This story appears to have captured the imagination of the world. As the story is reported, an 8-year old girl disappeared almost two decades ago near the Vietnamese border, when she was out watching cattle with her brother. The family never saw her again. Until the other day, when a ‘jungle woman,’ who is supposed to be ‘without language,’ ‘naked,’ and ‘walking just like a monkey,’ was captured stealing food from someone’s lunchbox. She was immediately identified as this girl through her possession of a similar/identical scar on her arm, and has been taken into custody by the family. There’s really no other word for it, since the young woman keeps trying to escape back to the forest, ripping her clothes off, etc. Some of the pictures published show villagers crowding around staring and pointing. It’s all a rather piteous spectacle. The sheer number of photos also indicate that she’s been under the lens for far too long in her brief period of return.
What is it about our imaginations that longs for the details of our absence in the forests of our lives? We are desperate to know what happened to the boys recently returned from their captivity in a Missouri suburb. The professionals weigh in about stockholm syndrome while the media builds a case against the boys for not resisting sufficiently. The reality, as always, is likely so much more disturbing and complicated, that I wonder if our acculturated brains are even capable of hearing it. Can we process the fact that Shawn called his captor ‘dad’ and played freely in the neighborhood? Can we process that he may have grown to feel childlike affection and fear for this captor even while wanting, perhaps desperately, to escape and return? Is the complicated reality too much for us to handle?
Must we invent forest fantasies about our lost children? Those who disappear at 8 while watching cows and seem to reappear as adults? Must we consider them ‘subhuman?’ Is she really crazy? Is someone playing a trick somewhere? I’m reminded of a point made by David Abram in his spectacular Spell of the Sensuous: he points out that when he performs a bit of sleight of hand magic, he often encounters skeptics. The example he uses is when he ‘disappears’ a coin in his right hand by palming it, and then makes it appear in his left hand by producing a different coin that was hidden there already. When the illusion works ‘correctly,’ the brains of the spectators participate in the illusion, creating a ‘narrative’ of the coin, which magically moves from one hand to the other. When the illusion works ‘incorrectly,’ skeptics will often claim to have seen him pass the coin from one hand to the other, or claim to have seen the wires, even when no wires exist, and no coin has been passed. In both cases, the witness is a participant, and imagines something that is empirically not real. The stories that emerge from the recent Missouri debacle or the Ratanakiri ‘jungle woman’ both seem deeply embedded in patterns of disappearance and absence that obscure the reality of the situation, rather than illuminate them. Instead, the events are made to illuminate the culture, and the individuals are made to fit.
Here are a collection of recent links about the ‘jungle woman.’
Update: And now, people seem to finally start coming to their senses, and asking questions. Still, we seem much more concerned with our ‘need to know’ than with this young woman’s desires or needs, which is disturbing, especially when you consider that she’s clearly living in a captive situation (this may indeed be for her own good; my point is only that we don’t know this for sure yet). Some more links: