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What the Fritzl is going on?

The past two years have seen an abundance of scary child captivity cases come to light. These cases are really scary and difficult to understand. They bother me not only because they are so completely horrific, but also because I have no way of understanding the actions that these men and women have taken to imprison and abuse children. I feel like I have no tools to access this, or find a solution to stop this from happening again.

The most recent of these was in Victoria, Australia, where a 60-year-old man has been charged with rape after fathering two children with his own daughter. His wife claims not to have known. The abuse started when the girl was eleven years old. The police had known about the abuse since 2005 but could not do anything because the daughter was afraid of her father.

In August 2009, 29-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard walked into a police station with her two kidnappers and the two children she had by a convicted sex offender as a result of rape. She was kidnapped when she was 11 and has spent 18 years in captivity. In this case his wife knew about it.

In Colombia, March 2009, Arcedio Alvarez (59) was arrested for the abuse of his daughter from when she was 9 years old until she was 30 years old. She had 11 children, 3 of whom died.

In Italy, March 2009, Michele Mongelli was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting his daughter, and his four nieces. His son was also arrested for having believed to have been involved. The survivors had been kept in captivity, in conditions likened to slavery.

In November 2008 “The Gaffer”, a 54-year-old business man in the United Kingdom, was sentenced to 25 consecutive life sentences for holding his two daughters in captivity for 25 years, raping them and fathering 9 (some reports say 7) children with the two girls (although they had been pregnant 19 times between them). The mother of the two girls had fled her home because she two had been abused by the man.

In April 2008 the world was stunned by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who has been found guilty for imprisoning his daughter for 24 years, as well as the 7 children that she had as a result of the rapes. He was also found guilty of murdering one of their children. His wife claimed not to have known.

These cases all just seem completely crazy, and disempowering to the general public. More scary is that they are not just random once-off events, but seem to be happening all the time while the rest of us just continue our day to day life. What can all of us do to stop things like this? In many of these cases, concerned neighbours had reported suspicious activity to no avail. In some cases the police already knew about the offenders but had chosen not to act or had acted ineffectively.

It is really difficult to understand the lives of these survivors, and the lives of their abusers.

I’m not sure whether the kidnappers were crazy or sane and evil, and I’m not sure which option is worse. If they were crazy do we let them off? Put them in an institution? Medicate them into docility? And if they were sane, what then? Put them in prison? The irony is too much. Is it better to try and understand what makes them tick, or just to certify them as unacceptable abusers who should be silenced, like they have silenced others? Goodness gracious, but it just seems mad.

And what you’d do if you suspected your neighbour was guilty of an offence like this? Should we be peering over the walls policing the behaviour of others? How many times when an alarm goes off next door, or you hear angry shouting, do you just lie down in your bed, roll over and feel grateful that its not your alarm or your life that is unravelling? If we were supposed to do this would we? And if we shouldn’t, why not?


  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on


  1. OneFlew OneFlew 17 September 2009

    These are extreme cases but your list of examples shows that they are not unique and occur in quite different environments.

    While such extreme cases are rare, child abuse isn’t. The sexual abuser is usually the father or another close male relative or friend.

    Power, opportunity and a lack of moral constraint are obviously some of the key enablers.

    What is the percentage of SA men who admit to being rapists? Was it a quarter? I would imagine that the sexual abuse of children would also be quite rife in an environment that is so awash with rapists.

  2. Jennifer Thorpe Jennifer Thorpe Post author | 17 September 2009

    Well Oneflew, we have scary child rape statistics here. Child abuse and sexual violence against children is another indication of how the powerless are avenging themselves of the even less powerful. Something needs to be done here. And soon!

  3. MySon MySon 17 September 2009

    And now the Central Methodist Church is in the news because child abuse cases, and their Bishop refusing offers of help from charity organisations.

    The same Paul Verryn who has been grandstanding about the municipality and the government doing nothing about the situation.

    The Bishop is also accusing charity organisations of “stealing” the children.

    If people dig a little deeper, Winnie Mandela once accused the then Reverend Paul Verryn of abusing young boys in the 1980’s.

    The poor boys were taken from their alleged abuser, for one of them to die later, allegedly at the hands of Winnie and some of her comrades.

  4. Adam Wakefield Adam Wakefield 17 September 2009

    Are the above mentioned cases extreme and unhuman? Yes. Are they are representation of evil? Yes. Why does it happen? I have no idea but OneFlew makes a good point about power and restraint.

    How do we stop it happening? While everything should be done to stop such abuses, the problem is that they are often located in the private sphere, and of the countries mentioned above, save for perhaps Columbia, this right is protected fiercely protected. Do we want to be that person who called the police in case we think our neighbour is a monster? What happens if you are wrong? You will then be stuck with a millstone around your neck which tells the rest of your community that you can’t be trusted, are paranoid or are simply looking to cause trouble. The thought might also pop into your head ‘Oh, this wouldn’t happen in my neighbourhood.’

