From Prisoner to Media Star Natascha Kampusch's Eager Helpers

Kidnapped when she was ten, Austria's Natascha Kampusch escaped eight-and-a-half years later. During her captivity she thought carefully about how she wanted to live once free. Now she's a media star and keeping to her script, surrounded by a team of eager advisors.

By , Marion Kraske and Britta Sandberg


Natascha Kampusch appears on television after spending eight-and-a-half years in captivity, locked away in a basement.
DPA

Natascha Kampusch appears on television after spending eight-and-a-half years in captivity, locked away in a basement.

She had a plan. She came up with it during those long years she spent in the silence of a basement. When she left the basement and found herself in the noisy world outside, she knew exactly what she needed to do.

She knew it the day she escaped from her kidnapper, through the garage and over the fence – when she was finally on the road to freedom after eight-and-a-half years of captivity. She knew which office she needed to talk to when she called the police, and when the police came, she pulled a blanket over her head by herself. She thought of everything. No one was going to take a picture of her and sell it expensively. She knew who she wanted to look after her. She knew she was going to give interviews. She knew she wanted to help other people – victims of famine in Africa, for example.

And she knew Wolfgang Priklopil would soon be dead.

Natascha Kampusch – the girl who was dragged into a white delivery van when she was 10 and on her way to school; the girl who was held by her kidnapper for eight-and-a-half years, locked inside a dungeon two meters (6.6 feet) long and three meters (10 feet) wide; the girl who finally managed to escape at age 18 – Natascha Kampusch didn't break down in captivity, but grew strong instead. She had to become stronger than her kidnapper. That was what she swore herself: It was her survival strategy.

Her body isn't strong. Eight-and-a-half years in the basement have left her with an awkward walk: People who see her every day compare it to that of a wooden puppet. Her skin is white as chalk, almost like tissue paper. Her eyes are so light-sensitive she has to keep shutting them for long periods of time. She suffers from a heart condition, and the first thing she wanted following her escape was to visit a dentist. When she left the basement, she weighed about as much as a 12-year-old girl.

Some reports talk about kidnapped people doing push-ups every day in order to keep in shape. Natascha Kampusch didn't spend her years in captivity steeling her body: She trained her mind instead. And in some strange way, it developed more quickly and fully than her body.

Going public

The team of advisors that prepared Natascha Kampusch for her first public appearance met for the first time on the last Sunday in August of this year. It was the first Sunday following her successful escape. The advisors meet in a neon-lit conference room of Vienna's General Hospital: social worker Monika Pinterits; Max Friedrich and Ernst Berger, two psychiatrists; and Dietmar Ecker, a media consultant and lawyer.

They need a plan; they need a strategy. Natascha Kampusch may be in better condition than expected, but she needs therapy. She needs to be protected from the curiosity of the outside world.

Monika Pinterits, the 35-year-old lawyer specializing in juvenile clients, is tall and blonde. She wears a knee-length skirt and dark cowboy boots. Like everyone in Vienna, she knew Natascha's face from the photograph issued by the police. Then she went to meet her, the day after Natascha's successful escape.

Natascha Kampusch's case has received no end of attention in Austria and beyond.
AP

Natascha Kampusch's case has received no end of attention in Austria and beyond.

She drove to the police station. Apart from a young police officer who had spoken to the young fugitive, Pinterits was the first woman in Natascha Kampusch's new life. She told her she "didn't want anything," but would "be there" for Natascha if she needed her. Ever since then, the two have spent many hours talking – about things Mrs Pinterits doesn't want to discuss, and about banal topics like Robbie Williams, whom Natascha is fond of.

The lawyer would have preferred protecting the young woman from all the hype. "My first instinct was to tell her to leave, to let the sun shine on her white stomach for a bit and relax," says Pinterits, reaching for another cigarette. "But that's not what she wanted. And when Ms. Kampusch sets her mind on something, you can't talk her out of it." No one will hide her away against her will again: She's put that behind her. She never wants it to happen again. "She's got a great sense of her own calling," says Pinterits.

The lawyer says the same thing that all of Natascha's advisors say about her – that she's "a young girl who has greatly impressed me."

Natascha's advisors were quick to discover she doesn't just need protection and therapy. She needs to be managed like a star. And the people who are managing her now are among the best Austria has to offer. The lawyers Gerakd Ganzger and Gabriel Lansky join the group; they're experts on media legislation and compensation cases.

