The Amstetten Project

May 3, 2008

About 30 years ago, I was teaching high school in Oregon. One of my students, a quiet, well-behaved young woman, seemed bothered by something, and her (average-level) school work seemed to be suffering. Her boyfriend, a pleasant, quiet young man asked me if they could have a conversation with me. I don’t remember the names; I’ll call her Lisa and I’ll call him Chad.

We sat in an empty classroom and talked. I asked her if something was bothering her.

“No,” she said. I talked with her a few more minutes, though the conversation seemed to be going nowhere. I was getting peculiar vibes, but I didn’t know what to do with them.

Suddenly, she blurted out, “My stepfather is raping me.”

I gasped in shock, but tried to keep my composure in front of Lisa and Chad (who obviously knew about the situation).

It general, it was my tendency to maintain confidentiality with what students told me, but in a situation such as this, school employees were required by law to report incidents of child abuse and sexual molestation and my conscience also told me that I had to take action.

Lisa told me that her stepfather had also raped her older sister, who had eventually run away from home. She would not have told me about the situation, except that she had a younger brother and she feared he would be next.

I asked Lisa about her mother. She said that mom probably knew, but was pretending not to. My heart pounded with some anxiety, but as I continued to try and speak very calmly and reassuringly. Lisa was reluctant and fearful about calling the police, but there was no other choice; it had to be done.

I decided to pass the buck. I said I would like to bring the school nurse into the conversation.

Lisa reluctantly agreed, close to tears.

The nurse did call the sheriff’s office. A detective who specialized in such cases eventually called me and explained the procedure they had followed in their police work. The procedure horrified me, but made ghastly sense.

They prearranged to have an unmarked police car stake out her house. The next time her stepfather raped her, she sneaked out of the house after her stepfather fell asleep. The police drove her to a hospital to collect sperm from her vagina.

Eventually, they filed charges. A week before the case began, Lisa ran away from home. She called me from Los Angeles; she told me she could not bring herself to go through the trauma of testifying in a trial.

Without her testimony, even with the hospital evidence, there was no case. The stepfather was released. Chad told me that Lisa had joined her sister (the previous runaway). The stepfather, the mother, and the younger son quickly moved out of the county.

I felt sick to my stomach.

I appreciate the fact that Austria has severe privacy protections, but there is an argument for studying the case of Josef Fritzl as intensively and thoroughly and publicly as possible. I don’t even know if there is any point in “punishing” this 73-year old retired electrician with a prison sentence.

I will offer a shocking, unethical, and misguided alternative. It will be something like Guantanamo Bay, only handled a little more gently and skillfully. I don’t think waterboarding will help in this situation.

 I would suggest having the best psychotherapists and anthropologists in the world study Josef Fritzl as best as they can. All their sessions with him should be videotaped. Investigators should also study, as well as they can after all this time, all that can be determined about his family and life history. Once the world operated the “Manhattan project.” We can call this the Amstetten Project

Eventually, all the recordings of the investigation should be skillfully edited down and broadcast internationally as a “reality television” show, with subtitles for most major languages.

It’s easy for me to describe Josef Fritzl as the strongest example of pure evil as one may find, but realistically one can probably find equally undeserving examples of the “banality of evil” in any day’s news.

I won’t resist the cliché of mentioning the country where this took place–Austria–but we all know such an incident could as easily take place in any country on earth. Austria as the location is just a coincidence.

Even though I would support the perhaps smaller evil of my cold-blooded and pathologically curious forensic investigation, in the end we would know no more about what caused Josef Fritzl to be Josef the good dad then we know about why a cockroach is a cockroach, though cockroaches probably are less disgusting than Josef.

We don’t keep any pets in our house in the woods, and I haven’t noticed any cockroaches running around our yard, but if I see one, I may adopt it as a pet. I’m not sure how I will explain its presence to my wife, who usually squashes bugs in the house without much ado.


10 Responses to “The Amstetten Project”

  1. David Says:

    If you’ve never seen the movie “M”, I think you would find it very interesting.

    It’s so horrifying what goes on in families. One has to wonder what was wrong with the mother, to remain so stubbornly blind.

    It says a lot about you that Lisa and Chad considered you an appropriate person to confide in. And you didn’t pass the buck … calling the school nurse to help was the wisest thing you could have done at that point.

    If there’s some equivalent of Hell, I hope the stepfather is in it.

  2. modestypress Says:


    Thank you. At the time, I just felt I was floundering.

    I know about “M,” but have not watched it.

    More cheerfulness:

  3. Cameron Says:

    I agree; you didn’t pass the buck, you consulted an appropriate person to take the next step.

    My heart breaks for girls like her, but I’m thankful she trusted you.

  4. Clownscape Says:

    You’re correct. This is prevalent (if I might use that term) in every country and is no pecularity of Austria alone. I’ve come across quite a few articles on this now.

    And its shameful enough knowing that I’ll come across more and more articles on this in the near future.

    A fine instance of civilization, this.

  5. Average Jane Says:

    Is a sick person evil? I don’t know. I have seen a lot of that first hand. It confused me then and it confuses me now.

  6. modestypress Says:


    It confuses me also. In today’s news:

    Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who fathered seven children with his daughter while keeping her locked up in a subterranean dungeon as a sex slave for 24 years, will plead insanity to avoid a prison sentence.

    He is also bankrupt and his family may be on the street soon.

    My current thought is that Interpol should use him to set up a sting operation for capturing pedophiles. Each morning, they would point a loaded gun at his head and get him started in his work. On the day he falters or goofs off, they can pull the trigger.

  7. renaissanceguy Says:

    It would be easy to bury our heads in the sand to avoid thinking about such horrors. Instead we must be vigilant and, as you were, available to people in trouble.

    I believe that Fritzl is both sick and evil. I have come face to face with sexual abusers, and they almost always realize that what they are doing is wrong–at least in the eyes of other people. Yet they are unwilling to turn themselves in so that they can pay for what they’ve done and so that they can be prevented (by being incarcerated) from hurting other people.

    I hope that the runaway Lisa and her sister were somehow able to make a good life for themselves, although I realize how unlikely that is.

  8. modestypress Says:

    That’s what bothers me the most to this day–wondering what happened to Lisa and her sister, and hoping that they managed to make some recovery.

  9. pandemonic Says:

    What a terrible story! I hope that Lisa is okay now. Even though the stepfather wasn’t prosecuted, she broke the chain of abuse (in that instance) and ran away.

    As for the Austrian case, I am flabbergasted. You’re right. Better to make a guinea pig out of him to see if this can be prevented in the future. My thought is that it won’t be able to, and probably his brain is a normal one. That’s scary.

  10. modestypress Says:


    This is Fritz. This is Fritz’ brain. This is Fritz’ brain on DNA. Friends don’t let friends … what?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s