Savage Girls and Wild Boys
A History of Feral Children
By Michael Newton
Picador Copyright © 2002 Michael Newton
All rights reserved.
The Child Of Nature
'Men saye that we have bene begotten miraculously, fostered and geven sucke more straungely, and in our tendre yeres were fedd by birdes and wilde beasts, to whom we were cast out as a praye. For a wolfe gave us sucke with her teates ...' Nowe amongst the warders, there was by chaunce one that was the man to whom the children were committed to be cast awaye, and was present when they were left on the bancke of the river to the mercie of fortune.
From North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Romulus
In the years since the fall of communism, as the social fabric of Russia was rent and fell apart, street kids became a common sight in Moscow or St Petersburg. Like the homeless in London, they were both ever present and subtly invisible – a backdrop to city life; an irritating intrusion into the process of simply getting on with things. But one of these Moscow street kids was different. He was actually to find the visibility that had so long been denied to him.
In 1996, Ivan Mishukov left home. He was four years old. Ivan's mother could not cope with him or with her alcoholic boyfriend, so the little boy decided that life on the streets was better than the chaos of their apartment. Just as Moscow has its homeless, so it has its wild dogs, an inevitable consequence of the inability to create facilities for the city's many strays. Dogs are abandoned with mournful regularity, and quickly turn feral, rummaging through bins for scraps, running around the streets in packs in order to survive. Out on the streets, Ivan began to beg, but gave a portion of the food he cadged each time to one particular pack of dogs. The dogs grew to trust him; befriended him; and, finally, took him on as their pack leader.
The relationship worked perfectly, far better than anything Ivan had known among his fellow humans. He begged for food, and shared it with his pack. In return, he slept with them in the long winter nights of deep darkness, when the temperatures plummeted. The heat of the animals kept him warm and alive, despite the snow, the ice, the bitter cold; and if anyone should try to molest him or thieve from him, the dogs were there on hand to attack them.
The police came to know of Ivan's life, but could not wrest him from the streets. Three times he fled from them, or the dogs savagely defended their leader. Eventually the police managed to separate the dogs from Ivan by laying bait for them inside a restaurant kitchen. Deprived of his animal guards, the savagely snarling boy was quickly trapped.
He had been living on the street for two years. Yet, as he had had four years within a human family, he could talk perfectly well. After a brief spell in the Reutov children's shelter, Ivan started school. He appears to be just like any other Moscow child. Yet it's said that at night he dreams of dogs.
After many months of hunting, a friend of mine, Emma Widdis, a lecturer in Russian at Cambridge University, managed to track down Tamara Novikova, the woman who runs the Reutov children's shelter. So one February morning of 2001, we phoned her office at Reutov. The call did not begin well. Tamara Novikova was suspicious, edgy, and – even allowing for the customary Russian directness – dismissively brusque. We asked what had happened to Ivan in the last few months. He was with a foster-family, she told us, and though there had been difficulties, he was very happy there. We explained that, although I had no wish to intrude on Ivan's privacy, I did wonder if she and I could perhaps meet in order to discuss his story. It was impossible, she said. She could not talk to anyone about the story – nobody at all. And particularly not anyone who was not Russian.
When his story was released in July 1998, Ivan's case was extraordinary enough to gain the attention of the world's press. Yet his experience is not unique. Over the last four hundred years, a few such children have been discovered and brought back into civilized life. As soon as he appeared in the newspapers, journalists made links between Ivan and these other cases. They saw him as a living, contemporary example of what are called 'feral children', or 'wild children'. Many of their stories are even more remarkable and unexpected than Ivan's own. This book will explore these other stories, revealing levels of human experience that are stranger still. The curiosity that greeted Ivan's story is itself strong evidence of a continuing preoccupation, a desire to know about such children, that has persisted throughout human history. But what are the furthest origins of these stories? And where does that sense of intrigue begin?
The fascination with the wild child goes back a long way, and Ivan's story has many counterparts in the myths of antiquity. Again and again we find legendary tales of the hero abandoned at birth and brought up by animals or in isolation: the wild education of Cyrus; the river-borne abandonment of Moses; the infancy of Semiramis, founder of Babylon, fostered by birds; the story of Oedipus, lamed and left in the wilderness of Kithairon; the childhood of the twins, Amphion and Zethos, forsaken on a mountain side; the exposure of Paris on the slopes of Mount Ida, where for five days he was suckled by a bear; the story of Tyro, and Neleus and Pelias; infant Aleas fed by a doe; even, the nativity of Christ. Often these heroes go on to become the founders of cities – such as Amphion, whose music charmed the very stones to build by themselves the walls of Thebes.
