After years of shame and silence, Marina Chapman opens up about her unbelievable journey in a memoir chronicling her childhood abduction and the five years she spent being raised by a troop of capuchin monkeys in the Colombian jungle. Michael Zelenko meets Chapman among the primates at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, hoping to find out if the feral fabler is for real.
On a sun-drenched spring afternoon, Marina Chapman emerges from New York’s Central Park, her tiny frame silhouetted by freshly-leafed oak and maple trees. Chapman and her 28-yearold daughter Vanessa are in New York on a weeklong publicity tour to promote Chapman’s memoir, The Girl With No Name: The Incredible True Story of a Child Raised by Monkeys. Recounted by Chapman to her ghostwriter Lynn Barrett-Lee, her tale chronicles the unbelievable story of a 4-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Colombia and abandoned in the forest, where she spent the next five years eating, sleeping, and playing with a troop of capuchin monkeys. She forgot her name, her family, and, in time, lost the ability to speak. She began to walk on all fours and communicated with her newfound family in shrieks. Eventually, she believed that she was one of them.
The real-life Mowgli story has whipped media outlets into a frenzy. Alongside hours of radio interviews the previous weekend, Chapman enjoyed a lampooning on Saturday Night Live, when Kate McKinnon, replete with wild eyes and a banana in hand, screeched at Seth Meyers, “Never underestimate a monkey woman! We will scratch off your face!” (“I loved it!” Chapman says of the skit.) After a Today segment on Chapman aired that week, the four cohosts hemmed and hawed at the story’s authenticity. “We’re cynics in this business,” Matt Lauer finally confessed. “But it would be nice if this story were true.”
Chapman and her daughter cross Central Park West and make their way to the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History. Chapman, who stands less than five feet tall, introduces herself and shakes my hand with a grip one wouldn’t expect from a 60-year-old grandmother. Her plain white shirt is untucked beneath a loosely buttoned cardigan. The features on her small face are tightly arranged and partly hidden by a large, unruly shock of gray hair. “I see [the monkeys] every six weeks—when they do my hair!” McKinnon’s Chapman joked on SNL.
We step into the museum’s stately entrance hall, pass the docile gorillas and anxious elephants of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, and make our way toward our destination: the Hall of Primates. Unlike the museum’s more celebrated corridors, the Hall of Primates has none of the intricate dioramas for which the Museum of Natural History is famous. Instead, its walls are lined
with simple glass cases, their interiors painted lime green. Inside, taxidermic monkeys, their skin long desiccated and their eyes replaced by beads, stare out in perpetual despondency. It’s a bleak and macabre scene, but not for the Chapmans. “Monkeys!” Vanessa says in Spanish and points to a display of capuchins at the center of the room. Marina breaks out into gleeful laughter. “Mine were similar to those!”
At the age of 9, Chapman says, her adventures in the jungle came to an end when she was discovered by hunters and brought back to civilization. Her captors sold Chapman—unable to speak or walk upright—into servitude at a bordello. There, she was regularly beaten, starved, and kept in a state of destitution. Chapman was not only an object of abuse, but of fear. “With most of the villagers being superstitious Catholics,” she writes in her book, “it’s not hard to imagine that they might have believed that this strange, animal-like girl who suddenly appeared in their presence was possessed by some kind of demon.” Two priests came to the house and conducted an exorcism on the young girl. During one particularly cinematic episode, Chapman, eager to go joyriding with the prostitutes she came to admire, stowed herself in the back of a car that then plummeted off a cliff. Chapman was the accident’s sole survivor. She eventually escaped the bordello and eked out a pitiful existence stealing from street vendors and sleeping in city parks and gutters. A second house took her in, but her prospects there seemed even direr: unbeknownst to her, she was living in a mafia compound. Suspicious that Chapman knew too much of their business, the mafia eventually put out a hit on her head. Chapman, then 13, was alerted to the danger by a concerned neighbor, whose family in Bogotá adopted her, and provided her with newfound stability.
The Girl With No Name ends with Chapman’s move to Bogotá, but her adventures continued beyond the Colombian capital. In her late 20s, she accompanied her adopted family to England, where she met her soon-to-be husband John Chapman, a bacteriologist, in church. Roughly 30 years later, Chapman now lives in Bradford, England. Her current troop consists of her husband, two daughters, and three grandchildren. She has not yet been able to find the family from which she was taken as a young girl.
Myths Of feral children stretch back to the dawn of civilization. The Mesopotamians had Enkidu, a protagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh who was raised by unspecified beasts. In Roman mythology, the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned on the banks of the river Tiber, adopted by a she-wolf named Lupa and fed by a woodpecker. Feral mythology has continued to thrive in the modern era. Since its publication in the 1890s, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted into dozens of comics, cartoons, live-action films, and even stage productions. The novel Tarzan of the Apes proved so popular that its author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, penned over two dozen sequels.
