Editor’s Pick
APRIL 29, 2008 5:19PM

Love thy neighbors...then check their basement

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This week's most shocking story, thus far, undoubtedly comes from Austria. A 42-year-old woman in the city of Amstetten was discovered after having been locked in a dark cellar since the age of 19. Not only was her father, a former engineer in his seventies, responsible for her incarceration, he was the biological parents of her six living children, and, as was revealed today, may have murdered one of their kids. It's a truly horrifying and inhuman story.

And now, weirdly enough, some Austrian newspapers are placing part of the blame on the family's neighbors. "The whole of Amstetten should drown in shame," argued one paper, while Der Standard claimed that "the whole community must ask itself what is really fundamentally going on." It raises uncomfortable questions: How well do you know your neighbors? And how accountable should you be if you don't know what's going on next door? I wouldn't know if my neighbors were running a meth lab or a flea circus, much less a dungeon (and I live in an apartment building).

I suppose different standards apply to rural communities than cities, especially if those communities, like Amstetten, have been around for centuries. But, to be honest, I don't know if I imagine this kind of finger-pointing happening in North America. Maybe it has to do with our lack of history, or our individualist values, but I've lived in small communities, and I've never experienced the kind of intimacy with my neighbors that would, in my opinion, make me complicit if I didn't know what was going on in their private lives. But maybe that's a fundamental character flaw? Maybe I'm just a raging narcissist?

Or maybe this whole incarceration thing has something to do with Austrian society itself. As an article in today's UK Times points out, for some reason, these kinds of things do always seem to happen in Austria. In 2006, an 18-year-old girl named Natascha Kampusch re-appeared after having been kidnapped and imprisoned in a homemade dungeon for eight years. Less than a year later, three girls were discovered after having been trapped by their Austrian mother for seven years. According to psychiatrists, the oldest of these girls will never recover from her ordeal.

According to the Times, Austrians keep on finding children in dungeons because the Austrian police force is "allegedly riddled with corruption and incompetence," and the country has an enormous problem with racism (which allows white residents to feel above the law). Austria, apparently, also has a lack of police accountability. I don't entirely buy that -- I think it probably mostly has to do with dumb bad luck -- but it's enough to make me feel slightly more confident in my self-assessment.

But it also makes me feel that I should start hanging out more with my upstairs neighbors.

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I remember watching the characters on "Big Love" slinking around in an effort to hide their polygamous lifestyle from the neighbors and thinking to myself, "I couldn't care less if my next-door neighbor had a handful of wives. More power to 'em if that's what floats their boat." But in light of this story, and the recent Texas' polygamist sect scandal I'm beginning to see that my laissez faire attitude toward my neighbors might actually be a tad irresponsible in the eyes of society at large.
Living in Manhattan, basements aren't a problem.
My guess is the comments targeted at the community were made in light of the fact that this monster actually raised 3 of his children by his daughter (now THERE is an f'd up phrase) ...he claimed that though his daughter had run away and instructed no one to look for her, she nevertheless snuck back 3 different times over a period of 6 years to drop off her children for the grandparents to raise. Growing up, a family that accrued 3 extra children dropped off in the dead of night would have attracted *some* attention and curiosity..especially if the family were 2 older people with a runaway daughter.