The "jungle girl"

The discovery of a mysterious feral woman in Cambodia prompts fairy-tale speculation and a media frenzy.

Published January 26, 2007 5:50PM (EST)

From the wide world of humans comes, via the Associated Press, the mysterious tale of the so-called jungle girl, a young woman who was found two weeks ago in the Cambodian jungle and now is experiencing her own feral-child media feeding frenzy. When she was first found naked and foraging for food in a village of a remote northern province, the local police called her "half-human and half-animal." With that turn of phrase, an unfortunate young woman quickly became a legend.

One of the village policemen, recognizing a scar on her arm, claimed her as his long-lost daughter who disappeared 19 years ago when she was 8 while herding water buffalo. Some villagers question whether she could have survived this long and wonder why, if she has been alone in the jungle, her hair is short. Now she is getting the unroyal treatment we reserve for all human beings discovered in the wilderness: A Spanish psychologist is working with her, and teams of journalists and photographers have descended on the village to document every development in the story -- from the day she took off all her clothes and looked like she was headed into the jungle, to the moment when she smiled at a puppet, to, most recently, when looked as if she was attempting to speak. Most of the articles seem willing to go along with the probability that this mysterious woman was simply a child who survived against insane odds alone in the jungle, and now, in a fairy-tale moment, has been reunited with her family. It's so deeply ingrained in our stories about lost girls -- Snow White, Rapunzel -- the lost girls always come back, undamaged by the loss of their childhood, just in time for a happy ending.

But the Guardian's Jonathan Watts noted that the story of this young woman could be quite the reverse -- a story not about surviving the wilderness but about the dark side of civilization.

"The irony is that this tale of a child growing up in the wild, far from civilization, may prove to be quite the opposite: the story of a girl brought up in captivity, who somehow escaped, and then found her way to a father who desperately wanted to recover something he had loved and lost," he writes.

Watts describes the family asking him for money to see the girl (a fact no other stories I read happened to mention) and the reality that the girl has now become an economic godsend for a father who already has 12 children to feed. Soon enough some facts may come to light, since officials are sending doctors to the village to test the parents' and the woman's DNA. But for now the story may say a lot more about our fantasies than the reality of a little girl who may have been traumatized, kept in slavery or confinement and now has become the center of a three-ring international freak show.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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