Feral Children: A Lost Childhood

Image: University of the Fraser Valley. www.flickr.com/photos/ufv/
Image: University of the Fraser Valley. www.flickr.com/photos/ufv/

If you were to scour the innermost corners of your brain, you would undoubtedly unearth some very young memories. Playing in the open air with a sibling, making playdough at nursery school  with your best friend, or for me, a cricket stump sailing through the air towards my little brother’s head, resulting in so much blood and a trip to Accident and Emergency.

Notice how your memories are coloured by interaction with other human beings? We are sociable creatures, and valuable interaction with each other forms the basis of our inner psyche and also, the understanding of ourselves in wider society. In short, the fundamental developmental stages of childhood teach us how to be human.

Now imagine if the presence of other humans were eradicated from every childhood memory you hold dear. Without human behaviour to become attuned to, how would you behave?

Of course, this topic has been the fascination of psychologists for centuries, but the only way to study the effect of zero human interaction from birth would be to instigate it. To create those isolated, loveless conditions would, of course, be totally and categorically unethical. Experiments in this realm are therefore not an option.

However, historical cases of the ‘feral child’ allow scientists to study the eradication of human interaction and produce interesting evidence.

A ‘feral child’ is a case wherein a child, from birth or early infancy, is completely removed from the company of other human beings, usually as a disturbing aftermath of extreme neglect. Without the vital nurturing of other humans, these children are critically under-developed physically and cognitively. The key stage of language acquisition occurs in early childhood, so without language to acquire in these fundamental years, the ability to communicate through speech is lost forever: these children, once found, can never properly talk. Because animals are often the only accessible means from which to observe and emulate behaviour, feral children adopt the characteristic behaviour of felines, rodents, and dogs.

Possibly the most famous case of a feral child is that of a young girl named Genie, who was discovered in the late 1950’s by authorities in California, USA. She was so malnourished, that medical experts did not believe her to be thirteen years old, but no older than seven and heavily autistic. Genie had spent her entire life strapped to a potty by her abusive father, her arms and legs bound so her movement was almost completely impaired. During the night, she was tied up in a sleeping bag and covered with a metal sheet. She exhibited a strange gait, her hands curled closely under her chin and her legs slightly bent. Psychologists believe that this behaviour was picked up from house mice, her only company for thirteen years.

There were numerous attempts to integrate Genie into conventional familial and educational units, but minimal progress was made. She was used as a test subject for scientists who were fascinated by the results of her sustained neglect, but remained wary of her unnatural behavioural patterns. Genie is currently living in a mental institution in the US, presumably well cared for and kept as content as possible.

Genie is by no means the only case. You need only visit a library, or Google search the subject to discover other chilling cases of feral children. It is, after all, incredibly interesting as a consideration for our own personal development.

However, I feel this interest in the subject should not encroach on the wellbeing of already damaged individuals, and am slightly guilty at initially having been so preoccupied with the idea of feral children. Children like Genie who have been robbed of their childhood should not be robbed of dignity in adulthood.

Although her case was revolutionary in the study of linguistics and psychology, I do not think that our own egocentric desire to affirm ourselves as cognitively superior to the rest of life on earth is a good enough reason to have spent decades continuing to disturb Genie. Whether or not they had the privilege of human interaction, we must not forget that feral children are still human.

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