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Out of the Dark and Into the Limelight

She was abducted at 10 and held in a `dungeon.' For eight years Natascha Kampusch knew hunger and fear. But she also knew she would escape.

September 08, 2006|Elisabeth Penz and Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writers

VIENNA — The abduction and eight-year captivity of Natascha Kampusch is the story of a nightmare that finally ended -- and a willpower that continues.

In interviews Wednesday on Austrian television and in newspapers and a magazine, her first since the 18-year-old escaped two weeks ago, Kampusch offered a narrative of her life as a kidnap victim that gave a glimpse of the psychological world created by her abductor and her struggle to survive.

Wearing jeans and a lavender blouse, she looked frail in her television interview on the Austrian ORF network, but she spoke with certainty.

She weighs 92 pounds, the same as when she was abducted at age 10.

She often closed her eyes during the interview because she is hypersensitive to light after spending long periods locked in an underground room.

She knew darkness, hunger, fear, intimidation, but ultimately forged an uneasy bond with Wolfgang Priklopil, who abducted her. The 44-year-old committed suicide, lying in front of a train, hours after her escape.

One theme prevails: her absolute determination to get away.

For the first six months after she was kidnapped, Kampusch told interviewers, she was kept in the dark room, unable to see the walls of her prison or her face in a mirror. On the floor was a mattress, in the corner a toilet.

Amid silence broken only by the hum of a ventilator, which she grew to hate, she thought she would go mad.

"There was no bulb, so it was completely dark. I was very desperate, very angry with myself that I hadn't changed sides of the street," she said, remembering how Priklopil followed her the day of the kidnapping. "It was terrible. I was crying because I felt so helpless, so impotent.

"Most of all it was the ventilator that was horrible. I really couldn't bear the noise; I felt I was going out of my mind. I became really claustrophobic. Sometimes I would smash bottles with mineral water against the wall, out of frustration and of hope somebody would maybe hear me."

After six months, she was allowed upstairs to wash. She then began spending several hours a day in the main part of her kidnapper's home. But she was never allowed to forget that she was a captive.

On a whim or because he had to leave, Priklopil would return her to the "dungeon," as she called it in several of the interviews.

About two years after her abduction, as her dream of rescue receded, she made a pledge to herself to escape, Kampusch told interviewers. She imagined every step, and thought about whether she could elude her kidnapper.

She tried it once and was punished. But she kept preparing mentally for the day.

"I promised myself, I promised the person I would be, that I would not disregard the idea of escaping," she said.

Her clarity and adamant nature have surprised mental health experts. They generally find that people who have suffered severe trauma are far less clear about what happened to them and less emotionally organized.

"This woman seems to have a basic orientation in life, despite the trauma she had to go through," said Sylvia Wintersperger, a psychiatrist and neurologist who leads a network of Austrian doctors who focus on trauma medicine.

"Most traumatized people don't have this sort of self-possession, even after a long time, and some won't ever regain it.... For instance, women who are abused by men or subject to violence by their partner for a long time are not even aware of what has happened to them.

"Natascha seems to be aware of the extent of her tragedy," she said.

There have been suggestions by police that Kampusch was sexually, as well as physically, abused by Priklopil. Kampusch refused to discuss the subject.

After Priklopil allowed Kampusch to emerge for a few hours each day from her dark room, he still kept her cut off from the world. But that gradually changed. He began giving her newspapers and magazines.

"He would read it and then pass it to me," she told ORF interviewers. "Afterward, he would check whether I had written something in it, maybe to leave a message.... He really was paranoid; he always had to control everything."

He began to give her books to read and told her that "we sit in the same boat," she said in an interview in the Austrian magazine News. "The two of us are the only thing that has a meaning in life," she said he told her.

When newspapers wrote occasionally about the search for her, she recalled, he would say, "Look, they wrote about us again."

He seemed to want her to become part of his life. The two ate breakfast together, did housework and toiled in the garden. Neighbors overheard him giving her meticulous instructions on how to care for his home.

One neighbor, who would identify himself only as Kurt and claimed to have known Priklopil since childhood, said he used to hear Priklopil through the hedge that separated their gardens.

"He used to be rather peremptory with her, giving her instructions on how to clean things or to take proper care of the plants," the neighbor said.

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