Against her will, she carried out the ultimate observational study of a man with profound and dangerous mental health problems. She is able to say, quite accurately, that there were moments of tenderness and understanding, in which she understood the humanity within the perpetrator who treated her inhumanely. Outsiders demand that she should wish him dead. They find it inconceivable that she should wish him saved. She saw moments when he might have been capable of compassion, and treasured them because her life depended on it. Those moments were real nonetheless. She can assert that she saw them, without condoning his crimes.

Surprising as it may seem, Miss Kampusch was right to accept ownership of the house of her abuser. It was the place where she had the worst moments of her life, and very probably the worst moments of any life, and it belongs to her for as long as she wishes, in the way that Auschwitz belongs to Germany. When their clients feel ready for it, psychologists always try to return with them to the scene of the trauma, so as to confront the demons of imprinted memories, and attempt to understand even the most impossible cruelty by looking, touching, and smelling the place where it happened.  In this particular case the house was almost her entire world, and she does not want it to be a lost continent, submerged by the intrusion of others.

She was not so well advised to enter the media world as a presenter. Television appealed to her in captivity, showing her presenters who served as parent substitutes: friendly normal personalities who were reliable and trustworthy companions. Nevertheless, although she is usually very skilled and composed in front of the camera, this was a bridge too far. The audience felt aggrieved that she had illegitimately crossed a boundary, from admirable victim to glittering film star.  I think she has worked out that what she needs is an ordinary real life, with the usual ups and downs experienced in privacy, not an exciting, artificial, and thoroughly public one. With any luck this biography will be a chance to close the door.

What she is almost able to make us forget, is that Miss Kampusch was subjected to sensory deprivation, brutal torture, threatened execution, sexual harassment and psychological abuse, for a sustained period of 3096 endless days. By rights no one should be able to survive this, because in its intensity and duration it exceeds all normal limits. That she contemplated suicide, and made a few self harming attempts is unsurprising.

Even when the captor was thrashing her she was able to dissect him. In an even greater leap, she was able to understand and forgive. Towards the end there were probably times when she could have killed him. She did not do so, but when she raised the courage to escape she exposed his final lie. There were no explosives tied to all the doors of her caged life. He had been responsible for everything he did to her. There were no excuses. She was not his child, not his family, and not his girlfriend. When killing came, he killed himself.

I praise her dignity, her courage, and the triumph of her intellect.


  1. Nice and important comment!

  2. I like your post overall, but I can't understand the analogy "the house belonged to her (the victim) the way the Auschwitz belongs to Germany (the perpetrators)"

    1. Yes, you are right, the analogy is mistaken, for the reasons you give.

    2. The German Jews, and even the awakened German public were indeed victims. Just because Hitler and followers tainted that which is truly German and wholesome does not condemn Germany. So yes, it is a good analogy. Natascha was a captor in a fronted structure, deceptively portrayed as a normal home The German Jews were captors in concentration camps deceptively portrayed as normal internment camps. In the end only the victims deserved the complete rights to maintain OR destroy these structures. The fact that both have chosen to keep them for essentially the same reasons, as public reminders, should be a clear enough reason to understand the comparison.