Often in these myths, the experience of being raised in the wild leaves the feral child preternaturally gifted. Tarzan, for instance, exhibits incredible agility, strength, speed, and endurance; regularly wrestles lions, gorillas, and tigers; and speaks the language of the great apes along with more practical tongues like English, French, and ancient Latin. Pecos Bill, an apocryphal American cowboy who was allegedly raised by coyotes, rides mountain lions, eats dynamite, and lassos tornados.
“The mythical version of the feral child suckling on a wolf in some idyllic forest glen, or playing with animals and partaking of the bounty of paradise in the natural world, is absolutely false,” anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota says during a recent Skype conversation. “It doesn’t exist.” In November 2012, Ochota premiered the television show Raised Wild on Animal Planet, in which the 32-year-old, Cambridge graduate investigates instances of feral children around the world. Ochota and her team are currently researching cases in Asia, Europe, and South America, but only three episodes of the show have aired so far. “Many cases are hoaxes,” she admits, “or there’s simply too little evidence to investigate.” The reason Ochota hasn’t profiled Chapman’s case is because there’s no one to corroborate her story. “The people who might have been able to do that are now dead. It’s just her word, which is problematic.”
Real-world accounts of feral children are consistently messier and more tragic than their mythical counterparts. “People have failed them,” Ochota says. “And that’s why [these children] find themselves surviving in these extremely inhumane—in every sense of the word—environments.” The three cases Ochota has covered—the Dog Girl of Ukraine, the Chicken Boy of Fiji, and the Monkey Boy of Uganda—speak to that conclusion. Far from being blessed with superhuman abilities, once these individuals reenter civilization they struggle to perform even everyday tasks.
Oxana Malaya, the Dog Girl of Ukraine, was so severely neglected by her alcoholic parents that the state removed her from their care. While being shuttled between orphanages, she developed a close bond with dogs, eventually moving on her hands and knees and abandoning language. Sujit Kumar, the Chicken Boy of Fiji, was kept in a coop until he was 8 years old. From then until he was 30, Kumar was tied to a bed at an aged-care facility. Today, both struggle with serious medical conditions. Kumar, who still clucks and claws at his food, suffers from mild cerebral palsy and possibly epilepsy. Malaya now lives in a nursing facility for mentally disabled adults.
The case of John Ssebunya, the Monkey Boy of Uganda, most closely resembles Chapman’s tale. When John was about 3 years old, his father killed his mother. In fear, the young boy fled to the jungle where he joined a troop of vervet monkeys, a small and clever species like the capuchin, often studied for their similarities to humans. Accounts vary broadly, but Ssebunya spent anywhere from one to four years playing, sleeping, and eating nuts, roots, and cassava with the vervets until, one day, a woman in search of firewood discovered him. It’s been more than 20 years since Ssebunya reentered civilized society, but he still suffers from the after-effects of his ordeal. “He’s really small and skinny, an outcome of long-term malnutrition in those growing years,” Ochota says. He has learning disabilities and, although he does speak, it is “with a strong stutter, and in simple sentences. He definitely has an unusual way about him—his facial expressions and body language, his eye contact, his eating habits, and the way he walks are all pretty unusual.”
That Chapman shows no overt signs of trauma makes her story that much more remarkable. Although she shares Ssebunya’s slight build, there is nothing in her mannerisms to suggest any deficiency. Far from autistic, Chapman is engaging and quick to laugh as we make our way around the museum. Her gait is normal, her motions fluid.
As we talk, Chapman and her daughter recount stories that suggest Chapman, like Tarzan, really did pick up superhuman traits in the jungle: she almost never gets sick and is immune to food poisoning; she learned to read in just 20 days; until recently, she could trounce anyone in the family at arm wrestling; she once tumbled from a tall ladder, banged her head against a wall, and bounced right back up, entirely unscathed. “She doesn’t break,” Vanessa says boastfully. Prior to a recent blood transfusion, Chapman tells me she could move at great speeds and managed to catch rabbits and birds by hand. “People ask me, ‘How did you catch them?’” she says. “I tell them, I don’t know!”
“It’s an unbelievable story, and many have chosen not to believe her,” wrote Simon Hattenstone in his profile of Chapman for The Guardian. Chapman’s editor, Nancy Flight, released a statement asserting that the book had been reviewed by experts and that there is no reason to disbelieve it, though she also admits that there may be some distortions considering the many years that have passed.
