Wild Boy – Observer review

Give me the child…

Jill Dawson explores the nature of autism against a backdrop of post-revolutionary France in Wild Boy

Laura Baggaley
Sunday September 21, 2003
The Observer

What makes us human? Are there any characteristics which are fundamental and innate, needing neither the example nor influence of others to flourish? Such questions of nature versus nurture preoccupied Enlightenment thinkers and writers of the eighteenth century and recur in Jill Dawson’s new novel, Wild Boy: ‘For how long have philosophers longed to have an infant, a child shielded from human influence, living so many crucial years in isolation that he forgets the sound of a human voice?’ Dawson’s wild boy is just such a child – an accidental experiment, found living alone in a French forest at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

The story is all the more extraordinary for being true. Dawson’s inspiration came from Autism: Explaining the Enigma, in which Uta Frith claims the historical Wild Boy as the first documented autistic child – not a noble savage at all. Dawson was perhaps inevitably drawn to the story by her personal experience of autism. When her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an ‘autistic spectrum’ disorder, her own views on the nature/nurture debate were turned upside down.

Dawson suggests that the boy was left in the forest precisely because of his condition. Abandoned at the age of six with his throat slit, captured at 12, he is displayed in a cage to the citizens of Paris. He ends up at the Deaf Mute Institute under the care of the zealous young Doctor Itard, who longs to prove that: ‘It is environment and its effect on the individual which have the greatest impact on a person and that we are each and every one of us the result not of an accident of inheritance, but an accident of circumstance.’

Madame Guerin, a governess at the Institute, has a rather different perspective on the violent filthy creature foisted upon her: ‘Every day, visitors saying look at him, saying the noble savage, all the secrets of man’s inner being held in that sorry soul; but for myself I don’t see much more than a sad boy left for dead by a wicked being.’

Both Itard and Guerin, based on historical figures, make deliciously unreliable narrators. Itard combines a tendency toward pomposity with telltale signs of immaturity. He resents the fact that Guerin ‘sometimes seems under the impression that I am an adolescent boy and not an esteemed doctor’, while Guerin, too, has her pride: ‘I’m one of the few round here who can mop shit from the floor and spell it.’

What begins as a scientific undertaking becomes an emotional entanglement as the doctor and the governess strive to communicate with the child. Dawson deftly links the insularity of autism to the bloody panorama of the French Revolution still fresh in their memories: ‘We had many times in our recent history seen men behave exactly as if they had no ability to imagine the needs or sensibility of another human being.’

Itard’s peers and colleagues may pontificate about humanity and state of nature, but they never have to deal with the reality of a vigorously masturbating child who has no sense of shame or occasion. Wild Boy is an accomplished novel, rich with ideas and vivid characters, which is, above all, a lucid and moving exploration of the nature of autism.

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