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Kerstin Fritzl regains consciousness

Kerstin Fritzl, the daughter of Elizabeth Fritzl, has regained consciousness in hospital in Austria

Kerstin, aged 19, was placed in a drug-induced coma in April after being brought in, with an unspecified illness, from the dungeon where she had spent her entire life as a prisoner of her father and grandfather, Josef Fritzl.

As of yet, the hospital has released no other information and has declined to comment on rumours that the girl has been reunited with her mother, grandmother and surviving siblings.

Josef Fritzl remains in custody.

For more on this story, visit the BBC website.

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Turning away from the dark underbelly

In a period in which there have been two terrible natural disasters, I wonder what it is that disturbs us the most about the Fritzl case?

A few weeks ago, Burma was struck by a massive cyclone, closely followed by a devastating earthquake in China. These two events have cost the lives of around 200,000 people, a total which will almost certainly rise. Heaven only knows how many people have been injured - lost limbs, crush injuries, infections. Some earthquake victims had limbs amputated in order to remove them from the rubble.

We all recognise that natural disasters just happen - there's nothing you can do to prevent them, little you can to do prepare for them, only deal effectively with the aftermath. We also know that we are able as human beings to come together and deal with the problem. Like so many tiny ants, we scramble about, and extricate bodies and rebuild shattered lives. In particular, the Chinese Government's response has been exemplary. It is, of course, one of the advantages of a totalitarian state with a massive standing army, but the Chinese have mobilised, parachuted in help, assessed what they need and asked for international aid, particularly for tents. They are, fundamentally, on top of the situation.

Burma is a totalitarian state also, but differs in that the junta's main aim is to keep itself in power. Hence the agonisingly slow response and arrogant assertions that rescue and recovery are not needed - they will cope just fine by themselves thank you. This causes immense frustration in any caring human being who recognises that time is of the essence. And yet it is still not deliberate cruelty on the part of the junta - these people don't hate the cyclone victims, they just - utterly mistakenly - think they know what's best for them.

But the Fritzl case is a different matter. This is not a natural disaster, but an example of terrible human cruelty, only made worse by the length of time involved. Some men commit incest. Some men commit rape. Some men commit multiple rape or gang rape. Some men imprison their victims, or chain them up or otherwise degrade them. But this man did all of this to the people he was meant to love the most - his own children. And he did it over the course of 24 years. How on earth, we wonder, is this possible in a society that is meant to be civilised?

Keeping up this kind of sustained criminality is beyond our ken, as it the fact that this terrible thing occurred in peacetime, right under the noses of his neighbours. It wasn't a war situation, where everything is in chaos, and where terrible events occur every day which are then regretted.

The Fritzl case reveals to us the dark underbelly of our own society, and it's something we're unable to deal with, except by crying for revenge - as if revenge will solve it, or give this family back their lost years. Better to study Josef Fritzl, and attempt to understand him, in the hopes of preventing this from ever happening again.

In the Fritzl case, more questions than answers

In the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, there are questions that people are reluctant to ask - or, at times, even to think about

Aside from Josef Fritzl's lovely little trips to sex resorts in Thailand, and the fact that he bought sexy clothing and underwear while there for his 'bit on the side' (whom we now presume to have been his daughter), there are other issues.

Why, my friend E asked last Sunday, did Elizabeth and her oldest son not overpower her father? The answer to that one became clear very quickly - because if they had, there was still no way out of the cellar. With some eight doors between them and the outside world, three of which were reinforced, they could not have hoped to escape without the combinations that only Josef Fritzl knew. And how would they have obtained these without torturing him?

There is also the question of how much Rosemarie Fritzl may have known. The police have not yet questioned her, as far as I know, and probably the only people fit to judge her are the family themselves. It's possible, I think, that this was a household where you learned very quickly not to ask questions. Some wonder if, in all this time, she never went down to the cellar when her husband was away, but even if she did, it's possible there was nothing to be found. The door was secret and hidden behind bookshelves, and this only led to other doors, even if she could have opened it.

There is also the question of whether Elizabeth's children witnessed her being raped. The unfortunate answer is that they probably did. For the first nine years of her captivity, there was only one room in the cellar, so her children must have been present when the rapes occurred. Only later did Josef Fritzl extend his dungeon to create extra rooms, including - horror of horrors - a padded punishment cell.

No-one as yet has raised the question of whether Fritzl also raped his daughter/grand-daughter Kersten, or any of his other children. But given that he started on Elizabeth when she was 11, and the convictions and accusations of rape of other women that now surround him, it might be a reasonable thing to ask. Few men of this sexually insolent nature stop at one crime when it's easy to commit several.

There is also the question of the fact that a sexually mature boy and girl, aged 19 and 18, have been locked together in a cellar throughout their lives, including their puberty, with no model of appropriate sexual behaviours to follow. Well, we all know what that may mean, and I hope that any issues arising from this will at least be explored humanely by the authorities rather than being swept under the carpet because no-one can face up to it.

The UK is pretty good at that carpet-sweeping act. Back in the 1990s, the trial of the murderers of James Bulger entirely ignored evidence that the children who killed this toddler had also sexually assaulted him before he died. This, the judge evidently considered, was meat that was too strong for the jury to hear, and not material to the case. And yet their sexual mind was crucial to any attempt to understand either them, or the crime they committed, or to have any hope of rehabilitating them. Better just to lock them up and do nothing? How does this help anyone?

