The Wild Boy of Aveyron


Victor of Aveyron (also The Wild Boy of Aveyron) was a feral child who apparently lived his entire childhood naked and alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France, in 1797. He was captured, but soon escaped, after being displayed in the town. He was additionally periodically spotted in 1798 and 1799.

However, on January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own. His age was unknown but citizens of the village estimated that he was about twelve years old. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, indicated that he had been in the wild for the majority of his life. While the townspeople received him kindly, it was only a matter of time before word spread and the boy was quickly taken for examination and documentation.

Study

Shortly after Victor was found, a local abbot and biology professor, Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre, examined him. He removed the boy’s clothing and led him outside into the snow, where, far from being upset, Victor began to frolic about in the nude, showing Bonnaterre that he was clearly accustomed to exposure and cold. The local government commissioner, Constans-Saint-Esteve, also observed the boy and wrote that there was “something extraordinary in his behavior, which makes him seem close to the state of wild animals”. The boy was eventually taken to Rodez, where two men, in fact, traveled to discover whether or not he was their missing son. Both men had lost their sons during the French Revolution, but neither claimed the boy as their son. There were other rumors regarding the boy’s origins. For example, one rumor insisted that the boy was the illegitimate son of a notaire abandoned at a young age because he was mute. Itard believed that Victor had “lived in an absolute solitude from his fourth or fifth almost to his twelfth year, which is the age he may have been when he was taken in the Caune woods.” That means he presumably lived for seven years in the wilderness.

It was clear that Victor could hear, but he was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf in Paris for the purpose of being studied by the renowned Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard. Sicard and other members of the Society of Observers of Man believed that by studying, as well as educating the boy, they would gain the proof they needed for the recently popularized empiricist theory of knowledge. In the context of the Enlightenment, when many were debating what exactly distinguished man from animal, one of the most significant factors was the ability to learn language. By studying the boy, they would also be able to explain the relationship between man and society.

Influence of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment caused many thinkers, including naturalists and philosophers, to believe that human nature was a subject that needed to be redefined and looked at from a completely different angle. Because of the French Revolution and new developments in science and philosophy, man was looked at as not special, but as characteristic of his place in nature. It was hoped that by studying the wild boy, this idea would gain support. He became a case study in the Enlightenment debate about the differences between humans and other animals.

At that time, the scientific category Juvenis averionensis was used, as a special case of the Homo Ferus, described by Carl von Linné in Systema Naturae. Linnaeus and his discoveries, then, forced people to ask the question, what makes us men? Another developing idea that was prevalent during the Enlightenment was the idea of the noble savage. Some believed that a man, existing in the pure state of nature would be “gentle, innocent, a lover of solitude, ignorant of evil and incapable of causing intentional harm.”

Philosophies proposed by the likes of Rousseau, Locke, and Descartes were evolving around the time when the boy was discovered in France in 1800. These advances in philosophy invariably had an influence on how the boy was looked at, and eventually, how his education would be constructed by Itard.

Influence of colonialism

Simpson points out that there was a “direct link between the discourse of colonialism abroad and internal regulation of deviants back home.”  The same way in which Europeans viewed the “Other” in colonies and other exotic locations was how the French people saw the Wild Boy of Aveyron. To lack reason and understanding during the Enlightenment was to be uncivilized. The attitudes that Europeans extended toward the Other was paralleled by Victor, as he too was considered “uncivilized” because of his lack of language and therefore, reason. These characteristics defined mankind for Victor’s contemporaries.

Education

After Sicard became frustrated with the lack of progress made by the boy, he was left to roam the institution by himself, until Itard decided to take the boy into his home in order to keep reports and monitor his development. However, it was said that even though he had been exposed to society and education, he had made little progress at the Institution under Sicard. Many people questioned his ability to learn because of his initial state, and as Yousef explains, “it is one thing to say that the man of nature is not yet fully human; it is quite another thing to say that the man of nature cannot become fully human.”

Jean Marc Gaspard Itard

Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student, effectively adopted Victor into his home and published reports on his progress. Itard believed that two things separated humans from animals: empathy and language. He wanted to civilize Victor with the objectives of teaching him to speak and to communicate human emotion. Victor showed significant early progress in understanding language and reading simple words but failed to progress beyond a rudimentary level. Itard wrote “Under these circumstances his ear was not an organ for the appreciation of sounds, their articulations and their combinations; it was nothing but a simple means of self-preservation which warned of the approach of a dangerous animal or the fall of wild fruit.”

