“Come on, poor babe: Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens
To be thy nurses! Wolves and bears, they say, Casting their savageness aside, have done Like offices of pity.”
Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act II, scene 3, line 185.
A feral child is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has no (or little) experience of human care, loving or social behavior, and, crucially, of human language. Some feral children have been confined by people (usually their own parents); in some cases this child abandonment was due to the parents' rejection of a child's severe intellectual or physical impairment. Feral children may have experienced severe child abuse or trauma before being abandoned or running away. Others are alleged to have been brought up by animals; some are said to have lived in the wild on their own. Over one hundred cases of supposedly feral children are known.
Myths, legends, and fictional stories have depicted feral children reared by wild animals such as wolves and bears. Famous examples include Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and Romulus and Remus.
Tarzen of the Apes Romulus and Remus
Legendary and fictional feral children are often depicted as growing up with relatively normal human intelligence and skills and an innate sense of culture or civilization, coupled with a healthy dose of survival instincts; their integration into human society is made to seem relatively easy.
These mythical children are often depicted as having superior strength, intelligence and morals compared to "normal" humans, the implication being that because of their upbringing they represent humanity in a pure and uncorrupted state: similar to the noble savage.
In reality feral children lack the basic social skills that are normally learned in the process of enculturation. For example, they may be unable to learn to use a toilet, have trouble learning to walk upright and display a complete lack of interest in the human activity around them. They often seem mentally impaired and have almost insurmountable trouble learning a human language. The impaired ability to learn language after having been isolated for so many years is often attributed to the existence of a critical period for language learning, and taken as evidence in favor of the critical period hypothesis.
Language deprivation experiments have been attempted several times through history, isolating infants from the normal use of spoken or signed language in an attempt to discover the fundamental character of human nature or the origin of language.
The American literary scholar Roger Shattuck called this kind of research study "The Forbidden Experiment" due to the exceptional deprivation of ordinary human contact it requires. Although not designed to study language, similar experiments on non-human primates utilising complete social deprivation resulted in psychosis.
In history ancient records suggest that this kind of experiment was carried out from time to time, though the authenticity of these records is unconfirmable. An early record of an experiment of this kind can be found in Herodotus's Histories. According to Herodotus, after carrying out such an experiment, the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I concluded the Phrygian race must predate the Egyptians since the child had first spoken something similar to the Phrygian word bekos, meaning "bread."
An alleged experiment carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.
The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged "foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."
Several centuries after Frederick II's experiment, James IV of Scotland was said to have sent two children to be raised by a mute woman isolated on the island of Inchkeith, to determine if language was learned or innate. The children were reported to have spoken good Hebrew. This experiment was later repeated by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who held that speech arose from hearing, thus children raised without hearing human speech would become mute.
01. VICTOR OF AVEYRON
Victor of Aveyron (also The Wild Boy of Aveyron) was a boy who apparently lived his entire childhood alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Saint Sernin sur Rance,Aveyron in 1797. He was captured, but soon escaped. He was then captured again and kept in the care of a local woman for about a week before he escaped once more.
However, on January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own, perhaps habituated to human kindness after his second experience. His age was unknown but citizens of the village estimated that he was about twelve years old. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, indicated that he had been in the wild for the majority of his life. This remarkable situation came about at the end of the Enlightenment, when many were debating what exactly distinguished man from animal. One of the prevailing opinions involved the ability to learn language; it was hoped that by studying the wild boy, they would learn the answer.
Shortly after Victor's discovery, 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. This indicated to some that human reaction to temperature is greatly a result of conditioning and experience.
Despite the fact that he could hear, Victor was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf for the purpose of study. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student, took on the remarkable case as his own. He wanted to be the first person to fully civilize a wild child and attempted, primarily, to teach Victor to speak. Though initially successful — Victor showed significant progress, at least, in understanding language and reading simple words — he eventually slowed down to the point that Itard abandoned the experiment. The only words that Victor ever actually learned to speak were lait (milk) and Oh Dieu (oh God). Modern scholars now believe, partly by studying such feral children, that language acquisition must take place in a critical period of early childhood if it is to be successful.
The Wild Boy of Aveyron died in Paris in 1828.
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.
02. KASPAR HAUSER
Kaspar Hauser (30 April 1812 (?) – 17 December 1833) was a German youth who claimed to have grown up in the total isolation of a darkened cell. Hauser's claims, and his subsequent death by stabbing, sparked much debate and controversy.
On 26 May 1828, a teenage boy appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He carried a letter with him addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, Captain von Wessenig. Its heading read: ("From the Bavarian border / The place is unnamed / 1828"). The anonymous author said that the boy was given into his custody as an infant on 7 October 1812 and that he instructed him in reading, writing and the Christian religion, but never let him "take a single step out of my house". The letter stated that the boy would now like to be a cavalryman "as his father was" and invited the captain either to take him in or to hang him.
There was another short letter enclosed purporting to be from his mother to his prior caretaker. It stated that his name was Kaspar, that he was born on 30 April 1812 and that his father, a cavalryman of the 6th regiment, was dead. In fact this letter was found to have been written by the same hand as the other one.
A shoemaker named Weickmann took the boy to the house of Captain von Wessenig, where he would repeat only the words "I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was" and "Horse! Horse!" Further demands elicited only tears or the obstinate proclamation of "Don't know." He was taken to a police station, where he would write a name: Kaspar Hauser. He showed that he was familiar with money, could say some prayers and read a little, but he answered few questions and his vocabulary appeared to be rather limited.
He spent the following two months in Vestner Gate Tower in the care of a jailer named Andreas Hiltel. Despite what many later accounts would say, he was in good physical condition and could walk well; for example, he climbed over 90 steps to his room. He was of a "healthy facial complexion"and approximately 16 years old, but appeared to be intellectually impaired. Mayor Binder, however, claimed that the boy had an excellent memory and was learning quickly. Various curious people visited him to his apparent delight. He refused all food except bread and water.
At first it was assumed that he was raised half-wild in forests, but during many conversations with Mayor Binder, Hauser told a different version of his past life, which he later also wrote down in more detail.According to this story, for as long as he could remember he spent his life totally alone in a darkened cell about two metres long, one metre wide and one and a half high with only a straw bed to sleep on and a horse carved out of wood for a toy.
He claimed that he found bread and water next to his bed each morning. Periodically the water would taste bitter and drinking it would cause him to sleep more heavily than usual. On such occasions, when he awakened, his straw was changed and his hair and nails were cut. Hauser claimed that the first human being with whom he ever had contact was a mysterious man who visited him not long before his release, always taking great care not to reveal his face to him. This man, Hauser said, taught him to write his name by leading his hand. After learning to stand and walk, he was brought to Nuremberg. Furthermore, the stranger allegedly taught him to say the phrase "I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was" (in Bavarian dialect), but Hauser claimed that he did not understand what these words meant.
This tale aroused great curiosity and made Hauser an object of international attention. Rumours arose that he was of princely parentage, possibly of Baden origin, but there were also claims that he was an impostor.
Paul Johann Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, president of the Bavarian court of appeals, began to investigate the case. Hauser was given into the care of Friedrich Daumer, a schoolmaster and speculative philosopher, who taught him various subjects and who thereby discovered his talent for drawing.
He appeared to flourish in this environment. Daumer also subjected him to homeopathic treatments and magnetic experiments. As Feuerbach told the story, "When Professor Daumer held the north pole [of a magnet] towards him, Kaspar put his hand to the pit of his stomach, and, drawing his waistcoat in an outward direction, said that it drew him thus; and that a current of air seemed to proceed from him. The south pole affected him less powerfully; and he said that it blew upon him."
