I remember the television footage when Natascha Kampusch first escaped from captivity back in 2008. I’m not someone who watches the news much, but something about her story captivated me then, so when I discovered she’d written a memoir about her experience, I downloaded the ebook immediately and was glued to my Kindle in every spare moment for the next couple of days.
Others have criticised Kampusch for painting a “poor me” account of her childhood before the abduction. I disagree, though I found this part of the book a little slow as an opening to the story we’ve all been waiting to hear. Structurally it may have been better to weave the backstory through by showing her memories once imprisoned. However, I believe these details highlighted the kinds of factors that had made her more vulnerable to becoming a kidnapper’s prey – important insights for all who work with or parent children.
Kampusch has also been criticised by readers for the starkness of her prose, but to me it felt utterly appropriate. This is not a novel and the events and circumstances she describes need no additional dramatisation, nor emotive language to win our sympathy. It is enough that she has had the courage to share her story in such detail, not shrinking from any of the atrocities he committed, with the exception of his sexual abuse. I respect and understand the choice Kampusch has made in not including this aspect of her enslavement to him. She wrote the book only four years after her escape. It’s early days yet for her to be processing and healing what has happened to her, and to expose herself to such a degree may well have compounded the damage done.
Having been abused myself as a child, I can testify that it was only when I turned forty that I realised the full significance of what had been lost and was able to express the rage it had never been safe to feel as a child. Around that time I was finally able to cut myself off from the perpetrators of the abuse as well as, for a time, from the family member who had allowed it all to happen. But early in my adult life I existed in a kind of numb ambivalence, both resenting what had happened to me and yet longing for the love and approval of those who had controlled, manipulated and abused me and who had also, contradictorily, been primary attachment figures and sources of love and affection.
Natascha Kampusch’s story will no doubt evolve as she grows older and more distant from the memories that must still be so vivid to her, even now. In sharing her story so soon, she has given a great gift to the world, allowing us to see inside the mind of a child, and later a young woman, subjected to such an experience.
I found this book utterly compelling and was awe-struck again and again by her ability, as a small child, to adapt, to accept, to find ways of normalising her experience. I remember years ago, reading “The Lovely Bones” and “Lucky” by Alice Sebold — a piece of fiction and a memoir inspired by Sebold’s personal experience of rape. I felt deeply moved at the time by the way in which she had taken something so dark and made it into a story that was achingly beautiful. I felt as though a little more light had spilled into my own world, by reading her stories and knowing that others had survived and grown strong through experiences far more horrendous than I could ever imagine.
In a similar vein, I finished Kampusch’s memoir with a deep sense of gratitude and confirmation: there are no born monsters out there, only other human beings who have become monstrous through their own suffering. The world and its people are not so easily divided into good and evil as some of us would like to think, Or in Kampusch’s words, “It makes people uncomfortable whenever categories of Good and Evil begin to topple, and they are confronted with the fact that personified Evil also had a human face. His dark side didn’t simply fall from the sky; nobody is born a monster.” And then, “Nothing is all black or all white. And nobody is all good or all evil. That also goes for the kidnapper. These are words that people don’t like to hear from an abduction victim. Because the clearly defined concept of good and evil is turned on its head, a concept that people are all too willing to accept so as not to lose their way in a world full of shades of grey.”
I think what’s most remarkable and real about her story is that right from the beginning she was able to see and connect with her captor’s human face; and in fact this is probably what enabled her to survive so long and ultimately to escape. Perhaps if she had only been able to see him as a monster, her terror and hatred would have destroyed her or destroyed her sanity very early in the experience.
“…I tried to see the kidnapper as a person who was not essentially evil, but had only become so in the course of his life. In no way did this mitigate what he had done, but it helped me to forgive him…Had I met him only with hatred, that hatred would have eaten me up and robbed me of the strength I needed to make it through.”
“If I wanted to survive in this new world, I had to cooperate with him. For somebody who has never been in such an extreme situation of oppression, this may be difficult to comprehend. But today I am proud of the fact that I was able to take this step towards the person who had robbed me of everything. Because that step saved my life even though I had to dedicate more and more energy to maintaining this ‘positive approach’ to the kidnapper.”
Another aspect of Kampusch’s story that I find fascinating is her rejection of the label “Stockholm Syndrome”. I have often fallen back on this concept to understand my own attachment to and defence of the individuals who robbed me of my safety and innocence as a child. I had not considered, until reading this book, that this is another way of buying into the victim role, reinforcing my powerlessness rather than my powerfulness in finding a way to live with, survive and accept my experience. As she says, it is often used as a glib label, turning “…victims into victims a second time, by taking from them the power to interpret their own story – and by turning the most significant experiences from their story into the product of a syndrome. The term places the very behaviour that contributes significantly to the victim’s survival that much closer to being objectionable.
