Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Feral Children, Upon Wilderness' Edge

After the most recent case of a ‘wild child’ discovery in Cambodia, I was reminded of how frustratingly consistently these wilderness humans evoke pity, both in the approaches towards their portrayals in the news, and in responses to these portrayals. It is always assumed that these beings must be miserable and in need of ‘rescuing’. They might well be miserable about having been ‘rescued’! But why should we assume they were miserable living as they were?

Cases of feral people go back a long way, but of the most recent, including last week’s Cambodian woman, TV coverage and photographs focus on the impassionate, expressionless face - the ‘poverty’ expression: very similar facial expressions are captured for pity-evocation in coverage of people in the developing world.

But the ‘pity’ itself is older than its television coverage, so there’s something else going on behind the motivation for visualising this imposed misery. There’s the idea that a human living the life of an animal – living like an animal – is living an inferior existence, that s/he has somehow been ‘reduced’ as a human. S/he has been ‘reduced’ to walking on all-fours, and ‘reduced’ to chewing on bones. There has been a ‘reduction’ to life quality, it seems. In other words, living like an animal is considered inferior to living like a human. Perhaps it is this assumption that any life-form must envy human existence, and feel that their own existence is inferior to it, that is what informs social reactions of pity for animal-humans who have had the ‘misfortune’ to slip outside of the wholly ‘human’ category.
"Nothing about her is human except that she is not a wolf; it is as if the fur she thought she wore had melted into her skin and become part of it, although it does not exist".

The pity, however, is closely followed by other related reactions: notably repulsion and abhorrence. Much is made of the way these ‘rescued’ wilderness humans often resist clothing and refuse to wear it, or continue to eat with their hands, or just with their mouths, or make attempts to return to the forests/jungles/deserts from which they were removed. Could it be that there is an internalised conflict of jealousy, paired with denial, going on? – A kind of mimetic mass social internalisation of the denial of our connection with ‘nature’ and our animal ancestry – our historical wilderness-belonging… Maybe it embarrasses us a little… It was all such a long time ago… and we are so different now…!

Is this what informs our reasoning about feral people? We’ve come a long way since grunting and scratching made much sense to us: do humans who remind us of our primeval selves, re-emerging in the 21st century, cause us some embarrassment? And are we a little jealous? Has ‘civilisation’ come at the cost of other freedoms? Do feral people remind us of freedoms lost? And so we mask our jealousy in pity – that their freedoms are inferior to ours, given to us through the ‘civilising’ process of the species…? “Put some clothes on the creature and make it eat with a knife and fork like the rest of us. It wants to really, it just doesn’t know it yet!”
"singing to the wolves with a kind of wistful triumph, because now she knew how to wear clothes and so had put on the visible sign of her difference from them".

As far as I know, from the cases I’ve read, it’s never occurred to anyone, even when the feral person is ‘unclaimed’ by family or friends, to let him/her return to the habitat from which s/he was captured (sorry, I mean ‘rescued’!). No thought for the surrogate wolf/monkey/dog/even ostrich (!) family from whom the animal-human was wrenched. No consideration for their loss.
"Sometimes the sharp ears of her foster kindred hear her across the irreparable gulf of absence; they answer her from faraway pine forest and the bald mountain rim".

From a gender perspective, I find it frustrating that in a number of news items (the Guardian and the Independent articles are notable exceptions) covering the story, including the BBC, the 27-year-old feral woman found in Cambodia is referred to as a girl, although this seems to have been rectified to some extent with their most recent article. As if women – detached from society, floating and wandering – unconnected from the acceptable confines of the established social order of marriage and family – and without affirmation that they will one day join one of these social orders – can never be whole complete subjects, but will always be incomplete and in need of guardianship: always in need, therefore always lacking…

There are roughly equal accounts of both feral male and feral female discoveries. So is it this ambivalence towards wandering, ‘unclaimed’ females that have lent the stories (fictional or fact-based) of wandering, ‘unclaimed’ males more to visual realisations in popular culture? The stories of Mowgli and Tarzan are widely known – popularised by Disney...

...and the children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are has been on the bestseller lists, telling the feral story of Max, since its publication in 1963, in most English-speaking countries.

How many visualisations in popular media of feral females’ stories can you think of? I could think of two – and they are nowhere near as widely known: one is the 1994 film Nell with Jodie Foster – although her story is not entirely feral, since she is raised with some degree of human socialisation, and she lived in a house.

The other is one of my favourite short stories – second only to Newton’s Sleep by Ursula Le Guin – called Wolf Alice, by Angela Carter, of which I’ve scattered exerts throughout this post…

Is the absence of their stories a reflection of our discomfort at the presentation of ‘unattached’ and ‘unclaimed’ females? Or is it a certain disbelief that a girl or woman would have what it takes to survive in the wilderness… stripped of all that humans associate with ‘femininity’, attributes we insist are somehow inherently innate in the female body? I suspect it is a combination of the two…
"Her panting tongue hangs out; her red lips are thick and fresh. Her legs are long, lean and muscular. Her elbows, hands and knees are thickly callused because she always runs on all fours. She never walks; she trots or gallops".

Technorati Tags:
, , , , , , , , , ,


thury said...

Guess those persons are only truly miserable after they have been "rescued"?!
Heard of some horrible rain storms in Angola, hope you are alright.

jennifletzet said...

I don't know - I mean maybe I'm also reading into the situation what I want to read, because the human inflated inferiority complex really bugs me, but it seems like society never considers whether they might actually prefer to return to the wild. They can't tell us what they want - but they do demonstrate it instead by making frequent attempts to escape their captivity, which the Cambodian woman has done a few times apparently.

Yeah, there were really heavy rains on Monday - killing a lot of people, mainly, I think, through landslides as much as the flooding water itself - because there is a lot of mud construction upon clay banks in Luanda. There is no drainage to cope with the massive deluges of rain.

jennifletzet said...

I meant surperiority complex! Just goes to show that they're 2 sides of the same coin!