On 17 October 1829, Hauser did not come to the midday meal, but was found in the cellar of Daumer's house bleeding from a cut wound on the forehead. He asserted that while sitting on the privy he was attacked and wounded by a hooded man who also threatened him with the words: "You still have to die ere you leave the city of Nuremberg." Hauser said that by the voice he recognized the man as the one who brought him to Nuremberg. As was obvious from his blood trail, Hauser at first fled to the first floor where his room was, but then, instead of moving on to his caretakers, he returned downstairs and climbed through a trap door into the cellar. Alarmed officials called for a police escort and transferred him to the care of Johann Biberbach, one of the municipal authorities. The alleged attack on Hauser also fueled rumours about his possible descent from the House of Baden. Hauser's critics are of the opinion that he inflicted the wound on himself with a razor, which he then took back to his room before going to the cellar.He might have done so to arouse pity and thus escape chiding for a recent quarrel with Daumer, who had come to believe that the boy had a tendency to lie.
On 3 April 1830, a pistol shot went off in Hauser's room at the Biberbachs' house. His escort hurriedly entered the room and found him bleeding from a wound to the right side of his head. Hauser quickly revived and stated that he climbed on a chair to get some books, the chair fell and while trying to hold on to something he accidentally tore down the pistol hanging on the wall, causing the shot to go off. There are doubts whether the (benign) wound was actually caused by the shot and some authors associate the incident with a preceding quarrel in which, again, Hauser was reproached for lying.Whatever the case, the occurrence led the municipal authorities to come to another decision on Hauser, whose initially good relationship with the Biberbach family had soured. In May 1830, he was transferred to the house of Baron von Tucher,who later also complained about Hauser's exorbitant vanity and lies. Perhaps the sharpest judgement passed on Hauser was the one by Mrs. Biberbach, who commented on his "horrendous mendacity" and "art of dissimulation" and called him "full of vanity and spite".
A British nobleman, Lord Stanhope, took an interest in Hauser and gained custody of him late in 1831. He spent a great deal of money attempting to clarify Hauser's origin. In particular, he paid for two visits to Hungary, as Hauser seemed to remember some Hungarian words. Stanhope later declared that the complete failure of these inquiries led him to doubt Hauser's credibility. In December 1831, he transferred Hauser to Ansbach, to the care of a schoolmaster named Johann Georg Meyer, and in January 1832 Stanhope left Hauser for good. Stanhope continued to pay for Hauser's living expenses, but never made good on his promise that he would take him to England. After Hauser's death, Stanhope published a book in which he presented all known evidence against Hauser, taking it as his "duty openly to confess that I had been deceived." Followers of Hauser suspect Stanhope of ulterior motives and connections to the House of Baden, but academic historiography defends him as a philanthropist, a pious man and a seeker of truth.
Schoolmaster Meyer, a strict and pedantic man, disliked Hauser's many excuses and apparent lies and their relationship was thus rather strained. In late 1832, Hauser was given employment as a copyist in the local law office. Still hoping that Stanhope would take him to England, he was much dissatisfied with his situation, which deteriorated further when his patron, Anselm von Feuerbach, died in May 1833. This certainly was a grievous loss to him.(Some authors, however, point out that Feuerbach, by the end of his life, apparently stopped believing in Hauser; at least he wrote a note, to be found in his legacy, which read: "Caspar Hauser is a smart scheming codger, a rogue, a good-for-nothing that ought to be killed."But there is no indication that Feuerbach, already seriously ill, let Hauser feel this change of opinion.)
On 9 December 1833, Hauser had a serious argument with Meyer. Lord Stanhope was expected to visit Ansbach at Christmas and Meyer said that he did not know how he would face him.
Five days later, on 14 December 1833, Hauser came home with a deep wound in his left breast. He said that he was lured to the Ansbach Court Garden and that a stranger stabbed him there while giving him a bag. When Policeman Herrlein searched the Court Garden, he found a small violet purse containing a pencilled note in "Spiegelschrift" (mirror writing). The message read, in German:
Hauser will be able to tell you quite precisely how I look and from where I am. To save Hauser the effort, I want to tell you myself from where I come _ _ . I come from from _ _ _ the Bavarian border _ _ On the river _ _ _ _ _ I will even tell you the name: M. L. Ö.
Hauser died of his wound on 17 December 1833.
Inconsistencies in Hauser's account led the Ansbach court of enquiry to suspect that he stabbed himself and invented a tale about being attacked. The note in the purse that was found in the Court Garden contained one spelling error and one grammatical error, both of which were typical for Hauser, who, on his deathbed, kept muttering incoherencies about "writing with pencil". Although he was very eager that the purse be found, he did not ask for its contents. The note itself was folded in a specific triangular form, just the way Hauser used to fold his letters, according to Mrs. Meyer. Forensic doctors agreed that the wound could indeed be self-inflicted. Many authorsbelieve that he wounded himself in a bid to revive public interest in his story and to convince Stanhope to fulfil his promise to take him to England, but that he then stabbed himself more deeply than planned.
Hauser was buried in a country graveyard; his headstone reads, in Latin, "Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious. 1833." A monument to him was later erected in the Court Garden which reads Hic occultus occulto occisus est: "Here a mysterious one was killed in a mysterious manner."
03. PETER THE WILD BOY
Peter the Wild Boy (fl. 1725 to February 1785) was a mentally handicapped boy from Hannover in northern Germany who was found in 1725 living wild in the woods near Hamelin (Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg),the town of Pied Piper legend. The boy, of unknown parentage, had been living an entirely feral existence, surviving by eating forest flora; he walked on all fours, exhibited uncivilized behaviour,and could not be taught to speak a language.
Once found, he was brought to Great Britain by order of George I, whose interest in the unfortunate youth had been aroused during a visit to his Hanover homeland.
After Peter's transportation to Britain, an extraordinary amount of curiosity and speculation concerning Peter was excited in London.
The Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, took an interest in Peter's welfare, and in 1726, after the initial public curiosity began to subside, she arranged for Dr Arbuthnot to oversee his education. All efforts to teach him to speak, read or write failed.
The interior designer and painter William Kent included a depiction of Peter in a large painting of King George I’s court which can be seen today on the east wall of the King’s Staircase at Kensington Palace in London. Peter is shown wearing a green coat and holding oak leaves and acorns in his right hand.
After he was discharged from the supervision of Dr Arbuthnot, he was entrusted to the care of Mrs. Titchbourn, one of the Queen's bedchamber women, with a handsome pension annexed to the charge. Mrs. Titchbourn usually spent a few weeks every summer at the house of Mr. James Fenn, a yeoman farmer, at Axter's End, in the parish of Northchurch, Peter was left to the care of Mr. Fenn, who was allowed £35 a year for his support and maintenance. After the death of James Fenn he was transferred to the care of his brother, Thomas Fenn, at another farmhouse, called Broadway, where he lived with the several successive tenants of that farm, and with the same government pension, to the time of his death.
In the late summer of 1751 Peter went missing from Broadway Farm and could not be traced. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. On 22 October 1751 a fire broke out in the parish of St Andrew's in Norwich. As the fire spread, the local bridewell (a house of correction or gaol) became engulfed in smoke and flame. The frightened inmates were hastily released and one aroused considerable curiosity on account of his remarkable appearance, excessively hirsute and strong, and the barely human sounds he uttered, which led some to describe him as an orang-utan. Some days later he was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, possibly through a description of him in the London Evening Post. He was returned to Thomas Fenn's farm, and had a special leather collar with his name and address made for him to wear in future should he ever stray again.
Peter's leather collar
Peter lived to an estimated 70 years of age. He was visited in 1782 by the Scottish philosopher and judge James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, who provided the last description of Peter, who was said to have a healthy complexion with a full beard,and apparently understood what was said to him but was himself only capable of saying the words "Peter" and "King George" and singing a few songs.There is a portrait of the "Wild Boy", depicting a handsome old man with a white beard, in Caulfield's Portraits of Remarkable Persons.
Peter died 22 February 1785 and was buried in Northchurch.His grave can still be seen in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Northchurch, directly outside the main door to the church.
