Feral children

    In 1996, Ivan Mishukov left home. Even though he was only four years old, he felt that the situation at home was far too chaotic for him to bear. He simply could no longer endure in this environment. His mother was incapable of taking care of him and he often got into trouble with her drunken lover, so he ran away and decided to try and survive on the street. Apart from homeless people, a great number of stray dogs then roamed the streets of Moscow, animals that the inhabitants of the city could no longer care for or had simply got tired of and let run free. These dogs gradually grew wilder and started coming together in packs.

    While begging on the street, Ivan quickly aroused the compassion of the passers-by because of his very tender age, and since he managed to gather a fair amount of food every day decided to share his spoils with one of the groups of stray dogs. He gradually gained their trust and eventually became accepted as the leader of the pack. Ivan and the dogs lived in a sort of symbiosis. The child would bring them food, which he had accumulated by begging, and the dogs would give him protection and keep him warm at nights, especially during the cold Moscow winters.

    Once the police found out about the way the boy lived, they naturally attempted to capture him, but the dogs stopped them from doing so on several occasions by protecting him so he could escape. It was only after they lured the dogs away with food and isolated the boy that they could get to him. He had been on the streets for two whole years.

    Because Ivan had spent the first four years of his life among people, he could talk well enough, so he was able to reenter human society quickly after only a short period in a children’s shelter. He soon started going to school, found a home with a foster family and has since been living the relatively normal life of an average Russian child.

    All “natural” children

    Ivan is just one of a number of children known to have spent a part of their childhood living outside human society in total isolation or in the company of wild animals. These children have been known as “feral children”. The semi-mythical, fairytale-like stories about how animals took care of them and raised them have been present throughout history. During the Enlightenment there was a surge of interest in these “all natural children” among the scholars of the time. Thinkers were very interested in learning what separates man from animal and wild children, as a sort of borderline case, were therefore fascinating.

    In reality feral children were completely normal young people who had been growing up isolated from human society, had not adopted the customs characteristic of its culture and also for the most part could not speak. It was the question of whether such children could be taught to speak after they had passed the usual age at which infants begin speaking that became the central subject of the scientists’ interests whenever they came into contact with a feral child.

    About two centuries ago, the scientists of the time were fascinated by two boys in particular who suddenly found themselves at the center of everyone’s attention. The first boy was retrieved in 1800 in Aveyron, France, having regularly been seen running naked through the woods for several years, and always managing to get away. He became known as Victor of Aveyron and after his return into civilization spent several years in the care of one Doctor Itard. The doctor examined him carefully and tried to teach him how to speak, but failed to do so despite years of effort. Victor’s case was revived in the 1970s in François Truffaut’s famous movie entitled L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child) in which the director himself played the role of Doctor Itard.

    The other case was perhaps even more mysterious. On Monday, May 26th 1828, the streets of Nürenberg were calm and empty; it was a public holiday. Suddenly, at four o’clock in the afternoon, an unusual boy was spotted wandering around aimlessly. At first people thought he was lost, but when he started repeating the sentence I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was, the meaning of which he could not understand, it became clear that this was no ordinary boy. They tried getting him to tell them where he had come from, but did not succeed in learning anything meaningful. However, they were surprised to find out that he could write his name: Kaspar Hauser.

    The boy quickly became the attraction of the Europe of the time. All the newspapers wrote about him, and many famous people wanted to see him. Hauser also began to receive intensive lessons which turned out to be of additional benefit to history as he learned to write, so he could later use his slightly broken German to tell the frightening story of his life as he remembered it. For more than ten years he had been locked away in a small basement space. In it there was a pile of straw on which he could sleep, a woolen blanket and two wooden toy horses. Each day, while he was sleeping, an unknown man would usually pay him a visit and leave some food and water in the tiny room. This monotonous hermit’s life lasted until a few weeks before he was released when the man started to teach him how to write his name and pronounce some sentences, which he repeated when he was found.

    The girl from the American suburbia

    A similar ordeal to Kaspar Hauser’s, at the beginning of the 19th century, was experienced more than a hundred years later by an American girl called Susan Wiley (named Genie in academic literature on her case) from the suburbs of Los Angeles. In 1970 she caught the attention of the employees of a social center where she and her almost blind mother sought refuge. She appeared to be about eight years old, but was actually already thirteen. Later it turned out that, like Kaspar Hauser, she had spent most of her life locked up in a remote room of the family house, isolated from the sounds of the street, only hearing her family when they yelled.

    Her suffering was caused by her apparently disturbed father, who would for several years sleep in the armchair of his living-room clutching a loaded rifle in his hands and “guarding” his house. The girl’s mother had lost most of her eyesight and was completely dependent on her psychotic husband, who was convinced, in a perverted way, that he could protect his daughter from the corruption of the outside world by hiding her away. Later, when her father was already on trial for the mistreatment of his daughter, he seemingly realized the wrong he had done and committed suicide.

    Soon after she was liberated, Genie, much like Viktor and Kaspar, found herself surrounded by scientists. After some deliberation, the group of theorists and therapists responsible for her well-being decided that it would be best if the girl were to move in with one of their families. During the next few years she tried to get used to life in human society and these proved to be the happiest time of her life. She was also frequently visited by a young postgraduate student called Susan Curtis who taught her how to speak. It was the very question whether they could teach her to speak at thirteen years of age that intrigued the scientists the most, and was also the subject of the student’s doctoral thesis. Genie became quite successful in picking up new words, but could never learn how to form longer sentences. She had no problems with the vocabulary, but could never learn the rules of grammar.

    Chomsky’s theory

    The seventies were also the time of the growing popularity of a theory advanced by Noam Chomsky, according to which a set of universal grammatical rules was supposedly inherent and biologically determined within the structure of the human brain. According to Chomsky, when a child is exposed to a language environment this natural ability, inherent to all people, simply adapts to the language in which the child is being raised. That is why the period during which a child can learn a language spontaneously is believed to be limited. The upper limit was estimated to be right around thirteen, so Genie was an ideal test subject for confirming the hypothesis of the existence of a critical period in the development of a child.

    Unfortunately, scientists did not reach any other important conclusions about language from their experience with Genie. Some doctors argued that it is not entirely clear whether Genie might have been born with brain damage or sustained an injury later, which could explain her severely limited ability to form sentences. Another question was also whether she had been taught long enough to learn all the basics of the language. Nevertheless, a great number of books and scientific discussions were written about her case.

    After the four years she had spent living with one of the scientists’ family, she had to return to her mother, because the researchers did not receive further financial support for their project. After only a couple of months, though, it became clear that her blind mother was unable to take care of her. They tried to find her a surrogate family, but she could not adapt to any new environment and thus was never allowed to stay for more than a short time. After several failed attempts to find a home, when because of bad behavior and intentional vomiting she had even been badly beaten by one of the foster families, her mental health deteriorated substantially. She withdrew completely and stopped talking. Today she lives in an adult foster care home and her condition is supposedly much worse than it was only a couple years after her liberation when she was still at the center of scientific attention.