Jessica Case, an associate publisher at Pegasus Books—the publishing house behind The Girl With No Name—was at first similarly unconvinced about the veracity of the book’s details. “What I originally doubted was the length of time she was in the woods,” Case says. “This wasn’t a couple of months or a year. This was years that she was living with them.” But after Lynn Barrett-Lee and a few primatologists checked it out, she was persuaded to trust Chapman’s account. Meeting the alleged Monkey Woman in person clinched it. “When I first met Marina,” Case says, “she struck me as someone completely without guile. There’s an innocence about her.”
As the Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy and the leading expert in his field, Dr. Bruce Perry has made a career of working with children who have undergone serious disaster and neglect. He even authored a book on his experience in the practice titled The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. Dr. Perry has been asked to evaluate Chapman, but hasn’t found time in his schedule.
“We know that the brain develops early in life. By the time you’re 4 years old, the fundamental architecture of the brain has been created,” he says when asked if Chapman’s story sounds plausible. “You modify that and you shape it all throughout your life but fundamentally the capabilities that allow you to be a functioning human being are in place.” With a nurturing pre-feral upbringing, Dr. Perry suggests, there is a chance that Chapman could have emerged from her trauma largely unscathed—that her story might actually be authentic. But there’s also another possibility to consider. “Have you ever seen the movie Sucker Punch?” he asks.
Dr. Perry is referring to Zack Snyder’s 2011 film, in which a teenage girl named Babydoll (played by British actor Emily Browning) accidentally shoots her younger sister while attempting to protect her from their vicious stepfather. In turn, Babydoll’s stepfather commits her to a mental asylum. To escape the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of the institution, Babydoll retreats into an elaborate fantasy world of cabaret dancers, steampunk soldiers, giant samurai, and a suave lover played by Jon Hamm. “Basically,” Dr. Perry says of Sucker Punch, “it’s about disassociation. These girls are in this oppressive institutional setting, and they protect themselves by creating a rich inner world.”
Imagine being forced into an unavoidably painful situation, Dr. Perry suggests. “Your fight-or-flight response doesn’t help you out,” he says. “It actually hurts you.” So instead, you adopt a different coping mechanism. You retreat into a private world. “Your physiology shifts. Your heart rate decreases. You feel like you’re watching something happen to yourself as opposed to being a real participant.” Those who have witnessed traumatic events will recognize the sensation—time turns to molasses and your movement feels prescribed. “Your brain protects you to some degree by making you disengage.”
In Chapman’s case, Dr. Perry says, that could have happened in an extreme way. “You end up retreating, particularly if these abusive things happen again and again and again. You end up building this elaborate world where you are stronger and more capable. With some kinds of abuse, the victim creates this very rich alternate reality frequently populated by animals and fantasy creatures.” But without having studied Chapman’s case, Dr. Perry doesn’t feel comfortable reaching a conclusion. “Let me ask you a question,” he says. “What do you think of her story?”
By the time we exit the museum, the truth of the matter remains as obscure as ever. Chapman’s responses to my questions seem suspicious—each one touches on the same set of anecdotes recounted in her book, but that may be a natural effect of memory, of boiling down distant recollections into easy, palatable chunks. I’d watched her movements as she made her way through the halls, but couldn’t decide if her mannerisms revealed anything at all. Something Mary-Ann Ochota said came to mind: “The range of human behavior that we describe as abnormal is absolutely enormous. It’s the observer who’s trying to make sense of the difference. We’re trying to give people labels that help us understand why they are the way they are. We’re as active in making her story real as she is in telling it.”
We stroll to a park on the grounds just north of the museum, and Chapman turns her focus to a squirrel on the lawn. She crouches and makes a series of clicking sounds in an attempt to call it over, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Sitting down on a nearby bench, she pulls out a small bag of Brazil nuts from her purse and snacks.
Why didn’t she share her story sooner, I ask. “I didn’t want to tell anybody because I had people laughing about me in a certain way and I didn’t like it,” she says. “You know when people make fun of you and laugh in a certain way? You get scarred for the rest of your life and you don’t want to talk about it.” But, she continues, “I’m not embarrassed anymore about my past. I used to feel bad about myself because I thought I was a sinner, but I don’t think that anymore. I was a child, and things happened, and I can’t help it.” After a pause, I finally ask the question that’s been lying in wait all afternoon. How does she address the skeptics and naysayers? “It’s difficult for people,” she says sympathetically. “I understand that. But I’m not worried about it—it’s normal. We’ve had some serious interrogations. They’ve got to do that,” she smiles. “People want to know.”
The Wild issue is out now at The Bullet Shop!