The same Victorian sensibility hampered the handling of the West affair. Fred and Rosemary West, who raped, tortured and murdered at least 10 women and buried half of them in the cellar (building their children's playroom on top of it) also sexually molested their own children and killed their daughter Heather when she tried to resist.

As far as I know, no counselling was offered to the West children, all of whom were abused. And although one's heart bled in sympathy at their plight, my blood also froze when one of the boys, Stephen West, was jailed in 2004 for having sex with a minor. Fred West and Rosemary West themselves were both raised in violent and incestuous households and they meted it out, in turn, to their children. The patterns that can emerge from this kind of abuse can leave a dark stain on a family for generations.

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What does a monster see when he looks in the mirror?

Josef Fritzl is now protesting about his portrayal in the media, saying his treatment of his offspring 'could have been worse'

Astonishing to believe, but Josef Fritzl doesn't think of himself as a bad guy. But then I dare say the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and any number of Nazis, Colombian drug lords, Argentinian generals and serial rapists worldwide.

He has told German tabloid Bild (via his lawyer of course) that he deserves credit for taking his daughter/grand-daughter Kersten to hospital when she was sick, and has pointed out that he could have killed everyone in the cellar and: "Then there would have been none of this fuss". Lovely.

It ought to defy belief really, but it doesn't. Anyone familiar with the Fred and Rosemary West case remembers that men (and women) without remorse are capable of fantastic amounts of self-deception.

Hitler had girlfriends, loved his dog, was charming to women, told great jokes and did impressions of Winston Churchill. And at the same time, he was capable of murdering literally millions of innocent people and plunging an entire continent into a maelstrom from which it still hasn't fully recovered. He also murdered his first girlfriend when she tried to leave him (should've been a sign...).

Fred West, awaiting trial for the rape, torture and murder of at least 10 women, one of whom was his daughter, wrote a sickly tome about his equally murderous wife, entitled : "I was loved by an angel". He considered that all of his victims had it coming for 'playing the loving lark', and claimed that at least one of them - Lucy Partington - had been a willing participant. His eldest daughter stunned a courtroom into silence when she described how her mother and father had raped her in the cellar when she was eight and told her to be grateful for having such loving parents.

One parallel I note also with the Wests is that they also claimed that their daughter had run away. In their case, they said she'd become a prostitute in Leeds and was too ashamed to come home - an accusation that their son believed added terrible insult to injury, given that she was already buried in the garden (but, at least not in the Wests' favourite site of the cellar, under the kid's playroom). In Fritzl's case, he claimed that Elizabeth had run away to join a cult and that she had abandoned her three children for him - the kindly old grand-dad - to look after. Now it appears that these children may have been freed for no other reason than that they were crying babies who might draw attention to his dungeon.

Well, every day in this case unfolds new and more terrible details, so I suppose it is just more wait and see - and hope. It is no compliment to say of Fritzl that at least he's not as bad as Fred West. "What planet is he on?" my DH asked this morning. And the answer, sadly, is ours.

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Fritzl - insane or just evil?

So, Josef Fritzl's lawyer is trying for an insanity plea, on the grounds that a man must be insane to wish to rape his daughter

I must admit, I don't think that argument holds much water for me. I don't think you need to be insane, you just need to be arrogant, without conscience or remorse - in a word, a psychopath.

In times past, he would probably have been called evil. As an atheist, I don't much like using the word evil because of its religious connotations. After all, much behaviour that was considered evil in the past is now known to be due to mental instability, epilepsy, brain injury and the like. But my personal opinion is that Josef Fritzl knew exactly what he was doing, he just didn't give a damn. That is not insanity.

His case seems radically different from that, for instance, of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe was was a schizophrenic who heard voices that commanded him to kill and although he was tried as a sane man and convicted (on the grounds of pure vengeance, really) some months after his incarceration he was removed to the high security psychiatric hospital at Broadmoor, where he remains to this day.

However, there is no indication that Josef Fritzl suffers from the kind of delusions that plagued Sutcliffe. As far as I know, he does have fits or hear voices. His actions seem to imply cold, calculated cunning and intelligence. This is the hallmark of the psychopath or sociopath, that percentage of the population that lives among us, passing as normal human beings, but functioning on a different level, without conscience or guilt. Many leading criminals, including gangsters, are probably psychopaths, but there are also plenty in civilian life - some 1-4 per cent of the population - superficially charming, ambitious at work and often high achievers. They are also liars, act without remorse, shaft their co-workers, cheat on their wives and make other people's lives a quiet misery.

Of course, I should acknowledge here that the definition of psychopathy is constantly changing, and that different nations, and even different US states, have different definitions of it. In the UK, it is defined as: "a persistent disorder or disability of mind (whether or not including significant impairment of intelligence) which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct on the part of the person concerned". That sounds like a pretty good definition of Fritzl - aggressive enough to commit his crimes and intelligent enough to carry them out. Psychopathic personality traits include callousness, grandiosity and fearlessness, lack of empathy, superficial charm, and inflated self appraisal. These are also all pretty good definitions of Fritzl.

It will be interesting to see if his benighted lawyer can make this defence stick, but I very much doubt it. Meanwhile, his victims must try, piece by piece, to rebuild their shattered lives.

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How to steal a life

How must it feel to be Elizabeth Fritzl? How must it feel to be her mother?

In this nightmarish tale of abduction, rape and abuse in Austria, how does it feel to enter a cellar as a girl and leave as a middle-aged woman?