Another Look: Fritzl and Dugard Cases Through the Eyes of the Child

Jeanne Sager

Room Emma DonoghueWhen Emma Donoghue read that Josef Fritzl had locked his daughter in his basement for 24 years, her thoughts went with the rest of the world -- that poor girl. 

But as a mother, Donoghue couldn't shake the thought that there was another story here.

The story of the children living in captivity, the children Elisabeth Fritzl gave birth to as the result of her father's abuse, the children she now lives with, the children she loves.

The result of the Irish/Canadian author's intensive study of the subject is Room, a book short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize that tells the most horrific of adult stories through the wide-eyed innocence of a child.

A fictionalization, it can just as easily be construed as coming out of the details of the Jaycee Dugard case. 

In fact Donoghue set it in America, where a young woman is grabbed off the street by a stranger and held captive, giving birth to a boy named Jack whose only knowledge of life is what happens inside "Room," their own country, their own world.

Managing at once to convey Ma's undying love for a child born to her even in the worst of circumstances -- and the way that love and good intentions of a parent can serve to give a child the best start in life even in light of a bad situation -- the book was a difficult one to read for much the same reason Donoghue wrote it.

Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue Image by Nina Subin
And so I took advantage of my job here at The Stir.

I called up one of my favorite authors (my shelves already contained gems like Slammerkin and Landing) to find out why it was the story of a child that she has given us to read. 

"The research was devastating," Donoghue admitted right off the bat. "I read a lot about children being raised in damaging ways.

"When I hug my kids now, I can see those stories."

They've made her do exactly as we do when we read a child abuse story, run and hug her kids.

"It's this blank page," she said of their faces. "And I want to keep it unscarred."

But the story was just as quickly an empowering one. Because realizing Elisabeth Fritzl lived to keep her children alive, and in the end escaped because she insisted on medical care for one of her kids, one starts to grasp at the threads common through every story of motherhood.

Ever wondered how mothers go on after the death of their children? The same can be said of living when you have no reason to, save for your child.

"Raising a child gave her a rope to follow through the labyrinth," Donoghue explained.

Her decision to write the book through the eyes of a child was a gutsy one. As a literary trick, it is not always popular with critics and makes the darkest details of this horror story difficult to convey.

But it makes Room readable for the average mother.

"To write it from Ma's perspective would be too obviously sad," Donoghue admitted. "Children have such a strange and wacky point of view, it provides a relief. And it's a way to get the reader to places they would never go."

Reading the story through Jack's sometimes clumsy interpretations, there's an inherent trust that he will keep the reader from stumbling into a story that's too much to bear. There's a trust that he will get them out on the other side.

And he will. But expect to hold your children tight at the end of it.

Do you think first of the children's perspective in these stories?


Images via Harper Collins

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