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Authors: Mary Losure

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BOOK: Wild Boy
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At times like these, Dr. Itard was not a teacher, but as close to a father as he knew how to be. “People may say what they like,” Dr. Itard wrote, “but I will confess that I lend myself without ceremony to all this childish play.”

The wild boy’s new family also included Madame Guérin’s husband, Monsieur Guérin, but very little is known about him.

And there was still one more member, an even more mysterious figure: a girl named Julie. She was eleven or twelve years old, just about Victor’s age.

She was Madame Guérin’s daughter.

For some reason no one knows, she didn’t live in the apartment with Monsieur and Madame Guérin. But on Sundays, she came to visit. And in time, Madame Guérin began to notice that when Julie came, the boy made a sound that no one had ever taught him.

“Lee!” he’d say happily. “Lee! Lee! Lee!”

In the middle of the night, when Madame Guérin thought Victor was asleep, she would hear him calling all by himself in his room. “Lee! Lee! Lee!”

“He is often heard to repeat
lli lli
[lee! lee!] with an inflection of voice not without sweetness,” Dr. Itard wrote. “I am somewhat inclined to believe that in this painful linguistic labor there is a sort of feeling after the name of Julie.”

It must have been odd for Julie to have a boy who had once lived all by himself in the forest for a brother, but she does not seem to have minded.

If she had stared at him with distaste, Victor (who was good at reading faces) would have known right away. And surely, he would have avoided her, or brought her bonnet and shawl and tried to hurry her out the door.

But instead, he called out her name.

No one can know whether he and Julie really became friends, but there’s a story from around this time (about another, equally mysterious girl) that offers a tiny clue.

Once, a person watching the wild boy on his trips to the Observatory Gardens with Madame Guérin noticed that Victor seemed to be fond of a young girl, the daughter of an astronomer. Sometimes she would motion to him to sit next to her, and he would obey very shyly, like a puppy with his master. If something distracted him, though, he’d run away.

The story seems to show that sometimes, Victor
did
make friends with children his own age.

So maybe Julie was his friend, too.

Dr. Itard wrote very little about the wild boy’s life with the Guérin family, but one thing is certain: when he was with them, he began, all on his own, to say the beginnings of words.

Victor often heard Madame Guérin use the expression
“Oh Dieu!”
(
Dieu
, pronounced “dyuh,” is the French word for “God”) and after a while, he began to imitate her. “Oh dee!” he’d cry. “Oh dee! Oh dee!”

He said it often, Dr. Itard noticed, “in moments of great happiness.”

I
N TIME
, Victor’s life of doing whatever he wanted all day long came to an end. It began with toys.

“I have . . . shown him toys of all kinds; more than once I have tried for whole hours to teach him how to use them,” Dr. Itard wrote, “and I have seen with sorrow that, far from attracting his attention, [they] always ended by making him so impatient that he came to the point of hiding them or destroying them. . . . Thus, one day when he was alone in his room he took upon himself to throw into the fire a game of ninepins with which we had pestered him. . . . [We found him] gaily warming himself before his bonfire.”

But Dr. Itard — unlike Victor — was a very patient person. If one thing didn’t work, he tried another. After dinner one night, he took some silver cups and turned them upside down on the table. He put a chestnut underneath one of the cups. Victor watched, curious.

The game was an old carnival trick: the one in which a person hides something under one of several cups, then moves them around to see if the person watching can still find the cup with the hidden object.

Victor could.

When Itard replaced the nuts with things that weren’t food, Victor still wanted to play the game.

Dr. Itard was pleased. He wrote that the game was a good mental exercise for Victor; it helped develop his attention span and judgment. It taught him to fix his restless eyes in one place.

One day, when Victor was very thirsty, Dr. Itard offered him a glass of water and said,
“Eau! Eau!”
(
Eau
, pronounced “oh,” is the French word for “water.”) And then . . . Dr. Itard wouldn’t give him the water.

Victor waved his hands near the glass, but Dr. Itard acted as though he didn’t understand.

Madame Guérin stood watching.
“Eau!”
said Madame Guérin, and Dr. Itard gave the glass of water to her, just like that.

“Eau!”
said Itard.
“Eau!”
And Madame Guérin gave the water back.

Victor was frantic. “Water!” he gestured. “Water!” But, Dr. Itard and Madame Guérin acted as though they didn’t understand!

Victor’s arms were flailing, almost as though he were having a seizure, when Dr. Itard finally gave him the water. “It would have been inhuman to insist further,” Itard wrote later.

The next day when Victor sat down to breakfast and held out his cup for milk, Dr. Itard said,
“Lait!”
(pronounced “lay,” which in French means “milk”).
Lait
. He looked at Victor.
“Lait!”
he said again.

Victor was silent.