A question of timing

Dietmar Ecker has a plan too. He sits on his bright yellow leather chair in his media consultant's office in Vienna's eighth district. Everything is very stylish – high ceilings; steel and glass doors; modern art. He was one of the last to join the team of Natascha Kampusch's advisors, the team that cares for her and protects her from the public. But today he's the most important person in the team: It's Wednesday, the day that an interview with Natascha will be aired on Austria's public television channel ORF.

Ecker sports a six-day salt-and-pepper beard and drives a Porsche. Normally he works as a consultant for trade unions in difficult situations. He also does public relations work for the Republic of Serbia. Years ago, he managed to astound everyone by improving the popularity of an Austrian Finance Minister. Now he's working for Natascha Kampusch free of charge.

Ecker is a professional. He knows how the media work. He takes a sheet of paper, draws a horizontal line and adds five numbered marks, from zero to four. The zero mark represents the day of Natascha's escape, August 24. The last mark represents the end of the fourth week following her escape. "This is where the media normally lose interest," Ecker says. He's familiar with the phenomenon from election campaigns. The mechanisms are the same, he says, that's just how these things work – the public's attention span is predictable when it comes to sensational events.

AFP/ TF1

He draws a circle around the marks numbered two and three. Public opinion takes shape between the second and third weeks, he says. That's the decisive period, the one during which judgement is passed on Natascha Kampusch. It's the time when people choose either to like her or not to like her – when they decide whether or not they find her picture appealing and whether they identify with her, whether they would like to adopt her.

From the media consultant's point of view, there were a few glitches during the first two weeks after's Natascha's escape. The newspapers wrote that Natascha doesn't love her mother – Brigitta Sirny, whose maiden name is Kampusch – and that she didn't want to talk to her, much less move in with her. But people like children who love their parents. Still, it's not too late, Ecker says. The blemish can still be corrected. That's why the interview has to happen right now – at the point on his drawing that he's marked with a circle, exactly two weeks after the escape.

The interview will be shown on television this evening. Then numerous newspapers in Germany and Austria will print it and comment on it. They'll take a very close look at Natascha Kampusch. Ecker knows things will turn out well. Everything is moving in the right direction now. "The old ladies will cry, and people will love her," he says. No one needs to tell him that the rules he's dealing with are those of soap operas.

There were good reasons for Natascha Kampusch to present herself on television. "Everyone wanted to see her, and they wanted to see her face. The paparazzis would have tracked her down like Lady Di." The first digital photographs, secretly taken with mobile phones, were already circulating in Vienna, and they were being offered for prices as high as €14,000 ($17,777). There was no way of stopping what was happening, Ecker says.

He didn't put pressure on Natascha Kampusch to give the interview now. He explained to her why it was necessary, and she agreed.

She selected the ORF interviewer along with Ecker. Ecker went through the questions with the other advisors, and then with her. He sat down in a recording room with Natascha for four hours and did a trial run of the entire interview. He asked her every single question. He gave her tips about how to sit and how to look – but most of all about how to handle specific questions. Ideally, she should talk about herself, her character traits, her mourning, her strength.

The best possible answer to questions about her relationship to her kidnapper? "There was no relationship between us." Questions about her relationship to her mother should be answered as follows: "We're very close." Natascha Kampusch and Ecker watched the recorded mock interview together and evaluated it. Natascha Kampusch said she enjoyed the trial run. Ecker says he felt worn out.

On the air

She didn't follow all of his advice, but she followed most of it. Sometimes she seemed young, and sometimes very mature. Sometimes she looked coquettish, almost like Austria's Empress Elisabeth ("Sissy"), or like the actress who famously played her in film, the young Romy Schneider – that's what the Viennese said afterwards. Sometimes she seemed almost painfully introverted, struggling to find the right words in a mute panic, as if she were still locked in the basement. But she also gave the impression of a strong-willed young woman, remarkably disciplined and eloquent.

She was there to be admired as someone who had grown up without MTV, without girl's magazines like Bravo or newspapers like the Kronen-Zeitung, without television soap operas. She used words she had picked up from the cultural program of Austria's public radio channel Ö1, which she was allowed to listen to in captivity, and she also used the psychological jargon of her advisors: She said she made a pact with herself, a pact according to which her later self would liberate her from the violence suffered at the hands of her kidnapper. It sounded strange, but it's probably true she honed her mental skills for day X, when the chance to escape would finally materialize. "And one day I swore to myself that I would grow older, stronger and more resilient, so I would be able to free myself," she said.

This undated file photo distrubuted by the Austrian police shows Wolfgang Priklopil, Natascha Kampusch's kidnapper.
DPA

This undated file photo distrubuted by the Austrian police shows Wolfgang Priklopil, Natascha Kampusch's kidnapper.

