On Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006, a frantic 18-year-old pounded on the window of a house not far from where she had been held for more than 3,000 days days in a makeshift room underneath a garage.
After eight years, Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who had been thrown into a white delivery van while walking to school, was free and seemingly the entire country rejoiced. Then came the backlash.
Her captor, Wolfgang Přiklopil, had appeared to be a totally normal son and grandson. Although he was briefly a suspect, police ruled him out because they couldn’t picture him as a monster. “People felt attacked by my presence. I was the embodiment that something in society wasn’t right. So, in their mind, it couldn’t have possibly happened the way I said it did,” Kampusch says.
First came the letters; then came the hateful comments at the end of news articles. Soon, the web was filled with conspiracy theories and fairy tales that Kampusch had made the whole thing up. Hours after Kampusch’s escape, Přiklopil committed suicide, leaving many unanswered questions.
People don’t normally tell you to your face they want to kidnap and rape you. They feel no reticence online.
For years, Kampusch, 31, had to deal with the psychological effects of being held prisoner by an abusive rapist. Although she wanted to move on with her life, she was also forced to cope with vitriol on the internet.
Her latest book, Cyberneider, (rough translation: CyberJealous), which debuted this month, talks about her experience with hate speech and highlights the problem internationally. She offers tips for people who also have been targets (take screenshots, block or delete the posters, call police if necessary and get psychological help where needed). She adds her voice to a growing chorus of people arguing for tougher regulations.
She concludes her book somewhat naïvely, pleading for the creation of an internet police to monitor for hate. Although hate speech is protected in the U.S. under the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is illegal in the European Union. This month, the European Court of Justice ruled that Facebook must delete illegal hate speech worldwide if asked. The suit was brought by former Austrian politician Eva Glawischnig, who was attacked by right-wing groups for her support of migrants, and Kampusch supported it.
Kampusch’s book is important, says journalist Corinna Milborn, because Kampusch is believed to be the first person in Austria to be attacked on the internet. “She’s an incredibly strong person who I admire a lot,” says Milborn, who was a ghostwriter for Kampusch’s first book, 3096 Days, on her captivity. “She freed herself from this horrible, horrible episode and that takes a lot of psychological strength. After that, society reacted in a way that was something like a perpetuation of the crime.”
As testimony from a victim, the new book is valuable, says Ingrid Brodnig, Austria’s Digital Champion for the European Commission who has written several books on internet hate speech. “It is good that people who have experienced a lot of online abuse talk about this issue and, by doing this, also show that they will not be silenced,” Brodnig writes in an email. In 2017, Kampusch participated in a hate speech awareness campaign along with female politicians, journalists and others.
When the hate mail started arriving at Kampusch’s home, her family tried to shield it from her, says her older sister Claudia Nestelberger. “It was bad,” says Nestelberger. “It was so hard. I was floored. I tried to keep her away from it all. She shouldn’t see all that.”
The letters threatened her with further kidnappings and rapes. They knew where she lived, they stated ominously. And they attacked through body shaming.
Kampusch notes that in Europe, in theory, the laws for hate speech are the same online as off. In practice, haters can get away with breaking the law. People don’t normally tell you to your face they want to kidnap and rape you. They feel no reticence online. Moreover, because she was a public figure, Kampusch could not take legal action. The experience has led her to reflect on the history of trying to silence women.
“There is an expectation in our society that we are supposed to be quiet after something has happened to us. We are expected to act like a victim,” Kampusch says. “I had my own opinions and want to state them. That didn’t go well. Women are supposed to keep their mouths shut.”
Kampusch’s second book, 10 Years of Freedom, recounts her journey to recovery. The pain of being locked up again with police and doctors. The hateful names — “the cellar girl” and “sex slave” — given to her by the press. The loss of her childhood and the mundane stress of making up for lost schooling.
Slowly, she has regained her life. She rides her horse, Lorelei, and is an activist for the ethical treatment of animals (she’s a vegetarian). Her income comes from book sales, speaking fees and a settlement from her captivity. Oddly, she also owns the home where she was held, but doesn’t live there. On her website she pleads for donations to a group that helps Sri Lankan children. Her blond hair, once shorn by her captor, is long. She walks with confidence and smiles easily.
In the end, she learned to let go. She has forgiven her kidnapper and says she doesn’t hate the social media posters. That, she says, would give them too much power over her life.
“They would get exactly what they wanted, and I’m not going to do that,” she says. “I made the decision not to provide unnecessary space to hateful tirades.”
Perhaps surprisingly, she is active on social media. When asked about why she remains so firmly in the public eye in Austria, Kampusch says the answer is very simple.
“Because I can.”