Story transcripts

Wild child

Sunday, August 6, 2006
Reporter: Tara Brown
Producers: Jonah Weston, Caius Julyan

It's an extraordinary story. A little girl, neglected, rejected, abandoned by her parents. For comfort, she snuggles up in the farmyard kennels with the dogs.

That becomes her home, and they become her family for the next six years. They protect her, feed her, maybe even love her. And in return, she begins to act like them.

It's a remarkable case. One that startled the world of science, especially when the doctors tried to teach her to be a normal child. In fact, the film you're about to see re-ignites the whole nature versus nurture debate. And it could make you think twice about the way we bring up our kids.

Transcript

TARA BROWN: At first, this looks like some kind of strange hoax. Ukranian girl Oxana Malaya running, jumping, eating and barking just like a dog. But this is no fraud. Oxana's behaviour is the result of the most cruel childhood neglect, neglect that began when she was three.

OXANA MALAYA (TRANSLATION): Mum had too many kids. We didn't have enough beds, so I crawled to the dog and started living with her.

TARA BROWN: Her parents were alcoholics and one night, too drunk to care, they left their infant daughter outside in the cold. Looking for warmth, Oxana crawled into the farm kennel. Curling up with the mongrel dogs probably saved her life.

OXANA MALAYA (TRANSLATION): I would talk to them, they would bark and I would repeat it. That was our way of communication.

TARA BROWN: For the next six years, from the age of three to eight, the kennel was Oxana's home and the dogs her family. She had very little human contact and when finally discovered it was obvious there had been catastrophic consequences for Oxana's development.

ANNA CHALAYA (TRANSLATION): She was more like a little dog than a human child. She used to show her tongue when she saw water and she used to eat with her tongue and not her hands. Oxana is now 22 and lives in a special care home. Remarkably, she is able to speak, able to communicate some feelings, and that's some progress.

ANNA CHALAYA (TRANSLATION): Well, I remember her when she was initially brought here. She wasn't like a human being, she was like a small animal. About half a year later she had completely changed.

TARA BROWN: But certain situations still trigger deeply ingrained responses.

OXANA MALAYA: When I feel lonely, I find myself doing anything. I crawl on all fours. This is how lonely I am, because I have nobody — I spend my time with dogs. I go for walks and do anything I want to, nobody notices that I crawl on all fours.

LYN FRY: When we're talking about how does a child learn to live with dogs, there's obviously no deal as such, but there's give and take. So the dogs are giving their love, their attention, their acceptance in a sense, and what the child must give is that they've got to learn to adapt to the dogs' situation. And if that means eating raw meat and scavenging a rubbish tip, that's what they're going to have to learn to do, because otherwise they're not going to survive. I'd like you to ask Oxana if this house is a particular place she knows.

TARA BROWN: Using drawings, child psychologist Lyn Fry tries to determine what damage the years spent with dogs have done to Oxana's intellectual and social development.

LYN FRY: A drawing of a person has always been taken as quite a good judge of basic ability, if you like. Her drawing was very similar to you'd expect from a six-year-old.

TARA BROWN: Cognitive tests also show this 22-year-old has the mental age of a five or six-year-old and because Oxana missed out on so much human contact during her early years, she also missed out on the chance to learn basic human skills. Psychologists believe she'll never be able to catch up.

LYN FRY: I don't think that she's ever going to learn to read or do anything else there that's going to be useful — not now, because I suspect she was reluctant to learn that in the first place.

TARA BROWN: Cases like this girl provide extraordinary opportunities for scientists — opportunities that could never otherwise be replicated because of their cruelty. In this day and age, experimenting on newborn babies is obviously a no-no. So the so-called "feral children" are like the forbidden experiment, they give us an insight into the age-old debate — nature versus nurture. Are we a product of our genes, or are we a product of our experiences? Back in the 1930s, there weren't the same ethical concerns about children and American scientist Winthrop Kellogg used his own 18-month-old son, Donald, in an experiment with a chimpanzee. The idea was that by spending lots of time together every day, the chimpanzee would take on human characteristics learnt from the child, and that happened. But unexpectedly, the child also began barking and yelping like the chimp — mimicking it. By accident, Kellogg had shown the vulnerability of early childhood, how infants adapt to changes in their environment.

LYN FRY: The question that's always been asked by people who have studied these children in the past is about what does it really mean to be human. We look at the development of language — what happens if you don't get language up to a critical period and that critical period is, I think, now generally accepted that if you haven't got language by about five, you're not going to get language at all.

TARA BROWN: Perhaps most inexplicable of all these feral children is Genie — found not in some poverty-stricken, Third World country, but right in the heart of middle-class Los Angeles. For the first 13 years of her life, Genie endured almost total sensory and social deprivation, isolated in her bedroom. By day she was strapped onto a potty chair, by night chained to her bed. This detective was one of the first people to see her when she was discovered in 1970.

DETECTIVE: The child obviously had been severely mistreated. She was still in diapers, couldn't walk. She had no verbal skills at all at that point.

