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Life as a slave in wealthy Switzerland

Lina Zingg was an all-purpose maid, cleaner, cook and nanny – for 50 years and against her will. This is a story of slavery in the midst of middle class society.

“On January 26, 2011, Lina Zingg was freed from bondage. For 53 years, she had served one sole mistress. As a maid in a private household. With no days off, no holidays, no wages. She was abused and mistreated. Her martyrdom for all those years was officially sanctioned as a legal guardianship.”

These are the opening sentences of the book “Under Legal Guardianship: the Stolen Life of Lina Zingg” written by the journalist Lisbeth Herger. It is a demanding, harrowing book because the story of Zingg isn’t fictional, it’s real. And because this all took place right in our midst – first in the Rhine Valley and then in Zurich – and no one intervened. Because no one noticed or wanted to notice. Because the mistress of the household was so forceful, so eloquent, so persuasive. In contrast, Zingg (not her real name) was weak. Yes, even simple-minded. At least that is what people would have her believe.

Zingg’s story is an extreme one. It could have – and should have – turned out differently. But it also illustrates fundamental patterns in the history of Swiss psychiatry and guardianship. The decisive factor in Zingg’s life was a diagnosis of schizophrenia. It changed everything. Her doctor had already assumed she suffered from the illness when he referred her as an 18-year-old to the care institute in Wil, canton St Gallen, in 1958. He based his assumption on “symptoms such as delusions and imaginary voices”, according to the book.

Zingg denied these symptoms “categorically” in her induction interview and from that time on they were “never again observed”. In the “madhouse” or “asylum” as the residents called the psychiatric clinic, hallucinations were even “explicitly registered as a missing symptom; their absence somewhat regretted as it countered the otherwise unambiguous diagnosis”.

Zingg’s offence: A drunken night in bed with an underage boy. The farmer’s daughter was caught, found herself at the police station, and then at the doctor’s. “In the peasant Catholic world of the 1950s, this made sense,” writes Lisbeth Herger. “There was more at stake than just the well-being of a young woman – it was about female good conduct and a potential pregnancy.”

Exhausted, burned out, confused

No one was interested in what really ailed Zingg: She was exhausted and burned out. After her mother died, she had spent years looking after her rage-prone father, her siblings and the household while working in a factory to bring money home. She suffered from insomnia, no longer wanted to eat or drink, was permanently tired and increasingly agitated and confused.

These days, the author Herger assumes, we would talk of burn-out and depression, but also of a post-traumatic psychosis suffered by a teenager who could not come to terms with the early death of her mother and two sisters, and who was overworked and emotionally deprived.

The Wil psychiatrists diagnosed Zingg as schizophrenic “absolutely in keeping with the obsession of the time for schizophrenia diagnoses”, writes Herger. The patient, who was physically healthy, received a second diagnosis from the psychiatrists: Mild debility – in short, simple-mindedness. They prescribed a “shock therapy” with insulin and tranquillisers. After just under eight months in the clinic, the young woman was placed in a home in the Rhine Valley; the authorities had adroitly withdrawn her father’s parental custody.

According to the historian Marietta Meier, who wrote a professorial dissertation on psychosurgery after World War II, psychiatrists were “very quick” to diagnose simple-mindedness. She views schizophrenia differently from Herger: “It is not about making excuses for anyone. But in the thinking of that time, Lina Zingg definitely had symptoms that pointed towards schizophrenia. We can’t really talk about a diagnosis obsession.”

The typical symptoms were, for example, the “talking in non sequiturs” described in the book, or the “blackouts” she experienced, for instance while ironing. “People with symptoms of this kind often received such diagnoses in those days,” Meier says. The researcher says it was also typical that psychiatrists would try to “place the patient somewhere where they thought she would be better cared for instead of returning her home after a stay in a clinic”. In the case of Zingg, this was a family of musicians, the Gaucks, who were soon to have seven children.

Initial fascination

Zingg became an all-in-one maid, cook, cleaner and nanny. At first she was fascinated by her new life; everything was different from her home – larger, nicer and cleaner. The fact that she had no room of her own was no big deal, used as she was to cramped conditions. “She was in any case the first one up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night, so the sofa in the sitting-room was enough,” the book recounts.

Zingg was exactly what employers wish for: efficient, hard-working and amenable. That last quality was exploited by the master of the house, who soon began to sexually abuse the young woman – with his wife’s approval. He continued to do so until the Gauck couple divorced some 15 years later. Zingg only learned after her release in the year 2011 – when she was 71 years old – that her experience is one “shared by so many other housemaids who have suffered abuse at the hands of their employers or their employers’ sons since time immemorial, a so-called patriarchal right”, Herger writes.

