Today we start a two-part series from Lauren Alwan. Lauren Alwan’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Zyzzyva, The Bellevue Literary Review, StoryQuarterly, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Northwest Review of Books, the Rumpus, and The Millions. She is the recipient of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction and named a finalist for the Wabash Fiction Prize and Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. She a staff contributor at LitStack, a literary news and reviews site, and a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review.
In the thirteenth century, Salimbene di Adam, a Franciscan chronicler of history, recorded an experiment conducted by the Holy Roman Emperor, King Frederick II. The Emperor sought to discover what, if any form of language was inherent in the human mind. As a test, two dozen infants were sequestered with nannies and wet-nurses who were instructed not to speak or interact with their charges in any way—only to feed and bathe them as needed. This, Frederick hoped, would reveal “whether they would speak the Hebrew language, or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born.” No record exists of the experiment’s duration, but as Salimbene wrote, the Emperor “laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”
In other words, the infants died. Their deaths were likely caused by what’s now termed “nonorganic failure to thrive,” the result of environmental neglect and extreme sensory deprivation—clinically termed pathogenic care. Without the stimulation of touch, speech, and gaze, the infants’ brains ceased to function, despite being given essential care. Neurologists now know that without sensory contact from an emotionally responsive caregiver, the infant brain grows fewer neuroreceptors, the pathways responsible for brain growth and development. Stimulus prompts a response that in turn generates more receptors, creating a necessary cycle. The process drives bonding, and is integral to a host of abilities including motor skills, emotional growth and regulation, and auditory and speech processes.
Frederick wasn’t the only ruler to conduct such trials. Similar investigations, dating from ancient Egypt to medieval Scotland, sought to uncover the root of the human language acquisition. Imposed language deprivation, more recently termed “The Forbidden Experiment,” eventually found an analogous subject in what has been called the savage or feral child. From the 18th century, cases of children living in the wild were thought to be the result of family trauma or abandonment due to birth defects. Their discovery often led to exploitation (as sideshow exhibits alongside dancing bears, for example), yet the early scientific community understood the feral child presented a unique opportunity, and ethical compromise, providing the required subject without the unethical preconditions.
The most well-known case is Victor of Aveyron, discovered in 1798 in the forests of south-central France. At the time, Victor was approximately eleven years old, living in isolation, language-deprived and unsocialized. The numerous scars on his body suggested he’d been abandoned at an early age. Presumed deaf, Victor was admitted to the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris. There, he was introduced to a young medical student, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. After examining Victor, Itard found the boy was not deaf, but language deficient due to social isolation. Itard’s work with Victor served as the foundation of oral education for the deaf, and led to more empathic clinical methods—including behavior modification—to rehabilitate and socialize his extraordinary patient.
The account of Victor’s treatment under Itard was the subject of a 1970 film by Francois Truffaut, The Wild Child. Truffaut, a founding figure of the French New Wave and auteur theory, was a vocal critic of child mistreatment and injustice. As Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana write in their biography, The Wild Child was “an attempt to use cinema for educational purposes,” and call attention to issues of child welfare and social education.
Truffaut himself grew up a kind of wild child. Born in 1932 to a single mother, the unmarried Janine de Monferrand, Truffaut endured profound neglect as an infant. Soon after his birth, Janine secretly placed her infant son with a wet nurse, and for years he received only cursory care. By the age of three, the young Francois’ physical and emotional condition had turned grave, causing his maternal grandmother, Genevieve, to intervene. As de Baecque and Toubiana write, she found a sallow, barely functioning child, “wasting away, eating very little, and growing sickly,” and quickly took him in to raise alongside her own children. By then, Janine had met and married Roland Truffaut, and though soonafter Roland formally adopted Francois, the couple continued to deny his existence. On Genevieve’s death, Janine and Roland were forced to finally take in ten year-old Francois, but Janine’s indifference continued. The couple found themselves “caring for a child whom they had rarely seen—a cyclothymic, irritable, clever, hypersensitive, somewhat sickly boy.” At twelve, Truffaut had become accustomed to parental inattention, skipping school to go to the cinema, a child left to fend for himself when the couple went on vacations, who slept on a makeshift bench in the entry hall.
Those childhood scenarios served as the basis for Truffaut’s groundbreaking 1964 film, The 400 Blows. It centers on the young Antoine Doinel, a boy tormented by indifferent parents and a cruel teacher. His plan to leave home runs afoul when he’s caught with a typewriter stolen to fund his escape, and he’s subsequently sent to a home for troubled youth. The film draws heavily on Truffaut’s adolescent years and his experience with juvenile detention. At the age of 14, he pawned Roland’s typewriter to pay a debt to a film distributor (Francois had by then already founded a successful film club that presented weekly screenings). At the time, under French law, a father could relinquish a minor for detention in the correctional system, and Roland Truffaut’s act reinforced a condition that became integral to Truffaut’s films: the tension between states of being loved and unloved, the transience of emotional attachments, narrative meditations on the nature of love.
For eighteenth century clinicians, Victor of Aveyron provided a subject on which to test early ideas of nativist versus empiricist theories of human development. For Truffaut, the subject was personal. At the time The Wild Child was filmed, little was known about the trauma and effects of emotional deprivation on child development, though clinicians now know the child who suffers from maladaptive attachment is at risk neurologically, for behavioral, cognitive and social-emotional delays. In the early 1970s, studies of attachment theory and its bearing on early childhood development had only recently come to light, primarily through the pioneering studies of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. In 2000, a landmark study affirmed the crucial role of emotional bonding and sensory input on the developing brain and showed that when sensory and responsive emotional care is compromised in the first five years, the neuro-chemical implications are known to be far-reaching for behavioral, mental, and even physical health.
Join us next week Monday for Part II!