04. MARIE-ANGELIQUE MEMMIE LE BLANC
The following feral child case is unusual in several aspects. Though the child had obviously lived most of her life relatively isolated from human contact, she was allegedly seen with a young companion from time to time. Another strange characteristic of her case are the stories she told of her origins, and the fact that she survived into adulthood, although by then she was extremely poor, being forced to sell her memoirs in the street.
Memmie was first sighted around the village of Songi, near Chalôns, in the French district of Champagne, one September evening in 1731. She appeared from the woods armed with a club and in search of water. When one of the frightened villagers set a guard dog on her, she gave it a heavy blow on the head with her club, killing it instantly. Then, after jumping over the dead animal several times in ecstatic celebration, she climbed to the top of a tree and fell asleep. The villagers brought the news to Viscount d'Epinoy at his chateau in Songi who, curious about the child, ordered them to try and catch her. Knowing she was thirsty they left a pitcher of water beneath the tree in which she was sleeping. As they thought, she came down and drank from the water, but, before anyone could act, she had darted back to the treetop. A woman with a child then approached the tree and stood at the bottom, hoping to make the strange girl feel less afraid. The woman smiled, acted in a friendly manner, and offered the girl vegetables and fish.
But despite her obvious hunger, she only descended a part of the way, before becoming scared and scampering back to the top of the tree. The woman continued to try and coax the girl down and, eventually, the plan was successful and she slid down from her place of safety to get the food. As the girl approached the woman moved slowly away, and a group of men who'd been waiting behind some bushes seized her and took her away. She was brought to the kitchen of the chateau of Viscount d'Epinoy, where the cook was preparing some fowls for the viscount's dinner. Suddenly, the girl rushed at the dead birds, grabbed one and began to devour it. When d'Epinoy arrived and saw the savage child, he told the cook to give her an unskinned rabbit, which the little girl immediately skinned and ate greedily. The villagers questioned the girl, but she couldn't understand any French; the only way she knew how to communicate was by shrieks and squeaks.
At first they thought she was black, but after several hot baths which washed away the dirt - and possibly paint - they found her skin to be white. She had blue eyes and was thought to be about nine or ten years old. On further examination she was found to have unusually shaped hands, with enlarged fingers and thumbs. This feature was later attributed to her swinging from one tree to another, grabbing at the branches with her strong hands, and her using her thumbs to dig up roots. Her feet were bare, but she wore a tattered dress of rags and animal skins, and a gourd leaf on her hair in place of a hat. The strange girl also wore a necklace, pendants, and a pouch attached to a large animal skin wrapped around her body. Inside the pouch she carried a club, and a knife inscribed with strange characters, which nobody could decipher. There was much conjecture about her origin, Norway was mentioned, but at the time somewhere in the West Indies was thought more likely.
The Viscount put the wild girl in the care of a shepherd, but she frequently tried to escape, once being found in the top of a winter tree during a severe snow storm. The girl refused to sleep on a bed, preferring the floor instead, and would only eat bread and drink only water, cooked meat making her vomit (as with Kaspar Hauser). Memmie ran and swam exceptionally well, had incredibly sharp eyesight, and caught and ate small animals and fish from the bottoms of rivers. On 30 October, 1731, she was put in the charge of the hospital general at St. Maur in nearby Chalôns, though she still seems to have spent time with the shepherd at Songi or with Viscount d'Epinoy at his chateau. At first she was terrified at even being touched, and she would shriek and become wild-eyed when it happened.
But gradually she became tamer and more 'civilised', and also began to progress well at learning French, indicating not only that she was fairly intelligent, but that she had been able to speak before her abandonment. Her mother tongue, however, was completely lost.
On 16 June, 1732, the girl was baptized with the name Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc. Unfortunately, despite the novel appeal of her case, captivity was detrimental to Memmie's health and spirits. The Viscount d'Epinoy had been careful to give her the raw meat and root vegetables she was used to, but the increasing amount of time she spent at the hospital at St. Maur changed this. The cooked meats, food preserved with salt, and wine provided for her at St. Maur made her teeth and nails drop out, and she was frequently in poor health. The bleedings directed by the doctors to try and lessen her savageness only made her more ill, and in combination with the new diet brought her close to death. Indeed her health was permanently ruined by this treatment.
Within a year of Memmie's capture, Viscount d'Epinoy died, and she was put in the care of the Convent des régentes at Chalôns, where she learned how to make artificial flowers and was forced to stop climbing trees and swimming. Consequently her wildness soon began to fade, though not completely.
In 1737, the Queen of Poland, mother to the French queen, heard about this strange girl when she was travelling through Champagne to take possession of the Duchy of Lorraine. The queen decided to take her hunting, where Memmie still retained enough of her wild nature that she ran fast enough to catch and kill rabbits.
Very little is known about the next ten years of Memmie's life. In September 1747, now a young woman and fluent in French, she left Chalôns for the convent at St. Menehold, in Paris, perhaps hoping to avoid attention. Here she met a Msr. La Condamine, a middle-aged aristocrat and renowned scientist. He had her moved to another Parisian convent where she prepared to become a nun. But while there one of the windows collapsed on her head and left her life in danger once again. She was taken to the house of the Hospitalières, where she obtained the best possible medical help, paid for by a rich patron, the Duke of Orléans. But circumstances were against her once more, when the Duke died and she was left alone, sick and without financial support of any kind. In this way she spent the next few years of her life.
Then, in November 1752, she met another patron, her biographer Madame Hecquet. Her biography of Memmie was published in 1755. Madame Hecquet had much difficulty getting Memmie to remember her life before the capture. The girl told her that she hadn't began to reflect on her life until after being taken (as Hauser). She could remember no home or family, the only particular memory was of seeing a large sea animal with a round head and big eyes, that swum with two feet like a dog. Madame Hecquet thought it might be a seal and wondered if Memmie was in fact an Eskimo. But Memmie did not look at all like an Eskimo, she was fair-skinned and had softer European features.
In March 1765, still in Paris, Memmie met yet another patron, James Burnett, the future Lord Monboddo. She was unwell at the time and had tried to make a living, unsuccessfully as a public curiosity. When she met Burnett she was scraping an existence by making artificial flowers and selling her memoirs.
Memmie Relates Her History
As told to Burnett, Memmie's story of her life previous to her capture at Songi is, if true, an incredible one. She thought she must have been seven or eight years old when she was carried off from her native land, the name or location of which she couldn't remember. She said she was put on board a large ship and taken on a voyage to a warm country, where she was sold into slavery. Before selling her, however, her captors had painted her entire body black, in order to pass her off as a black slave and not give rise to any suspicions about her origins.
In the same country she was put on board another ship, where the master made her do needlework, and beat her if she didn't work. Her mistress, on the other hand, was more kind-hearted and would hide her from the master. But disaster followed, the ship was wrecked and the crew took the life boat, leaving Memmie and a black girl to look after themselves. They managed to swim from the sinking ship, with the black girl, a weak swimmer, keeping herself from drowning by clutching Memmie's foot.
Finally the two girls reached shore. They then journeyed a long distance across land, travelling only at night to avoid being seen. Sleeping through the day in the tops of trees, they survived by eating roots dug out from the ground, and when they managed to, catching wild animals which they ate raw, like the beasts of the forest. Apparently Memmie learned to imitate birdsong, as that was the only kind of music known in her country. The main difficulty the two girls had was that they couldn't speak each other's language, so they only communicated by signs and wild shrieks, like those the frightened French villagers had heard when they tried to catch Memmie.
A few days before her capture, Memmie came upon a Rosary lying on the ground. Excited at the find, but also wary that her wild friend would pick it up, she reached down to take it first. But the other girl struck Memmie's hand as hard as she could with her club. Her hand was hurt badly, but she was able to strike her opponent a fierce blow on her brow, at which the girl reeled over bleeding and screaming. At this Memmie became touched with regret and rushed off to find some frogs. Finding one, she cut off its skin and placed it over the girl's forehead to stem the flow of blood from the wound, and tied the dressing in place with thread made from tree bark. After this, Memmie said, the two companions separated. The wounded girl going back towards the river, and Memmie taking the path towards Songi.
