Authors: Mary Losure
That winter, a famous psychiatrist named Philippe Pinel issued a report that, like Professor Bonnaterre’s, concluded that the wild boy was most likely an “imbecile.” The report went on to suggest that if the boy really
an imbecile, then the best place for him was . . .
an insane asylum
Pinel himself had been the director of two Paris insane asylums: one for men and boys, and one for women and girls. He believed “imbecile” children must be “condemned to vegetate sadly in our asylums” because they were incapable of learning. The asylum where boys were sent was called Bicêtre. It was a huge, fortress-like building on a hill just south of Paris.
Only a few years earlier, it had been a terrible prison.
“Debtors are incarcerated [imprisoned] here,” a man called Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote of Bicêtre. “Beggars, and madmen, together with all the viler criminals, huddled pell-mell. There are others, too; epileptics, imbeciles. . . .”
Mercier described Bicêtre’s “subterranean dungeons, cut off from the light of day and the sounds of the outer world, save for a couple of tiny outlets in the roof.”
The wild boy, fortunately for him, had no way of knowing what awaited him if people listened to the famous Dr. Pinel.
But the young, unknown doctor who had been watching the wild boy with such pleasure did.
And Dr. Itard believed it was
to send the wild boy to Bicêtre. Society had no right, he wrote, “to tear a child away from a free and innocent life, and send him to die of boredom in an institution.”
“I never shared this unfavorable opinion,” he wrote of Pinel’s report. Dr. Itard believed the wild boy
be taught. “I dared to conceive certain hopes.”
So Dr. Itard went to Abbé Sicard and asked for permission to become the wild boy’s teacher. Abbé Sicard granted that, and more. He gave Dr. Itard a job as the resident doctor at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes, and with it, an apartment on the Institute’s fourth floor, high above the garden. There, the young doctor could spend all the time he wanted on the task no one else would take — the education of a dirty wild boy.
HEN THE REFLECTING POND
was skimmed with ice and gray skies hung low over Paris, the wild boy had a fire to sit by. He could watch the flames in peace, with no one to tell him “for shame.” He could sit drowsily in a corner, his stomach full, safe from cold-eyed scientists and whispering, giggling sightseers. The wild boy had a new home.
He had gone to live with Dr. Itard’s housekeeper, Madame Guérin, who lived at the Institute with her husband, Monsieur Guérin. Madame Guérin, Dr. Itard wrote later, was a person with “all the patience of a mother and the intelligence of an enlightened teacher.”
The wild boy had his own room, just down the hall from Dr. Itard’s study.
Although the wild boy didn’t know it, Madame Guérin and Dr. Itard had a plan for him. In the beginning, it was quite simple: to treat him kindly, give him plenty of food, and let him do whatever he wanted.
“It was necessary,” Dr. Itard wrote later, “to make him happy in his own way.”
Every day, the wild boy had a long, hot bath, and after a while, he began to lose his animal-like ability to withstand cold. When it was time for him to get in the water, he would test it with his fingers to see if it was warm enough. One time when it wasn’t, he grabbed Madame Guérin’s hand and stuck it in to show her.
Now that he felt the cold, the wild boy began to be less impatient about wearing clothing. He’d realized, Itard wrote, that clothes kept him warm. One chilly morning when the wild boy woke up, someone had left his clothes right by his bed. After several mornings, the wild boy put them on himself. In time — although he disliked them most of all and they always made his gait a little heavy — he even wore shoes.
It was all part of Dr. Itard’s plan.
Every day, the boy was allowed to do what he liked, and for now that meant the things he knew best: “sleeping, eating, doing nothing and running about the fields.”
Almost every day, Dr. Itard or Madame Guérin took him for a walk. They went either to the garden of the Paris Observatory or to the Luxembourg Gardens. Both were only a few blocks from the Institute for Deaf-Mutes.
Not that the wild boy walked. They walked, but he trotted, loped, or galloped. As Dr. Itard put it, these outings were not so much walks as “scampers.” Often, the wild boy would stop to sniff things that to Dr. Itard seemed to have no smell. It was as though the wild boy could sense a whole different world, the world that dogs understand, where smells tell an invisible story. “I have many times seen him stop, and even turn round, to pick up pebbles and bits of dried wood, which he threw away only after holding them to his nose, often with the appearance of great satisfaction,” Itard wrote.
The wild boy’s new life, wrote Dr. Itard, “was the beginning of the intense affection which he has acquired for his governess [Madame Guérin] and which he sometimes expresses in a most touching manner. He never leaves her without reluctance nor does he rejoin her without signs of satisfaction.”