She spoke to Priklopil about her escape during the time she spent in his basement. She says he gave her advice about how to escape, but added that he would commit suicide if she did. She knew what would happen. And it happened.

She must have been as brave as she was astute. Priklopil could have killed her. He had complete control over her. He could have just left her there in the basement. No one would have noticed. The world outside had forgotten about her, as she slowly realized. She often went hungry. Her description of how hunger makes the body ache and hollows out the senses is one of the most impressive passages of the interview. "Every thought squeezes itself out of you agonizingly."

Sometimes she seemed self-confident, and sometimes she searched for eye-contact with her advisors, who watched her performance from behind the camera.

Ecker's prediction came true: The interview was a success and corrected the unappealing image of the daughter who turns her back on her mother. Natascha appeared as the victim she is, and she impressed her audience. Now the first book and film offers are coming in. "Nothing has arrived from Hollywood yet, but that's the direction we're moving in," says Ecker, shaking his tired head. "From a purely capitalist point of view, this woman is a goldmine. Of course you're not supposed to say that sort of thing out loud."

On the afternoon of the day the interview was aired, she spent three hours in the city with the assistant of one of her psychiatrists. It was the last time she could move freely before her face became world-famous.

Only computer animations and photofit pictures of her had appeared on Vienna's dailies until then: She had yet to become the heroine she would be perceived as in the days that followed. She idled through the streets of the city, fascinated by what she saw. She bought herself a hat and enjoyed the excursion like a successful prank.

In the evening, she watched the interview on television. Eighty percent of Austrian television viewers tuned in. Now she's on the front pages of the newspapers every day. A short time ago, she even stopped wearing her headscarf.

She's become a star.

"Dear World Public..."

An art nouveau house in Vienna's first city district, the seat of one of Vienna's leading business law firms – Lansky, Ganzger & Partners, a firm with 55 employees and a two-storey office building. Dr. Gabriel Lansky and Dr. Gabriel Ganzger have specialized on damages, compensation payments and media issues. Their clients include the victims of the mountain railway fire that occurred in Kaprun in November of 2000.

The day after her escape, the Austrian daily Kronen-Zeitung characterized Natascha's captivity as "sexual torture." No one writes anything like that anymore, now that she has Lansky and Ganzger as her legal representatives.

She doesn't want speculation about sexual abuse. She doesn't want people to ask themselves questions about her relationship to her kidnapper. She wants people to respect her privacy.

It's the day after the interview. Lansky and Ganzger are standing in the library, which looks as if it hadn't changed since the 19th century. They're sitting at wooden conference tables.

Fifty-one-year-old Lansky says: "This is one of the three top cases of my life."

Ganzger is 47 years old. He uses the informal "du" form when he speaks with his client – an honor she hasn't granted all her advisors. He visited her this morning, as he does every day. "I'm very happy to say that as of yesterday Ms Kampusch's future can be considered economically secure," he says. He was the one to sign the contracts with the international media.

He says one has to admire her achievement, the fact that she didn't break down during her time in the basement. And then he says this sentence: "What Natascha Kampusch has done is one of the most impressive achievements of the human mind during the past decades."

He's fascinated by his client. And he says he's very relieved everyone has now been able to see for themselves that she really does speak the way she does – that the letter she wrote ("Dear World Public") is really hers. "She really loves language," Ganzger says. "When someone uses a wrong word, she corrects him. I have the impression she suffers when someone doesn't use language correctly."

The accusation that Ms Kampusch is being manipulated is the funniest he's ever heard, Ganzger says.

"She calls me at 8:55 on Saturday morning and says: Gerald, please send me a textbook on media law so I can look through the contracts. Imagine that! This woman is amazing." Ganzger sounds admiring when he speaks about his client.

He read her the contract authorizing him to act as her legal representative. Then she re-read the contract herself. On Sunday he read it to her again, and then she looked over it one more time on her laptop. Each time she read the contract, she went through it word for word and made changes, removing everything she didn't agree with. He smiles. "I wish all my clients would read through their contracts as thoroughly."

Now the two lawyers will represent Natascha Kampusch in her claim for compensation payments. In Austria, the highest compensation payment ever received for physical injury was €300,000 ($380,595). Of course, that's nowhere near enough to compensate for the suffering of Natascha Kampusch, the two lawyers believe.

Lansky and Ganzger are also taking care of the formalities involved in the establishment of the "Natascha-Kampusch-Foundation," a non-profit organization whose creation Natasha Kampusch announced during her interview. She wants it to help famine victims in Africa as well as women and "disappeared" people in Mexico.