TARA BROWN: It was Genie's dominating and mentally unstable father who cut his daughter off from the world, even from her own mother and brother. Genie had never learnt to speak, so scientists wondered if she could ever be taught. Looked after in foster care, she also became a living experiment for linguists like Susan Curtiss.

SUSAN CURTISS: She was extremely interested in everything around her. She wanted to know the word for everything around her. She wanted to engage people all around her. She was not mentally deficient — her lights were on, and everyone who worked with her, from teachers to therapists to me, knew that she was not retarded.

TARA BROWN: The conventional thinking was that language would be impossible, but early on Genie confounded the scientists.

SUSAN CURTISS: As she began to learn more and more words — hundreds of words — much more rapidly than I ever imagined and stringing them together, I began to think maybe I would be wrong — maybe she will be the one that will prove that this hypothesis is incorrect.

TARA BROWN: But then, things changed for the worse. Haunted by her traumatic upbringing, Genie's development stopped.

SUSAN CURTISS: She learned tonnes of words, she has an enormous vocabulary, but language is not words. Language is grammar, language is sentences. How do you make a sentence, what can be a sentence?

DR BRUCE D. PERRY: In Genie's brain, the left part of her brain, her cortex, that has those neurosystems responsible for speech and language, because she never heard any words and because she was never spoken to very often, they didn't get stimulated. And because they weren't stimulated, they got smaller and less functional and disconnected and ultimately, that part of the brain literally physically changes.

TARA BROWN: Thirty-five years on, doctors now have a much clearer understanding of why Genie couldn't learn. The scan on the left is a normal three-year-old. The one on the right, a feral child, shows dark patches where whole areas of the brain have shrunk through lack of stimulation.

DR BRUCE PERRY: We're learning slowly, because we can't do experiments that are neglectful on purpose. So we're going back and looking at children who have been neglected in different ways and what we find is the longer you've been in a neglectful environment, the more serious the problems are and the more abnormal the brain development has been.

TARA BROWN: At 18, Genie's life took another strange and tragic twist. She left the care of foster parents and moved back in with her mother — back into the house where she had endured 13 years of neglect.

SUSAN CURTISS: People wouldn't listen to me. People who needed to intervene did not listen to me, and so I spent lots and lots of time on the phone, pleading with people to intervene and save this person who had had the worst experience of depravation and isolation in all recorded medical history, who was now in a crisis situation.

TARA BROWN: As you'd expect, her condition quickly deteriorated. Her mother couldn't cope, and Genie was put into an institution. She was also lost to science, a court order stopping people like Susan Curtiss going anywhere near her.

SUSAN CURTISS: I went from being asked to be her guardian to, one week later, being prevented from seeing her or phoning her and ever since then I've been prevented from having any contact at all.

TARA BROWN: Genie's almost 50 now. She's still institutionalised and still not allowed contact with the scientists. Her present condition is unknown.

DR BRUCE D PERRY: We are continuing to learn more and more about how to help these children and more and more about how these neglectful experiences influence their brain, but we're just on the very, very, very cusp of being able to be helpful, because to date we haven't done a very good job with that. We just haven't understood the brain and brain development in ways that would allow us to be as good as we can be and I think that that's changing.

TARA BROWN: Why feral children like Genie would ever want to be reunited with their parents is perhaps explained in the 1960s experiments of notorious psychologist, Harry Harlow. He took newborn monkeys from their mothers and gave them a choice between a cold wire surrogate with milk or a soft warm surrogate without. They chose comfort above food every time. So maybe we've been hard-wired to expect comfort from our biological parents, no matter what they do to us.

DR BRUCE D PERRY: Harlow's work was really seminal in this entire field, because he showed the crucial importance of the care-giving relationship between a mother and an infant and how the physical stimulation, literally the physical contact with the care giver, has profound impact on healthy development.

TARA BROWN: That same desire burns in Oxana. 14 years after being freed from her parents' appalling cruelty, she's made some remarkable advances. Her speaking and language are far better than her caregivers ever imagined possible. Now she makes the decision she wants to find and meet her mother and father.

OXANA MALAYA (TRANSLATION): I want to see them with my own eyes so desperately because I've been told I have no parents but, actually, I do have them.

TARA BROWN: Her mother has long since disappeared but her father agrees to a reunion. He leaves his farm and makes the 350-kilometre journey to Oxana. And there's another surprise — for support, he brings along Nina, Oxana's half-sister she didn't even know existed. It's an awkward meeting. At first, father and daughter just stand there staring at each other. Then, a few tentative steps closer.

DR BRUCE D PERRY: For these children, because they have not had the experiences that help their brain organise systems to make sense of the world, the world never makes sense.

TARA BROWN: Despite all her suffering and the damage it's done to her brain, Oxana does have an undeniable spirit and the truly remarkable human gift of forgiveness.

DR BRUCE D. PERRY: We should look at these children, not with pity, but with awe. They're just, it's fascinating that you could go through something like that and you would still be willing — after what human beings have done to you — that you'd still be willing to put your hand out and touch a new person.

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