Authors: Mary Losure
“As yet we know very little about the child, who will now be the object of observations by true philosophers [a term then used to mean scientists] and who will surely be visited promptly.” The scientists, the article said, would be eager to find out all they could about the wild boy, “down to the slightest movements he might make to express his first sensations, his first ideas, his first thoughts.”
The newspaper noted that Professor Bonnaterre had placed the wild boy “in the hands of the Father of deaf-mutes,” Abbé Sicard.
In those days, many people believed it was a miracle that so-called deaf-mutes could be taught to read or write. Abbé Sicard had become famous as a “miracle worker.”
Now the Institute had a new pupil, and all of Paris was watching.
HEN THE WILD BOY ARRIVED
at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes, he lay down on the ground and went to sleep. Abbé Sicard woke him up and offered him bread, but the wild boy wouldn’t eat. Instead, he made motions to the Abbé that he wanted to sleep.
He was allowed to rest for several days.
He slept and slept, and when he woke, he was in a room high in the Institute’s tall white-stone buildings. He shared it with Clair.
Below their window lay a high-walled garden with formal paths and a reflecting pond. Beyond the garden, the wild boy could see open country. But on all other sides, behind high walls, lay slate rooftops and city streets.
In the summer mornings, the sounds of carriages clattering over the cobblestones and the cries of street vendors would have drifted up from the streets below. And the city smells, too: chimney smoke and horse dung and a myriad others.
What would the wild boy’s life be like in this place?
His door opened on a hallway that led to a spiral staircase. If he and Clair followed it, down and down, the marble steps led to the building’s front doors, which opened on a courtyard walled by other school buildings and shaded by a giant elm. More doors, on the back side of the building, led to the garden that lay below the wild boy’s window.
Everywhere, in the halls and on the spiral stairway and in the courtyard and gardens, children came and went. They never spoke aloud. Instead, they made gestures with their hands, the way the wild boy did.
When they played, they laughed and made natural, untrained cries, the way he did.
What did he think when he first saw these children who, like him, communicated with their hands and their eyes?
Perhaps in the beginning he watched them, closely, but they were not kind to him. He soon experienced what one observer described (without saying any more) as “a certain amount of ill-natured treatment” from “children of his own age.”
What could the wild boy do then, but try to stay out of their way?
“He detests children of his own age and runs away from them without fail,” wrote a man named J.-J. Virey. (Virey was a scientist who worked at a nearby hospital, observed the wild boy at the Institute, and wrote a report on him.) “He likes solitude a great deal; crowds irritate him and make him uncomfortable and temperamental; he avoids them as much as possible.” He also noted, “If he is afraid of something, he throws himself in the arms of his caretaker [Clair] and pushes him urgently toward his room, where he tries to close himself in and remain alone.”
Already, a Paris vaudeville theater had staged a musical comedy called
The Savage of Aveyron
. A melodrama based on a novel about a wild child was showing at a second Paris theater.
A poster appeared with the caption “The Savage of Aveyron, currently at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes.” It showed a drawing of a boy wearing a most peculiar costume: an orange-and-black striped gown with ruffles at the neck and sleeves, not to mention a ridiculous, beribboned hat. And if that wasn’t enough, the boy in the poster had what looked like claws on his hands and feet!
When sightseers got to the Institute, of course, they soon found out the poster was a fraud, but they kept coming anyway. The wild boy was “annoyed and victimized . . . by idle curiosity hunters of Paris,” one man at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes wrote, “and by the so-called observers [scientists], who bothered him just as much.”
The scientists, like all of Paris, were curious about the wild boy’s past life. What was it
, they wondered, living in the forest like a wild beast?
The scientists were eager, too, to find the answers to questions that scientists in those days wondered about, such as “What is the True Nature of Man?” and “What role does Civilization play in the True Nature of Man?”
But for the wild boy to answer any of the scientists’ questions, he had to be taught to talk. And surely, the scientists thought, that wouldn’t take long.
After all, the wild boy had a wonderful new teacher now: Abbé Sicard, the Miracle Worker.
A portrait of Abbé Sicard in his classroom shows a kindly man in a black coat, white wig, and shiny-buckled shoes. In the painting, he’s trying to teach a young deaf girl to speak by holding her arm and applying a slight pressure to her wrist and elbow. Other girls, wearing elegant gowns and dainty slippers, watch with rapt attention.
It would indeed have been a miracle if such a method had worked, but it didn’t. It is very, very difficult for truly deaf children to learn to speak aloud; pressing gently on their arms will not do the trick.
What the Institute for Deaf-Mutes actually did succeed in doing for its students was to teach them to read and write, using teachers who communicated with sign language. And that, in those days, was considered a “miracle.”