These stairs lead to the cellar where Natascha Kampusch was kept while she was kidnapped.
DPA

These stairs lead to the cellar where Natascha Kampusch was kept while she was kidnapped.

The lawyers are busy recruiting celebrities for the project. "In two or three weeks the foundation will be all set up," says Gabriel Lansky. Natascha Kampusch was already planning something of the sort when she was in captivity.

The Natascha-Kampusch-machine is working at full throttle, and Natascha Kampusch herself is keeping an eye on every detail, if what her advisors say is true. She must have imagined it over and over in her underground dungeon, in that state of helplessness. And now that she has successfully escaped, she wants to make sure nothing will ever happen to her that she does not control.

She doesn't want to be a victim anymore. Even during her kidnapping, she tried to compensate for this condition by educating herself. She knew how to escape the role of victim: by helping victims herself.

Building a new life

Natascha Kampusch had been free for 24 hours when Professor Ernst Berger, the head of the neuro-psychiatric department for children and adolescents at Vienna's Rosenhügel clinic, saw her for the first time. She was still at the police station, where she already seemed to him to be "remarkably attentive to reality."

Berger, a wiry, alert 59-year-old who has worked in his job for 30 years, knows how "fragile" a future based on such a past can be. Natascha Kampusch is making an issue of her past by creating her foundation. But that's a logical step, according to the therapist: "Being strong was the only survival strategy available during the last eight years," Berger says. "Why should she surrender this leitmotif now, when it's allowed her to survive?" After all, that would mean taking the risk of showing weakness, of putting off some of the protective armor she was luckily able to develop in captivity.

The only social skills she acquired during the past years were "those she acquired in her dealings with Priklopil," Berger says. She had to quickly learn to recognize his moods and react to them in order not to suffer. She had to be attractive and sufficiently interesting for him to continue opening the heavy iron door to her dungeon.

She said something remarkable during her television interview – that she made her kidnapper celebrate birthdays and other festive dates with her. What she described was a reversal of power relations. Natascha Kampusch has had to think and act strategically 24 hours a day for eight years. And now?

"The media were her only link to the outside world," says Berger, the therapist. "They introduced slices of real life into her dungeon." It's now his task to lead her slowly back into regular life. He took her on her first excursion outside, into the real world of an ice cream parlor. There, she suddenly removed her sunglasses and her headscarf, only to hear the six-o'clock-news begin with a report on her kidnapping. She got scared and reached for Berger's hand. It took her a long time to calm down again.

Now Berger has been charged with creating the conditions for a life outside Vienna General Hospital (AKH). He's been given a flexible schedule. A 24-hour day is best to begin with, the expert says.

A grandfatherly friend

The great old man of the psychiatric team is called Max H. Friedrich; he's the doyen of child and adolescent psychiatry in Vienna. His doctor's office – or Ordinariat, as Austrians call it – lies right across from Vienna's town house. He's sitting on a black office chair, his face reddish with a bushy moustache. His legs are crossed and he's wearing a silver pince-nez around his neck. He gazes far into the distance as he speaks. The walls are decorated with African masks and wooden marionettes. The world outside is noisy, but his room is very quiet. He speaks slowly.

Pychiatrist Max Friedrich.
AP

Pychiatrist Max Friedrich.

He was already asked for help when Natascha disappeared. He participated in the search for her and came up with profiles of the kidnapper, helping people to understand what kind of person he could be. Today he says: "Now that I know who he was, I also know I would never have been able to find out."

Now he visits Natascha Kampusch in her room at least twice a day. The room is located behind a double security gate in Vienna's General Hospital.

He's no longer directly involved with her therapy; a psychotherapist now takes care of her. She's a special case for him. He has a hard time maintaining the distanced attitude his profession requires of him. He's something like her fatherly friend – "or maybe more like a grandfatherly friend, given my age," he says. He's 61 years old.

During the television interview, when Natascha Kampusch was asked to list the people she trusts the most, the first person she mentioned was "Dr Friedrich." Then she mentioned her family, and finally herself.

But meeting her family again was strange, she said. Her parents cried a great deal, hugged her and squeezed her, "and I felt a bit oppressed by this sudden encounter."

Dr Friedrich was in the studio too during the interview, sitting on a chair in the half-light. Sometimes she glanced over at him when she didn't know how to reply. Then he smiled at her.

Her parents attacked him vehemently during the days before the interview. The press quoted them as saying they weren't being allowed to see their child and that Natascha Kampusch was being kept away from them.

Then the press brought up old rumors about some unspecified dark secret in the family. Some papers reminded their readers Natascha's mother had given her a slap in the face before sending her to school on the day of the kidnapping. They also pointed out Natascha started wetting her bed because her mother's partner beat her. The papers reminded everyone that the young woman who now speaks so eloquently "came from a typical housing project family."

