Victor of Aveyron

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Victor of Aveyron
Oval head and shoulders side portrait of a boy without clothes. He has a medium length hair cut long at the neck, a receding chin, and gazes calmly ahead.
Victor's portrait from the front cover of the book about him.
Born c. 1788
Aveyron, France
Died 1828
Paris, France
Nationality Unknown
Other names The Wild Boy of Aveyron
Known for Feral child

Victor of Aveyron (c. 1788 – 1828) was a French feral child who was found in 1800 after apparently spending the majority of his childhood alone in the woods. Upon his discovery, his case was taken up by a young physician, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who worked with the boy for five years and gave him his name, Victor. Itard was interested in determining what Victor could learn. He devised procedures to teach the boy words and recorded his progress. Based on his work with Victor, Itard broke new ground in the education of the developmentally delayed.

Early life[edit]

Victor is estimated to have been born around 1788. He was prepubescent when he was captured in 1800, but advanced to puberty within a year or two. It is not known when or how he came to live in the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, though he was reportedly seen there around 1794. In 1797 he was spotted by three hunters; he ran from them but they were able to catch him when he tried to climb a tree. They brought him to a nearby town where he was cared for by a widow. However, he soon escaped and returned to the woods; he was periodically spotted in 1798 and 1799. On January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own. His age was unknown, but citizens of the village estimated his age to be that of around twelve. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, suggested to some that he had been in the wild for most of his life.[1]

Study[edit]

Victor of Aveyron

Shortly after Victor was found, a local abbot and biology professor, Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre, examined him. He removed the boy's clothing and led him outside into the snow, where, far from being upset, Victor began to frolic about in the nude, showing Bonnaterre that he was clearly accustomed to exposure and cold. The local government commissioner, Constans-Saint-Esteve, also observed the boy and wrote there was "something extraordinary in his behavior, which makes him seem close to the state of wild animals".[2]:9 The boy was eventually taken to Rodez, where two men traveled to discover whether or not he was their missing son. Both men had lost their sons during the French Revolution, but neither claimed the boy as his son. There were other rumors regarding the boy's origins. For example, one rumor insisted the boy was the illegitimate son of a notaire abandoned at a young age because he was mute.[2]:17 Itard believed Victor had "lived in an absolute solitude from his fourth or fifth almost to his twelfth year, which is the age he may have been when he was taken in the Caune woods." That means he presumably lived for seven years in the wilderness.[3]:10

It was clear that Victor could hear, but he was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf in Paris for the purpose of being studied by the renowned Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard. Sicard and other members of the Society of Observers of Man believed that by studying, as well as educating the boy, they would gain the proof they needed for the recently popularized empiricist theory of knowledge.[2]:5 In the context of the Enlightenment, when many were debating what exactly distinguished man from animal, one of the most significant factors was the ability to learn language. By studying the boy, they would also be able to explain the relationship between man and society.

Influence of the Enlightenment[edit]

The Enlightenment caused many thinkers, including naturalists and philosophers, to believe human nature was a subject that needed to be redefined and looked at from a completely different angle. Because of the French Revolution and new developments in science and philosophy, man was looked at as not special, but as characteristic of his place in nature.[4]:42 It was hoped that by studying the wild boy, this idea would gain support. He became a case study in the Enlightenment debate about the differences between humans and other animals.

At that time, the scientific category Juvenis averionensis was used, as a special case of the Homo ferus,[5] described by Carl von Linné in Systema Naturae. Linnaeus and his discoveries, then, forced people to ask the question, what makes us men? Another developing idea that was prevalent during the Enlightenment was the idea of the noble savage. Some believed a man, existing in the pure state of nature, would be "gentle, innocent, a lover of solitude, ignorant of evil and incapable of causing intentional harm."[6]

Philosophies proposed by the likes of Rousseau, Locke and Descartes were evolving around the time when the boy was discovered in France in 1800. These philosophies invariably had an influence on how the boy was looked at, and eventually, how his education would be constructed by Itard.

Influence of colonialism[edit]

Simpson points out there was a "direct link between the discourse of colonialism abroad and internal regulation of deviants back home."[7] The same way in which Europeans viewed the "Other" in colonies and other exotic locations was how the French people saw the Wild Boy of Aveyron. To lack reason and understanding during the Enlightenment was to be uncivilized. The attitudes that Europeans extended toward the Other were paralleled by Victor, as he too was considered "uncivilized" because of his lack of language and, therefore, reason. These characteristics defined mankind for Victor's contemporaries.