Apparently the young black girl continued to be seen in the area, around the town of Cheppe, after Memmie's capture, but was never caught, and no more was heard of her. Other reports say that Memmie actually killed the other girl accidentally in the disagreement.
There is no record of what finally became of Memmie Le Blanc, but, as with most feral children, she probably died poor and forgotten. Madame Hecquet seems to have disappeared, and what may have been vital clues to Memmie's origin, the possessions she had when captured at Songi (especially the knife with the strange inscriptions) were never found. Perhaps the truth was much more prosaic than her biography, and she was a French peasant child abandoned in the woods at an early age, and her later stories were false memories. But what of her black companion?
The possibility that Memmie was an unfortunate child caught up in the huge Atlantic slave trade of the time, where slaves were known to be painted black for easier sale, cannot be discounted; but where she came from originally will probably never be known.
05. OXANA MALAYA
Oxana Malaya (born November 4, 1983) was found as an 8-year-old feral child in Ukraine in 1991, having lived most of her life in the company of dogs. She picked up a number of dog-like habits and found it difficult to master language.
Oxana's drug addicted parents were unable to care for her, and at three years of age she was exiled from her home.They lived in an impoverished area where there were wild dogs roaming the streets. She took refuge in a shed inhabited by these dogs behind her house. She was cared for by them and learned their behaviors and mannerisms. The bonding with the pack of dogs was so strong that the authorities who came to rescue her were driven away in the first attempt by the dogs. She growled, barked, walked on all fours and crouched like a wild dog, sniffed at her food before she ate it, and was found to have acquired extremely acute senses of hearing, smell and sight. She only knew how to say "yes" and "no" when she was rescued.
When she was discovered, Oxana found it difficult to acquire normal human social and emotional skills. She had been deprived of intellectual and social stimulation, and her only emotional support had come from the dogs she lived with. Oxana's lack of exposure to language in a human social context made it very difficult for her to improve her language skills.
Today, Oxana can speak and many of her behavior problems have been remedied. Whether she will be able to form strong relationships and feel part of any human community remains to be seen. In the British Channel 4 documentary, her doctors stated that it is unlikely that she will ever be properly rehabilitated into "normal" society.
The doctors attempting to rehabilitate Oxana first wanted to learn the facts of her story. The information was sketchy. Oxana was born in November 1983 in Novaya Blagoveschenka, Ukraine. She weighed 5lb 11oz and had no abnormalities. Her parents were alcoholics and, one night, too drunk to care, they left their daughter outside. Looking for warmth, the three year old crawled into the farm kennel and curled up with the mongrel dogs who probably saved her life.
A concerned neighbour finally reported Oxana’s case to the authorities when the girl was eight. By then the effects of her time with the dogs had created serious consequences for Oxana’s development.
Anna Chalaya, director of the Odessa Institute recalls “She was more like a little dog than a human child. She couldn’t speak, or could hardly speak. In Fact, she didn’t seem to think it was necessary to speak at all”.
There are few cases of feral children who have been able to fully compensate for the neglect they’ve suffered. Oxana is now 22, but her future still hangs in the balance. Have scientists learned enough from previous cases to rehabilitate her?
Oxana has made good progress; she has learned to talk which is unusual in cases of feral children. Linda Blair a clinical psychologist offers an explanation “Oxana had to have heard language on a regular basis. It may not have been directed to her, but she had to have been exposed to it and also to have seen humans talking to each other”.
In order to get a clearer sense of Oxana’s intellectual capacities Dr Lyn Fry an educational psychologist asks her to draw a picture of her home with herself in it. “A drawing of a person has always been taken as a good judge of basic ability and her drawing was what you would expect from a six year old”.
Today, Oxana lives in the Baraboy Clinic in Odessa where she works with the farm animals. Dr Vladimir Nagorny offers his view “She’s only able to live this practical life in this particular community under the supervision of her carers”.
06. GENIE WILEY
Genie is the pseudonym for a feral child who spent nearly all of the first thirteen years of her life locked inside a bedroom strapped to a potty chair. She was a victim of one of the most severe cases of social isolation ever documented.Genie was discovered by Los Angeles authorities on November 4, 1970.
Psychologists, linguists and other scientists exhibited great interest in the case because of its perceived ability to reveal insights into the development of language and linguistic critical periods. Initially cared for in the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Genie later became the subject of acrimonious debate over where and with whom she should eventually live, moving between the houses of the researchers who studied her, to foster homes, to her mother's house, and finally to a sheltered home for adults with disabilities in California. Funding and research interest in her abilities eventually ceased and she quickly regressed to her previous state. In 1994, a book was written about her case by Russ Rymer.
As of 2008, she was a ward of the state and in confinement in a private institution for the mentally undeveloped — the location of the institution and her current name remain undisclosed. Genie's discovery was compared extensively with that of Victor of Aveyron, subject of the movie The Wild Child.
Genie's parents lived in Arcadia, California. Genie was their fourth (and second surviving) child, and she had an older brother who also lived in the home.
Genie spent the first 12 years of her life locked in her bedroom. During the day, she was tied to a child's toilet in diapers; some nights, when she had not been completely forgotten, she was bound in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed crib with a cover made of metal screening. Indications are that Genie's father beat her with a large stick if she vocalized, and he barked and growled at her like a dog in order to keep her quiet. He also rarely allowed his wife and son to leave the house or even to speak, and he expressly forbade them to speak to Genie. By the age of 13, Genie was almost entirely mute, commanding a vocabulary of about 20 words and a few short phrases (nearly all negative, such as "stop it" and "no more").
Genie was discovered at the age of 13 when her mother left her husband and took Genie with her. On November 4, 1970, the two entered a welfare office in Temple City, California, to seek benefits for the blind. A social worker met them and guessed that Genie was 6 or 7 years old and possibly autistic. When it was revealed that she was actually 13, the social worker immediately called her supervisor, who then notified the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Shortly after Genie was found, her father committed suicide by gunshot.
Genie had developed a characteristic "bunny walk", in which she held her hands up in front, like claws. Although she was almost entirely silent, she constantly sniffed, spat, and clawed. Many of the items she coveted were objects with which she could play.In spite of her condition, hospital staff hoped they could nurture her to normality. When interest in the case widened, Genie became the focus of an investigation to provide evidence supporting the theory that humans have a critical age threshold for language acquisition.Within a few months of therapy, she had advanced to one-word answers and had learned to dress herself. Her doctors predicted complete success. Doctors screened François Truffaut's movie The Wild Child for ideas. Genie was initially moved out of the hospital to the home of Jean Butler, and later was moved to live with psychologist David Rigler, his wife and children, where she remained for four years.
Though initially nearly silent, Genie later learned to vocalize and express herself through signs. While in captivity she was provided with few toys or objects to stimulate her; the majority of her time was spent in a dark room staring at a yellow plastic raincoat. After her rescue, attempts were made to help her speak and socialize. Her demeanor changed considerably, and she became sociable with adults with whom she was familiar. Colorful plastic objects became her favorite objects to collect and play with, and she demonstrated a deep fascination with classical music played on the piano (one of the neighboring children practiced piano regularly, and this was speculated to be the source of her fascination as it was one of very few sensations available to her). Genie developed remarkable nonverbal communication skills.
Jean Butler was Genie's teacher at Children's Hospital. Butler became Genie's foster parent by accident or by, as members of the Genie team suspected, a scheme that Butler concocted to allow Genie to stay with her. Butler claimed that she herself had a rash that was likely measles, and thus when Genie had visited her home, Genie may have contracted it. Genie was moved to Butler's home with the initial intent of a temporary quarantine, but the stay became prolonged when Butler petitioned to make it permanent. Butler became very protective of Genie and resisted visits by other members of the Genie team including Susan Curtiss and James Kent.
