The Fritzl Family: Learning to live together, divided by cellar door

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The Independent Online

It was almost a year ago that Fritzl's three "cellar" children, Kerstin, 20, Stefan, 18, and Felix, six, were freed from their dank underground and windowless prison and allowed to see daylight for the first time in their lives. Since then they have been struggling to come to terms with the modern life that most of us take for granted.

Immediately after their release they were taken with their mother, Elisabeth, to a psychiatric hospital in their home town of Amstetten, where they received counselling for months. There they were joined by Fritzl's other children, Lisa, 16, Monika, 15, and Alexander, 12, who were sent upstairs shortly after their birth to live a normal life in the rapist's home above ground.

At times the conditions of the cellar were partially recreated in hospital to allow the cellar children and Elisabeth to adjust to normality at a slower pace. Felix, the youngest, enjoyed stroking the grass on the hospital lawn, his psychiatrists said. Late last year, they were given new identities. Sun streams in through the large windows of their new home, and the doors are kept open all the time. But they are guarded round-the-clock and receive frequent visits from their psychiatrists and social workers.

Elisabeth still suffers from post traumatic stress, but part of her healing process has been going to court to see her father stand trial. She is now reported to be considering writing a book about her experiences.

The upstairs children are said to have had a difficult time bonding with their downstairs siblings simply because their lives have been so different. While the upstairs children lived virtually normal lives, those below ground lived without light and on an inadequate diet.

Kerstin, now 20, who began to have fits in the cellar and tore her hair out by the fistfull because of her forced imprisonment, spent weeks in a coma after her release but began to recover when she was played her favourite Robbie Williams album. She is reported to be very close to Stefan. However, the child who psychiatrists say has the best chance of making a full recovery is Felix, the least traumatised simply by virtue of being the youngest.

The family is visited by Fritzl's wife, Rosemarie, who was the upstairs children's surrogate mother and claims to have known nothing about her husband's crimes. She has filed for divorce and now lives alone in a small flat in Linz. Nowadays, there is said to be friction between her and Elisabeth.

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