Thursday 1 May 2008

The Strange Case

By day he was a respected member of his community; by night a monster. In a cabin at the rear of his home lay a world of horror, a place of implacable darkness that gave him cover for his obnoxious parallel life.

When he entered his secret quarters through a reinforced door, his nature would change utterly. The shackles of decency would snap, and fall away from his feet. The dreary norms and suffocating restraints of society would give, and the pose of conscience would dissolve. The layers of civilisation were pared away, exposing a raw, distorted core. Here, in his secret chamber, he became a ghastly beast with an insatiable thirst for cruelty.

In his altered state, he would now perpetrate acts of savage barbarity. Yet after each horrific episode he would emerge from the darkness unchanged. He would step back into the ordinary, humdrum, world as if nothing had happened. Some circuit in his bizarre, dual mind would trip, and connect him back to humanity.

When a horrified friend learned of his friend's monstrous double world he said:

"My life is shaken to its roots; sleep has left me; the deadliest terror sits by me at all hours of the day and night; I shall die incredulous. As for the moral turpitude that man unveiled, I cannot, even in memory, dwell on it without a start of horror."

The friend is Dr. Lanyon and is speaking of his friend and colleague Dr. Jekyll who found he could transform himself into the deformed and hideous monstrosity that was Mr. Hyde. Dr Jekyll used to become Hyde in order to indulge his darkest impulses, and to do so separate from his good persona.

Dr. Jekyll revealled in a note found after his death :

"I had but to drink the cup, to doff at once the body of the noted professor, and to assume, like a thick cloak, that of Edward Hyde"

He explained the conflict between Good and Evil that his dual states embodied :

"I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde, none could come near to me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil."

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was, of course, a work of fiction, penned by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. But alas the truth is often stranger still, and far more ghastly. This week we learned how Josef Fritzl, a construction engineer from Amstettten, Austria, began raping his daughter while she was in her teens. When she reached 18 he imprisoned her in a reinforced cellar at his home, where he continued to rape her for 24 years. During this time she gave birth to seven of his children, 6 of whom survived. Three remained locked in the cellar and had never seen the light of day. One had died at birth and Fritzl had incinerated it in a furnace. And the remaining three had been taken above ground and raised by Fritzl and his wife as their own. His wife was led to believe the daughter had ran away and that the three young children which Josef had brought into their home down the years had been abandoned on their doorstep by the daughter.

It is tempting to think that Fritzl's depravity excludes him from the family of humankind. But the reason people the world over are so horrified by his case is precisely because of our common humanity. We are struck in disbelief that this, this monster, is one of us.

tells us nothing new. History is replete with illustrations of the grisly and unbounded horror that can be wrought by the distorted nihilistic core of humanity. In fact, one way of looking at the history of civilisation is to view our progress as the fruit of a constant struggle, not with chance or with the elements, but with our heart of darkness. Indeed, a struggle of this kind is central to many of the world's religions: the opposing forces of all things symbolized by yin and yan, Seth and Osiris in ancient Egyptian religion, the opposition of divine and mortal forces in Greek mythology, and of course the struggle between Good and Evil in the Christian bible where the combat against Original Sin lasts for the entire duration of humanity.

When evil breaks through the imperfect cloak of civilisation, there are always victims. In Fritzl's case, seven of them were children. We cannot help imagining what they suffered, especially those poor creatures locked in the darkess. Their mother tried to make their lives livable, she tried to simulate normality. She told them fairytales and entertained them with elaborations of what they had watched on TV. She must have had to convince them that their frequent visitor was a benefactor, that he loved them, that he protected them.

Incredibly, while in their company he wasn't always Mr Hyde. He could revert to Dr Jekyll. He would play with the children and discuss their welfare with their mother - whom he never ceased to beat and rape. It is impossible to imagine how she summoned the power to bear the violence and depravity for over 20 years, long after hope of escape had receded. Her mental torture must have been worse than that of the kids. She knew another world, a world of spring air and winter snow, of mad autumn colours, of birds and birdsong, of rolling clouds and warm sunshine. A world of space and movement, and freedom. A place filled with people, real people, who were decent and kind and loving and dignified.

We cannot resist wondering how Elizabeth and her children will ever manage to build up anything like a life after such sustained and horrific damage. Can their minds be repaired, at least in part? Can they regain an appetite for real life? How will they cast away their mistrust of people? Will they adjust to streetscapes or parks or any open space? Do the children know or can they ever learn the language of love? Will they ever cope with the constant motion of their new world? What is the shape of their hearts after years of torture and depravity? Can they be healed? We pray that they can.

And as for Fritzl himself, it is hard not to be sucked in by his monstrousity. We are compelled to marvel at, and be shocked by, the revelation that this absurdity, this wretched, cruel beast, this is you and I.

The Strange Case of Josef Fritzl draws our attention because he appeared so ordinary, his victims were so helpless, and his depravity so hideous. But above all we are tormented by thoughts of what it was like to be Fritzl, or far far worse, one of his victims.

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