In January, 1800, a boy of about eleven or twelve years old walked out of the woods near the village of Saint-Sernin in the Languedoc region of southern France. Except for a tattered shirt, he was naked. He had no shame or concern for his nakedness and had no ability to speak. He made only strange and apparently meaningless sounds and cries. While human in appearance, he lacked any qualities which otherwise would suggest that he was part of any human society.
The boy was captured by a villager, transported and kept for several months in an orphanage in a nearby town, and eventually transferred to Paris in June, 1800, where "The Wild Boy of Aveyron" was claimed "for science and humanity" by the newly-formed Society of Observers of Man. In Paris, the boy was given over to the Abbe Sicard, a famous educator and the head of the Institute for Deaf-Mutes. "Miracles were expected of Sicard, for some of his deaf-mute pupils had made a reputation by their intelligence and wit in answering written questions before large audiences." Sicard, however, apparently believed that he could never train the seemingly wild creature and made no efforts to do so. Instead, he left the boy to run wild at the Institute and a commission appointed by the Society of the Observers of Man subsequently declared him to be an incurable idiot.
It is at this point, however, sometime in the summer or fall of 1800, that the course of the Wild Boy's life took a different course. A twenty-five year old medical student, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard began working at the Institute and became interested in the boy. More or less simultaneously with the declaration by the Society of the Observers of Man that the boy was an incurable idiot in November of that year, Itard was hired and given a room at the Institute for the sole purpose of working with the boy. Itard named the boy Victor and went on, over the course of the next six years and with the able assistance of a motherly figure by the name of Madame Guerin, to train the boy in accordance with principles Itard had derived from the writings of Locke and Condillac. These principles were intended to give the boy the ability to respond to other people, to train his senses, to extend his physical and social needs, to teach him to speak, and to teach him to think and reason logically. While Itard was never fully successful in achieving all of his objectives, his work was remarkably original and his observations and experiments have left the world with a fascinating picture of the Wild Boy of Aveyron.
"The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron" is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human and how our humanity is, in a sense, created by the society in which we live, defined by our communications and relationships with others. In telling this story, Roger Shattuck has thoughtfully and sympathetically interwoven the factual story of the Wild Boy with the philosophical, psychological and historical background that ultimately makes this story so interesting. Thus, Shattuck explores the historical peculiarities of the Languedoc region from which the Wild Boy came (known for the poetry and song of the troubadors, as well as the Albigensian heresy), the historical forces which made him such a topic of interest (he was a boy seemingly straight from Rousseau's state of nature at a time when the French Revolution had given way to Napoleon), and the philosophical and psychological forerunners (Locke, Condillac, Rousseau) that provided the intellectual impetus for marking this "tabula rasa" of humanity. Shattuck's book also provides interesting appendices containing other published accounts of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, other cases of isolation and deprivation (including Kaspar Hauser, Peter of Hanover, The Elephant Man, and Helen Keller), and a short essay on Francois Truffaut's 1970 film, "The Wild Child," which is based upon the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron.
While simple in the telling, "The Forbidden Experiment" is a book which poses the deepest and most enigmatic of questions, the question of what it means to be human. Read it, ponder it, learn from it.