in In the news

Josef Fritzl – psychopath?


There’s news that Josef Fritzl, the man who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years in a dungeon of his own making, will plead insanity when his case goes to trial.  I also saw Glenn Wilson, who works at the IoP on TV speculating that Mr Fritzl is a psychopath.  

I’ve talked about personality disorders elsewhere; but in brief: your personality can be defined as ‘the characteristic, and to some extent predictable, behaviour-response patterns that each person evolves, but consciously and unconsciously as his or her style of life’ (Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary).  Personality disorders on the other hand relate to when the way in which an individual interacts is so rigid and fixed as to severely limit the likelihood of effective functioning and/or satisfying interpersonal relationships.  The point when a personality is sufficiently beyond the normal to warrant a personality disorder diagnosis is difficult and define and personality disorder is less a diagnosis and more a label of social non-conformity.  

Psychopathic personality disorder is synomymous with anti-social personality disorder (DSM-IV) and dissocial personality disorder (ICD-10) 

Back to Mr Fritzl.  Here’s the ICD-10 classification for dissocial personality disorder (DSPD)

F60.2 Dissocial personality disorder

Personality disorder, usually coming to attention because of a gross disparity between behaviour and the prevailing social norms and characterised by:

(a) callous unconcern for the feelings of other

(b) gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations

(c) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; though having no difficulty in establishing them

(d) very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence

(e) incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, especially punishment

(f) marked proneness to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behaviour that has brought the patient into conflict with society

Mr Fritzl clearly has most of these in spades, so much so that it would not be entirely unreasonable if a whole new subtype of this personality disorder should be invented just for him.  People with DSPD are known to have a reduced ability to empathize with another person’s emotional state, or to recognise it from their face.  I remember a forensic psychiatrist explaining to me the response one of his patient gave when asked to name the emotion of the face of a person shown to him on a card (the emotion was fear)

‘I’m not sure what it’s called but that’s the way people look when I stick a knife in them’ 

Which still gives me the creeps. 

It’s also possible that Mr Fritzl is psychotic in some way, but this seems unlikely given how well he has been seen to function in society and how calculating and precise the planning for his deeds appear to have been. 

It will be brave psychiatrist who attempts to defend his insanity plea as an expert witness. 


I’ve also been very interested to learn of how Austrian society could let this sort of thing happen.  I’ve read in the press that people in general and institutions in particular are extremely reluctant to believe that anyone of social standing could do anything untoward.  Data protection laws are also weighed towards the criminal – any conviction is wiped after fifteen years, which means that the information relating to Mr Fritzl’s rape conviction was not available when he applied to adopt the children he had conceived with his daughter.  Austrian police also said almost immediately that Mrs Fritzl knew nothing of her husbands activities – more wishful thinking perhaps?

It would be easy to get snotty.  Here in the UK we’ve had our share of psychopaths whose crimes evaded the authorities for years.  Peter Sutcliff, who killed thirteen, was eventually caught because his car had false number plates.  Dennis Neilsen killed at least fifteen and was caught because his drain was blocked with flesh. 


And another thing, which no one else seems to be saying.  Mr Fritzl really looks like a pervert to me.  The supercilious smirk, the arched eyebrows with the right slightly higher as if in challenge.  Dogs and their owners eventually look the same people say.  Is it possible that psychopaths eventually look like their acts?

Write a Comment


  1. ” Mr Fritzl really looks like a pervert to me. The supercilious smirk, the arched eyebrows with the right slightly higher as if in challenge. ”

    I love this comment. Class!

    I used to have very similar thoughts about my clients, especially the rather frightening smirk. Going into the cell with them was often pretty scary.

    I always thought I was the only one who had thoughts like that above and was much to afriad to point it out to anyone… so I’m glad I’m not alone :>

  2. This psychopath issue is one of the reasons I am so interested in this case. How often it happens that you see it, so clear just there. No mercy for victims and even think you have made some good for victmis´ sake. That monster made the world he wanted for his victims, victims were there just to satisfy monster´s needs almost no life for their own. Monster practically took/throw all life out of them like psycopaths do and after that what else you can be than livind dead. And how blind and naive we are just to close our eyes and refuse not to see. Psychopaths are everywhere some maybe a litlle bit more human than this horrible monster. The most striking point in this very case is that wife didn´t know, neighbours wondered but how they could have known – so everybody were making this story to become true with or without knowing it. Frizl even accused Elisabeth and told in bublic Elisabeth was blamed to abandon her children. So who would care destiny of the woman who made such an irresbonsible act and even repeated it three times. Maybe he even wanted everybody to think so and that was the reason why he allowed three of them to live upstairs.

  3. FP,

    It would be interesting to know what sort of state the children and their mother are likely to be in? And also whether it is likely that anything can be done for them, and if so what?

    My interest in this comes from often seeing families come out the other side of (much less extreme) abuse cases, but often never really coming to terms with what happened.

    Of course, in this case there is the issue of the children never having been out in the world. Are they likely to cope? Is their manner of thinking likely to be distorted due to growing up in such a situation and as such, can it be fixed or at least relieved a little?

    I would ask about how you would go about fixing Mr. Fritzl too, but I think the problem with him is that he was probably in control of what he did – and no doubt knew it was wrong. Therefore I’m not really sure there is much to be fixed!!

    Just a couple of questions if you get the time/inclination :>


  4. Following the news and reports about Mr. Fritzl from within Austria, I can just mention that he is (not yet and might not be) considered to be a ‘psychopath’.

    He was talking to some authorities yesterday and answered questions ‘rationally’. Through his lawyer he told the public, that no one should see upon him as being a monster.

  5. i feel the whole insanity defense in general is a ruse. That no matter how sick the individual is, how “crazy” you may classify them, they know on some level somehow that their criminal act is wrong. They are capable of elaborate means to conceal the crime and to elude capture. That means they know what they are doing is WRONG. period