NATASCHA’S STORY

IN 1998 WHEN NATASCHA KAM­PUSCH WAS 10 SHE WAS AB­DUCTED AND IM­PRIS­ONED IN A CEL­LAR FOR EIGHT YEARS. ON THE DAY SHE ES­CAPED, HER KID­NAP­PER, WOLF­GANG PRIK­LOPIL, KILLED HIM­SELF. NATASCHA, NOW 22, LIVES IN VI­ENNA AND HAS WRIT­TEN A BOOK ABOUT HER LOST YOUTH.

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Ex­clu­sive ex­tract from Aus­trian Natascha Kam­pusch’s riv­et­ing book on her eight-year kidnap night­mare.

day af­ter re­turn­ing from my fa­ther’s week­end house, I woke up an­gry and sad. The anger at my mother’s wrath, which was aimed at my fa­ther but had been taken out on me, made my chest tighten. I was even more up­set at the fact that she had for­bid­den me from ever see­ing him again. It was one of those de­ci­sions that adults make over the heads of chil­dren, out of anger or caused by a sud­den mood, with­out think­ing that it isn’t just about them, but rather about the deep­est needs of those who are help­lessly faced with such pro­nounce­ments. I hated this feel­ing of pow­er­less­ness – a feel­ing that re­minded me that I was still a child. I wanted to fi­nally be more grown up in the hope that these al­ter­ca­tions with my mother wouldn’t get un­der my skin so much. I wanted to learn how to swal­low my feel­ings, in­clud­ing those deep-seated fears that fights be­tween par­ents al­ways trig­ger in chil­dren.

As of my 10th birth­day I had put the first and least self-suf­fi­cient phase of my life be­hind me. The magic date that was to of­fi­cially mark my in­de­pen­dence was draw­ing closer: just eight more years to go, then I would move out and get a job. Then I would no longer be de­pen­dent on the de­ci­sions of grown-ups around me who cared more about their petty quar­rels and jeal­ousies than my needs and wants. Just eight more years that I would take ad­van­tage of to pre­pare my­self for a life in which I would make the de­ci­sions.

I had al­ready taken an im­por­tant step to­wards in­de­pen­dence sev­eral weeks ear­lier: I had con­vinced my mother to al­low me to walk to school by my­self. Al­though I was in the fourth grade, she had al­ways driven me to school, drop­ping me off in front of the build­ing. The trip didn’t take more than five min­utes. Ev­ery day I was em­bar­rassed in front of the other kids for my help­less­ness, on dis­play to ev­ery­one as I got out of the car and my mother gave me a good­bye kiss.

I had been ne­go­ti­at­ing with her for quite a while that it was high time for me to get the hang of walk­ing to school alone. I wanted to show not just my par­ents, but also my­self, that I was no longer a lit­tle child. And that I could con­quer my fears.

My in­se­cu­rity was some­thing that ran­kled me deep down in­side. It would come over me even as I was mak­ing my way down the stair­well. It grew as I crossed the court­yard and be­came a dom­i­nat­ing emo­tion as I ran through the streets of the coun­cil es­tate at Rennbahn­sied­lung. I felt un­pro­tected and tiny, and hated my­self for feel­ing that way. That day I made a res­o­lu­tion: I wanted to try to be strong. I wanted that day to be the first day of my new life and the last day of my old one.

Look­ing back, it seems rather ironic that it was pre­cisely that day my life as I knew it ac­tu­ally did end, al­beit in a way that I could not pos­si­bly have imag­ined. De­ci­sively, I pushed the pat­terned du­vet aside and got out of bed. As al­ways, my mother had laid out the clothes I was sup­posed to put on: a dress with a denim top and a skirt made of grey tar­tan flan­nel. I felt shape­less in it, con­strained, as if the dress was hold­ing me down tightly in a stage that I had long wanted to grow out of. Grum­bling, I slipped it on, then passed though the hall­way into the kitchen. My mother had pre­pared my packed sand­wiches and left them on the ta­ble wrapped in the nap­kin which bore the logo from the small café in the Marco-Polo-Sied­lung and her name.

When it was time to leave the house, I put on my red anorak and my ruck­sack. I pet­ted the cats and said good­bye to them. Then I opened the door to the stair­well and went out. Al­most out the door, I stopped and hes­i­tated, think­ing of what my mother had told me a dozen times be­fore: “You must never part in anger. You never know if we’ll ever see each other again!” She could be an­gry, she was im­pul­sive, and she would of­ten slap me on the spur of the moment. But when it was time to say good­bye she was al­ways very lov­ing.

