Coping With 'Unfathomable' Incest, Abuse

Psychological experts say 24 years of captivity likely took a heavy mental toll.

ByABC News
April 28, 2008, 6:21 PM

April 29, 2008— -- When she was 18, Elisabeth Fritzl's father Josef locked her away in a tiny basement space beneath a house, according to investigators in the small Austrian town of Amstetten.

During her captivity, she endured far more than isolation. In the 24 years that passed before she was found again, she was repeatedly raped by her father and gave birth to seven children as a result, authorities said.

Some of these children were sent away. Others were allegedly forced to stay underground, never to see the light of day.

Now, according to officials with the Lower Austrian Bureau of Criminal Affairs, Fritzl and her children are receiving psychiatric care. But psychological experts say that even with the best help and counseling, the woman and three of her children, who were imprisoned with her, face unimaginable hurdles in coping with their experience.

"The situation for these women and children is so extraordinarily grotesque that the only [thing] comparable I can think of are children who spent their childhood years in a death camp or concentration camp or in the Cambodian killing fields," said Rona M. Fields, a psychologist and national spokesperson for the Children's Rights Council, who has experience treating children who have survived such traumatic situations.

"Elisabeth and her children will need years of intensive psychotherapy to start to heal these wounds," said Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author Dr. Carole Lieberman. "They will be overwhelmed by feelings of shame, rage, depression, confusion, lack of identity, and so on."

The horrific nature of the story has sent the country into shock, with the Austrian interior minister calling it "unfathomable."

Three of the children shared their mother's plight from birth. They shared the small cellar space with her and were not allowed to leave, authorities said.

Three others were allegedly raised by Elisabeth's parents, never having knowledge of their mother's situation.

And Elisabeth told investigators that one of the children died several days after its birth in 1996. This infant's body, she said, was taken by her father and burned in the furnace.