Dr. Itard was a serious, studious man who stayed a bachelor all his life. But even he realized how important it was for the wild boy to have a mother. Itard wrote about it in his own, sometimes rather hard-to-understand way, like this: “I shall perhaps be understood if my readers will remember the . . . influence exerted upon a child’s mind by the inexhaustible delights and the maternal triflings that nature has put into the heart of a mother and which make the first smiles flower and bring to birth life’s earliest joys.”
What he meant was: children need mothers, and now that the wild boy had one, he could begin to be happy.
It didn’t take much, really. “A ray of sun reflected upon a mirror in his room and turning about on the ceiling, a glass of water let fall drop by drop from a certain height upon his fingertips while he was in the bath, and a wooden porringer containing a little milk placed at the end of his bath, which the . . . [waves] of the water drifted, little by little, amid cries of delight, into his grasp,” Dr. Itard wrote. “Such simple means were nearly all that was necessary to divert and delight this child of nature.”
Once when it snowed heavily during the night, the wild boy woke up and with “a cry of joy” ran half-dressed into the garden, Itard wrote. “There, giving vent to his delight by the most piercing cries, he ran, rolled himself in the snow and gathered it by handfuls, feasting on it with incredible eagerness.”
As part of his plan to make the wild boy happy, Dr. Itard often took the boy with him when he was invited out to dinner. If they went on foot, it was impossible to make the wild boy walk by Itard’s side; the boy always wanted to trot or gallop ahead. So instead of walking, they rode in a carriage.
The carriage would rattle through the narrow streets, past tall houses all joined together and capped with shallow roofs like flat-topped hats, so common in Paris. They’d pass archways leading to cobbled courtyards, or poor neighborhoods where ragpickers and water carriers hurried down the streets, going home to their attic rooms. As it got dark, men would light the oil lamps that hung from ropes strung from one side of the street to the other.
The carriage would stop in front of a house glowing with candle- and lantern light.
Inside, the table would be set with the wild boy’s favorite dishes. He would make sounds to the hostess, asking her for what he wanted. If she pretended not to hear him, he’d put his plate beside the dish and stare at it longingly, then rap on his plate with a fork. And if
didn’t work, he could wait no longer.
He’d empty the dish onto his plate with a spoon or even his hand.
The wild boy always knew when they were going out to eat, because Dr. Itard would appear in the late afternoon wearing his hat and carrying a clean, folded shirt. The boy would change into it as fast as he could, then follow Itard out the door.
Itard had a name for his pupil now. He called him Victor.
. It had a nice ring to it. A
— a winner — is someone who triumphs over all obstacles.
Dr. Itard wrote that he chose it for the wild boy’s name because in French, the name Victor has an “oh” sound in it — it’s pronounced “veek-tOHr”—and Dr. Itard had noticed that the wild boy seemed to turn his head when he heard people say the sound “oh.”
But Dr. Itard may have had another reason, too, for choosing
— the hope that someday, the wild boy would live up to his new name.
, Victor would have breakfast with Madame Guérin and her husband, Monsieur Guérin. Every day, he would set the table with three places. Often, she’d send him down to the Institute’s kitchen to bring back food for their meals.
He’d trot down the hall. Then, when he got to the marble staircase leading to the first floor, where the kitchen was, he’d listen carefully. If he heard echoing footsteps and the laughter of other students, he would stay back until he was sure to avoid them.
Victor liked the neatness and order of the Guérins’ apartment. When something was left out of its proper place, he’d put it back.
Sometimes he went down the hall to Dr. Itard’s study and sat on the sofa.
From time to time, curious visitors came to the apartment. But now if Victor decided they’d stayed too long, he would present them with their hats, gloves, and walking canes, push them gently out the door, and shut it firmly behind them.
Each day, he seemed to grow more like other people. He dressed neatly, in a gentleman’s waistcoat like Dr. Itard’s. A person who didn’t know Victor might even mistake him for “an almost ordinary child who cannot speak,” Itard wrote proudly.
In the evenings, after Victor had gone to bed, Dr. Itard would sometimes stop by to say good night. Victor would sit up for a hug, then pull him close, until Dr. Itard was sitting next to him on the bed. The boy would take Dr. Itard’s hand and put it on his own head — his eyes, his forehead, his hair — and let it rest there for a long time.
Sometimes Victor would pat the knees of Dr. Itard’s velvet pants, rubbing the fuzz this way and that and then, sometimes, putting his lips two or three times to Itard’s velvet knees.