Should I re­ally leave with­out say­ing a word? I turned round, but then in­side me rose the feel­ing of dis­ap­point­ment that the pre­vi­ous evening had left be­hind. I would not give her any more kisses and would in­stead pun­ish her with my si­lence. Be­sides, what could hap­pen any­way? ‘What could hap­pen any­way?’ I mum­bled half to my­self. My words echoed down the stair­case with its grey til­ing.

That ques­tion be­came the mantra that ac­com­pa­nied me out on to the street and through the block of houses to school. My mantra, arm­ing me against my fear and my guilty con­science for not hav­ing said good­bye. I left the coun­cil block, ran along an end­less wall and waited at the pedes­trian cross­ing. A tram rat­tled past, stuffed to the brim with peo­ple head­ing to work. My courage evap­o­rated. Ev­ery­thing around me sud­denly seemed much too big. The ar­gu­ment with my mother weighed on me, and the feel­ing that I was sink­ing in this new labyrinth of re­la­tion­ships be­tween my quar­relling par­ents and their new part­ners, who did not ac­cept me, made me fear­ful. I had wanted to feel the sen­sa­tion of em­bark­ing on some­thing new that day, but that once again gave way to the cer­tainty that I would have to strug­gle to find my place in this en­tan­gled net­work of re­la­tion­ships. And how would I ever be able to change my life if a mere pedes­trian cross­ing loomed be­fore me like an in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle?

I be­gan to cry and felt the over­pow­er­ing de­sire to sim­ply dis­ap­pear and van­ish into thin air. I let the traf­fic flow by and imag­ined my­self walk­ing into the street and be­ing hit by a car. It would drag me along for a few me­tres, and then I would be dead. My ruck­sack would be ly­ing right next to me and my red jacket would be like a stop light on the as­phalt, cry­ing out, ‘Just look at what you’ve done to this girl!’ My mother would come run­ning out of the build­ing, cry over me and re­al­ize all of her mis­takes. Yes, she would. For cer­tain.

Of course, I did not jump in front of a car, nor in front of the tram. I would never have wanted to draw so much at­ten­tion to my­self. In­stead I pulled my­self to­gether, crossed the street and walked down Rennbah­n­weg to­wards my pri­mary school. My route took me through a cou­ple of quiet side streets lined with small fam­ily houses built in the 1950s with mod­est front gar­dens. As I turned on to Me­lan­gasse, I wiped the re­main­ing tears from my face and trot­ted along with my head down.

I don’t re­mem­ber any longer what caused me to lift my head. A noise? A bird? In any case, my eyes fo­cused on a de­liv­ery van. It was parked along­side the street on the right-hand side and seemed strangely out of place in these peace­ful sur­round­ings. A man was stand­ing in front of the de­liv­ery van. He was lean, not very tall, seemed young and some­how glanced around aim­lessly, as if he were wait­ing for some­thing and didn’t know what. I slowed my pace and stiff­ened.

A fear that I could hardly put my fin­ger on re­turned in­stantly, mak­ing the hair on the back of my neck stand up and cov­er­ing my arms with goose bumps. Im­me­di­ately I felt the im­pulse to cross to the other side of the street. A rapid se­quence of im­ages and frag­ments of sen­tences raced through my head: don’t talk to strange men . . . don’t climb into strange cars . . . ab­duc­tion . . . child mo­lesta­tion . . . the many horror sto­ries I had heard on the TV about girls be­ing ab­ducted. But if I re­ally wanted to be grown up, I couldn’t al­low my­self to give in to my im­pulse. I had to over­come my fear and I forced my­self to keep walk­ing. What could hap­pen af­ter all, I asked my­self. The walk to school was my test. I would pass it with­out de­vi­at­ing.

Look­ing back, I can no longer say why the sight of the de­liv­ery van set off alarm bells in­side me: it might have been in­tu­ition, al­though it is likely that any man I had en­coun­tered in an un­usual sit­u­a­tion on the street would have fright­ened me. Be­ing ab­ducted was, in my child­ish eyes, some­thing that was a re­al­is­tic pos­si­bil­ity – but deep down in­side it was still some­thing that hap­pened only on TV, and cer­tainly not in my neigh­bour­hood. When I had come within about 2m of the man on the street, he looked me right in the eye. At that moment my fear van­ished. He had blue eyes, and with his al­most too-long hair he looked like a uni­ver­sity

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