Marina Chapman had expected people would doubt her extraordinary life story – which is why, she says, she was initially reluctant to tell it. But after some coaxing from her daughter Vanessa James, Chapman’s childhood memories of being kidnapped from her family, abandoned in the jungles of South America and growing up with a troop of primates have now been published in a new non-fiction book, titled The Girl With No Name: The True Story of a Girl Who Lived With Monkeys.
The book, written with the help of James and writer Lynne Barrett-Lee, has indeed been met with some skepticism, as Chapman anticipated. James says several literary agents turned down the book, claiming it was too unbelievable, before she and her mother finally found someone willing to take on the project.
In the book, Chapman, who now lives in Bradford, England, describes being snatched by a man from her family’s vegetable garden in what she thinks was likely Venezuela or Colombia at around the age of four, and being taken into the jungle, where she was left on her own. She recalls she would have died of hunger had she not found a family of capuchin monkeys whom she learned to mimic to survive. Over the next four to six years, she says she gradually became feral, losing her ability to speak human language in favour of adopting monkey calls, and even walking on all fours.
“I can’t remember when I stopped talking,” said Chapman, now believed to be around age 63, in a phone interview last week. “I just sort of used to imitate them, you know?”
Eventually, she says, she gave up hope of being found and even lost her sense of who she was. “One day, you just accept the world … and you just carry on without thinking about your future.”
The stories of feral children have long captured people’s imaginations, from the legendary “wild boy of Aveyron,” who in the late 1790s was believed to have lived for years in the wilderness of France, to contemporary cases such as that of Oxana Malaya, the Ukrainian girl who was reportedly raised by dogs until she was found in 1991. But because they generally rely on personal accounts, verifying these tales can be close to impossible. And since little is often known about the child’s pre-feral state, it can be difficult to gauge how deeply their reported lack of human contact has affected them and to predict how successfully they may reintegrate into society.
“It’s very complex because you’re dealing with childhood memories,” says Douglas Candland, professor emeritus of psychology and animal behaviour at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. “Memory itself is a very unreliable witness. And when you’re dealing with children’s memories, it’s even more unreliable.”
Candland, who has reviewed more than 400 cases of feral children and wrote the book Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature, says to further complicate matters, high-profile feral children tend to reinforce their own beliefs in their version of events when they are frequently asked to retell their stories.
Whether these stories are actually real or not misses the point, Candland says. “The real story is about human memory and how easy it is to interpret the same situation very different ways.” How people respond to such stories also reveals a lot about the prevailing culture, he adds, noting that the impulse to question the veracity of these accounts suggests something about our current way of thinking: “We are suspicious.”
Although Candland says he has not read Chapman’s memoir, he has encountered a comparable case of a Ugandan boy named John Ssebunya, who claims to have grown up in the forest with the help of a group of vervet monkeys.
Since vervet monkeys have a habit of throwing food over their shoulders and would likely tolerate the presence of a young child, Candland says it is entirely possible that Ssebunya interpreted the monkeys’ food-throwing as being fed by them.
However, Candland, who first met Ssebunya more than a decade ago when the boy was around eight years old, says he has noticed changes in Ssebunya’s narrative over the years. “I’ve seen the same story grow more elaborate in some ways and less elaborate in others. But that’s what human memory does,” Candland says. “I think he has a memory based on things that actually happened and that he interpreted in his own way as a child.”
In Chapman’s case, her book editor Nancy Flight issued a statement saying that both Chapman and her manuscript had been assessed by experts, who saw no reason to believe her story was false. But Flight says, they cautioned there were likely distortions to the tale due to the amount of time that has passed.
Chapman herself acknowledges that her memories of her time in the jungle are spotty. “There were a lot of things that must have happened. I just can’t remember everything. I just remember silly little things,” she says, like fighting with the monkeys over food or being groomed by her furry companions.
As she describes in her book, she was reintroduced to the human world after encountering a pair of hunters. Her reintegration, however, was not the end of her woes. Chapman says she was sold to a brothel, and later ran away to become a street urchin in the Colombian city of Cúcuta. Eventually, she was taken in by a woman in Bogota.
As a young adult, Chapman was hired as a domestic worker by a family who relocated with her to England. There, she met her husband John. The two now have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.
James says she often heard snippets of her mother’s unusual past. And there were always signs that Chapman was not like other moms. She would teach her children monkey calls, for instance, and spend hours in the evenings picking through their hair. James says she began recording Chapman’s stories merely to document the family’s history, but later decided to convince her mother to turn them into a book with the hope it could help reunite them with her mother’s birth family. They also plan to donate the proceeds of the book to two charities, Substitute Families for Abandoned Children and the Neotropical Primate Conservation.
Although more than 50 years have passed, Chapman says traces of her primal past are still evident. Learning to maintain proper hygiene was a huge hurdle, she says, adding that she still has trouble reading and writing. And perhaps because she was constantly on alert in the wild, she has always found it challenging to block out background noises. She also admits she is hopeless with technology; she has yet to learn how to use a mobile phone.
“I had to really learn to behave in a way like ladies do,” Chapman says. “I’m still wild.”