Feral Children

Wild Boys of Europe &
Brazilian Child Brides

Apparently, children and cats share a common trait: both easily revert to a feral state, when left on their own.
That’s hard but still better than what happens to kids in certain countries: they’ve got jobs and marry early.
Two weeks ago, an English-speaking teenager showed up at Berlin’s City Hall claiming to have been living in a nearby forest with his father for five years.
Ray, as he identified himself, seems articulate enough and his story, including his father’s death and burial, if it hasn’t been confirmed yet, does make sense. So far, he has refused to offer other details about it though.
Meanwhile, census figures for 2010 revealed that Brazil has a staggering number of children, in fact over 40 thousand, who are married or living with a partner.
What’s somewhat ironic is that one child found living without parents in a jungle would generate so many news stories, while thousands of children living in abusive conditions within society can’t get a meaningful coverage by the media.
One, the myth of “l’enfant sauvage,” has a profound resonance in our collective awareness, and the few cases reported ignited a rich literature of ideas society holds dear since way before the Enlightened era.
The other extreme, though, is a much more prevalent phenomenon, and with much deeper impact on how we perceive ourselves as a civilization, and yet, can hardly muster critical interest enough to be widely discussed.
Ray’s saga immediately stirred a passionate debate, and touched a nerve on the German collective memory because of at least one other boy who also appeared out of nowhere two hundred years ago, but wound up assassinated shortly thereafter.
When Kaspar Hauser suddenly erupted in the streets of Nuremberg, he could hardly speak and, for what historians were able to piece together, he’d been living in captivity the previous 16 years of his life. He was stabbed to death within five years.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog turned his tale into a libel against the ills of society, always eager to explore what it doesn’t understand to the point of killing it.
Rumors that Kaspar had been outcast by the House of Baden, through some court conspiracy at the time, remain inconclusive.
Ray’s appearance also brought up another tale about an “uncivilized” boy, even prior to Hauser’s, and also made into a movie, this time by François Truffaut: The Wild Child.
That one, named Victor of Aveyron after the town where he first appeared in the French countryside in 1797, was indeed a feral child and could only emit grunts with his mouth.
After the initial curiosity that he attracted died down, a doctor took him home and managed to teach him some rudiments of language (he only learned to pronounce three words) and not much else. After a brief moment into the spotlight, he faded to the background and died at 43.
But the impact of his presence did help fuel the increased moral debate going on during the Enlightenment about the true nature and difference of man and animal.
It was the height of the myth of the savant, the “noble savage,” of the natural purity and the civilization’s “duty” to instigate the intellect and impose the Christian faith to those pagans.
Such discussions were crucial at that time, as Europe was embarking in an unprecedented large-scale colonization of new lands, and had to tame their utterly wild natives before being able to fully conquer them.
The crowns and courts of the era firmly believed that it was up to them to show the “savages” the wonders of religion and science of the era. We all know what came out of that.
Perhaps the most famous case of a wild child galvanizing the attention of the European intelligensia of the time, predates the French kid by a few decades, and it’s probable a combination of the two boys’ biographies what inspired both Truffaut and Herzog to compose their fictional characters.
Everything said above about Victor had already been applied to Peter, who appeared in 1725 as wild as any being inhabiting the forest of Herswold, in Germany. Thought to be about 12, he walked on all fours, fed on grass and leaves, and could utter no intelligible sound.
Despite being the first one to achieve fame and who lived the longest, 72 years, Peter was but one of a long line of feral children. His fate became the template applied to every other similar discovery, at turns celebrated, shunned and finally ostracized when the nobles and aristocrats would found something else to be entertained.
For a little while, Peter was the talk of courts of both Germany and England, and his impact on the society of the era was captured by the pen of famous intellectuals, such as Jonathan Swift, Daniel Dafoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
If anyone, he was the original noble savage, and as such he was pampered and subjected to endless and intense efforts to dote him of literacy and an education. All attempts failed, though.
No longer amusing in his antics, Peter was dispatched to the countryside and ended his days as a farm hand. There was also some speculation in the 19th century that he was probably mentally retarded, based on some of his physical traits.
His gravestone at St Mary’s Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire, still stands, though, and attracts a modest string of visitors every year.
Victor and Peter lived full lives, though, and unlike Kaspar, who was thrown into the mainstream of Germany’s rigid class society of the 1800s, his predecessors died at a relatively old age, protected from the threat of strangers, but still untamed.
Other examples history recorded of outcasts and misfits don’t quite fit the mold or even withstand close scrutiny. At best, they remain a romantic ideal of freedom and rebelliousness.
Most likely, there were, as they still can be, treated as a perversion, a curiosity that belongs to sideshows, and often were indeed found through them, such as John Merrick, the Elephant Man.
Ray’s case has not just very little in common with these examples, but is also a product of a different era.
We don’t know what would John, or Victor or Kaspar do if they were living today, but Ray may as well profit of his experience, in what the “otherness” of it is concerned.
If he’s smart enough, he’ll land a book deal, a movie, and, who knows, a franchise? That’s how at least part of what used to be considered new, can now be turned into a commodity, a line of garden furniture, perhaps.
That is, until another Ray shows up which, by then, one hopes this British kid would have found a way to fade gently into the background. With luck, his life will still be his.

The right to owe one’s own life is probably the most devastating loss caused by marriage for children. Specially when it’s associated with poverty, sect traditions, and pure prostitution.
The release of census figures for 2010 in Brazil caused a subdued shock to a country that likes to perceive itself as a potential world power, and a paradise of racial and social justice.
But the indignation toward the reported 43,000 Brazilian children under 14 years of age who are living with a partner lasted exactly one news cycle.
Brazil, whose penal code prohibits marriage with children and defines sex with them as statutory rape, is obviously doing very little to reverse some of the most damaging consequences of its growth.
And typically, the overall reaction to the report quickly turned against the messenger. Some implied that the Census had given Brazil a black eye, by unduly publicizing the data to the whole world.
After all, Brazil is unfortunately not alone in being an unforgiven place for children (and a safe haven for pedophiles). More than 51 million girls younger than 18 are estimated to be married, even though it’s outlawed in many developing countries and by many international agreements and conventions.
The fact is that child marriage, and child labor as well, are both considered a cultural and religious phenomenon mostly contained and valued by Asian societies, such as China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Mali, and rarely in Brazil.
But even if that was true, and for all we know now about the emotional development of children, wouldn’t it be serious enough a concern for it’s happening in some of the most populous countries in the world?
As a matter of fact, even the U.S. has a secret population of underage brides. And according to a recent study, they suffer psychiatric disorders at a much higher rate than women who marry after they turn 18.
Where’s are our sense of outrage? And, as it goes, it is not something contained to those cultures: throughout the world, prostitution of the young is an often used tool of war, of economic power and of sex and religious subjugation.
A 43 thousand figure is nowhere close to rare, even within a nation of 200 million, and as industrialized and politically relevant as Brazil has become.
Despite the even excessive inflow of foreign capital into the Brazilian economy, impoverished families are still resorting to sell their children to survive. And that is, frankly, unacceptable.
Tomorrow, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will open the United Nations General Assembly, in the first such speech by a female leader of state to such a high-level world political body.
Apart from the economic stability and pronounced growth that she’s expected to discuss at length, it’d be great news to hear Ms. Rousseff also talk about the issue of child abuse in her country.
Because, no matter how many traits they share, when all else fails, cats will always fare better than children. But neither deserves to be treated as a wild animal.

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