Butler's personal journal recorded concern that Genie was taxed too greatly by the Genie team and experiments; however, Butler did not hide the fact that she hoped Genie would help make her famous.Her true intentions may never be known because she died in 1988, but many members of the Genie team claimed genuine affection for Genie and an overwhelming desire to rescue her.
Butler did, however, continue the essential practice of observing and documenting Genie's behavior while in her home. One such behavior Butler documented was Genie's practice of hoarding, a behavior typical of children who have been moved from abusive homes. When Butler applied to be Genie's legal foster parent, she was rejected.
Genie returned to the hospital and was handed over to a new foster parent, therapist David Rigler. His wife, Marilyn, became Genie's new teacher. Marilyn found the need to teach Genie unconventional lessons, for example, in anger management. Genie would go into a fit of rage and act out against herself, so Marilyn taught Genie to direct her frustrations outward by jumping, slamming doors, stomping her feet and generally "having a fit." Marilyn noted that Genie had a stronger command of vocabulary than most children acquiring language. During this period Genie was even able to discuss her life before language was a part of it.
Marilyn Rigler: Where did you stay when you lived at home? Where did you live? Where did you sleep?
Genie: Potty chair.
Marilyn Rigler: You slept in the potty chair?
Genie: Mmm-hmm. Potty chair.
She stayed with the Rigler family for the next four years. During that period she began to learn some language, and the Riglers arranged for her to learn sign language. She also learned to smile. If she could not express herself in language, she would try to communicate by drawing pictures.
Despite Genie's relative success, the National Institute of Mental Health, which had funded the project, grew concerned about the lack of scientific research data generated, as well as the unprofessional manner in which records were being kept. In 1974, the Institute cut off funding for the research. The following year the Riglers decided to discontinue their foster parenting. Genie had not yet learned full grammatical English and only went so far as phrases like "Applesauce buy store,"but some contend that her linguistic skills have been underestimated.
In 1975, Genie was returned to the custody of her mother, who wished to care for her daughter. After a few months, the mother found that taking care of Genie was too difficult, and Genie was transferred to a succession of foster homes. In some of the homes she was physically abused and harassed, and her development regressed severely. She returned to her coping mechanism of silence and gained a new fear of opening her mouth. This new fear developed after she was severely punished for vomiting in one of her foster homes; she did not want to open her mouth, even to speak, for fear of vomiting and facing punishment again.
The original research team heard nothing more about Genie until her mother sued them for excessive and outrageous testing and claimed the researchers gave testing priority over Genie's welfare, pushing her beyond the limits of her endurance. According to ABC News, the suit was settled in 1984.However, in a 1993 letter to the New York Times, David Rigler claimed, "The case never came to trial. It was dismissed by the Superior Court of the State of California 'with prejudice,' meaning that because it was without substance it can never again be refiled."
Genie and her mother in 1989 and 1993.
One person who has researched Genie's life claimed that he had located her through a private detective around the year 2000, Genie was living in a privately run facility for six to eight mentally underdeveloped adults.
"I got ahold of the accounts of her expenditures -- things like a bathing suit, a towel, a hula hoop or a Walkman," he said. "It was a little pathetic. But she was happy."
May 7, 2008
It was recorded in 2008, today Genie is 51. She is again in psychological confinement as a ward of the state -- her sixth foster home. And again, she is speechless.
07. DANIELLE CROCKETT/LIEROW - THE GIRL IN THE WINDOW
The family had lived in the rundown rental house for almost three years when someone first saw a child's face in the window.
A little girl, pale, with dark eyes, lifted a dirty blanket above the broken glass and peered out, one neighbor remembered.
Everyone knew a woman lived in the house with her boyfriend and two adult sons. But they had never seen a child there, had never noticed anyone playing in the overgrown yard.
The girl looked young, 5 or 6, and thin. Too thin. Her cheeks seemed sunken; her eyes were lost.
The child stared into the square of sunlight, then slipped away.
Months went by. The face never reappeared.
Just before noon on July 13, 2005, a Plant City police car pulled up outside that shattered window. Two officers went into the house-and one stumbled back out.
Clutching his stomach, the rookie retched in the weeds.
Plant City Detective Mark Holste had been on the force for 18 years when he and his young partner were sent to the house on Old Sydney Road to stand by during a child abuse investigation. Someone had finally called the police.
They found a car parked outside. The driver's door was open and a woman was slumped over in her seat, sobbing. She was an investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
"Unbelievable," she told Holste. "The worst I've ever seen."
The police officers walked through the front door, into a cramped living room.
"I've been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad," Holste said later. "There's just no way to describe it. Urine and feces-dog, cat and human excrement-smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting."
Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters stuffed into broken, grimy windows. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.
The floor, walls, even the ceiling seemed to sway beneath legions of scuttling roaches.
"It sounded like you were walking on eggshells. You couldn't take a step without crunching German cockroaches," the detective said. "They were in the lights, in the furniture. Even inside the freezer. The freezer!"
While Holste looked around, a stout woman in a faded housecoat demanded to know what was going on. Yes, she lived there. Yes, those were her two sons in the living room. Her daughter? Well, yes, she had a daughter...
The detective strode past her, down a narrow hall. He turned the handle on a door, which opened into a space the size of a walk-in closet. He squinted in the dark.
At his feet, something stirred.
First he saw the girl's eyes: dark and wide, unfocused, unblinking. She wasn't looking at him so much as through him.
She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked except for a swollen diaper.
"The pile of dirty diapers in that room must have been 4 feet high," the detective said. "The glass in the window had been broken, and that child was just lying there, surrounded by her own excrement and bugs." When he bent to lift her, she yelped like a lamb. "It felt like I was picking up a baby," Holste said. "I put her over my shoulder, and that diaper started leaking down my leg."
The girl didn't struggle. Holste asked, What's your name, honey? The girl didn't seem to hear.
He searched for clothes to dress her, but found only balled-up laundry, flecked with feces. He looked for a toy, a doll, a stuffed animal. "But the only ones I found were covered in maggots and roaches."
Choking back rage, he approached the mother. How could you let this happen?
"The mother's statement was: 'I'm doing the best I can,'" the detective said. "I told her, 'The best you can sucks!'"
He wanted to arrest the woman right then, but when he called his boss he was told to let DCF do its own investigation.
So the detective carried the girl down the dim hall, past her brothers, past her mother in the doorway, who was shrieking, "Don't take my baby!" He buckled the child into the state investigator's car. The investigator agreed: They had to get the girl out of there.
"Radio ahead to Tampa General," the detective remembers telling his partner. "If this child doesn't get to a hospital, she's not going to make it."
Her name, her mother had said, was Danielle. She was almost 7 years old.
She weighed 46 pounds. She was malnourished and anemic. In the pediatric intensive care unit they tried to feed the girl, but she couldn't chew or swallow solid food. So they put her on an IV and let her drink from a bottle.
Aides bathed her, scrubbed the sores on her face, trimmed her torn fingernails. They had to cut her tangled hair before they could comb out the lice.
Her caseworker determined that she had never been to school, never seen a doctor. She didn't know how to hold a doll, didn't understand peek-a-boo. "Due to the severe neglect," a doctor would write, "the child will be disabled for the rest of her life."
Hunched in an oversized crib, Danielle curled in on herself like a potato bug, then writhed angrily, kicking and thrashing. To calm herself, she batted at her toes and sucked her fists. "Like an infant," one doctor wrote.
She wouldn't make eye contact. She didn't react to heat or cold or pain. The insertion of an IV needle elicited no reaction. She never cried. With a nurse holding her hands, she could stand and walk sideways on her toes, like a crab. She couldn't talk, didn't know how to nod yes or no. Once in a while she grunted.
She couldn't tell anyone what had happened, what was wrong, what hurt.
