Today we have the second part of Lauren Alwan’s piece on Francois Truffaut and attachment theory. Read Part I here.
As discussed in the previous post, Francois Truffaut’s 1970 film, The Wild Child, served as a vehicle to focus attention on his longtime concerns of child mistreatment. The subject of children was a prominent theme in his films, especially children who were unwanted, abused, or who navigated the world unprotected by adults. Those ideas took form in The Wild Child, the historical account of Victor of Aveyron, a feral child discovered in rural France in 1798.
Victor was the first to be studied by a medical community, providing Enlightenment-era practitioners with a case study child behavior and early language acquisition. Recent studies suggest he may have been autistic from birth, a factor that could have led to his abandonment, and indeed, the term “feral-child syndrome” has come to stand for autism-like symptoms displayed by children subjected to social isolation, severe abuse, or trauma prior to abandonment.
During Truffaut’s lifetime (he died in 1984), the term autism was often used for what is now understood to be reactive attachment disorder. RAD is a relatively rare psychological childhood condition acquired as a result of negligent care, trauma, or abrupt separation that causes profound behavioral disturbances in infants and children up to five years old. The criteria for RAD first appeared in the DSM-5 in 2013, and among its measures cites: children who are unable to seek out and respond to comfort; who display signs of sadness, irritability and fearfulness; and who display aggressive behaviors resulting from an inability to self-soothe—a benchmark in attachment-typical infants that paves the way for skills including impulse control, socialization, and empathy. Moreover, the high levels of anxiety associated with RAD interfere with cognitive development, leading to learning challenges, problems in the classroom, and conflicts in the social sphere.
RAD is often linked to the institutional setting, for example, in orphanages that are overcrowded and understaffed. Landmark studies conducted between the late 1980s and 1990s found RAD to be prevalent in orphanages in Russia, China, and Romania, where infants were observed left in cribs for long periods of time, were rarely held, and fed through propped-up bottles. Yet institutionalization is only one factor. The child whose first months or years lack a responsive, emotionally available figure, is at risk, whether due to abuse, abandonment, or parents with mental illness or substance addiction.
During Truffaut’s childhood, little was known about emotional attachment and its role in psychosocial development. After his release from juvenile prison, he found encouragement and guidance in mentorship from André Bazin, a key figure in the Parisian film community, but nonetheless continued to struggle in the social-emotional sphere. A friend from that time, Claude Chabrol, described eighteen year old Truffaut: “Let’s admit it, Francois’s aggressiveness, his state of perpetual agitation, like a crazed mosquito, got on our nerves,” a characterization that suggests the disturbances in gross motor skills, and the social relatedness typical of RAD.
The anxiety and depression experienced by Truffaut in this period is well-documented. As is the creative intensity—in particular his autodidact’s objective to see four films per day and read three books every week—a course that quickly resulted in a job writing film criticism for Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma. Still, Truffaut was often derailed emotionally and exhibited a tendency for impulsive acts, some merely charming and others gravely serious. At eighteen, he made the sudden decision to enlist in the French army, and the following year was sentenced to military prison for insubordination, deserting prior to his deployment to Saigon. There was, too, the first of many setbacks in his famously complicated relationships with women, which even then were multifarious, turbulent, and often overlapping. That same year, when a romantic breakup coincided with the loss of a film society prize, Truffaut inflicted twenty-five razor slashes to his arm. Years later, the success of his films would mitigate the emotional distress, but until the end of his life, Truffaut recalled the years of being unwanted by his parents, “The underlying thought, which they didn’t even bother to hide from me, was always—“How can we get rid of him?”
The effects of attachment disorder on Truffaut’s life and work have yet to be examined. Scholarly analyses, like Anne Gillain’s Francois Truffaut: The Lost Secret (1991), examine his films with a traditional psychoanalytic lens. Indeed, Gillain cites Truffaut’s work as “particularly susceptible to psychoanalytical interpretation,” especially “the grand Freudian scenarios—in particular the fundamental Oedipal one.” For Truffaut, mothers and women were an acknowledged idée fixe, yet Freudian concepts have a tenuous link to what might be called the attachment narrative. To understand actions based in atypical neurology, we need a frame of reference unlike those that explain drives in the neuro-typical unconscious mind. A clearer understanding of Truffaut might well be found with a lens of attachment theory—in particular how pathogenic care, and RAD, influenced his work and world view.
For instance, from earliest stages of The Wild Child, Truffaut saw himself playing the role of Itard, admitting, “Casting someone else in the part…would have put an intermediary between Jean Pierre Cargol and me, and I’d have had a lot of trouble directing him.” Fundamental to the role of Itard was an understanding and empathy for Victor, something Truffaut must have felt from the start. When, in the film, the wild boy undergoes examination at the Institute, an exchange by Itard and his colleague, Professor Pinel, is revealing. Pinel observes how the boy doesn’t speak, despite a world that “did not make him dumb.” To that Itard replies, “I think the only dumbness is the isolation in which he lived,” a line that suggests the understanding the director had for his subject’s experience of deep-rooted alienation.
Now, thirty-two years after the great filmmaker’s death, far more is known about early bonding, brain development, the detriment caused by pathogenic care, and the reversal early interventions can bring—as Genevieve’s did for three year-old Francois. Despite the profound emotional challenges that continued throughout his life, Truffaut made art out of those energies, and some of his most affecting films emerge from that personal story—explicitly in The 400 Blows and implicitly in The Wild Child. Yet the difference between the emotional bond and the attachment bond remains widely unknown outside the clinical community, and children who act out or display other extreme behaviors are seen as willful, undisciplined, even morally flawed, when in fact they’re behaving as their brains have been wired to. That understanding wasn’t accessible during Truffaut’s lifetime, but it is now, and offers an important window into the attachment experience.