During August, 1984, Josef Fritzl, then 48, imprisoned his 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth in a damp and moldy secret room he had constructed beneath his home. Over the ensuing years he raped her numerous times, "fathering" seven children with her. One of those children died shortly after birth due to breathing complications Fritzl allegedly neglected to address - an act for which he was on trial for murder. He had already pled guilty to incest and to threatening to gas or electrocute Elisabeth and her children if they attempted to escape. Now, he has admitted to all the charges against him.
Fritzl had a history of sex crimes. He had exposed himself to women before progressing to violent rape at knifepoint. He was arrested for that rape, but ultimately freed.
Fritzl's actions are so monstrous that they might seem to defy any attempt to begin to understand them. Certainly, there is no psychological explanation that could begin to excuse them. But, if we look for possible roots of Fritzl's evil, a few may be traceable back to his own childhood development: Fritzl's pathological relationship with his mother and his childhood in Nazi Germany. I shared my perspective on both topics with John Glatt, whose book on Fritzl called Secrets in the Cellar, was just published.
According to Glatt, Fritzl described very powerful impulses to have sex with his mother. He actually prided himself on being as strong a person as she was and, therefore, able to resist having a sexual relationship with her. This implies that Fritzl's mother either attempted to seduce her son, or that he at least believed she was attempting to do so. And if that is the case, then imprisoning Elisabeth underground and creating a family with her could be a kind of reenactment of Fritzl's buried childhood fantasies and fears of incest (or his actual incestuous experiences, if they occurred). With Elisabeth, however, he was the aggressor, the one in control, rather than the potential victim. So it may have been transmuted Oedipal desires that Fritzl brought to life in the dirt beneath his home, this time taking his daughter captive, rather than being captured himself.
It also bears noting that Fritzl's personal development - including his battle against such fierce Oedipal desires - took place against the political backdrop of Nazi Germany. Remember, Fritzl threatened to gas his children if they escaped their underground prison.
Fritzl grew up within half a mile of the Mauthausen death camp in Amstetten. He would literally have seen and smelled smoke rising from the crematorium. The mingling of secrecy and an organized death camp with his sexual fantasies is hard to ignore, given the dark, buried chamber he constructed to father a second family by repeatedly raping his own daughter.
Why Elisabeth? Perhaps she was especially sensitive. Maybe she represented something he lacked. Humanity. Sensitivity. A magical, emotional, intuitive quality. Maybe looking at her in the light of day threatened to reconnect him with what he had lost in his own character, an innocence that had been taken from him. Better to bury her.
Surely, we can't know the precise way the toxic ingredients of Josef Fritzl's heart and mind mingled to create a monster. He hasn't revealed enough of his childhood and adolescence for a complete map to be drawn from horrors he experienced to the ones he perpetrated. But Fritzl's complete lack of empathy for his daughter Elisabeth, his wife and all the other children in his home and beneath his home means that someone showed him no mercy at a critical point as his personality took form. Because there are no new monsters that spring, fully formed, onto the planet. In well over a decade evaluating and treating violent men and women, I have found every single one capable of monstrous acts was created, not born.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.