"Savage Girls and Wild Boys" by Michael Newton

Kids raised by wolves? It happens, says an English academic. But the mute and bizarre children in these outlandish histories don't grow up to be Tarzan.

Published February 12, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

If you visit the Capitoline Museums in Rome, you'll find them pretty quiet except for the little cluster of people gathered around the statue of Rome's mythological founders, the twins Romulus and Remus. What attracts the visitors isn't patriotism or historical interest, though, but the hypnotic weirdness of the 2,500-year-old bronze sculpture: It depicts a standing she-wolf with two human infants sitting under her belly, nursing from her dangling teats.

Romulus and Remus are two of the most famous legendary examples of feral children, the subject of Michael Newton's new book, "Savage Girls and Wild Boys." There are plenty more of them, too, from Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli ("The Jungle Books") to Tarzan. This is one of humanity's favorite fables, a tale of cross-species benevolence touched by fate. In stories, the abandoned child raised by wolves or bears or apes tends to come from exceptional, if not downright noble, stock, and in the wilderness he acquires the honest, pure, courageous spirit so lacking in his decadently civilized brothers. When he rejoins his own kind, it's usually to run a nation or take some other position of authority where his virtues can be admired by all.

That's a far cry from the fate of most real-life feral children. Yes, they do exist -- at least Newton thinks so, and his judgment seems sound enough -- even if their stories are clouded by mystery and doubt. The author opens his book with a contemporary example: Ivan, a Russian 4-year-old who in 1996 fled his mother's home for the streets, where he took up with a pack of stray dogs, trading scavenged and begged food for the animals' protection, companionship and bodily warmth during the long winter nights. The police had a hell of a time capturing him, since the dogs turned out to be far more committed to his safety than his own flesh and blood had been.

Though Ivan snapped and snarled, he had the advantage of those first four years among human beings and managed to rejoin society after two years on the streets. Less lucky were Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with a pack of wolves near a village in southwest India in the 1920s. India, according to John Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard's father), "is probably the cradle of wolf-child stories," and the more substantiated cases undermine the Tarzan myth in many ways.

Thrilling yarns about specimens of robust manly perfection honed by the challenges of jungle life notwithstanding, the reality of feral childhood always seems to involve hideous infestations of intestinal worms. The wild children are often girls, less valued offspring abandoned by poor families to die of exposure. Once captured, they inspire more pity and revulsion than respect. Withdrawn and indifferent to other people, Kamala and Amala were typical of feral children in that "they had no sense of humor, no sadness or curiosity or connection to others."

Most important, feral children don't speak. Although the roots of Newton's interest in the subject lie in a boyhood fascination with Mowgli and Tarzan, his book winds up being about what happens to children raised without, or with very little, human contact, particularly without language. In addition to boys and girls purportedly nurtured by wild animals, he includes the famous case of Caspar Hauser, who turned up on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 after (as he explained once he learned to talk) 16 years spent imprisoned in a dark, hole-like dungeon, fed and watered by a silent, faceless keeper. And then there is Genie, a 13-year-old California girl who in 1970 was discovered to have been kept tied up alone her entire life.

Newton's broad definition of feral children makes for an uneasy mix; as the author himself points out, we partly envy the child who runs free and happily consorts with the wild creatures that the rest of us fear, while we can only pity the person reared in grotesque deprivation. But both kinds of children have been the object of intense scientific scrutiny and theories about what it means to be human. And the sad and stubborn truth is that, as much as raised-by-wolves children fascinate us, they can't tell us much, even if they can be taught to speak. The kind of reflection and articulation that finds something meaningful in an extreme experience doesn't exist in those who are "lacking history or progression, animals living in a perpetual and unchanging present tense." Instead, Newton focuses most of his attention on the men who studied these children.