The only two phrases that Victor ever actually learned to spell out were lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God). It would seem, however, that Itard implemented more contemporary views when he was educating Victor. Rousseau appears to have believed “that natural association is based on reciprocally free and equal respect between people.”  This notion of how to educate and to teach was something that although did not produce the effects hoped for, did prove to be a step towards new systems of pedagogy. By attempting to learn about the boy who lived in nature, education could be restructured and characterized.

Itard has been recognized as the founder of “oral education of the deaf; the field of otolaryngology; the use of behavior modification with severely impaired children; and special education for the mentally and physically handicapped.”

While Victor did not learn to speak the language that Itard tried to teach him, it seems that Victor did make progress in his behavior towards other people. At the Itard home, housekeeper Madame Guérin was setting the table one evening while crying over the loss of her husband. Victor stopped what he was doing and displayed consoling behavior towards her. Itard reported on this progress.

Language

When looking at the association between language and intellect, French society considered one with the other. Unless cared for by friends or family, most people considered “dumb” ended up in horrible, ghastly conditions. However, around 1750, something different was happening in Paris. A French priest named l’Eppe created a school to educate deaf-mutes. His institution was made into a National Institute in 1790. This new interest and moral obligation towards deaf-mutes inspired Itard to nurture and attempt to teach Victor language. “He had Locke’s and Condiallac’s theory that we are born with empty heads and that our ideas arise from what we perceive and experience. Having experienced almost nothing of society, the boy remained a savage.”

Throughout the years Itard spent working with Victor, he made some gradual progress. Victor understood the meaning of actions and used what Shattuck describes as “action language,” which Itard regarded as a kind of primitive form of communication.However, Itard still could not get Victor to speak. He wondered why Victor would choose to remain mute when he had already proved that he was not, in fact, deaf. Victor also did not understand tones of voice. Itard proclaimed that “Victor was the mental and psychological equivalent of a born deaf-mute. There would be little point in trying to teach him to speak by the normal means of repeating sounds if he didn’t really hear them.”

Shattuck critiques Itard’s process of education, wondering why he never attempted to teach Victor to use sign language. Regardless, today there are certain hypotheses that Shattuck applies to Victor. “One is that the Wild Boy, though born normal, developed a serious mental or psychological disturbance before his abandonment. Precocious schizophrenia, infantile psychosis, autism — a number of technical terms have been applied to his position. Several psychiatrists I have consulted favor this approach. It provides both a motivation for abandonment and an explanation for his partial recovery under Itard’s treatment.”

Victor died in Paris in 1828 in the home of Madame Guérin.

Dramatization

Victor’s life was dramatized in François Truffaut’s 1970 film l’Enfant Sauvage (marketed in the UK as The Wild Boy and in the US as The Wild Child).

Victor’s story was retold through dramatizations in a fourth season episode of In Search Of…, titled “Wild Children”, in 1980.

Victor’s story was also dramatized through puppetry in an ensemble theater performance also called The Wild Child by Hand2Mouth Theatre, a non-profit theatre group in Portland, Oregon, in 2004.

In literature

Victor’s life has been fictionalized in the 2003 novel, Wild Boy by Jill Dawson, and in the title novella of the 2010 collection Wild Child and Other Stories by T. C. Boyle.

 Recent commentary

Professor Uta Frith has stated that she believes Victor displayed the signs of autism.

In March 2008, following the disclosure that Misha Defonseca’s best-selling book, later turned into film, Survivre Avec les Loups (Survival with Wolves) was a fake, there was a debate in the French media (newspapers, radio and television) concerning the numerous false cases of feral children blindly accredited: although there are numerous books on this subject, almost none of them have been based on archives, the authors using rather dubious second or third-hand printed information. According to French surgeon Serge Aroles, who has written a general study of feral children based on archives, almost all of these cases are fakes. According to Aroles, Victor of Aveyron is not a genuine feral child: “Don’t forget that Truffaut’s movie is… a movie!” According to Aroles, the scars on the body of Victor were not the consequences of a wild life in the forests, but rather of physical abuse (a fact the film alludes to with at least one scar).

 

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