Dr. Kathleen Armstrong, director of pediatric psychology at the University of South Florida medical school, was the first psychologist to examine Danielle. She said medical tests, brain scans, and vision, hearing and genetics checks found nothing wrong with the child. She wasn't deaf, wasn't autistic, had no physical ailments such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.
The doctors and social workers had no way of knowing all that had happened to Danielle. But the scene at the house, along with Danielle's almost comatose condition, led them to believe she had never been cared for beyond basic sustenance. Hard as it was to imagine, they doubted she had ever been taken out in the sun, sung to sleep, even hugged or held. She was fragile and beautiful, but whatever makes a person human seemed somehow missing.
Armstrong called the girl's condition "environmental autism." Danielle had been deprived of interaction for so long, the doctor believed, that she had withdrawn into herself.
The most extraordinary thing about Danielle, Armstrong said, was her lack of engagement with people, with anything. "There was no light in her eye, no response or recognition... We saw a little girl who didn't even respond to hugs or affection. Even a child with the most severe autism responds to those."
Danielle's was "the most outrageous case of neglect I've ever seen."
The authorities had discovered the rarest and most pitiable of creatures: a feral child.
Danielle's case-which unfolded out of the public spotlight, without a word in the media raised disturbing questions for everyone trying to help her. How could this have happened? What kind of mother would sit by year after year while her daughter languished in her own filth, starving and crawling with bugs?
And why hadn't someone intervened? The neighbors, the authorities-where had they been?
"It's mind-boggling that in the 21st Century we can still have a child who's just left in a room like a gerbil," said Tracy Sheehan, Danielle's guardian in the legal system and now a circuit court judge. "No food. No one talking to her or reading her a story. She can't even use her hands. How could this child be so invisible?"
Danielle had probably missed the chance to learn speech, but maybe she could come to understand language, to communicate in other ways.
Still, doctors had only the most modest ambitions for her.
"My hope was that she would be able to sleep through the night, to be out of diapers, and to feed herself," Armstrong said. If things went really well, she said, Danielle would end up in a nice nursing home."
Danielle spent six weeks at Tampa General before she was well enough to leave. But where could she go? Not home; Judge Martha Cook, who oversaw her dependency hearing, ordered that Danielle be placed in foster care and that her mother not be allowed to call or visit her. The mother was being investigated on criminal child abuse charges.
Eventually, Danielle was placed in a group home in Land O'Lakes. She had a bed with sheets and a pillow, clothes and food, and someone at least to change her diapers
In October 2005, a couple of weeks after she turned 7, Danielle started school for the first time. She was placed in a special ed class at Sanders Elementary.
"Her behavior was different than any child I'd ever seen," said Kevin O'Keefe, Danielle's first teacher. "If you put food anywhere near her, she'd grab it" and mouth it like a baby, he said. "She had a lot of episodes of great agitation, yelling, flailing her arms, rolling into a fetal position. She'd curl up in a closet, just to be away from everyone. She didn't know how to climb a slide or swing on a swing. She didnt want to be touched."
It took her a year just to become consolable, he said.
By Thanksgiving 2006 a year and a half after Danielle had gone into foster care her caseworker was thinking about finding her a permanent home.
A nursing home, group home, or medical foster care facility could take care of Danielle. But she needed more.
"In my entire career with the child welfare system, I don't ever remember a child like Danielle," said Luanne Panacek, executive director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. "It makes you think about what does quality of life mean? What's the best we can hope for her? After all she's been through, is it just being safe?"
That fall, Panacek decided to include Danielle in the Heart Gallery a set of portraits depicting children available for adoption. The Children's Board displays the pictures in malls and on the Internet in hopes that people will fall in love with the children and take them home.
In Hillsborough alone, 600 kids are available for adoption. Who, Panacek wondered, would choose an 8-year-old who was still in diapers, who didn't know her own name, and might not ever speak or let you hug her?
The day Danielle was supposed to have her picture taken for the Heart Gallery, she showed up with red Kool-Aid dribbled down her new blouse. She hadn't yet mastered a sippy cup.
Garet White, Danielle's care manager, scrubbed the girl's shirt and washed her face. She brushed Danielle's bangs from her forehead and begged the photographer to please be patient.
White stepped behind the photographer and waved at Danielle. She put her thumbs in her ears and wiggled her hands, stuck out her tongue and rolled her eyes. Danielle didn't even blink.
White was about to give up when she heard a sound she'd never heard from Danielle. The child's eyes were still dull, apparently unseeing. But her mouth was open. She looked like she was trying to laugh.
Teenagers tore through the arcade, firing fake rifles. Sweaty boys hunched over air hockey tables. Girls squealed as they stomped on blinking squares.
Bernie and Diane Lierow remember standing silently inside GameWorks in Tampa, overwhelmed. They had driven three hours from their home in Fort Myers Beach, hoping to meet a child at this foster care event.
But all these kids seemed too wild, too big and, well, too worldly.
Bernie, 48, remodels houses. Diane, 45, cleans homes. They have four grown sons from previous marriages and one together. Diane couldn't have any more children, and Bernie had always wanted a daughter. So last year, when William was 9, they decided to adopt.
Their new daughter would have to be younger than William, they told foster workers. But she would have to be potty-trained and able to feed herself. They didn't want a child who might hurt their son, or who was profoundly disabled and unable to take care of herself.
On the Internet they had found a girl in Texas, another in Georgia. Each time they were told, "That one is dangerous. She can't be with other children."
That's why they were at this Heart Gallery gathering, scanning the crowd.
Bernie's head ached from all the jangling games; Diane's stomach hurt, seeing all the abandoned kids; and William was tired of shooting aliens.
Diane stepped out of the chaos, into an alcove beneath the stairs. That was when she saw it. A little girl's face on a flier, pale with sunken cheeks and dark hair chopped too short. Her brown eyes seemed to be searching for something.
Diane called Bernie over. He saw the same thing she did. "She just looked like she needed us."
Bernie and Diane are humble, unpretentious people who would rather picnic on their deck than eat out. They go to work, go to church, visit with their neighbors, walk their dogs. They don't travel or pursue exotic interests; a vacation for them is hanging out at home with the family. Shy and soft-spoken, they're both slow to anger and, they say, seldom argue.
They had everything they ever wanted, they said. Except for a daughter.
But the more they asked about Danielle, the more they didn't want to know.
She was 8, but functioned as a 2-year-old. She had been left alone in a dank room, ignored for most of her life.
No, she wasn't there at the video arcade; she was in a group home. She wore diapers, couldn't feed herself, couldn't talk. After more than a year in school, she still wouldn't make eye contact or play with other kids.
No one knew, really, what was wrong with her, or what she might be capable of.
"She was everything we didn't want," Bernie said.
But they couldn't forget those aching eyes.
When they met Danielle at her school, she was drooling. Her tongue hung from her mouth. Her head, which seemed too big for her thin neck, lolled side to side. She looked at them for an instant, then loped away across the special ed classroom. She rolled onto her back, rocked for a while, then batted at her toes.
Diane walked over and spoke to her softly. Danielle didn't seem to notice. But when Bernie bent down, Danielle turned toward him and her eyes seemed to focus.
He held out his hand. She let him pull her to her feet. Danielle's teacher, Kevin O'Keefe, was amazed; he hadn't seen her warm up to anyone so quickly.
Bernie led Danielle to the playground, she pulling sideways and prancing on her tiptoes. She squinted in the sunlight but let him push her gently on the swing. When it was time for them to part, Bernie swore he saw Danielle wave.
That night, he had a dream. Two giant hands slid through his bedroom ceiling, the fingers laced together. Danielle was swinging on those hands, her dark eyes wide, thin arms reaching for him.
Everyone told them not to do it, neighbors, co-workers, friends. Everyone said they didn't know what they were getting into.
