The Dark Side of Belief
April 29, 2008

Those of you who have read this blog for very long will not be surprised that the news story which has captured my full attention over the last few days is taking place in Austria right now.

A father, Josef, tricked his 18 year old daughter back in 1984, to enter the cellar, where he drugged her, handcuffed her and then confined her in the cellar. He forced his daughter, Elisabeth, to write a letter to her parents stating that she had run away and that they should not look for her. Somewhere between 1988 and 1989, Elisabeth gives birth to a daughter. Then, a son. Nearly 10 years after Elisabeth's "disappearance," she purportedly leaves an infant on the doorstep of her parents' home, with a note stating that she cannot care for the child. This happens again the following year.

The tally so far, a daughter and a son who live in the cellar with Elisabeth. Then 2 infants left on the doorstep for her parents to raise. Four children fathered by her own father. Two she was allowed to keep; two taken from her. All this in the first 10 years of her incarceration.

In 1996, she gives birth to twins, one of whom dies shortly thereafter and her father places the infant in the building's incinerator. The next year, she gives birth to another child who also is left on the parents' doorstep. Then, in 2003, she gives birth to a final son. (source)

Elisabeth and the three children who stayed with her lived in a tiny cellar, which was constantly enlarged over the 24 years that Elisabeth was condemned to the prison. There was a little kitchen, a little bedroom, a little bathroom ... and apparently, a small storeroom as well.

What finally gave Josef away and revealed the four people living in the cellar dungeon? The oldest child became deadly ill and he took her to hospital, claiming she'd collapsed in front of his building. A call went out for the girl's mother ... and eventually it all came to light, quite literally.

When we are confronted with an example of pure malice and evil, our first reaction is generally one of denial and disbelief. Even as we marvel at the evidence in front of us and know intellectually that the buildings at Auschwitz were used in the ways that they were used ... a portion of our mind finds the concept of such cruelty too large to hold and the first words uttered are generally, "no, this can't be."

I spoke last month of Merrily Melson who was faced with a similar situation on a personal level. A partner whom she trusted suddenly began attacking her with an ax. Think about this for a moment. Think about your partner suddenly hefting an ax and come running toward you. What would your first thought be? Would it be "Hey, you're not Jack Nicholson, put that damn ax down before you hurt yourself?" Would the time it took to realize this was NOT a joke mean the first stroke was fatal?

How do you cope with finding out that you are NOT safe?

Merrily Melson was lucky. She reacted to the situation quickly enough to escape with her life and that, trust me, is no small feat. When you are confronted with such an extreme act, your ability to think is essentially cut off. Your brain cooks up a batch of chemicals which rather locks the reasoning areas down and strips you to reflexes. So it's no surprise that in the heat of being attacked by her partner wielding an ax in some bizarre scenario, that it didn't immediately occur to her to grab her son (who was not being threatened at the time). This is an immediate fight or flight response. Had Melson's partner begun threatening their boy in front of her, her instincts would have been to snag him and run.

But without seeing that immediate threat ... we are programmed more toward denial than thought at such a time.

It is the same with child abuse and particularly true of abuse in its most extreme forms. As humans, we accept, intellectually, that some sick people force themselves on children or beat their children or neglect them.

But unless confronted with some concrete evidence or very compelling circumstantial evidence (behavioural clues from the child, perhaps) - we do not believe that it will happen to anyone we know ... to the person next door. To us. It happens to other people. Not people we know and care about. Other people.

It's one of the fictions we live with daily in order to not worry 24/7. Just as we trust that the walls of our homes will not be breached, that our health will not suddenly disappear, that the people we love will care for us. We trust that helicopters will not fall from the sky, that big brother is listening to someone else's phone conversations, that our bosses do not read our blogs.

We trust, essentially, that those around us are worthy of our trust because the world is far too big and dangerous if we have to go it completely alone.

But this trust also means that many people try to say that these cases of extreme abuse don't really happen. Or that they don't happen in the U.S. - and it makes me want to scream. We have an example in Austria where it really shows just how easy this can be. Is it common for abuse to happen at this type of level? No, I don't believe it is common. But I am convinced that it happens more often than we want to think.

What confuses people, I think, is the plethora of wild abuse stories told in the '80s. We had the Atlanta abductions in the news, then there were reports of mass abuse happening in day care centres, and people claiming multi-offender, satanic abuse rings were popping up all over the nation.

If you read very carefully the 1992 FBI report by Kenneth V. Lanning (read the report here), Lanning is pretty thorough and logical with his analysis of the phenomenon. He begins with the history of how the U.S. has handled everything from "stranger danger" to the claims of the 80s. By the fifth part of the report, entitled "MULTlDlMENSlONAL CHILD SEX RINGS," he gets to the core of what I believe has confused the American public.

Lanning, in 1992, had found no evidence supporting a large, multi-offender, multi-victim, multi-murder cult. Look at all the words there. Large. Multi-offender. Multi-victim. Multi-murder.

He states quite clearly that smaller groups are possible and it's possible that smaller groups could even evade the law, particularly (this is a bit more my interpretation, but I think his text indicates he might agree with this) particularly when the victim is a young child, under the six at the onset of the abuse.

