Sunday, 28 October 2007

Girl in the Cellar is set in large type and frequently uses words such as "immorality", "deviant creature", "tormented wretch", "evil", "martyrdom", "demented fantasies". These are loaded words quite unable to capture the day-to-day reality of the relationship between Natascha Kampusch and Wolfgang Priklopil, who held her captive for eight years.

The large type shows who the book aims at. The loaded lingo likewise. It's unfortunate because the authors (Allan Hall and Michael Leidig) themselves frequently complain of Natascha's iron grip on detail. Her refusal to tell all and instead measure out carefully what the world hears is an indicator of her mental toughness.

Clearly this personal quality helped her survive the ordeal. But it is the detail that members of Austria's community need to fully understand certain characteristics of the case, including her mildness toward Priklopil and her sympathy for his mother. Another element of surprise is Natascha's refusal to live with her own mother.

The big question is whether she ever had sexual relations with Priklopil. On this issue, she flatly refuses to speak. But other details the authors point to here also need clarification. There is the matter of some photos of Natascha showing her in provocative poses in S&M gear. There is also the matter that Priklopil and Natascha's parents frequented the same bar, and may have known each other.

What is not in question is Natascha's familiarity with the media. Further, self-taught and possessed of a large vocabulary, she is a puzzle for professional teachers. The radio and TV constituted a primary avenue of information about the world, and a lifeline when locked in the cellar.

The room itself is very small. One man, a soldier, sat in the room for a few minutes and declared it stifling. Natascha spent eight years there. The speed with which she has been able to recover is noteworthy:

I found my way back to normal life very quickly. It's astonishing, how quickly it happened. I now live together with other people -- and I don't have difficulties with that.

But these "other people" are support staff and psychologists, not 'regular' people. The authors sense spin, and elsewhere highlight the powerful machinery brought to bear on the case:

Natascha remained out of sight of the media for two weeks. Details seeped out from family members and police sources before the circus of media advisers and sharp-suited lawyers began trying to lock down the story of Natascha tighter than the Pentagon under nuclear attack.

In the 'Aftermath' section at the end of the book, you sense a lot of spin coming from Natascha's 'people' or, possibly, manufactured by the authors in order to gratify them. The implication being that, in future, these two men want to be 'in' on any action. Given the list of words I include at the head of this post, these words do not ring true:

We hope this book has shown ... that the relationship between them was highly complex. That was the key to her survival.

It is true that Natascha's intelligence comes through, especially in her tendancy to do what she was told while waiting for the right moment to escape. But it is not true that we get the full impact of the ruses used on a day-to-day basis. The reason we don't is clear: she won't tell.

She knows what the story is worth and she will release it, in due time, when she is certain she can (a) best profit from it and (b) control the message. The authors of this book are journalists. Journalists are trained to be sceptical and to ask difficult questions. The trick they need to perform is to draw out the information required to complete their picture (not Natascha's) while not antagonising the community, which is naturally positively disposed toward Natascha.

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