The Psychologist and the Wolf Girl (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

For Gesell, "filling the gaps" involved drawing on his own extensive research with other children to explain Kamala's abnormal development.  He even made numerous comparisons to Mowgli and his relationship with the "Mother Wolf" to describe how Kamala became more human on her return to civilization.

Beginning with a chapter describing Kamala's birth, Gesell described Kamala's entire "life cycle" and how she was eventually "weaned from wolf ways."   He even included a chapter on "Heredity and Culture"  and the influence of Kamala's birth mother, the she-wolf, and Mrs. Singh whom he regarded as the three primary female figures in her life.   About the care that the two wolf-girls received from the she-wolf, Gesell becme downright lyrical in hiis description:

"She licked and cleansed her cubs; she kept the floor tidy; she warmed them when necessary with her shaggy hide. For weeks she rilled her breasts for them; and weaned them to flesh by chewing it for them and by preparing tidbits from the kill. She permitted them to leave the den when they were about two months old, but not until they were ten to twelve months old and had shed their milk teeth did she permit them to shift for themselves." 

As for some of the mysteries surrounding Kamala's story, including the possibility that she had been deliberately abandoned by her birth parents,  Gesell did little but touch on them briefly.  In writing about the trauma of Kamala's removal from the wolf den, the death of her young "sister", and the later attempts by the Singh's to socialize Kamala, Gesell produced no new information but relied exclusively on Singh's diaries.   As for Kamala -whom he never saw- Gesell described her as "a potentially normal child, who in spite of extremely abnormal isolation retained to the end distinguishing marks of normality."  

Gesell also dismissed suggestions that Kamala and her "sister" may have had pre-existing medical problems that led to them being abandoned.   Though Gesell had established some of the first assessment centres for children with intellectual disabilities, he insisted that the "available evidence strongly denotes that Kamala was born a normal infant and that she suffered no inflammatory illness or physical injury which destroyed the normal potentialities of her brain development. She presented no sensory defects."    The fact that Kamala had never been formally assessed by a trained professional and that no real information about her infancy was available was another issue that Gesell managed to dismiss.   He largely based his assumptions about her being norml on her succesful adjustment to the wolf-den and then to how she functioned at the orphanage.

Working from the assumption that Kamala had developed normally, Gesell then used her later development to demonstrate his theories about child development.  Despite her early environment and apparent difficulties adjusting to living as a human, he concluded that "From the standpoint of genetic and of clinical psychology the most significant phenomenon in the life career of Kamala is the slow but orderly and sequential recovery of obstructed mental growth."

If the Reverend Singh voiced his own concerns about Kamala's development at the orphanage, Gesell showed no doubts whatsoever in his book.   He boldly argued that, "From the standpoint of genetic and of clinical psychology the most significant phenomenon in the life career of Kamala is the slow but orderly and sequential recovery of obstructed mental growth."   He also regarded her story as being a symbol of hope given that World War II was underway at the time.    Considering that nations were acting like wolves and committing countless acts of mass murder,  he argued that "the dignity and stamina of the human spirit are enhanced rather than clouded by the marvelous career of Kamala."    

Despite her death, Gesell insisted that her story was a case of heredity overcoming environmental problems (though he was likely too optimistic about that).   His obsession with Kamala's story seems hard to understand given that he was an otherwise careful scientist who had built his reputation on his work with thousands of children.   Devoting an entire book to a child he had never seen and only learned about through second-hand sources seems very unlike the Arnold Gesell that had become an eminent authority on child development.   It likely didn't help that he accepted so much of Singh's story at face value without being at least a little skeptical.   

Still, Gesell's eminence saved him from much of the vicious criticism that Robert Zingg received.   While Zingg would eventually be forced out of teaching due to the fallout from his book, Gesell largely put the controversy behind him.   Whether it contributed to his decision to retire a few years after his book on Kamala came out is hard to determine.

And a certain amount of skepticism is definitely needed considering later revelations about the case of the two wolf-girls.   Later anthropologists such as Ashley Montagu voiced theirown doubts about Singh's story given the total lack of any supporting documentation.   Montagu also pointed out various inconsistencies in what Singh wrote about the girls, including his insistence that they both "howled" at certain times, despite the fact that this completely contradicts actual wolf behaviour.   He also noted the sheer implausibility of a she-wolf raising a child for seven years when real wolf-cubs would be able to fend for themselves by the time they are one year old. 

Later critics were even more scathing.   According to a 2007 book by surgeon Serge Aroles,  most of the details provided by Singh about the two wolf-girls were, if not a deliberate fraud, certainly distorted.    Not only had Singh's diary been completely written six years after Kamala's death but the "classic" pictures of the two wolf-girls showing them behaving like wolves were actually fakes.   Taken years after Kamala's death, the pictures were of two other girls in the orphanage who had been asked to pose as wolf-girls at Singh's request (these were the pictures prominently displayed in the books by Gesell and Zingg).   Several reliable witnesses also reported that Singh had beaten Kamala to force her to behave as a wolf-girl whenever he presented her to visitors. 

So why would Singh lie about Kamala?   The most obvious explanation was to raise money for his underfunded orphanage.  Not only did Robert Zingg convince Reverend Singh that the story of the wolf-girls would be financially valuable, but he also sent Singh a royalty payment of $500 after their book was published - money that was badly needed.   Though interest in Kamala's case petered out eventually, Singh and his wife had a clear motive to maintain the wolf-girl pretense as long as possible.   Aroles concluded in his book that the "wolf-girl" story likely obscured the real tragedy:  that Kamala and her "sister", like countless other female children in India, had been deliberately abandoned by their parents, possibly due to pre-existing congenital problems  (Aroles suspected  Rett syndrome in Kamala's case).  

Though the discovery of the two girls in a wolf-den is likely not implausible (since recorded cases of wolves "adopting" abandoned children have been recorded before), the actual amount of time they spent in the den will never be known for sure.   All that can really be established was that the Reverend Singh took in two girls who had been abandoned under extraordinary circumstances  and attempted to raise them to the best of his ability.  Whether he invented the wolf-girl story completely or simply exaggerated many of the details to drum up interest, he still managed to generate the international support that might have been completely lacking otherwise.

So, was Kamala a true "wolf girl"?   Perhaps.   In terms of investigating the possibility of feral children, the case has serious flaws however.   As for more down-to-earth issues such as child abandonment and neglect, people championing Kamala's case appeared to miss the point completely.  However long she spent in the wild (with or without a wolf caring for her), Kamala's impaired development reflects the problems seen in institutionalized and neglected children around the world.   That cases such as this continue to be reported even today reflects the critical need for better care for high-risk children.

Whether or not a wolf is involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

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