Myth-making in silence

February 1, 2002

Fascination with feral man represents the tension we feel between our 'savage' and 'civilised' natures. Karen Gold reports.

In 1735, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and father of biological classification, published his Systema Naturæ . Homo, he wrote, was one of two primates, and could be divided into six different species: Afer (african), Americanus, Asiaticus, Europus, Monstrosus (deformed) and Ferens, or wild.

Wild Man, or Homo ferens , walked on all fours, was dumb and covered in hair. Linnaean examples included "a youth found in Lithuania in 1761, resembling a bear", "a youth found in Hesse in 1544 resembling a wolf" and "a youth in Ireland resembling a sheep". Sixty years later Robert Kerr, Linnaeus's English translator, appended a sceptical note to the classification of Homo ferens . He said that these instances of wild men were "most probably idiots who had strayed from their friends, and who resembled the above animals only in imitating their voices".

It is hard to find anyone indifferent to feral man. People are fascinated or appalled by tales of savage children reared by beasts or beast-like parents. Cultural historian and critic Michael Newton had a childhood fascination with Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli. This, a late-night encounter with Francois Truffaut's film L'Enfant Sauvage and a friend's tale of a remote Irish boy brought up in a hen-house, made him realise that he wanted to research the topic.

It took him ten years, and still - at the heart of his book Savage Girls and Wild Boys - there is an absence, an unknowableness about its subject. What are feral children like? What do they think? What do they feel? Would we, in their circumstances, be like them? Is it nature or nurture that makes them - as Linnaeus and many before and since have believed - a different species?

The best way for Newton to find answers was to encounter a feral child. For several years he followed the trail of two. One was Ivan Mishukov, who from the ages of four to six lived with a pack of wild dogs on the outskirts of Moscow, before being captured and placed in a children's home. The other was John Ssabunnya, a 14-year-old now living in a Ugandan orphanage, who reportedly had lived among a family of monkeys in the bush from the ages of three to seven, and who came to England, to a South London church, in 1999. Both Newton's trails eventually went cold. He was promised an interview with John; in the event he caught a glimpse of him singing in church before another writer with an exclusive contract intervened, and the suspicious but also suspiciously posturing adolescent was whisked away. Nor did he catch up with Ivan: the children's home warden refused to allow a meeting or to be interviewed herself.

"Where we hoped for an insight, we are left with silence. But then," says Newton, "silence is the essence of these children." Apart from Ivan, who spoke Russian before joining the dog pack, and Memmie Le Blanc, who in 1731 appeared begrimed, wary, "skinning and eating frogs and chewing leaves" in a French village, but who turned out to have originated from the Huron where she learnt to speak, none of them, once brought in from the wild, ever acquired expressive language. Linguistics or evolutionary psychology would tell us more at this point. But, says Newton, this is not within his competence or what interests him most. He wants us to look at the meanings that we read into their silence.

"These children were always seen as difficult, taciturn, unresponding, but they also embody myths about nature and silenceI Why did these particular children become visible? Many children are abandoned or abused. Why did I go to that church to see that boy? Why do I think these children are special? Why did I write this book?

"I think it is because of the silence. People are able to project cultural myths onto these children. Because they could not speakI they were mysterious."

So feral children are our creations, and the image in which we create them is shaped by our beliefs and by the era and culture that we inhabit. Ancient myths - Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome and suckled by a she-wolf - and fairytales of abandoned children reintegrated into society - Shakespeare's Perdita - speak of the tensions we experience between our "savage" and "civilised" natures, Newton says.

In the 17th century, with better-documented instances of feral children, the intellectuals step in: not only Linnaeus but also Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and royal physician John Arbuthnot. Arbuthnot cared for Peter the Wild Boy, after he was brought to George I's court in 1726. His friend Swift - already inverting man's animal and rational natures in Gulliver's encounter with the Houyhnhnms - wrote two mocking pamphlets, pointing out that Peter would feel at home attending the opera because, like him, it consisted of people communicating via incomprehensible noises. Defoe saw Peter as pitiable: a creature who, without language, was no better than a beast. Peter, isolated in society, is the antithesis of Robinson Crusoe, the civilised man alone in the wilderness, Newton argues. And anticipating modern ideas about language and consciousness, Defoe questions whether it is possible, without words, to say that Peter can think.

Fewer than 100 years later, this bleak picture of the feral child was completely overcast by Rousseauian romanticism, argues Newton. In the story of Victor, the small, scarred, speechless child of nature, and the doctor Jean Itard who attempted to educate him, retold on film by Truffaut, the popular image of Victor - ironically not shared by Itard - is of the noble savage.

A hundred years on and the story changes again. Feral children have always been abused children, Newton argues: neglected and abandoned. Victor's largest scar was across his neck, where it had been cut before he was left to die. Where previous cultures perceived these children as survivors, ours sees them as victims. Hence the final account of the book is of Genie, the malnourished, incontinent 13-year-old confined to one room during her childhood in Los Angeles, rescued and studied by doctors in 1970 and ultimately languageless and abused in foster homes again. Genie's story highlights Newton's theme: that feral children tell us not only about what we think and believe, but - in the way we treat them - what we are. These children suffered from society's prurience, cruelty and exploitation - in the lab, the court or the freak show. Yet they also prompted extraordinary tenderness from the individuals who cared for them. They express a vulnerability that seems to awaken compassion. Which is why, Newton says, he was glad he never interviewed Ivan or John. It would have been exploitative, and it would have brought him no closer to answering the question that the book leaves intentionally unanswered: whether these children tell us something bad, or good, about ourselves.

have deliberately written the book so that it is ambiguous: do these children themselves manifest something special, or do they simply enable the people who look after them to express it? The ambiguity is there because I think both. It is up to the reader what they choose to take."

Savage Girls and Wild Boys : A History of Feral Children by Michael Newton is published by Faber, £12.99, on February 18. It will be available in shops next week.

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