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.
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