Education[edit]

After Sicard became frustrated with the lack of progress made by the boy, he was left to roam the institution by himself, until Itard decided to take the boy into his home to keep reports and monitor his development. However, it was said that even though he had been exposed to society and education, he had made little progress at the Institution under Sicard. Many people questioned his ability to learn because of his initial state, and as Yousef explains, "it is one thing to say that the man of nature is not yet fully human; it is quite another thing to say that the man of nature cannot become fully human."[8]

Jean Marc Gaspard Itard[edit]

Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student, effectively adopted Victor into his home and published reports on his progress. Itard believed two things separated humans from animals: empathy and language. He wanted to civilize Victor with the objectives of teaching him to speak and to communicate human emotion. Victor showed significant early progress in understanding language and reading simple words, but failed to progress beyond a rudimentary level. Itard wrote, "Under these circumstances his ear was not an organ for the appreciation of sounds, their articulations and their combinations; it was nothing but a simple means of self-preservation which warned of the approach of a dangerous animal or the fall of wild fruit."[3]:26

The only two phrases Victor ever actually learned to spell out were lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God).[9] It would seem, however, that Itard implemented more contemporary views when he was educating Victor. Rousseau appears to have believed "that natural association is based on reciprocally free and equal respect between people."[10] This notion of how to educate and to teach was something that although did not produce the effects hoped for, did prove to be a step towards new systems of pedagogy. By attempting to learn about the boy who lived in nature, education could be restructured and characterized.

Itard has been recognized as the founder of "oral education of the deaf; the field of otolaryngology; the use of behavior modification with severely impaired children; and special education for the mentally and physically handicapped."[11]

While Victor did not learn to speak the language that Itard tried to teach him, it seems that Victor did make progress in his behavior towards other people. At the Itard home, housekeeper Madame Guérin was setting the table one evening while crying over the loss of her husband. Victor stopped what he was doing and displayed consoling behavior towards her. Itard reported on this progress.[12]

Language[edit]

When looking at the association between language and intellect, French society considered one with the other. Unless cared for by friends or family, most people considered "dumb" ended up in horrible, ghastly conditions. However, around 1750, something different was happening in Paris. A French priest, Charles-Michel de l'Épée, created a school to educate deaf-mutes. His institution was made into a National Institute in 1790.[4]:61 This new interest and moral obligation towards deaf-mutes inspired Itard to nurture and attempt to teach Victor language. "He had Locke's and Condiallac's theory that we are born with empty heads and that our ideas arise from what we perceive and experience. Having experienced almost nothing of society, the boy remained a savage."[4]:73

Throughout the years Itard spent working with Victor, he made some gradual progress. Victor understood the meaning of actions and used what Shattuck describes as "action language", which Itard regarded as a kind of primitive form of communication.[4]:98 However, Itard still could not get Victor to speak. He wondered why Victor would choose to remain mute when he had already proved that he was not, in fact, deaf. Victor also did not understand tones of voice. Itard proclaimed "Victor was the mental and psychological equivalent of a born deaf-mute. There would be little point in trying to teach him to speak by the normal means of repeating sounds if he didn't really hear them."[4]:139–140

Shattuck critiques Itard's process of education, wondering why he never attempted to teach Victor to use sign language. Regardless, today there are certain hypotheses that Shattuck applies to Victor. "One is that the Wild Boy, though born normal, developed a serious mental or psychological disturbance before his abandonment. Precocious schizophrenia, infantile psychosis, autism—a number of technical terms have been applied to his position. Several psychiatrists I have consulted favor this approach. It provides both a motivation for abandonment and an explanation for his partial recovery under Itard's treatment."[4]:169

Victor died in Paris in 1828 in the home of Madame Guérin.

Dramatization[edit]

Victor's life was dramatized in François Truffaut's 1970 film L'Enfant sauvage (marketed in the UK as The Wild Boy and in the US as The Wild Child).

Victor's story was retold through dramatizations in a fourth-season episode of In Search Of..., titled "Wild Children", in 1980.

Victor's story was also dramatized through puppetry in an ensemble theater performance also called The Wild Child by Hand2Mouth Theatre, a nonprofit theatre group in Portland, Oregon, in 2004.[13]

In literature[edit]

Victor's life has been fictionalized in the 2003 novel Wild Boy by Jill Dawson, and in the title novella of the 2010 collection Wild Child and Other Stories by T. C. Boyle. Also in Mordicai Gerstein's novel titled Victor: A Novel Based in the Life of the Savage of Averyon and Mary Kosure's "Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron".