The most famous of all Ivan's mythic progenitors, however, are Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Their story offers us a template that would fit equally well many of these other versions of the myth. The twins' mother was Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, once the King of Alba Longa, but now deposed by Amulius, his wicked brother. In order to prevent his niece, Rhea Silvia, from having offspring and so continuing Numitor's lineage, Amulius forced her to become a Vestal Virgin. However, one night a ghostly and very large phallus appeared in the Vestals' temple and impregnated Rhea. Amulius was maddened with rage, but Rhea protested that it was the god Mars who was responsible for her pregnancy. On her giving birth to twin sons, Amulius ordered that the infants should be exposed. They were taken to the River Tiber, where they were left to 'the mercy of fortune', as Thomas North's sixteenth-century translation of Plutarch puts it. Death seemed imminent, but help came from an unexpected quarter: a she-wolf suckled the young infants, and a woodpecker fetched food for them. The twins lived on in this way until a shepherd, named Faustulus, discovered them.
Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia, brought up the children, who turned out to be noble, virile and courageous. The twins grew up to lead a band of outlaws who raided the countryside, until eventually their true identity was discovered. They overthrew Amulius and restored Numitor, their grandfather, to the throne of Alba Longa. The twins then set out to found a city of their own. However, according to some versions of the story, in the course of building this city, Romulus and Remus argued and came to blows, and in a fury Romulus slew his brother. The city was founded on the earth soaked by the dead brother's blood, and populated by brigands. As these brigands were all men, Romulus feared that the colony would fail, and so, to ensure the continuation of the city, he abducted a large number of women from the Sabine tribe.
This story has always seemed a strange one. It systematically strays into the discreditable and forbidden, so that some scholars (probably wrongly) have even seen it as evidence of anti-Roman propaganda. Still there is so much in the story that embroils the myth in shamefulness: the Romulan colonists are all criminals; the brothers spend their youth as bandits; Romulus populates his city through a mass abduction; and the twins' mother conceives through the disgraceful intervention of a large and spectral phallus or, if that is too fantastic to believe, by some other more credible and only slightly less scandalous means. Moreover, while some Roman writers disputed whether Romulus actually murdered Remus, the killing nonetheless remains an inescapable part of the story.
Yet the transgressive element that most scandalized the Romans was precisely the one that concerns us here; that is, the twins' suckling from the she-wolf. Curiously, it led the Roman historian Ennius to cover up this part of the tale by introducing what might be thought of as an equally shameful link. Ennius realized that the word lupa can mean either 'she-wolf' or 'prostitute', and so deftly replaced the wolf with a prostitute, Acca Larentia, the wife of Faustulus the shepherd.
This desire to remove the wolf from the story may lead us to wonder why she was there in the first place. Restorations and substitutions are at the very heart of the Romulus and Remus story: brothers take the rightful place of others, foster-parents bring up other people's children, the god Mars stands in for a human suitor. Yet the crucial substitution occurs when the she-wolf saves the lost children. In that moment, when the infants' lips close upon the she-wolf's teats, a transgressive mercy removes the harmful influence of a murderous culture. The moment is a second birth: where death is expected, succour is given, and the children are miraculously born into the order of nature.
The story is more than shameful: its strangeness unsettles us, leaving a sense of wonder. In Plutarch's account of the tale, Remus himself confesses astonishment at the marvel of his own life, and Ovid also exclaims at the twins' unexpected fate: 'A she-wolf which had cast her whelps came, wondrous to tell, to the abandoned twins: who could believe that the brute would not harm the boys? Far from harming, she helped them; and they whom ruthless kinsfolk would have killed with their own hands were suckled by a wolf!'
Nature's mercy admonishes humanity's unnatural cruelty: only a miracle of kindness can restore the imbalance created by human iniquity. From this experience the city may begin over again, refounded in the building of Rome.
There are other legendary parallels to Ivan's strange history. The stock of stories of abandoned infants certainly did not end with the fall of Rome; writers in the medieval period also witness in story wild animals that come to the rescue of such children. The folk tales of the period saw 'swan-children', and Märchen where children are suckled by a hind, or a goat, a lioness, a wolf, ravens, or even rats. Sometimes the beast steals the child away from its human mother; in other tales a wild animal rescues the child from the outrages of human cruelty. In the popular romance Octavian, another set of twin boys is nurtured by, in one case, an ape, and in the other, a lioness. In the romance of Sir Gowther, a malignant child who tears his mother's nipple while feeding from her breast voluntarily chooses the wild life, and so suffers a penance of literally living out this wildness, as he is fed from the mouths of dogs while locked speechless in an atoning silence.
