Child of the Forest
Daily Telegraph (Filed: 21/09/2003)
“Man is only what he is made to be.”
Jill Dawson’s Wild Boy is prefaced by this observation by Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, the physician who attempted to educate Victor, the “Wild Boy of Aveyron”. Dawson’s choice is ironic. She devotes this intriguing fictionalised account of Victor’s life to proving Itard wrong.
Victor, the subject of Truffaut’s film L’Enfant Sauvage, was a boy of about 12 found in a French forest 200 years ago. He was naked, his body was covered in scars and he had no language, either spoken or receptive. Doctors believed his asocial behaviour to be the result of “constitutional imbecility”, but the fashionable intellectuals of post-revolutionary France rejected such a disappointing diagnosis. They wanted an example of a true savage. Would Victor reveal essential human virtues uncorrupted by society? Or would such a child, on the contrary, be bereft of moral sensibility? Itard took charge of Victor and recorded his progress, or lack of it, in detail.
Itard’s records unwittingly provide the fullest pre-20th-century description of an autistic child. Dawson came across the idea that Victor was autistic in Uta Frith’s excellent Autism: Explaining the Enigma (recently reissued by Blackwell Publishing). Victor’s failure to form reciprocal relationships, his eccentric galloping gait, his apparent deafness to the spoken word, coupled with an ability to pick up sounds that interested him, such as the cracking of walnuts; his “indifference to all childish amusements”, the hours spent rocking or shelling beans – all the details shout “autism”. It’s recorded that Victor had “no sense of gratitude toward the man who feeds him, but takes the food as he would take it from the ground”. Throughout Wild Boy, I was reminded of Sam, my own autistic son. Victor lived in a forest and ate nuts, Sam lives in a house and eats crisps, but there aren’t many other differences.
If Victor was autistic, it’s easy to see why he was abandoned in the first place, and why he had a thick scar across his throat. Nothing was known about Victor’s family, but it seems fair to assume he was the son of peasants who wanted to do away with such a burdensome child – the inexplicable behaviour of autism might even have suggested demonic possession. Autism also helps to explain his survival. Many autists, my Sam among them, seem indifferent to pain or to extremes of temperature, and many are fast runners and fearless climbers. And why, if he wasn’t autistic, did Victor never seek help from nearby villages? Several times he was spotted running through the forest; surely any child with normal social instincts would have sought refuge with his own kind.
Michael Newton, in a recent book about feral children, Savage Girls and Wild Boys (Faber & Faber), provides much fascinating detail, but, astonishingly, fails to consider autism. The condition wasn’t named until 1943, but it has always existed. Wolf children, changelings, holy fools… societies interpret autistic behaviour in ways that reflect their preoccupations. In 1960s America, it was decided that such children were the result of bad parenting by cold, over-intellectual career women. Dawson skilfully shows how responses to Victor reflect contemporary Rousseau-esque ideas, but Wild Boy lives as a novel as well as a historical investigation.
Dawson divides her narrative between Itard, the emotionally timid educator who makes acute observations but cannot accept the conclusions to which they lead; Madame Guerin, the robust, practical matron who feeds, clothes and bathes Victor; and a third, anonymous voice, speaking for Victor himself. Itard longs to work miracles for his own reputation and for the glory of the new republic. Madame Guerin, by contrast, is no intellectual, but a woman with capable hands and a strong heart. When she looks at Victor, she sees that “nature here is upside down”.
Dawson is alive to the subtleties of Victor’s predicament. She uses his “otherness” to expose closely guarded secrets. Itard is agitated by similarities between Victor’s instincts and his own. The reader can spot a putative case of Asperger’s syndrome in Itard’s inability to form emotional attachments and in his pedantic pursuit of detail at the expense of the bigger picture. Madame Guerin’s guilt and grief for her own son’s death surface through intimate contact with Victor. Man, suggests Dawson, refuting Itard, cannot be made into something he wasn’t meant to be. You can remove the wild boy from the forest, but inside he’ll always be in there, always running.
From nobility to savagery
Anyone who has seen François Truffaut’s 1970 film, L’Enfant Sauvage, will be familiar with the bare bones of Jill Dawson’s novel. A 12-year-old boy, who had managed to fend for himself in the forests of Southern France for several years, was finally captured by hunters in 1797. “The Wild Boy of Aveyron”, as he came to be known, only ever spoke four words but Dawson, using a mixture of research and speculation, provides one possible version of his amazing life story.
She does this by exploring the lives of those who looked after him – and the little savage certainly needed a lot of looking after. Dr Itard, who takes charge of him at the National Institute for Deaf Mutes in Paris, is determined to teach him to talk. He sees the child’s arrival as a golden opportunity to answer the “Most Pressing Question of Our Time”: Is Victor, as he calls him, Rousseau’s Noble Savage or a victim of circumstance? How did he come by the horrific scar on his throat? If Itard is concerned with his nature, Madame Guerin is concerned with his nurture: she is the one who has to deal with his lack of table manners and toilet training.
Victor may stink and think only of himself but he has a beautiful face: both his carers come to love him. The young Doctor, stiff-necked and sexually repressed, is haunted by the early loss of his mother; the old domestic, tormented by the atrocities she took part in as a tricoteuse, still mourns the death of her two-year-old son. They seem to need the wild boy more than he needs them. His obsession with sameness, with repetition, suggests that he is autistic. The occasional glimpse of the boy’s true self, trapped “behind a wall of glass”, holds out the tantalising possibility that he might yet be rescued from perpetual silence.
However, Dawson shows that words are not needed to communicate in times of great emotion. She does not prove, though, that inverted commas are unnecessary: it is sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking. She evokes the human cost of the Terror succinctly and vividly and, although travelling over well-trodden ground, provides several surprises. The result is intriguing and deeply moving.