An important quote from the report:

Most people would agree that just because a victim tells you one detail that turns out to be true, this does not mean that every detail is true. But many people seem to believe that if you can disprove one part of a victim's story, then the entire story is false. As previously stated, one of my main concerns in these cases is that people are getting away with sexually abusing children or committing other crimes because we cannot prove that they are members of organized cults that murder and eat people.

I think most people in the '80s looked at the extreme allegations made, read the FBI report and came to a sort of conclusion of denial - "he said these things don't happen," when, in fact, the most important part of his report is that the stories of murder and cannibalism and satanic ritual may be exaggerated stories used to conceal very real abuse or crimes.

What he said was, these things don't happen with large groups of offenders and victims.

We have evidence that they do happen on a much smaller scale.

Who would have thought that a father of seven children would kidnap one of his children, imprison her, father seven children on her and then raise three of them himself and imprison three of them (and burning the body of the infant who died)? How did he choose which of the children to raise and which to consign to life in the dungeon? Why did he choose to bring any of them out? Was it simple overcrowding?

The case in Austria simply brings to light all of the questions I have about how humanity treats humanity ... and how tenaciously we cling to the idea that the world is a safe place even as we mouth the words about how unsafe it is.

The dark side of our belief and our hope that such things do not happen ... is that those who perpetrate such things get away with their crimes.

It was unfathomable that any government would kill some six MILLION members of a single group of people and for that to be just one segment of the deaths. Intellectually, we seem to recognize this possibility now - but even as we do, there's a rising number of vocal people who believe that the Holocaust did not happen. Whether that is simple political expediency or not, I think it also demonstrates just how deeply our denial goes.

We do not wish to believe such evil occurs.

The dark side of our belief that evil does not happen is to allow that evil to continue happening.

How do we keep these things from happening? The short answer is that we cannot. Josef and his family were insular. But even if they had been outgoing people, the cellar dungeon would likely not have been detected. Josef was quite good at concealing it and concealing sound. And, not every shy person or introvert is hiding some deep, evil secret.

With the facts we have about Josef's case, I'm not sure that he made many mistakes ... that he gave much reason for investigation. It all sounds so plausible once the daughter was first tricked into her incarceration.

But what about another case where people in the neighborhood knew that dead animals were nailed to the fence and they were pretty sure from which house this was happening? Why did they choose to look the other way? Isn't this a neon sign that bad things are happening?

Or were they just grateful that strays and vermin were gone from their neighborhood? Did the dark side of their belief in humanity convince them to be grateful that's all it was? that what they saw was the worst of it?

How do we balance the need to believe we are safe ... with the evidence that we are not?

Why do we choose to believe some stories ... and not others?

Why do we often choose to believe in grand, large conspiracies ... and ignore the smaller contrivances around us?

Why do we hear so often "I knew how I was treated ... but I never thought 'Pat' would hurt the children"?

Our belief can be a very power and positive agent in our lives ... but it also has a darker side which can cause us to completely deny actions we should take or allegations we should investigate.

We cannot live in a constant state of suspicion ... but there are times when we need to take out the cloth of our beliefs and shake it, examine it carefully and analytically before once again cloaking ourselves in it.

Posted by Red Monkey at April 29, 2008 9:55 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

You are brilliant. (Long winded, but brilliant :) I read this article this morning and had similar reactions. Your post is very, very "on."

I really love your explanation of how human beings respond in a crisis (adrenalin/survival vs. logic). You have a way with words.

April 30, 2008 9:21 AM


Joe said:

I read most of this and it is dead on. You speak what my mind thinks. I am paranoid and inquisitive. I want to trust people, but I always keep my kids as close to home as possible. My friends brother was kidnapped and never seen again. When we were boys like around age 7 or 8 his brother who was younger, maybe 5, was taken while they played together outside. He saw the car drive off with his brother yelling inside trying to get out. I always think about that image. I myself had two close encounters with abductors. When I was 12 I was with a friend and we were walking behind a shopping center when a slow moving car came up next to us with the twitchiest guy in the world inside telling us to get in. It was like a movie, we looked at each other and ran as fast as we could. The second time I had snuck out of the house at night and was with another friend, we were 13 or so at the time and we were walking along a road by a patch of woods some distance off from the development where we lived. All of a sudden a car driving down the road saw us and slammed the breaks near where we were. We immediately ran into the woods (which we knew, but at night they were much harder to navigate) and we heard behind us car doors slamming and heavy running footsteps headed our way. We ran about three hundred yards about as fast as we could until we were at the back end of our development. We started screaming "HELP! HELP!" as loud as we could as we hopped a fence and made our way for a lit court. Our pursuers gave up at this point. We almost died that night I am sure of it. This comment is almost as long as your post. Word!

April 30, 2008 11:27 AM


martha said:

thats because people never trust anyone today. as long as they see something unusual, their prejudice thoughts would be overpowering them clouding their judgement and actions toward the person.

October 23, 2011 1:47 PM
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