"Savage Girls and Wild Boys" could be seen as one of those bait-and-switch "cultural histories" academics write nowadays. (Newton teaches at University College London.) Such books promise marvel-filled true stories and original research about some intriguing subject but deliver a bookish survey of the literature and potted analysis about What It Means to Us with the obligatory clucking over previous ages' attitudes toward race, class, etc. Newton's book has a bit of that. He's only clapped eyes on one wild child -- a Ugandan boy, who at age 3 fled the hut where his father had murdered his mother and lived in the bush with a family of monkeys for three years -- and then only glimpsed the kid across the room in a London church. He tried to learn more about Ivan, the Russian boy, but the authorities stonewalled him. It's frustrating that, given the existence today of actual former feral children, so much of Newton's book concerns accounts written hundreds of years ago.

How much, after all, can we credit contemporary reports of Peter the Wild Boy, discovered roaming the forests of Hanover, England, in 1725, when a year later the same observers were abuzz with the news that a woman had "given birth to a warren of rabbits"? Fortunately, Newton is a supple, intelligent writer, more an essayist than a scholar -- and frankly, a lot of the European men of science drawn to cases like Peter's are nearly as outlandish and colorful as the feral children themselves.

One, a "keen philosopher" named Sir Kenelm Digby, fed his wife snake venom "in the belief that it would preserve her beauty," thereby killing her. Caspar Hauser's patrons and chroniclers included a German jurist with literary ambitions who wrote lurid popular accounts of sensational trials and an English earl whose choleric amateur scientist father apprenticed him to a blacksmith in lieu of educating him and tested a hypothesis about combustion by setting 80-foot flames around a wooden house full of his friends. Intellectuals of the time seemingly believed anything they were told -- that orangutans could be taught to speak and that Eskimos were covered with hair and worshipped fire, for example.

These thinkers all saw in feral children an opportunity to examine "essential humanity deprived of all inherited knowledge" and untainted by the "corruption" that supposedly accompanies exposure to civilization. Some believed, more or less along the lines of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that a "wild, untamable and free" youth would bring out man's innate nobility. Others saw this "state of nature" as one of "vacuity and barbarism, an empty, ugly and unmeaning condition of entrapment."

Caspar Hauser's keepers believed that he "lived for a time in the light of direct and unmediated experience. If natural feelings created truthfulness, then ... Hauser existed absolutely truthfully: his unnatural life made him completely natural." Hauser's acute sensitivity, one of his more Romantic associates thought, put him among "an elite of feeling, distinct from the leaden sensibilities of ordinary citizens."

But, as the more recent and better documented cases suggest, children are stunted and numbed by a life of isolation, not liberated or fine-tuned emotionally. At best, those kids who grow up in the wilderness are fast runners and have, for a while, better night vision, but they strike most of those who encounter them as "curiously empty." They tend to die young, as well. There is something dense about Rousseau's idea that the original and pure human condition is one of solitary bliss. (And that's not the stupidest of his ideas, either.) It is surely in the nature of human beings to be social, and to be shaped by the societies we inhabit. In paraphrasing the 19th century anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Newton writes, "a wild, solitary individual tells us nothing more about human nature than a wild, solitary bee would tell us of the habits of bees."

Nevertheless, our own era abounds in those who insist that environment -- which is really just an abstract term for other people and the way they behave -- has little effect on the kind of human beings we turn out to be; genes are everything, or close to it. In their own way, these biological determinists adhere to an idea of "human nature" that's as simplistic as Rousseau's, however much they condemn his concept of the human being as a blank slate. The handful of crushed lives described in the histories of feral children, or for that matter in the histories of severely abused people of any kind, demonstrate how easily our own humanity can be nearly erased by terrible circumstances.

Newton ends "Savage Girls and Wild Boys" by challenging the notion that it is language that makes us human. Even these children, he observes, deprived of language and emotionally stifled, can awaken a protective if unrequited love in others. Therefore, "there is indeed an essence that makes us human -- though every practical attempt to define that essence ends in failure." Perhaps, but animals can elicit a similar kind of love, and from his own book we learn that animals have been known to bestow the care and nurturing upon human young that we have neglected to give ourselves. That's what makes the Capitoline Wolf such an uncanny sight. If the fiercest of canines, that formidable predator, can sometimes surprise us with its gentleness, then why should we, the most malleable of creatures, ever stop believing we can be better than we are?

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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