The most famous such tale, however, was that of Valentine and Orson, twin boys lost in the forest, the children of outcast Bellyssant. One boy, Valentine, is quickly rescued and returned to civilization; while Orson, his brother, remains behind in the woods, where he is snatched by a bear and taken back to her lair to be fed to her cubs. There, 'God that never forgeteth his frendes shewed an evydent myracle.' The bear-cubs, rather than devouring the baby, stroke it softly. The bear takes pity on the child and brings him up as one of her own.
All this reads like an old tale. The brothers separate: Valentine grows up civilized; Orson metamorphoses into that medieval bogeyman, the 'wild man'. Such wild men haunted the woods of medieval and Renaissance romance: irrational, carnivorous, dangerous, untamed. They lived and died out in the wild woods, far from the sound of church bells; hairy as demons, or sometimes leafy; always solitary; moving alone through the wilderness; sometimes snatching children or, more often, women from the beleaguered villages; marauding, angry, violent, though (if tamed) useful and loyal servants to the wandering knights given up to adventure in the trackless forests. They were without speech.
Valentine and Orson, the parted twins, meet, fight, recognize each other, are reunited. Perhaps stories such as this are fables of the necessity for civilization and the wild to be reconciled with each other. It is as though the contradictions that sustain each person – that tension between our primal, animal natures and our civilized, social selves – are here acted out, embodied in identical and yet utterly different selves. Hence, perhaps, why so many of these early myths are tales of twins: Amphion and Zethos, Romulus and Remus, Valentine and Orson. The wild man and the found child face each other as enemies and allies, as strangers and brothers.
Such wild men are the fictional ancestors of our real wild children; the genealogy of the feral child passes through them. The imaginative roots of the historical, documented cases we shall be exploring throughout this book are in these fables, these tales of miracles.
All these tales, from the Roman twins to Valentine and Orson, point to a fabulous order within the natural world. When, in North's translation, Plutarch described the giving up of Romulus and Remus to 'the mercy of fortune', we must accept this phrase in two distinct and contradictory senses. He both suggests with wry irony that there is no mercy in fortune and that this was precisely why the twins were left to its dark power, and yet he seems to affirm that there is indeed a miraculous compassion in the very order of things. This feeling for the marvellous is even clearer in the Christianized medieval forms of the 'wild child' story. Now a belief in the providential nature of the world is there, and the suffering of the abandoned child becomes a form of patience in which all wrongs will be righted, all crimes met with appropriate justice and the unlooked for addition of grace.
So these are the mythic and literary origins of the wild children, the spectral figures of folklore that stand behind the real figure of Ivan, begging for food among Moscow's wild dogs; but what were the origins of my own interest in these children?
The impulse that drives any book is necessarily obscure even to the writer. Writing is often a matter of choosing not to inquire into one's own motivations: to learn the motive may remove the necessity for the writing of the work. Books grow best in the dark. Yet inevitably there are clues. Every child dreams of escape. As a child I was feckless, timid and hopelessly over-imaginative. What I imagined most of all was myself caught up in an adventure, often an intrepid quest, or on the run from danger. In these moods, abandonment meant being let loose. I saw an image of Romulus and Remus in a book of myths. It was the Capitoline Wolf, now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the standing she-wolf and the infant twins sitting up to suckle milk from her teats. I never forgot it. Then I read, as many children do, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books, and fell in love with them. On the outskirts of Brighton, on the south coast of England, I longed to be Mowgli, alone yet animal-befriended in the Indian jungle. Saturday morning Tarzan films followed; I watched them and carried on dreaming.
Every child fears abandonment. The displaced, unspoken anxieties of family life fed those familiar, petty losses, the sense that home rested on insubstantial foundations – that my own presence there might go unrecognized, punishingly unnoticed – and if a fear of my own abandonment partly informs this book, a sense of a faltering relationship with someone implacably remote, then here is also the guilty terror of abandoning. Perhaps behind everything in this book is the desire to rescue someone lost, to restore the wounded-hearted, to look after another as though they were myself. Of course, these desires are immodest, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately futile. Yet they have the singular advantage to the writer of being shared by many of the 'heroes' of this book. My failing was their failing.
More substantially, one image from my own life echoes for me through the book. When I was myself a child, a little withdrawn and blushingly shy, my mother worked at a speech therapy clinic for young children. I would sometimes go with her to work, and sit and watch among the other children. All of them were silent, all of them somehow wrapped up in their own speechless worlds. Each child possessed the ability to speak; yet none of them ever did so. I can still see those quietened figures moving around the toys, the sandpit, or splashing at the water basin. And I wonder how much of that silent playroom stole into this book. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Savage Girls and Wild Boys by Michael Newton. Copyright © 2002 Michael Newton. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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