Of course the world is abuzz with the latest Austrian kidnapping and imprisonment tragedy. I’ve received many email inquiries — and Austria seems to be debating — the “how” of the whole affair. How can a man who was well-regarded and thought of as totally upright by his village and peers turned out be be, in essence, a horrible monster named Josef F., who imprisoned and raped his own daughter in his own house, fathered seven of her children, and basically lived such a Jeckyl and Hide existence that not one soul suspected a thing despite the fact that he lived with a large family and rented to tenants in the same house.
Just as background, the thumbnail story is that the man imprisoned his young daughter, kept her there for two decades, fathered seven children, one of which died and some of which he brought out of the cellar, placed on his own doorstep and claimed they were the children of the imprisoned daughter, who he claimed had run away to join a religious cult.
It’s unbelievable, really. But I think I have one small piece of the puzzle. I’m not claiming to be an authority on the Austrian psyche, nor criminal psychology, nor anything else. However, I can remember a story that happened to me in Vienna back in 1991 that would probably explain a little bit about how nobody would suspect or, more accurately, allow themselves to believe this man could commit such crimes.
You’ll notice that in most of the news coverage, his neighbors, friend and associates all comment on what a good dresser Josef F. was, and how he was always responsible and authoritarian, and how he was a good business partner, a good consumer of their goods. Many called him “successful.” (In the US, it’s always “quiet” that neighbors say characterizes serial killers or other social miscreants, and in the US, that’s good: if you leave other people alone, you’re not perceived as a problem — but I digress).
When I was a student, I rented a room from an 83 year-old Austrian widow. I and two other students shared her 3 bedroom flat on the top floor of a slightly grimy part of Vienna’s Ninth District very near WUK. The owner of the apartment building was a lawyer with offices on the most-prestigious Stephansplatz in the First District.
The owner’s son, Peter, lived at the end of the hallway in a tiny one room flat. He had a hallway toilet and his bathtub stood in his kitchen. He wasn’t the cleanest fellow, because he was using his bathtub to grow pot. Our landlady warned us off of him, but, eventually, we became somewhat friendly — friendly enough for him to ask us for loans from time-to-time.