The mistress of the house cooperated, however aggrieved she might have been. From the very beginning this woman, who became more malicious as each year passed, was focussed on detaching the maid completely from her own family. She wanted to make absolutely sure that she would not lose her good, cheap home help. And she was definitely cheap: Maria Gauck (also a pseudonym) paid almost no wages to Zingg for decades and granted her no days off or vacations. Not even after her move from the Rhine Valley to Zurich, where the mistress of the house married again.

In the new home Zingg still had no room of her own; she slept in a disused lift shaft. She was subject to ever closer scrutiny by her mistress, blackmailed, threatened, and when she didn’t obey, she was beaten. Zingg usually obeyed. Her will was slowly but surely broken. On one occasion she wrote to her family: “Mrs Gauck owns a secretary called Simon as well as me.” Simon was Maria Gauck’s new husband.

Lina’s family was alarmed at how unquestioningly the young woman saw herself as her mistress’s possession – but over all those years, they could do nothing.

Lina’s brother Werner Zingg and his wife Emma in particular tried time and again to make contact with Lina or her employer and to mobilise the guardianship authorities. Nothing worked – as a self-declared psychologist, the mistress of the house could argue too persuasively. She characterised her maid as mentally unfit, saying she was extremely difficult to handle and very unstable, even manically depressive. The authorities and psychiatrists believed her.

Years later, the employer persuaded a doctor friend to pin another diagnosis on Zingg – diabetes. This allowed her to systematically deprive her employee of food. Sometimes Zingg had only bread and water to sustain her. After her release she learned what the diagnosis was based on: Nothing. The doctors told her it was also impossible that she had ever had the disease. Once diabetes takes hold, it doesn’t simply vanish again from the body. The 71-year-old immediately ate a piece of carrot cake “with a mountain of whipped cream”.

“What Mrs Gauck did with Lina Zingg is monstrous from a researcher’s point of view too,” says the historian Marietta Meier. “This employer made use of a whole range of other people and manipulated and deceived them.” Among those who were manipulated were the guardianship authorities in the Rhine Valley and Zurich. First Mrs Gauck, whose surname changed to Kobelt after her second marriage, succeeded in convincing Lina Zingg’s hometown authorities to relinquish their guardianship to her. Then she pushed, successfully, for her to be labelled as disabled. And finally she turned her maid into a special-care case and banked the welfare payments. This was all carefully engineered, and it all got the official seal of approval.

“Of course it is awful that the authorities didn’t notice anything amiss, or didn’t want to notice,” says Meier. “But it doesn’t surprise me either. Firstly, because in those days the guardianship authorities in small communities were not professional; often the guardians barely acknowledged their responsibilities. Secondly, every guardianship case that is as unproblematic as Lina’s is a good case.” It saves time and money.

There is no world outside

At some point there was not much left of the woman who once wished “so much for an end to the guardianship”, as her mistress admitted to a psychiatrist. Mrs Kobelt had insulated Zingg too successfully from the real world. She had made too many threats invoking the aggressive father, the police, the clinic, and also that she would “tell the whole world about her whoring with Mr Gauck”. This victim of abuse had “no other world, no leisure time to take her outside, no life outside; she inhabited a totalitarian system of daily violence”, the book recounts. “She reacted with paralysis on the one hand and detachment from her experiences on the other.”

Her appearance changed and she became paler, thinner and more unkempt. She hardly spoke anymore. Not because she didn’t want to but because she wasn’t allowed to. Her mistress’s communication strategy was so successful that Herger, the journalist, still detects its effects. In her first conversations with Zingg for her book, about a year after her liberation, she barely answered questions, instead just saying whatever came into her head and switching abruptly from one subject to the next, jumping backwards and forwards in her biography.

“She spoke as we think, without names and places,” Herger says. “She had long forgotten how to speak with someone in a dialogue.” It is this story of a stolen life that the journalist tells as Zingg’s advocate. A life stolen by the evilly dominant mistress who also profited financially from Zingg. Stolen by the guardianship authorities in the Rhine Valley and Zurich, who in the course of 53 years barely ever took the trouble to meet the “maidservant” in person. So-called progress reports were regularly produced, but mostly after consultation with Mrs Kobelt only.

The guardianship authority – today known as the Child and Adult Protection Authority – completely failed in their duty to protect Zingg, Herger writes. They only took action when the daughters of her tormentor intervened to alert them of her endangerment. The daughters also needed years to acknowledge the systematic abuse. They too were “caught in a web of intrigue and manipulation”, Herger writes.

And Lina Zingg? Her existence “was dependent on and threatened by her employer in equal measure,” says Marietta Meier. To make judgements with the benefit of hindsight on whether she could have or should have defended herself would be presumptuous. What is clear is that Lina Zingg was aware of her total dependency. Shortly after her liberation by the authorities, she said: “If things had continued that way there might soon have been no more Lina left.”

Lisbeth Herger: Under Guardianship. The Stolen Life of Lina Zingg. Hier und Jetzt, Baden 2016, 240 pages, CHF39 ($40.65).