This unusual book may rate as one of my more peculiar charity shop finds, with thanks to British Heart Foundation Bromley. Savage Girls and Wild Boys tells the sad stories of children who have grown up outside the framework of the family/care unit, either brought up by animals in the wilderness, or locked in solitary confinement. It starts with the mythological tale of Romulus and Remus, and travels through time to recount historical examples such as Peter The Wild Boy in 18th century Germany and more recent examples such as Genie in 1970s America.
It’s more of a scientific and anthropological analysis than the voyeuristic piece it could have been, given the subject matter and our predilection for tales of abusive childhoods. Michael Newton seeks to explain how society has reacted to these isolated children – the questions their experiences prompt about major subjects such as evolution (e.g. whether these children provide living examples of humanity’s primitive state, given their isolation from outside influence), and language (e.g. whether their lack of language skills has ramifications for their capacity for thought, and for having an identity, or even a soul…), and how our understanding of what their experience can tell us has usually been influenced by the prevailing scientific theory of the period and has therefore changed over time. There is also an interesting review of how these ‘wild children’ have been represented in literature – I’ll never watch Jungle Book with the same innocence ever again.
Predictably, as interesting as this analysis is, overall it remains a distressing read. Consider, for example, this vignette of Kasper Hauser, who was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg as a 16 year old in 1828 claiming to have spent his childhood imprisoned in a dungeon, and whose tale includes a kidnapped German royal heir and a murder plot involving a British aristocrat:
In August 1828, (his teacher) showed him for the first time the sight of the stars at night. Hauser, as always when presented with something new, fell into a stunned reverie. On coming from this absorbed stillness, Hauser wept that for so long he had been kept from the sight of such beauty.
And, as well as it obviously being difficult to read about children being unloved or uncared for, the fact that there is a pattern of ambitious scientists capitalizing on their misfortune to further their scientific research, and then dumping them shortly once they cease to be useful, means that there aren’t many happy endings in this book.
So, brace yourself if you are going to read it…and perhaps have this Duran Duran classic to hand to lift your spirits (thank you, YouTube). Dunno about you, but Simon Le Bon in leathers always cheers me up, and if my Jason can age as well as John Taylor, then job’s a good’un.