So what if Danielle is not everything we hoped for? Bernie and Diane answered. You can't pre-order your own kids. You take what God gives you.
They brought her home on Easter weekend 2007. It was supposed to be a rebirth, of sorts-a baptism into their family.
"It was a disaster," Bernie said.
They gave her a doll; she bit off its hands. They took her to the beach; she screamed and wouldn't put her feet in the sand. Back at her new home, she tore from room to room, her swim diaper spewing streams across the carpet.
She couldn't peel the wrapper from a chocolate egg, so she ate the shiny paper too. She couldn't sit still to watch TV or look at a book. She couldn't hold a crayon. When they tried to brush her teeth or comb her hair, she kicked and thrashed. She wouldn't lie in a bed, wouldn't go to sleep, just rolled on her back, side to side, for hours.
All night she kept popping up, creeping sideways on her toes into the kitchen. She would pull out the frozen food drawer and stand on the bags of vegetables so she could see into the refrigerator.
"She wouldn't take anything," Bernie said. "I guess she wanted to make sure the food was still there."
When Bernie tried to guide her back to bed, Danielle railed against him and bit her own hands.
In time, Danielle's new family learned what worked and what didn't. Her foster family had been giving her anti-psychotic drugs to mitigate her temper tantrums and help her sleep. When Bernie and Diane weaned her off the medication, she stopped drooling and started holding up her head. She let Bernie brush her teeth.
Bernie and Diane already thought of Danielle as their daughter, but legally she wasn't. Danielle's birth mother did not want to give her up even though she had been charged with child abuse and faced 20 years in prison. So prosecutors offered a deal: If she waived her parental rights, they wouldn't send her to jail.
She took the plea. She was given two years of house arrest, plus probation. And 100 hours of community service. In October 2007, Bernie and Diane officially adopted Danielle. They call her Dani.
"Okay, let's put your shoes on. Do you need to go potty again?" Diane asks.
It's an overcast Monday morning in spring 2008 and Dani is late for school. Again. She keeps flitting around the living room, ducking behind chairs and sofas, pulling at her shorts.
After a year with her new family, Dani scarcely resembles the girl in the Heart Gallery photo. She has grown a foot and her weight has doubled.
All those years she was kept inside, her hair was as dark as the dirty room she lived in. But since she started going to the beach and swimming in their backyard pool, Dani's shoulder-length hair has turned a golden blond. She still shrieks when anyone tries to brush it.
The changes in her behavior are subtle, but Bernie and Diane see progress. They give an example: When Dani feels overwhelmed she retreats to her room, rolls onto her back, pulls one sock toward the end of her toes and bats it. For hours. Bernie and Diane tell her to stop.
Now, when Dani hears them coming, she peels off her sock and throws it into the closet to hide it.
She's learning right from wrong, they say. And she seems upset when she knows she has disappointed them. As if she cares how they feel.
Bernie and Diane were told to put Dani in school with profoundly disabled children, but they insisted on different classes because they believe she can do more. They take her to occupational and physical therapy, to church and the mall and the grocery store. They have her in speech classes and horseback riding lessons.
Diane counts small steps to convince herself things are slowly improving. So what if Dani steals food off other people's trays at McDonald's? At least she can feed herself chicken nuggets now. So what if she already has been to the bathroom four times this morning? She's finally out of diapers.
It took months, but they taught her to hold a stuffed teddy on the toilet so she wouldn't be scared to be alone in the bathroom. They bribed her with M&M's.
"Dani, sit down and try to use the potty," Diane coaxes. "Pull down your shorts. That's a good girl."
Every weekday, for half an hour, speech therapist Leslie Goldenberg tries to teach Dani to talk. She sits her in front of a mirror at a Bonita Springs elementary school and shows her how to purse her lips to make puffing sounds.
"Puh-puh-puh," says the teacher. "Here, feel my mouth." She brings Dani's fingers to her lips, so she can feel the air.
Dani nods. She knows how to nod now. Goldenberg puffs again.
Leaning close to the mirror, Dani purses her lips, opens and closes them. No sound comes out. She can imitate the movement, but doesn't know she has to blow out air to make the noise.
She bends closer, scowls at her reflection. Her lips open and close again, then she leaps up and runs across the room. She grabs a Koosh ball and bounces it rapidly.
She's lost inside herself. Again.
But in many ways, Dani already has surpassed the teacher's expectations, and not just in terms of speech. She seems to be learning to listen, and she understands simple commands. She pulls at her pants to show she needs to go to the bathroom, taps a juice box when she wants more. She can sit at a table for five-minute stretches, and she's starting to scoop applesauce with a spoon. She's down to just a few temper tantrums a month. She is learning to push buttons on a speaking board, to use symbols to show when she wants a book or when she's angry. She's learning it's okay to be angry: You can deal with those feelings without biting your own hands.
"I'd like her to at least be able to master a sound board, so she can communicate her choices even if she never finds her voice," Goldenberg says. "I think she understands most of what we say. It's just that she doesn't always know how to-or want to-react."
Dani's teacher and family have heard her say only a few words, and all of them seemed accidental. Once she blurted "baaa," startling Goldenberg to tears. It was the first letter sound she had ever made.
She seems to talk most often when William is tickling her, as if something from her subconscious seeps out when she's too distracted to shut it off. Her brother has heard her say, "Stop!" and "No!" He thought he even heard her say his name.
Having a brother just one year older is invaluable for Dani's development, her teacher says. She has someone to practice language with, someone who will listen. "Even deaf infants will coo," Goldenberg said. "But if no one responds, they stop."
William says Dani frightened him at first. "She did weird things." But he always wanted someone to play with. He doesn't care that she can't ride bikes with him or play Monopoly. "I drive her around in my Jeep and she honks the horn," he says. "She's learning to match up cards and stuff."
He couldn't believe she had never walked a dog or licked an ice cream cone. He taught her how to play peek-a-boo, helped her squish Play-Doh through her fingers. He showed her it was safe to walk on sand and fun to blow bubbles and okay to cry; when you hurt, someone comes. He taught her how to open a present. How to pick up tater tots and dunk them into a mountain of ketchup.
William was used to living like an only child, but since Dani has moved in, she gets most of their parents' attention. "She needs them more than me," he says simply.
He gave her his old toys, his "kid movies," his board books. He even moved out of his bedroom so she could sleep upstairs. His parents painted his old walls pink and filled the closet with cotton-candy dresses.
They moved a daybed into the laundry room for William, squeezed it between the washing machine and Dani's rocking horse. Each night, the 10-year-old boy cuddles up with a walkie-talkie because "it's scary down here, all alone."
After a few minutes, while his parents are trying to get Dani to bed, William always sneaks into the living room and folds himself into the love seat.
He trades his walkie-talkie for a small stuffed Dalmatian and calls down the hall, "Good night, Mom and Dad. Good night, Dani."
Someday, he's sure, she will answer.
Even now, Dani won't sleep in a bed.
Bernie bought her a new trundle so she can slide out the bottom bunk and be at floor level. Diane found pink Hello Kitty sheets and a stuffed glow worm so Dani will never again be alone in the dark.
"You got your wormie? You ready to go to sleep?" Bernie asks, bending to pick up his daughter. She's turning slow circles beneath the window, holding her worm by his tail. Bernie lifts her to the glass and shows her the sun, slipping behind the neighbor's house.
He hopes, one day, she might be able to call him "Daddy," to get married or at least live on her own. But if that doesn't happen, he says, "That's okay too. For me, it's all about getting the kisses and the hugs."
For now, Bernie and Diane are content to give Dani what she never had before: comfort and stability, attention and affection. A trundle, a glow worm.
Now Bernie tips Dani into bed, smoothes her golden hair across the pillow. "Night-night," he says, kissing her forehead.
"Good night, honey," Diane calls from the doorway.
Bernie lowers the shade. As he walks past Dani, she reaches out and grabs his ankles.