    Prevention is better then cure, but how do you fix the problem when the problem is invariably protected by rights guaranteed by the state? Hence the difficulty of discovering such cases, as disgusting as they are.

    Food for thought…

  5. Paddy Paddy 17 September 2009

    Disgusting, despicable etc .etc.

    Humans are part of the animal kingdom. Our numeric growth over the last 200 years, enabled by the abundant and cheap energy of fossil fuels (Al Gore’s stuff), much like an abundant supply of sugar enables ants to rapidly multiply. Humans on the planet have (more or less) gone from a few hundred million to approaching 7 Billion, suggesting that numerically we should expect to have significant numbers of “genetic mutants” or from a social aspect “social deviants”. The fact that inbreeding results in well known negative effects is understood and genetically the deviant genes will become extinct.

    While still trying to assist children in this situation, I think our primary focus should be more on teachers and care workers who exploit our children outside of the family.

  6. G G 18 September 2009

    This raises more question than answers. I am however of the opinion that it is not happening more often – its been happening for time immemorial, we’re just now hearing about it. Makes you wonder what we don’t hear about…

    @ OneFlew: A minor bone to pick with you: It’s not just the men. I can tell you stories about women involved in abuse that will make your hair curl. Abuse is not sexist – the ladies do it as much as the guys.

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 18 September 2009

    Incest was once much more rife than it is now. The poorer and less educated the population the easier it is to be covered up. There was a lot of it among the urban poor Afrikaner two generations ago.

    My Son

    Winnie attacked Paul Verryn as a cover up for her own actions. Read “In Our Lifetime” by Elinor Sisulu, and “The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela” by Emma Gilbey.

  8. Lee van Zyl Lee van Zyl 18 September 2009

    Yes G there are woman who are also guilty of sexual abuse, but on a percentage basis no more than 5% if that.

    I blame our autocratic society and the culprit in many cases is that most religion’s teach women and children to be submissave the husband/father of the household.

    This most certainly thank heavens is not carried out by most men, but there are those who then take it as their God given right to do as they please.


  9. Katlego Katlego 18 September 2009

    This is very disturbing, insecurities plus lack of moral constrains plus excuses to justify one’s wrong doings plus all the other uncontrollable psychological conditions these heartless excuses of human beings due to their physical nature have on this poor world of ours. If humanity and compassion makes us human then these other beings that look like us but still able to conduct such evil behaviour are less human, a life sentence does not suit their crimes, just my opinion, i think the death sentence is suitable

  10. Frances Frances 19 September 2009

    Solidariteit Helping Hand put a Child Abuse Report together. This is shocking but worth while looking at.
    Bad things happen when good people turn away and don’t do something about it. I’ll rather be wrong than feeling guilty if/when my neighbour’s child or women are being abused and I did nothing.

  11. haiwa tigere haiwa tigere 19 September 2009

    Jennifer – you say what the frizl is going on in the last 2 years. amswer – nothing muchLet me give you an analogy- a young 14 year old starts smoking and continues to smoke for 30 years suddenly gets lung cancer this year. Nothing we can analyse from this year will help us at all. turn the clock back 30 years and we might have the answer.
    These crimes have been happen ing for 18 to 20 years. Go back and analyse what was happening then maybe we might have an answer.How many “FRESH ” cases of such abuse do we see.I am imagining the young western teenager with text tweeter and facbook not tolerating this rubbish.
    I hope i am right this abuse is receeding especially in free societies. The hold (no pun) fathers had on their families is slowy eroding. they cant have the control they used to have.

  12. Jennifer Thorpe Jennifer Thorpe Post author | 20 September 2009

    The danger in viewing the abusers as inhuman or as different means that we lose our ability to judge them as though they were an average person committing an abominable deed. If we see them as ‘monsters’ then we distance them from their social responsibility not to hurt others. We make them the victims of their twisted minds, and absolve them of the twisting they have performed on others’ minds.

    Many rapists have been referred to as monsters which makes us believe that our great neighbour next door couldn’t be a rapist. This is part of the problem in supporting the survivors of such crimes. We need to belive that their abusers were monsters because we can’t understand why someone would do something like that. We need to stop separating abusers from society and making them a force that is ‘out there’. They are our neighbours and friends.

    If we judge them as people, then we will see that the penalties that they deserve shoudl be aligned with the harm they’ve caused. I am not for the death penalty, but I am for a justice system that attempts to rehabilitate and attempts to do justice to survivors of crimes.

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