Then her mother stated she didn't want to give any more interviews. In the meantime, she's been able to meet her daughter a few times.

No one is preventing Natascha's parents from meeting her, says Friedrich, sitting on his chair. "Natascha Kampusch decides who she wants to meet entirely by herself."

"She's being misinformed."

Ludwig Koch, Natascha's father, is sitting in front of the wood-panel kitchen wall where he's been photographed countless times during the past eight years. His face is haggard and very red, with dark rings under the eyes. He sits slouched at the kitchen table, gazing emptily about and chainsmoking. Even his moustache is drooping.

Ludwig Koch lives in a little house in Vienna-Süßenbrunn, a suburb. The street he lives on is called Redengasse, and that's only fitting, since "reden" means "talk" in German – and that's really all he's been doing since his daughter's escape.

He's angry, he's desperate. He thinks he has to go on a crusade against his daughter's advisors. But he's used up all his strength. He's convinced these are the people who aren't letting him see her – "I don't believe she's taking that decision herself." – "I think she's being misinformed." – "I'm not angry at Natascha. I'm anrgy at the people around her."

He's just come back from the airport, accompanied by a media expert. He was in Germany, giving interviews. He doesn't remember exactly who he spoke to or what he said. He doesn't even remember he spoke to Günter Jauch, one of Germany's most popular talkshow hosts.

Koch commented on his daughter's interview when he spoke to Jauch. He says the interview was wonderful and that he's incredibly impressed with the way his daughter expresses herself. Then the phone rings. "Es ist a Irrsinn," he says – "This is just crazy."

Koch only slept three hours last night. Now it's 10 p.m. More television teams will arrive tomorrow morning.

He's got a media consultant working for him too, and the consultant's phone is ringing all the time. The media consultant is scribbling on a piece of paper, writing down the names of television shows and the times when they're going on the air.

"I can't run away, in any case," Koch says. He wants his daughter back. He wants to see her. He refuses to believe she doesn't want to see him. The problem must be her team of advisors.

He says whenever he had a chance to speak to Natascha, she was just the way she used to be when she lived with him and her mother. He says he's called Dr. Friedrich a hundred times without ever getting a call back. "They're really afraid of me. Natascha is the best thing that ever happened to them. Honest."

The media consultant, who doesn't want to be quoted, has some exclusive pieces of information to offer. Unfortunately he can't tell us his source. But it's all a big conspiracy.

Austria's widely read tabloid Kronen-Zeitung, known simply as "die Krone" in Vienna, is an important institution in the city. It's roughly the equivalent, in the former Hapsburg Empire, of Germany's popular Bild newspaper. The man behind the Kronen-Zeitung, its founder and editor, is 85 years old. His name is Hans Dichand.

He hasn't come across anything quite like Natascha's story during his long career as an editor. "This is a unique case," he says. "It's a world sensation. And it happened here in Vienna, of all places." Dichand is sitting on the sixteenth floor of the Kronen-Zeitung's headquarters, where he's got a stupendous panoramic view of the city and the bordering forest, the Wienerwald. A giant painting by Hans Zadrazil hangs on the wall behind his desk. It's called "The first of May" and shows a drab Viennese building with a lonely red flag drooping from one window. "That's reality," he says. The trade unions and the Socialist Party (SPÖ) are in a desolate state, Dichand is sure of it. And he works to make sure things stay that way, day after day, issue after issue. He's not just in the business of publishing a newspaper. His job is political.

When he received the news about Natascha, he was up here in his editor's office. "I didn't think she was still alive," he remembers. Dichand secured the exclusive interview rights along with the magazine News. He won't tell how much money was paid – insiders talk about €600,000 ($763,000). "The contract requires us to keep absolutely silent."

As a bonus, Natascha also received an apartment and a job, or at least a job prospect of sorts. "Yes, that was a spontaneous idea," Dichand says. He smiles. His paper kept up with Natascha's case over the years, he says – that's why he thought "she could start working for us here," perhaps as a messenger or an editorial assistant. "Let's see how she does."

He doesn't consider himself a benefactor. "I care about her," he says. "It's our job" – a job he always wants to "put a bit of his heart into."

A funeral took place on a cemetery south of Vienna last Friday morning – that of Wolfgang Priklopil, Natascha Kampusch's kidnapper, who threw himself in front of a moving train following her escape.

Natascha Kampusch visited her kidnapper in the Viennese mortuary. In her own way, she said goodbye to the man who held her prisoner beneath his home for eight years.

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