She's out there somewhere, looming over Danielle's story like a ghost. To Bernie and Diane, Danielle's birth mother is a cipher, almost never spoken of. The less said, the better. As far as they are concerned Danielle was born the day they found her. And yet this unimaginable woman is out there somewhere, most likely still on probation, permanently unburdened of her daughter, and thinking-what? What can she possibly say? Nothing. Not a thing. But none of this makes any sense without her.
Michelle Crockett lives in a mobile home in Plant City with her two 20-something sons, three cats, and a closet full of kittens. The trailer is just down the road from the little house where she lived with Danielle.
On a steamy afternoon a few weeks ago, Michelle opens the door wearing a long T-shirt. When she sees two strangers, she ducks inside and pulls on a housecoat. She's tall and stout, with broad shoulders and the sallow skin of a smoker. She looks tired, older than her 51 years.
"My daughter?" she asks. "You want to talk about my daughter?" Her voice catches. Tears pool in her glasses.
The inside of the trailer is modest but clean: dishes drying on the counter, silk flowers on the table. Sitting in her kitchen, chain-smoking 305s, she starts at the end: the day the detective took Danielle.
"Part of me died that day," she says.
Michelle says she was a student at the University of Tampa when she met a man named Bernie at a bar. It was 1976. He was a Vietnam vet, 10 years her senior. They got married and moved to Las Vegas, where he drove a taxi.
Right away they had two sons, Bernard and Grant. The younger boy wasn't potty-trained until he was 4, didn't talk until he was 5. "He was sort of slow," Michelle says. In school, they put him in special ed.
Her sons were teenagers when her husband got sick. Agent Orange, the doctors said. When he died in August 1997, Michelle filed for bankruptcy.
Six months later, she met a man in a casino. He was in Vegas on business. She went back to his hotel room with him.
"His name was Ron," she says. She shakes her head. "No, it was Bob. I think it was Bob."
For hours Michelle Crockett spins out her story, tapping ashes into a plastic ashtray. Everything she says sounds like a plea, but for what? Understanding? Sympathy? She doesn't apologize. Far from it. She feels wronged.
Danielle, she says, was born in a hospital in Las Vegas, a healthy baby who weighed 7 pounds, 6 ounces. Her Apgar score measur-ing her health was a 9, nearly perfect.
"She screamed a lot," Michelle says. "I just thought she was spoiled."
When Danielle was 18 months old, Michelle's mobile home burned down, so she loaded her two sons and baby daughter onto a Greyhound bus and headed to Florida, to bunk with a cousin.
They lost their suitcases along the way, she says. The cousin couldn't take the kids. After a week, Michelle moved into a Brandon apartment with no furniture, no clothes, no dishes. She got hired as a cashier at Publix. But it was okay: "The boys were with her," she says. She says she has the paperwork to prove it.
She goes to the boys' bathroom, returns with a box full of documents and hands it over.
The earliest documents are from Feb. 11, 2002. That was when someone called the child abuse hotline on her. The caller reported that a child, about 3, was "left unattended for days with a retarded older brother, never seen wearing anything but a diaper."
This is Michelle's proof that her sons were watching Danielle.
The caller continued:
"The home is filthy. There are clothes everywhere. There are feces on the child's seat and the counter is covered with trash."
It's not clear what investigators found at the house, but they left Danielle with her mother that day.
Nine months later, another call to authorities. A person who knew Michelle from the Moose Lodge said she was always there playing bingo with her new boyfriend, leaving her children alone overnight.
"Not fit to be a mother," the caller said.
The hotline operator took these notes: The 4-year-old girl "is still wearing a diaper and drinking from a baby bottle. On-going situation, worse since last August. Mom leaves Grant and Danielle at home for several days in a row while she goes to work and spends the night with a new paramour. Danielle...is never seen outside the home."
Again the child abuse investigators went out. They offered Michelle free day care for Danielle. She refused. And they left Danielle there.
Why? Didn't they worry about two separate calls to the hotline, months apart, citing the same concerns?
"It's not automatic that because the home is dirty we'd remove the child," said Nick Cox, regional director of the Florida Department of Children and Families. "And what they found in 2002 was not like the scene they walked into in 2005."
The aim, he said, is to keep the child with the parent, and try to help the parent get whatever services he or she might need. But Michelle refused help. And investigators might have felt they didn't have enough evidence to take Danielle, Cox said.
"I'm concerned, though, that no effort was made to interview the child," he said.
"If you have a 4-year-old who is unable to speak, that would raise a red flag to me. "I'm not going to tell you this was okay. I don't know how it could have happened."
Michelle insists Danielle was fine.
"I tried to potty-train her, she wouldn't train. I tried to get her into schools, no one would take her," she says in the kitchen of her trailer. The only thing she ever noticed was wrong, she says, "was that she didn't speak much. She talked in a soft tone. She'd say, 'Let's go eat.' But no one could hear her except me."
She says she took Danielle to the library and the park. "I took her out for pizza. Once." But she can't remember which library, which park, or where they went for pizza.
"She liked this song I'd sing her," Michelle says. "Miss Polly had a dolly, she was sick, sick, sick..."
Michelle's older son, Bernard, told a judge that he once asked his mom why she never took Danielle to the doctor. Something's wrong with her, he remembered telling her. He said she answered, "If they see her, they might take her away."
A few months after the second abuse call, Michelle and her kids moved in with her boyfriend in the rundown rental house in Plant City. The day the cops came, Michelle says, she didn't know what was wrong.
The detective found Danielle in the back, sleeping. The only window in the small space was broken. Michelle had tacked a blanket across the shattered glass, but flies and beetles and roaches had crept in anyway.
"My house was a mess," she says. "I'd been sick and it got away from me. But I never knew a dirty house was against the law."
The cop walked past her, carrying Danielle.
"He said she was starving. I told him me and my sisters were all skinny till we were 13.
"I begged him, 'Please, don't take my baby! Please!'"
She says she put socks on her daughter before he took her to the car, but couldn't find any shoes.
A judge ordered Michelle to have a psychological evaluation. That's among the documents, too.
Danielle's IQ, the report says, is below 50, indicating "severe mental retardation." Michelle's is 77, "borderline range of intellectual ability."
"She tended to blame her difficulties on circumstances while rationalizing her own actions," wrote psychologist Richard Enrico Spana. She "is more concerned with herself than most other adults, and this could lead her to neglect paying adequate attention to people around her."
She wanted to fight for her daughter, she says, but didn't want to go to jail and didn't have enough money for a lawyer.
"I tried to get people to help me," Michelle says. "They say I made her autistic. But how do you make a kid autistic? They say I didn't put clothes on her - but she just tore them off."
After Danielle was taken away, Michelle says, she tripped over a box at Wal-Mart and got in a car accident and couldn't work anymore. In February, she went back to court and a judge waived her community service hours.
She's on probation until 2012.
She spends her days with her sons, doing crossword puzzles and watching movies. Sometimes they talk about Danielle.
When Danielle was in the hospital, Michelle says, she and her sons sneaked in to see her. Michelle took a picture from the file: Danielle, drowning in a hospital gown, slumped in a bed that folded into a wheelchair.
"That's the last picture I have of her," Michelle says. In her kitchen, she snubs out her cigarette. She crosses to the living room, where Danielle's image looks down from the wall.
She reaches up and, with her finger, traces her daughter's face. "When I moved here," she says, "that was the first thing I hung."
She says she misses Danielle.
"Have you seen her?" Michelle asks. "Is she okay?"
Is she okay?
Danielle is better than anyone dared hope. She has learned to look at people and let herself be held. She can chew ham. She can swim. She's tall and blond and has a little belly. She knows her name is Dani.
In her new room, she has a window she can look out of. When she wants to see outside, all she has to do is raise her arms and her dad is right behind her, waiting to pick her up.
In June, Danielle's new parents sold their Florida home and moved out of the state. Bernie built Dani a tree house. She recently began summer school.