Tuesday, January 24, 2012

He was naked, grunting and digging up rootsin the forest.
Wild Child: Victor, from Truffaut's classic film
As he stuffed raw acorns into his mouth, hewas spotted by three sportsmen on horseback. They gave chase, intrigued by sucha bizarre creature, only to watch wide-eyed as the wild child before themscrambled into the upper branches of a tree.
It was 1798 and the feral child of Aveyron- a rugged area of southern France - was about to become an unwittingcelebrity.
Victor: the closest likeness
The sportsmen eventually caught him andnamed him Victor. Pleased with their captive, who was more like an animal thana person, they took him to a nearby lodgings for further study.
Taken for further study: Victor, by Truffaut
But Victor escaped before they coulddiscover his identity. 
‘He fled to the mountains,’ they said, disconsolateabout losing their prize, ‘where he wandered about during the severity of amost rigorous winter, clad only in a tattered shirt.’
Try as they might, they were unable torecapture him.
Victor's untimely disappearance might have beenthe end of the story, but in the following year he sought refuge in nearby StSernin.
Captured for a second time, and taken tothe town of Rodez, he was held for some months in various places. In each placehe stayed, he was ‘equally wild, impatient of restraint and capricious in histemper, continually endeavouring to get away.’
Wild landscape for a wild child
Eventually a clergyman named Pierre JosephBonnaterre had the wild child brought to Paris, in order to study him moreclosely. Bonnaterre planned to introduce him to all the leading experts, to seeif they could discover more about him.
One morning, shortly after Victor arrivedin Paris, it began to snow. Bonnaterre was amazed by the child’s reaction. ‘Heuttered a cry of joy, leaped from his bed, ran to the window… and at length escapedhalf dressed into the garden.’
Bonnaterre watched in incredulity as Victor‘rolled himself in the snow and, taking it up by handfuls, devoured it withincredible avidity.’
Victor’s origins remained a mystery - onethat fascinated the savants of Paris. This was the period of the Enlightenment,when intellectuals and philosophers were preoccupied with the issues of humannature.
Itard adopted Victor for further study
What distinguishes men from animals? Andhow much difference can education make?
Victor eventually ended up in the care ofJean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student who devoted a great deal oftime to studying this apparently feral child.
Itard’s self appointed task was to civilisehim: in particular, to teach him to speak and to show human emotion.
The real Itard: a savant
Itard was both fascinated and revolted bythe child in his care. ‘He was a disgusting, slovenly boy, affected withspasmodic and frequently with convulsive motions… like some of the animals inthe menagerie, biting and scratching those who contradicted him.’
Some said Victor would never be educated:others contended that it was achievable in a matter of months.
Itard set to work, making careful notes ofevery aspect of the wild child’s behaviour. His aims were four-fold: to attachhim to social life, to awaken his senses, to teach him ideas and to teach himto speak.
Victor: insensitive to pain
Each one of these objectives was to proveproblematic, for Victor had spent his formative years in the wild. His eyeswere without any expression and he was insensitive to noise. Strangely, he was unableto distinguish between a painting and an object in relief. Nor could heundertake mundane tasks like opening a door.
‘In a word,’ wrote Itard, ‘his wholeexistence was a life purely animal.’
On one occasion, Victor was handed a deadcanary. He showed no sorrow for the bird. Rather, ‘in an instant, he strippedoff its feathers [and] tore it open with his hands.’
Victor: cleaned up for society
Itard intervened before the lad could eatthe bird.
Itard spent years working with Victor andhe did eventually make some progress. Victor learned the meaning of actions anddeveloped a primitive form of communication. But he only ever learned twowords: ‘lait’ and ‘Dieu’
He never made the progress that Itard had strivedfor; he concluded that the wild child of Aveyron was ‘the mental andpsychological equivalent of a born deaf-mute.’
As for Victor, he must have been bewilderedby all the attention. He eventually died in 1828 - after 30 years ofexamination - at the house of Itard’s kindly housekeeper.
His real name, identity and backgroundremained a mystery to this day. 

UK paperback

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail