The Wilderness Within

A feral child and the quest to be human: a Fijian odyssey

boy blowing bubbles with birds inside of it.
Bubble Wish Face (2003) / Anthony Goicolea

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume… Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. — King Lear

The Samabula Old People’s Home, situated in the barren outskirts of Suva, Fiji, gained a brief, unlikely notoriety last summer as the erstwhile home of Sujit Kumar, the so-called “Fiji Chicken Man.” Kumar was found at the home three years ago by the president-elect of the Suva Rotary Club, Elizabeth Clayton. The visit, which was videotaped, shows a tanned, ebullient fifty-six-year-old Australian woman in white flannel pants and a pale yellow shirt walking through a series of dingy concrete bunkers and concrete toilets, pointing ruefully at cracks in the wall and the grimy, peeling paint. She looks about as out of place as it is possible for an elegant Australian expatriate to be, but her demonstration is very convincing. Residents wander from forlorn concrete bunker to forlorn concrete bunker, more or less evenly divided between the fully dressed and alert and the halfdressed and bewildered. The Samabula Old People’s Home is a dismal place to make one’s final, wheezing dash around life’s track.

One of the final shots in the video finds Clayton in one of the two men’s bunkers, discussing some much-needed improvements to the ubiquitous concrete. She turns from the wall and points accusingly at a tattered plastic mattress, then, looking directly at the camera, she raises the mattress gingerly from its frame. As she stands up, the camera catches a second incongruous figure in the room. In the far, right-hand corner of the dormitory, separated from the elderly by three or four bed widths, a young Indian man in grey shorts and a grey T-shirt surveys the room with rapid, fidgety head movements. His arms are folded tightly into his chest and tucked below his chin. His eyes flash from the camera to Elizabeth Clayton to his own plastic mattress in a single restless motion.

About a year after this video was shot, in the early summer of 2004, the Fiji Chicken Man made a short, baffling appearance in the international media. The Observer was among the first to report “the boy who was brought up as a chicken,” igniting a print and television fuse that fizzled through Europe and North America before going out with a whimper sometime in early August. The story revolved around a Rotarian “behavioural scientist” who had become Kumar’s de facto guardian after finding him almost two years earlier tied to a bed at a Fiji old people’s home. He had been brought to the home in 1979 after Fiji welfare officers found him caged in a small chicken yard outside Suva, where he had been confined, according to Clayton’s research, “from the time he could walk until he was taken to the Samabula Home at the age of eight.”

Twenty-four years had passed at the home, with Kumar tied to a bed to prevent him from wreaking havoc among the aged and infirm, but reports suggested that he still bore traces of the child who, after his release from the chicken yard, “would mostly hop around like a chicken, peck at his food, perch like a chicken, and make noises like a chicken.” The newspaper that broke the story, the New Zealand Herald, reported expectantly that Sujit was “now being taught to be human.” It was an arresting and entrancing phrase — being taught to be human. It seemed to defy a certain naturalness or self-evidence of humanity, as though “humanness” were a habit or affectation. More pointedly, Sujit’s years among the chickens suggested a mysterious affinity with stories of children who had been raised by animals, who had crossed the nebulous divide between the animal and the human. Is humanness — the elusive thing that allegedly separates us from other animals — something we are born with or something we are “taught?” Does it exist naturally, primordially, tucked beneath the heavy trap door of history and civilization, or is it an invention of civilization? A Toronto Sun columnist stumbled upon the heart of the human/animal conundrum in July 2004. His wisecracks on Kumar and the “cluckers,” as he put it, began with a deceptively homespun question: “Who doesn’t dream of being an animal?” Who indeed?

When reports about the Fiji Chicken Man started appearing last summer, I was already deeply immersed in the lore of animals and humans. It started with the François Truffaut film The Wild Child, about the early-nineteenth-century wild boy Victor of Aveyron, who wandered from the lonely forests of France into a raging Enlightenment debate over the nature of man. When he was found in 1797, the young child had been living alone in the forest for at least four years. Contemporary naturalists, philosophers, and news mongers were both enchanted and appalled by his resemblance to the animals with whom he had taken up residence: not only did he scratch, bite, and masturbate in public, but he did not seem to see himself as a human being.

On the one hand, the forest child was a “purely animal” creature, “more like an animal than a man,” while on the other he was supposed to reveal the essential nature of man. The same people who wanted to civilize the wild child, to teach him to be human, wanted to decipher his enigmatic wildness, as though he held the key to the relationship between the human animal and his barking, growling, clucking neighbours. Victor struck me as a metaphor for our unresolved negotiation of our own “animalness,” of our recalcitrant physicality, our beastly impulses, and our howling irrationality. If man is the rational animal, the animal whose reason lifts him above his animalness, the wild child is his jeering, diabolical double, a creature that resembles him but fails to confirm his self-image.

So I staked out a corner for myself in the Toronto Reference Library — next to a weary but distinguished-looking man named Norman, who has been cracking away at the numeric code hidden in the book of Genesis since his 1993 retirement from an accounting firm — and went to work on the feral child. The mythical genealogy of the concept, I discovered, stretched back to Enkidu, the hirsute beast-man of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh who “knew neither people nor country,” but his history really began in the eighteenth century with a surge of interest in the essential, primeval nature of humankind. For 100 years or so, the wild child was a luminary in the lecture halls and laboratories of Enlightenment Europe — beginning with Wild Peter, who wandered from the woods of Hanover to the salons of Europe and England in 1726. Like “savage” Victor, Peter was greeted as an ambassador of the true natural man; his arrival on the shores of civilization was declared by one prominent naturalist to be “more remarkable than the discovery of Uranus!”

Then I heard about the chicken man. It was early July and I had been bunkered next to Norman for nearly three months. The words “Fiji Chicken Man” conjured up the cast of characters that had taken up residence with me in my library bivouac: the Lithuanian bear-boy, the Hessian wolf-boy, the Bamberg ox-child. Kumar, indeed, has recently been inducted into the monumental electronic resource, a website that tracks the natural history and mythology of wild children. The life recounted in the Western and Fijian presses, chronicling a child who “ate the same food the chickens ate and adapted their way of getting food” and who arrived at the Old People’s Home “no less [wild] than a wild animal in the wilderness,” seemed to repeat the original narrative of the feral child, of human existence in an unsocialized, natural, or animal condition. And now, after twenty-four years in a forgotten corner of an old people’s home and a childhood among chickens, Sujit Kumar was “being taught to be human” by a fifty-six-year-old Rotarian. Does the chicken man have something to tell us about human nature? Does he tell us about ourselves, about what it means to be human or to be taught to be human? Does he tell us about anything but his own suffering? Norman, I said, I’m going to Fiji.

My first morning in Suva, I meet a man at a restaurant near my hotel. He is standing beside a refrigerator next to the cash register when I walk up to pay my bill, a tall man with puffy cheeks and brown waxy skin. We must love one another, he says, and introduces himself as Jesus. Behind Jesus the cashier is tracing imaginary circles around the side of her head, winking at me, and making googly eyes, but I sense that her diagnosis of Jesus is all wrong. Yes, the man is unbalanced, but his incarnation of Jesus is diabolically sound. He has pursued the central principle of Christianity — the imitation of Christ — to its harrowing mystical conclusion. He has dug his fingers into something profound — an elusive and buoyant thing that allows him to float, precariously, above his real circumstances, and he isn’t letting go. He has taken hold of it and it has taken hold of him. I stare into Jesus’ zealous and slightly clouded eyes. You are right, Jesus, absolutely right. As I leave the restaurant he offers me a cigarette, still leaning against the refrigerator. “I smoke menthol lights,” he says. I don’t smoke, but I accept the cigarette enthusiastically, thinking that I want what Jesus is having.

I cross the street to a taxi stand where eight or nine Indian men — Fiji is about half Indo-Fijian, the legacy of a British indentured labour policy — are gathered around a badly dented Toyota Corolla listening to a Shania Twain song. I have heard several Shania Twain songs on the radio since I arrived in Suva late yesterday afternoon, and, unable for the moment to recall having heard anything else on the radio, I begin to suspect that the nation pursues an all-Shania programming policy. It is something about Shania’s voice. Enormous, unprecedented change is possible, she says, improvements to your life, improvements you have been dreaming about but haven’t allowed yourself to mention. They are almost within reach.

The taxi driver has no idea what I am talking about when I mention the name Sujit Kumar, nor do the words “chicken man,” a moniker that is sounding increasingly lurid, ring a familiar note. He was locked up with chickens, I explain, in a chicken coop. In a chicken coop, he says. Schoolchildren wander along the roadside in unnaturally bright uniforms — canary yellow, orchid pink, lobster red. As we approach the address, a three-storey warehouse at the end of a badly potholed road of almost identical looking warehouses, the taxi driver mentions that he remembers something about a child in a chicken coop, but he’s not certain. He nods vaguely, repeating the word “chicken” with solemn emphasis, as if an image of the bird were gradually taking shape in a dusty back corner of his mind. “You came here from Canada for this chicken man?” he asks.

Elizabeth Clayton is described in most newspaper and television reports on Sujit Kumar as a behavioural scientist, but it was not behavioural science that brought her from Australia to Fiji in the mid-1980s. It was the prospect of building chesterfields for the international furniture retailer ikea. She heard about the Fiji timber industry and low labour costs while working as a business consultant in 1986. A few weeks later, she had an epiphany. She wanted to be “more productive in life,” to manufacture things, to escape the “parasitism” and giddy, free-floating capital of business consultation. She redefined herself overnight as a furniture manufacturer, rehearsing the phrase “I am a furniture manufacturer from Fiji” before taking ikea by storm. The behavioural scientist title apparently refers to her post-graduate career, when she taught psychology at an Australian college. She is the kind of woman who can say, “I am a furniture manufacturer from Fiji” or “I am a behavioural scientist” and, through the mystical power of declaration, convert herself into a furniture manufacturer or a behavioural scientist.

Clayton still lives in the sprawling five-room apartment she built on top of her old furniture factory, which is peopled these days by young, daintily uniformed schoolchildren and their evangelist educators. Halfway up the circular staircase to her apartment, overlooking the schoolroom, I notice a chalkboard drawing of a smiling child’s face beneath a rainbow-coloured message: Jesus loves you. The face is delicately rendered in pale oranges and pinks. Then, in cut-out paper letters on a fleshtone bulletin board: Feel His Love.

The long central room of Clayton’s apartment extends breathlessly from a compact, ikea-style kitchen across a roller-rinkish wooden floor to a spacious, ikea-style living room. It is “open concept” and it is mainly white. The room is the domestic expression of Elizabeth Clayton: brisk, austere, resolute. It is almost noon, Sujit’s lunchtime, and hectic last-minute preparations for his arrival are in full swing. In a few minutes, I am told, he will be returning from his morning program, a series of activities that run from stacking plastic blocks to practising his walking and climbing — the daily adventure of learning to be human. Linda, a chipper New Zealander who is producing what I take to be, from her fervent synopsis, an inspirational Christian documentary on Sujit, hops around the kitchen collecting bananas, mangoes, and scraps of bread. She passes the food, baton-style, to Anna, Clayton’s Fijian housekeeper, who scans the shelves for hiding places. Sujit, Clayton informs me, is an ardent and untamed diner: he will lunge for bananas; he will pounce on sausages. An arm, tucked innocuously into his chest in its “chicken” posture, might flutter and reappear with an egg, a piece of cheese, a mango. It happens fast, I am warned. Faster than you would imagine. I am reminded of early nineteenth-century reports of Victor the Wild Boy, the “natural” child who was “always looking for something to eat.” Astounded by Victor’s appetite for potatoes, one of the wild boy’s early observers concluded that “his mind is in his stomach; it is his life center.”

Sujit seems to appear out of nowhere. The hall door opens, there is a shuffling sound, and he is in the kitchen, inching forward with stiff, measured steps, herded around the room by Mohammed, a young Indo-Fijian man with baggy jeans and a nervous smile. Sujit’s full lips, slightly darker than the rest of his face, are pressed tightly together and pushed upward in a way that suggests both acute physical strain and flaccidity. This conjunction of agitation and inertia pervades his body: his stiff legs, his restless eyes, and his gnarled, fidgeting hands. His hands and feet, but particularly his feet, are extraordinarily small — the feet of a ten- or twelve-year-old boy. He is just over five feet tall, wearing knee-length blue shorts, blue plastic sandals, and a white T-shirt with the words “Bugle Boy” on it. For a moment I think that he might not look out of place in a sports arena or a shopping mall, but the illusion does not survive his next few tottering steps into the kitchen. His style of walking is fiercely purposeful and exploratory, as if his limbs might at any point adopt a new, hostile agenda. There is a disarming fragility about Sujit, as though the people clustered around him, guiding him, keeping him on track, were anxiously tuning a vast network of overhead wires and levers that hold his body together.

Unlike most nondescriptly sporty thirty-year-olds, Sujit seems strangely unaware both of himself and his surroundings, like an open-eyed, worried sleepwalker. There is a pervasive neutrality about him. His eyes look everywhere and nowhere, dashing from object to object and person to person as if to ensure that things aren’t closing in on him. He looks at people in much the same way that he looks at chairs or lamps; his eyes glide over faces or pause briefly, but rarely make contact. The contorted fingers of his right hand are cupped in his left hand and clasped tightly against his chest in what is frequently described as a “wing” or “chicken” position.

According to workers at the Old People’s Home, he has always held his arms in this position and he is clearly agitated when Clayton takes hold of his hands and lowers them to his sides. “Good boy, Sujit,” she says. “That is how you hold your arms.” His eyes, which have been circling the room in jittery rolling sweeps, drop down to his arms, then settle on Clayton’s face. It is the first time he has made eye contact since entering the room. “Good boy, Sujit,” Clayton says, tapping her finger against his lips and making a rumbling “brmmm… broommm” sound. “That is how you hold your arms, Sujit.” But Sujit doesn’t look convinced. He has the wearily accommodating look of a trained bear, teetering on his back paws, waiting for the stunt to end. He expels a rushed breath through his nose and resumes his shuffling approach to the kitchen counter.

Then he pulls an unexpected move, throwing himself sideways and grabbing a stray banana. The kitchen erupts into chaos as Elizabeth, Mohammed, Linda, and Anna each struggle to separate a fiery and intransigent Sujit from his prize. At the centre of the tempest, Sujit is grimly defiant, his wild eyes trained on the banana he is clutching against his chest. He is clicking his tongue furiously against the inside of his mouth, making the staccato sound that is typically employed in the feeding of birds. He makes this clicking noise, I am told, when he is anticipating food. It seems to point, along with his tucked arms, his now-broken habit of sleeping in a squat, “perching” position, and his impulses to “roost” and to “peck” at his food, at his long-term confinement in a chicken yard.

Elizabeth proposes a compromise: Sujit may keep the banana if he eats it in an orderly, civilized manner, allowing Anna to first peel the fruit, then cut it into pieces. Only a few months ago, Elizabeth explains, Sujit would eat bananas whole and unpeeled, cramming them into his mouth as though rivals, hungry and ruthless, were waiting to pounce. The institutions of cutting and cutlery are still new to Sujit, who ate at the Old People’s Home by tipping his plate onto the floor or mattress, lowering his head, and either “pecking” at his food or hectically filling his mouth with his hands. When he takes his seat at Elizabeth’s counter, a very different routine unfolds, one that nudges the dining experience from the laws of nature to those of culture.

The fork, for Sujit, is just beginning to lose its aura of mystery and menace. Though he has yet to master the practice of targeting items on his plate, he is able to guide the utensil to his mouth if it is handed to him already freighted. The room, as he begins to eat, is maniacally focused on Sujit’s fork, the new frontier of his domestication: Linda’s eyes bulge; Anna wears a plaintive expression; Mohammed’s foreboding smile has settled into straight foreboding; Elizabeth exudes a forceful sense of purpose, something she would have brought to the production of chesterfields and which is now — two years after she sold her business and six years after a thunderbolt-like discovery of Jesus Christ — infused with supernatural vigour and crystallized in the person of Sujit Kumar. We clap our hands encouragingly when he chews a potato slice. Elizabeth’s eyes scan the room like twin lighthouse beams, marking the way to a distant, unknown destination. Her staggering and sometimes robotic determination — a determination that propels the slow, faltering advance of Sujit Kumar’s rebirth — unites maternal and missionary instincts into a single supercharged impulse. Sujit returns to his fork.

Back in the library, next to Norman, I had forged an irresistible conjunction of the chicken man and his bear-boy and wolf-girl precursors. But the moment Kumar walked into the room, with his swirling fragility and his heavy neutral eyes, something happened. I had not expected the chicken man to resolve the enigmas of human nature — to reveal the primeval face of humankind or to unravel the knotted threads of nature and nurture — but I had expected him to disclose something about the feral child as a metaphor for the strained relationship of the human animal to his own animalness, a metaphor for our woozy suspension between the rational and the irrational. But the chicken man, clutching his fork or his banana and rolling his restless eyes, was doggedly literal. I could not see through him to the idea that he was supposed to represent. The history of confinement and abuse that stretched invisibly behind Sujit in the grey light of the Fiji afternoon looked to mean exactly what it literally meant, and nothing more.

The more I thought about Sujit’s years in the chicken yard and his years, his twenty-four years, from eight to thirty-two, in a dark corner of the Old People’s Home, the more inscrutable he became, silent and impenetrable. Is Clayton’s faith that he had been ravaged more by nurture than by nature — by life with chickens rather than mental or physical disability — merely an article of faith? It is a question that shadows most stories of feral children, most famously that of Victor of Aveyron, a case that Clayton came across over thirty years ago as a psychology student and that she now identifies with her own civilizing mission. How would Sujit have looked 200 years ago to an Abbé Bonnaterre or a Dr. Itard, among the first to study “wild” Victor? Would they see a child of nature, a candidate for the tender ministrations of culture and civility or, as Itard’s senior colleagues saw in Victor, an incurable idiot? It was “uncanny,” Elizabeth said, “how exactly 200 years later I am going through an Itard experience; there are so many similarities that it is almost as if I am living the story.” It was uncanny, I thought; but I was thinking more of my own reunion with Victor, the wild child who sent me from an unlikely investigation of feral children to the equally unlikely capital of Fiji. Perhaps Victor would remind me what I was doing in the South Pacific.

On a cold January morning in 1800, a boy of about twelve, naked apart from a ragged shirt, crept out of the woods of the Aveyron district of southern France. He seemed oblivious to the cold as well as to the strangeness of appearing naked out of doors. It was about seven in the morning. The boy passed unnoticed through the deserted streets, stopped at the first garden he found, threw himself to the ground, and began scraping at the soil with long, claw-like fingernails. It was in this posture, feverishly dispatching tuberous vegetables, that the long-nailed, naked trespasser was discovered by the garden’s proprietor, a dyer by profession. The forest boy offered little resistance to his capture.

What the dyer didn’t know is that this nabbing was the third in a series of adventures stretching back to the early months of 1797, when the child was first spotted racing naked through the woods outside the nearby village of Lacaune. The doctor whose fate became entwined with the wild child, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, estimated that the twelve-year-old boy had been abandoned at the age of four or five. The child was a fast runner with a unique, trotting style of locomotion. For most purposes he walked upright, but when hunters or curious villagers got too close, he launched himself forward and scrambled through the woods on all fours. But despite his agility, the forest child was captured in 1797 by a band of savvy woodsmen, who dragged him, flailing violently, into Lacaune. The exotic captive was placed on display in the town square, but his swift, four-legged gait and his horror of confinement soon landed him back in the forest, where he resumed his bucolic diet of acorns, roots, and the occasional stolen turnip. Explosions of laughter were sometimes heard from the woods. Then, in July of 1799, the boy had his second run-in with the villagers of Lacaune. Three hunters caught him after he clambered up a tree for shelter. The villagers installed the boy with a benevolent old widow, who spent the next seven days busily securing her doors and windows against the wild boy’s dreams of flight. On the eighth day he succeeded, heading immediately for the low mountains that separate Lacaune from Aveyron.

A few days after his final arrival in Aveyron, the wild boy, who was normally restrained with a leash, was taken to a nearby field for an experiment. “We let him out this morning in a field next to the orphanage. He took to running on all fours. If we had not followed him closely and overtaken him, he would soon have reached the mountain and disappeared.” The early letters, newspaper notices, and reports on the wild boy are filled with scenes of botched escape, featuring the forest-bound sauvage in the leading role, with a supporting cast of city officials, orphanage employees, doctors, naturalists, and caretakers tearing across open fields and backyards after a short, ungainly, sprinting fugitive: “He got up and ran through the door; despite my cries, he continued to flee so that I had a hard time catching him;” “He has already escaped four or five times from Rodez.” Victor’s affinity with wild animals was particularly evident in his reluctance to substitute his new home for his previous forest arrangement. He wanted to be close not only to the state of wild animals, but to the animals themselves — back in the woods, alone, unsheltered, silent. He seemed to defy the “natural” human impulses toward comfort and sociability: other people were potential providers of food, not of companionship.

When transferred to the orphanage, Victor shunned his fellow wards of the state, as if he belonged to a different species. When he wasn’t eating or sleeping he had the strained, flustered look of someone who is expecting bad news. His only passions were potatoes, acorns, and freedom; the forest had provided all three, the orphanage offered only two. His enthusiasm for the potato and his rustic cooking method, developed during his brief stay in Lacaune, made a lasting impression on all witnesses. In what must have been, for Victor, one continuous action, he tossed the potatoes into the kitchen fire and waited until he could no longer wait. He then plunged his bare hands into the flames, extracted the cooked or partly cooked potatoes and ate them immediately, refusing to let them cool and emitting wild, piercing screams if they were kept from him.

But fire was not the only thing that produced this strange recklessness in the wild boy. During his final months in the Aveyron district, Victor was under the care of a naturalist named Pierre-Joseph Bonnaterre, who concluded that the boy was mysteriously indifferent to extremes of cold and heat. Was the ordinary human sensitivity to cold and heat a “natural” impulse? Might something so basic as an aversion to cold weather or a preference for warm clothes be learned, part of our cultural accommodation? Wondering how the child, with his zeal for roasted vegetables and warm fires, could have endured the cold winters without clothing or shelter, Bonnaterre devised a test:

One evening, when the thermometer was well below freezing, I undressed him completely, and he seemed delighted to get out of his clothes. Then I… led him by the hand down the long corridors to the main door of the Central School. Instead of showing the slightest hesitation about going out, he dragged me out of doors by repeated yanks.

The wild boy’s indifference to cold, Bonnaterre decided, was not incompatible with his evident pleasure in warming himself by the fire, “for one notices that cats and dogs have the same habits.” A few months later the anthropologist J. J. Virey, the first doctor to study Victor in Paris, reached the same puzzling conclusion; the sauvage, he observed, “prefers to be naked, even during the cold of winter.”

About a year after Victor crawled out of the woods of Aveyron, in the dark winter months of 1800, he found himself at the centre of a fierce dispute over his diagnosis. The leading French medical authorities, including Philippe Pinel, the famous director of Paris’s asylums, had been summoned to the Institute for Deaf Mutes to unravel the mystery of the forest child. When the legendary Pinel looked at Victor — a “disgustingly dirty child… who bit and scratched those who opposed him” — he did not see a child of nature but a creature familiar to him from his daily routine in the asylums of Paris; this was no feral child, Pinel pronounced, but an incurable idiot, who had most likely been abandoned in the forest by exasperated parents. He might have been found wandering in the woods but his real home was among the unreasoning and insane, locked in the filthy and overcrowded Bicêtre asylum.

This was the gloomy consensus on the wild boy when the young Itard, recently appointed as physician to the Institute for Deaf Mutes, entered the story. For Elizabeth Clayton, this is the point at which Victor’s history comes to life. Her identification derives largely from Itard’s powerful conviction that the forest had made Victor what he was. Itard, Clayton has commented, believed that he would have to work with the wild boy for a number of years before drawing conclusions about his condition and whether or not it might be reversible. “I feel exactly the same way as this,” she said. For Itard, Victor’s purely animal state was the consequence, not the cause, of his isolation; the work of nurture, not nature. He was neither an idiot nor a “mere” animal but a child who had been savagely abandoned by civilization. How, Itard asked, could a congenital idiot — one of the helpless or near-catatonic inmates of the Paris asylums — have survived alone in the forest for as many as seven years?

In his first report on the wild boy, published in 1801, Itard announces that his nine months of “mental and moral” education have transformed the young savage into an “almost ordinary creature.” Victor’s “almost ordinary” appearance in the summer of 1801 was a triumph for Itard, a confirmation of his sober judgment on the state of nature and of his bold interpretation of the wild boy. He no longer walked at a “trot” or “gallop”; he had learned to mimic the words Oh Dieu! and lait, though he did not associate them particularly with God or milk, and his vocabulary — even after five more years — terminated bluntly at this point. But by the time he published his second report in 1806, Itard seemed uncertain both of the nullity of the state of nature and of the perfectibility of his pupil. During moments of exasperation and despair, the Itard of 1806 would describe his pupil’s forest life with a certain nostalgia, referring mournfully to his complicity in the destruction of Victor’s “innocent and happy life.”

While Itard did not yearn to tear off his clothes and run naked through the forest, there seems to have been something unresolved in the young physician, something we glimpse in his fascination with the wild boy’s “wandering and solitary life.” Early in the first report, this fascination attaches to the powerful sympathy that seems to align Victor with the vast and anonymous undulations of nature, sending him howling into the garden when the snow falls and exploding with laughter when the sun pierces his window. Itard catalogues these effusions with a mixture of tolerance and wonder, ending with a scene that stages passions of a different order — not “convulsive joy” but, as the doctor sees it, regret. Particularly worthy of notice, for Itard, is Victor’s predilection, on certain stormy mornings and afternoons, for spending long hours alone by the pond in the institute’s garden. The doctor informs us that he has “often stopped for hours with inexpressible delight to consider him in this situation.” Why is Itard seized with inexpressible delight? It is only late in his description that we learn that Itard is watching the wild boy watching himself:

[W]hen the inclemency of the weather drove everybody from the garden, that was the moment when he chose to go there. He went round it several times and finished by sitting upon the edge of the pond… By what imperceptible stages his face, vacant or grimacing, took on a very decided expression of sadness or of melancholy reverie, as his eyes clung fixedly to the surface of the water, while from time to time he threw in some debris or dried leaves.

Itard specifies that the child is looking at the “surface of the water,” as if to underline that the pond is of interest to him not as a body of water, a thing, but as a mirror, a thing that one looks at to see other things. Victor’s gaze, though mournfully withdrawn, is ravenous; his eyes cling to the mirror. Is he looking at himself? Does he recognize himself ? The enchanting surface of the pond refuses to show us what Victor sees, much less what he recognizes, a failure of vision that recalls the other mirrors and failed mirrors that crowd this melancholy reverie: the mirror that makes the wild child, or fails to make the wild child, the reflection of a primordial human essence; the mirror that allows, or fails to allow, Itard to see himself in Victor; the mirror that brings the state of nature into view as an alternately innocent and barbaric condition. Then, from a distance of 200 years, another mirror breaks the ghostly surface of the doctor’s reverie: Elizabeth Clayton is in the grips of an “Itard experience.” Against the white, chalky wall of Sujit’s bedroom stands a brownish wardrobe with two mirrored doors. During one of my early trips to this bedroom, about halfway through my week in Fiji, I open the door to find Sujit kneeling before one of the glass panels, gazing tentatively at his reflection. He takes no notice of me. I feel, as I frequently feel around Sujit, that my presence is a matter of more or less total indifference to him. It is as if a plant or a second wardrobe had been rolled into the room. As time passes — two minutes, three minutes — his fascination with the image deepens. Then, without warning, he darts forward with an unsteady, rocking motion and kisses his shadowy double. There is something otherworldly about the two Sujits, each with his eyes sealed and his lips pushed forward against the flat, cold surface. The eyes open. It was too good to last, they seem to say. “Hphh,” Sujit says. “Hphhh.”

Watching Sujit and his double, I find myself thinking about the inscrutable taxi driver who asked me why I had travelled from Canada to meet the chicken man. Why am I standing in his room? Why am I reflected, with my preposterous Fijian shirt, in his wardrobe mirror? I will later decide — too late to tell the taxi driver — that Sujit’s enchantment with his reflection was more ordinary and more literal than I had been able to see; that he was mesmerized by his own appearance — circumscribed, distinct, and luminous — as a part of the visible world. I will not tell the taxi driver that what first struck me about Sujit and what flickered in his wardrobe mirror was the uncanny impression of an undomesticated consciousness — undomesticated because it was not turned inveterately inward, upon itself; undomesticated because people are accustomed to seeing other people as mirrors, reflections of themselves, and this mirroring seems to stop with Sujit.

I picture myself, months after my return to Toronto, back in my taxi driver’s battered Toyota, spinning deliriously around the traffic circles of Suva, Shania howling on the radio. “You are thinking,” I tell him, “that the undomesticated body is a metaphor for our own animality. You travel to Fiji to see the chicken man because you want to stop reading about feral children and find a man who was, or may have been or is thought to have been, a feral child. You are thrown into an agonizing personal crisis that threatens, even six months later, to engulf you because the undomesticated body that you find is more palpable and literal and resistant to metaphor than you had thought possible. It is something about the ordinariness of what you have come to see, in simultaneously religious and biological terms, as rebirth: the fumbling, droning advance of human culture upon the doggedly physical body. Eventually you decide that your perception of the feral child as a reminder of our own physicality, of our condition as things, as pieces of nature, is correct, but that it is much harder to perceive as a literal than a figurative message. You start to think that maybe you can dig yourself out of the hole that you are in by embracing what you have come to see as the corporeality of all things.” The taxi driver says nothing. Shania explodes savagely from the blue Corolla as we plunge into the Fiji night.

On my final morning in Suva, Elizabeth Clayton pulls up to my hotel, the charmingly downmarket Travel Inn, in her white Mazda van. Sujit sits in the front seat in his habitual driving attitude of hushed ecstasy, delightfully unaware that we are headed for the Suva hospital and that his head will soon be wedged into a rubber cap, dotted with electrodes, and plugged to an electroencephalograph machine. The immediate purpose of the eeg is to test the electrical patterns of Sujit’s brain for seizure activity, but Clayton’s discussion of the appointment suggests another, more pressing reason: a demonstration of Sujit’s neurological “normalcy,” a sign that he has been betrayed by nurture rather than by nature. Sujit has an air of deep and settled satisfaction about him as the van begins to pick up speed. From the front seat of a car his world is unfailingly brave and new. But when we pull into the hospital parking lot, he quickly realizes that something is not right. I find myself having the same reaction to Suva’s Colonial War Memorial Hospital, whose dingy concrete exterior gives no hint of the antiseptic cheer that makes hospitals attractive to the sick.

The anaesthetic of car travel evaporates as I open the door and reach in to take Sujit’s hand. Since our first meeting five days ago I have joined the busy circle of Sujit’s custodians. During one afternoon of driving and sightseeing, Sujit and I achieved a brief and delirious emotional oneness; instead of wrapping his arms around effusive, evangelical Linda, he wrapped them around me. We smiled stupidly by the side of the white van, overlooking a lush and endlessly rolling bamboo forest. But there are neither smiles nor feverish embraces in the hospital parking lot. Sujit’s arms, taut with dread, have been lowered from his chest and wedged deeply into the seat. They feel surprisingly brittle, the bones somehow too exposed or too close to the surface. I rub my hand up and down his arm, telling him that it will be okay, that the eeg will be painless, that they may flash lights in his eyes, that the electrodes, fixed to his head with a sticky paste, might feel strange but that it will be over before he knows it. The words spill out of my mouth and I feel for a moment a powerful, inchoate connection to a man who was confined with chickens as a child and who understands nothing of what I am saying. Come, Sujit, let’s go into the hospital. I stop massaging his arm and give him a gentle tug. His body is no less tightly wound, but he tips out of the van and walks with me through the parking lot, looking like an Indian Buster Keaton, playing a man who doesn’t know what’s coming next but senses it won’t be good.

Inside the hospital, there are no doctors, nurses, or orderlies in sight. We climb a flight of stairs in dim green fluorescent light and emerge into a second-floor hallway that appears to have been converted into a sprawling, makeshift waiting room, crowded with hundreds of chairs and waiting bodies, converging into a single expectant mass, bursting from hallways and spilling into what must have been, according to some outlandish, utopian scheme, the hospital’s original waiting “rooms.” It is the Hoover Dam of waiting, the Pacific Ocean of waiting, and it is dead calm. Elizabeth forges ahead, with Linda close in tow and Sujit strung between them like a novice tightrope walker. Row upon row of drowsy heads turn to catch the burst of activity — two white women steering a short, flustered Indian man down the hall.

At the end of the hallway Elizabeth knocks on a curtained glass door and hands a plastic bag to a nurse. The exchange has a vaguely conspiratorial feel as the nurse extracts several tubes of eeg-electrode gel from the bag, a donation from one of Elizabeth’s doctor friends. The nurse gazes in wonder at the shiny tubes and guides us into the closet-like test room; they ran out of the gel over three months ago, she explains, and the machine has lain dormant since then. I can’t tell whether the nurse is acquainted with the jumble of wires and computer terminals that is the electroencephalograph machine or if the three-month hiatus has ruined her facility, but it is disconcerting to see her consulting a diagram and flipping pages in a manual while applying gel and electrodes to Sujit’s head. He makes a sharp clicking noise with his tongue, the forerunner of a deep anxiety that soon has his teeth chattering and his eyes and head rolling in tight, fugitive circles. The nurse seems pleasantly surprised when the spiked lines begin their nervous green dash across the monitor. But her optimism is misplaced; two months later Elizabeth will be told that the results have been lost. Five months later she will still be waiting for a second appointment.

Flying, 2003, Anthony Goicolea
Flying (2003) / Anthony Goicolea
Adam Gilders