Recent commentary[edit]

Professor Uta Frith has stated she believes Victor displayed signs of autism.[14][15] Serge Aroles, in his book L'énigme des enfants-loups, also believes that surviving accounts of his behavior point to "an average degree of autism" (autisme moderé) in Victor's case.[16] He notes that he showed characteristic signs of mental derangement, such as grinding of the teeth, incessant rocking back and forth, and spasmodic movements.[17]

In March 2008, following the disclosure that Misha Defonseca's best-selling book, later turned into film, Survivre Avec les Loups (Survival with Wolves) was a hoax, there was a debate in the French media (newspapers, radio and television)[18][19] concerning the numerous false cases of feral children uncritically believed. Although there are numerous books on this subject, almost none of them have been based on archives, the authors using rather dubious second or third-hand, printed information. According to French surgeon Serge Aroles, author of a general study of the phenomenon of feral children based on archives,[20] almost all of these cases are fakes. In his judgment,[21] Victor of Aveyron was not a genuine feral child: "Don't forget that Truffaut's movie is... a movie!" According to Aroles, the scars on the body of Victor were not the consequences of a wild life in the forests, but rather of physical abuse at the hands of his parents or whoever initially raised him. Humans need to be nurtured at least until the age of 5 or 6; it is inconceivable that any child, including Victor, could survive on his own, in the wild, younger than that. The fact that he could not speak a word at the time of his capture, even though he must have been around humans into early childhood, and never learned to speak thereafter despite Itard's intensive tutelage, suggests that he was mentally disabled—again, a diagnosis of autism seems to be gaining favor. This could also explain why he was abused, perhaps treated like an animal, in his earliest years.[22]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Indiana University Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard (April 24, 1775 - July 5, 1838) French Physician. Human Intelligence, Jonathan Plucker, Project Director. Retrieved on: 2011-10-30.
  2. ^ a b c Lane, Harlan (1976). The Wild Boy of Aveyron. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
  3. ^ a b Itard, Jean-Marc-Gaspard (1962). The Wild Boy of Aveyron. New York: Meredith Company. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Shattuck, Roger (1980). The Forbidden Experiment. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 
  5. ^ Dr. E. C. Séguin: Idiocy: And its treatment by the physiological method, 1907.
  6. ^ Benzaquen, Adriana S. (2006): Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature, Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, p. 163.
  7. ^ Simpson, Murray K. (2007). "From Savage to Citizen: Education, Colonialism, and Idiocy". British Journal of Sociology of Education 28 (5): 561–574 [p. 571]. doi:10.1080/01425690701505326. 
  8. ^ Yousef, Nancy (2001). "Savage or Solitary?: the Wild Child and Rousseau's Man of Nature". Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (2): 245–263. doi:10.1353/jhi.2001.0021. 
  9. ^ Ingalls, Robert P. (1978). Mental retardation: the changing outlook. New York: Wiley. p. 86. ISBN 0-471-42716-0. 
  10. ^ Winch, Christopher (1996). "Rousseau on Learning: a Re-evaluation". Educational Theory 46 (4): 415–428. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.1996.00415.x. 
  11. ^ Carrey, Normand J. (1995). "Itard's 1828 Memoir on ‘Mutism Caused by a Lesion of the Intellectual Functions’: a Historical Analysis". Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 34 (12): 1655–1661. doi:10.1097/00004583-199512000-00016. 
  12. ^ Malson, L (1964) "Les enfants sauvages. Mythe et réalité." Paris: Union générale des éditeurs, Collection 10/18. p. 234 cited by Gaudreau, Jean; Canevaro, Andrea (1990). L'éducation des personnes handicapées hier et aujourd'hui. Les publications de la faculté des sciences de l'éducation - Université de Montréal. p. 71. ISBN 2-920298-67-4. 
  13. ^ [1][dead link]
  14. ^ BBC Radio 4. Case Study BBC - Radio 4 - Daily Schedule "The Wild Boy of Aveyron Claudia Hammond presents" 2008-11-30 23:40 UTC
  15. ^ Jill Dawson. "Interview in The Big Issue on Wild Boy". Retrieved 2008-11-30. 
  16. ^ Aroles 2007: 212
  17. ^ Aroles 2007: 211
  18. ^ "«Survivre avec les loups» : la supercherie". Lefigaro.fr. Retrieved 2014-03-06. 
  19. ^ Shields, Rachel (2008-03-01). "Adopted by wolves? Bestselling memoir was a pack of lies - Europe - World". The Independent. Retrieved 2014-03-06. 
  20. ^ Aroles, Serge (2007):L'énigme des enfants-loups (The enigma of wolf-children)
  21. ^ Aroles, Serge (2007):chapter XXXI
  22. ^ See Bruno Bettelheim, "Feral Children and Autistic Children", The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 64, No. 5. (Mar., 1959), pp. 455-467, where a case is made for this being a general pattern in the lives of so-called feral children

Further reading[edit]

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