“Getting closer to the kidnapper is not an illness. Creating a cocoon of normality within the framework of a crime is not a syndrome. Just the opposite. It is a survival strategy in a situation with no escape – and much more true to reality than the sweeping categorization of criminals as bloodthirsty beasts and of victims as helpless lambs that society refuses to look beyond.”
I feel very blessed that in beginning to write my own childhood memoir, as part of my healing journey, I stumbled across a writing mentor, Barbara Turner-Vesselago (www.freefallwriting.com) who was wise enough to recognise that my interpretation and telling of my story in my late twenties was holding me firmly imprisoned in the role of victim. My early clumsy attempts to describe what had happened to me were tightly controlled by a narrative voice that knew what was right and what was wrong, that judged and drew clear boundaries between perpetrator and victim.
Gently, but firmly, Barbara guided me to open out my telling into scenes that would show the kinds of interactions that proliferated through my childhood. She gave me the courage to step back into those scenes with the wide-open eyes of innocence, of a being who has not yet divided the world into black and white, right and wrong. This journey continued as I wrote my memoir under her guidance over about twelve years. The more I was able to step back into those memories and to “show” them without interpreting them, the more I discovered the humanity of those I had hated and judged, and yet longed to be loved by.
This clear-eyed approach to retelling my own story in many ways set me free from that story…allowing me to shed my caterpillar cocoon of victimhood and to emerge with the transformative power of butterfly words and stories: to make beautiful through words what had once been ugly and shameful, and to recognise through this process, those qualities that had developed through my suffering to become my core strengths. I was humbled, also, to recognise the humanity of those who had harmed me and to have empathy for their suffering, while making the empowered choice to disconnect my life from theirs.
I wonder if it would have been more difficult for Kampusch to share her story with the world if her kidnapper had lived after her escape. I am nearly fifty now and my unpublished memoir still sits on my shelves, in spite of winning me a fellowship at Varuna Writer’s House and the confidence of then Creative Director, Peter Bishop, that he could find me a publisher. I remember during my retreat at Varuna, Peter telling me that one of the things that stood out in my memoir was the empathy and lack of judgement with which I was able to represent all the characters involved. And yet I have hesitated to make my story public, for many complex reasons, including the preservation of privacy for all concerned, and a reluctance to freeze frame one individual’s interpretation of a story upon which there must be many other evolving perspectives. My own understanding continues to evolve; most surprisingly towards gratitude for the qualities of humility, strength and compassion bestowed by suffering.
At this point in my life, I feel the best I can do is convert my experience and insights into a fictional set of characters in circumstances that are comparable to ones I experienced as a child and young adult…but not the same. I have been re-inspired by Kampusch’s memoir because it has affirmed my own belief that it is forgiveness, understanding and a capacity to see all the shades of grey in our experience of being human that will ultimately set us free: free from judgment, from self-righteousness, from any kind of idealism that divides the world and other people into good and evil, and from concepts of heaven and hell in which some of us are rewarded and some of us are condemned to eternal damnation.
By giving us a glimpse into the fractured mind and world of her captor, by acknowledging his conscience, his flawed attempts to reach for a dream, his vulnerability, Kampusch has turned and faced the monster that others run from in their nightmares. She has held him in her arms and known his pain. That she was able to do this from so young an age is testament to her wisdom and strength, and perhaps, as she says, it was also the key to her ultimate liberation from that hellish underground world she was trapped in for so many years.
I have a hunch that we could all learn from Kampusch’s ultimate triumph. We, including me, are so quick to judge others, to point our fingers, to reject, and to punish. And yet what have these responses brought us but a world that is increasingly divided, fragmented and hostile. Her story reminds me of a poem (`Soul Loss’ by Meiling Jin) in which the protagonist is robbed of her soul a demon who taunts and torments her until she steps of her own accord into the demon’s mouth and discovers that instead of being engulfed by the demon, she is able to swallow him whole, returning what has been feared and rejected to her own inner wholeness.
Natascha Kampusch triumphed through courage, love and forgiveness, not through fear, hatred and judgment. She also held fast, through all the years, to a vision of her own freedom, to a stronger self, beckoning to her from a brighter future. She visualised and wrote to this older self, who wrote back and spoke to her, promising her that one day she would be strong enough to break free. I find it remarkable that a child discovered for herself this strategy for maintaining and building her independence and courage over the years, in circumstances where many others might have been broken, succumbing fully to the imposition of the kidnapper’s will or choosing death as an escape .
This is a book I will ponder on and celebrate for many years to come, with awe, gratitude and empathy for its author.