But now, all of Paris expected the Abbé, the miracle worker, to do something he never had before: teach a “mute” child to talk.
And for some reason, Abbé Sicard did not seem eager to try.
Certainly the barefoot, dirty wild boy was not at all the kind of student the Abbé was used to: boys in uniforms, girls in white muslin dresses.
And besides, why should the Abbé risk his reputation by trying to teach some strange grubby boy who might be no more than an imbecile? What if the Abbé failed?
what would people think of the “miracle worker”?
So as the days passed, the wild boy did not become Abbé Sicard’s pupil after all. Instead, he remained only a spectacle exhibited to curious visitors.
At night, before the wild boy went to sleep, “he stood at the window, pressed against the grating, gazing at the countryside,” J.-J. Virey wrote (after talking to Clair). “Sometimes he dreams and becomes agitated, as if he were vexed. He usually has these dreams after a lot of people have visited him during the day.”
to be his future?
One day at the end of August, the wild boy got into a carriage again, this time with Abbé Sicard and Professor Bonnaterre. It clattered through the Paris streets and stopped before a vast and splendid building. Soon, the wild boy was padding in his bare feet down gilded hallways and into the magnificent apartments of the French Minister of the Interior, Lucien Bonaparte.
The Minister had sent a letter to Abbé Sicard, telling him to present the “young savage of Aveyron” to him at noon that day.
One person who saw the wild boy there reported that the boy reminded him of a bear in a menagerie, his eyes glancing anxiously at the door and windows.
But the Minister of the Interior turned out to be an eccentric, artistic, and handsome young man. He patted the wild boy on the head and seemed well pleased with him, another observer wrote. The observer wrote, too, that the wild boy showed “lively joy.”
The meeting lasted a little less than half an hour, but when it was over, the boy (though he would never know this) had made an important and influential friend.
After the meeting, the wild boy was let out in the Minister’s garden, where (the first observer noticed) he ran very fast, giving “very lively cries of joy.”
Fall came, and then the damp cold of a Paris winter. In the Institute’s high-walled garden, the fruit trees pinned to the garden walls lost their leaves, the flowers withered, and the grass turned brown. The wild boy roamed the garden alone.
For Clair had gone home to Rodez.
The old man had once had a family of his own; in his lifetime, Clair was married and widowed twice. Now, perhaps, he had people who loved him waiting at home, but in any case, he had stayed with the wild boy as long as he could.
Before he left, Clair told the scientists that if they ever got tired of studying the wild boy, Clair would come back to Paris and get him. He’d take the wild boy home, Clair said, and be a father to him.
But the wild boy had no way of knowing that.
All he knew was that “his old guardian, whom he appears to love very much”—as one newspaper report had put it — was gone.
And now, the wild boy was neglected by everyone who once had been so eager to bring him to Paris. Often, he went hungry. When he could get food from the kitchen, he crept in a corner and ate it all by himself. Sometimes, for reasons that were never written down, he was locked in a dark closet.
Sometimes he had seizures. He rocked back and forth endlessly. Deep in his throat, he made his unhappy humming noise.
Days went by, then weeks. And Clair did not come back.
The other children at the school — about forty boys and twenty girls — lived in a different world from the wild boy.
At five o’clock every morning, a drumroll so loud they could feel the vibrations woke the boys in their dormitory. They jumped from their cots, put on their uniforms of blue cotton blouses, blue pants, sweaters, and berets, and presented themselves for inspection. Then they trooped down the spiral staircase to the ground-floor dining hall.
After breakfast, the students went off to their classrooms, where they learned to read and write from their deaf tutors. The boys also worked in shops, where they learned trades such as carpentry, shoemaking, and tailoring.
After dinner, both boys and girls were let out to play in separate parts of the garden. When he saw the other children, the wild boy ran and hid.
Sometimes he crouched in the Institute’s attic behind a pile of old building materials.
But when rain pattered on the roof and everyone else went inside, the wild boy often crept out into the garden, to the tiny, formal reflecting pond that sat among the flower beds. He would circle the pond several times, then sit by its edge and rock himself back and forth as the rain dimpled the surface of the pond. He’d gaze into the water, toss in a handful of dead leaves, and watch them drift.
HE RAIN FELL STEADILY
Inside the Institute a young doctor stood at the window, looking out into the garden. Like the wild boy, he had dark, deep-set eyes and unruly hair. His name was Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard.
He worked in the hospital just down the street, and sometimes he came to the Institute to treat the students there. Some time ago, he had noticed the strange boy roaming the Institute garden. He had begun observing him, quietly and from a distance. He had noticed the wild boy’s habit of sitting alone by the pond in the rain. “I have often stopped for hours with inexpressible delight to consider him in this situation,” he wrote later. But Dr. Itard was not the only one watching the wild boy.