It happened the next day, too. Victor held out his cup for milk, and Dr. Itard just looked at him.
“Lait!”
said Dr. Itard, but Victor didn’t respond.

On the fourth day, Victor held out his cup for milk. As it poured into his cup, he said something very softly, almost under his breath.

“Lait,”
he said. Then he repeated it.
“Lait.”

Dr. Itard was pleased, but he wasn’t satisfied.

Victor hadn’t said the word
before
he’d gotten the milk. He’d still asked for milk in his old way, by holding out his cup, but Dr. Itard wanted Victor to ask for milk, with a word, not a gesture.

Now every time Victor wanted milk and held out his cup, Dr. Itard would stall, hoping Victor would ask for it in words.

But Victor had his
own
way of asking — by holding out his cup.

Only when, “despairing of success,” Dr. Itard had given Victor his milk would he say anything.

“Lait,”
Victor would say happily, as the milk poured into his cup.
“Lait!”

Victor had no way of knowing it, of course, but after that, Dr. Itard devised another plan: if Victor wouldn’t
say
words to ask for things, maybe he could learn to ask with
written
words. Itard hoped to teach him bit by bit, in little, tiny steps.

So one day when Dr. Itard came to Victor’s room, he brought a blackboard and chalk. First he drew outlines on it: a key, scissors, and a hammer. Then he set a real key, scissors, and hammer on the blackboard, each object on top of its outline. Next, he picked up all the objects and took them to another room.

Back at the blackboard, he pointed to an outline to show what he wanted, then motioned to Victor to bring that thing. One by one, Victor had to go to the other room and fetch whatever Itard wanted. After a while, to save himself the trouble of trotting back and forth, Victor just brought everything at once, but Dr. Itard didn’t like that.

So Dr. Itard tried keeping all the objects in the same room as the chalkboard. All Victor had to do was pick each one up and place it on its correct outline. It wasn’t hard, and Victor was successful at matching objects to outlines.

After a while, Dr. Itard brought many more objects and drew their outlines on the board. Victor looked at each one, searched for its outline on the blackboard, then placed it where it belonged.

So then Dr. Itard made the exercises harder. He brought in a variety of cardboard shapes in a variety of colors, for Victor to match up in pairs. To match them, Victor had to tell the difference not just between a circle and a square but also between a square and a slightly flattened square, and not just between red and blue but also between sky blue and gray blue, and so on. Each day, the shapes became more complicated and difficult. If Victor made a mistake or was uncertain, Dr. Itard made him do the task over and over and over.

One day, Victor threw all the cardboard pieces on the floor and stomped off toward his bed.

Dr. Itard made him pick up the shapes and match them.

The next day, there were more shapes; the day after that, more. . . .

Sometimes Victor ran to his bed and bit the sheets and blanket. He attacked the fireplace, scattering ashes and red-hot coals and tossing aside the iron frames that held the logs.

One day he got so angry, it seemed as though he were having a seizure.

But every day, there were more cards, and more shapes.

Then one day when Victor went into a fit of anger, Dr. Itard remembered something that had happened some time earlier, when Victor and Madame Guérin had gone to the Observatory Gardens.

That day, they had climbed the spiral stairs inside the Observatory and emerged on the rooftop observation platform. Victor went to the railing to look out and was seized with fright. Itard described it later: “Trembling in every limb and his face covered with sweat, he returned to his governess, whom he dragged by the arm towards the door.”

Now, remembering Victor’s fear of heights, Itard strode to the room’s fourth-story window and threw it open. “With every appearance of anger,” Dr. Itard wrote, he advanced upon Victor, grabbed him by the seat of his pants, and thrust him out the window with his head hanging over the stone courtyard, far below. He let Victor dangle, “his head directly turned towards the bottom of the chasm.”

Then, at last, he pulled Victor back in.

“He was pale, covered with a cold sweat, his eyes were rather tearful, and he still trembled a little,” Dr. Itard wrote later. “I led him to his cards. I made him gather them up and replace them all. . . . Afterwards he went and threw himself on his bed and wept.”

It was the first time Dr. Itard had ever seen him cry.

From then on, when Dr. Itard made Victor do his lessons even when he was tired or it was time to go outside. Victor no longer went into rages. He “contented himself with giving signs of weariness and impatience, and uttering a plaintive murmur which ordinarily ended in tears.”

But after that day, Victor did something that his teacher wrote only a few lines about — he ran away.

Dr. Itard wrote that Victor “escaped” from Madame Guérin on the streets and “shed many tears on seeing her again.” Hours later, his breath still came in gasps and his heart was racing fast.

Another time, he went out wandering on a wide street crowded with carriages, called the rue d’Enfer. Night had fallen before Madame Guérin found him. He recognized her in the dark by the smell of her hands and arms and was so happy he laughed out loud.

BOOK: Wild Boy
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