German 'Wild Child' Mystery Grows

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Credit: Corbis

Last month a teenager walked into the City Hall in Berlin, Germany, and told office workers, “I’m all alone in the world, I don’t know who I am. Please help me.” Those words launched an international investigation and mystery that continues to this day. According to an MSNBC story,

The boy, who authorities say is in good health and calls himself Ray, showed up in Berlin on Sept. 5 carrying a backpack and sleeping bag, police spokeswoman Miriam Tauchmann told msnbc.com. He said he was 17 and told officials he and his dad were living in tents and huts until his father died recently. “He has no identity card, no papers, no passport, nothing,” Tauchmann told msnbc.com. “He looked very good — not like a wild man or anything like that. Physically and mentally, everything is OK with him.” Tauchmann said the boy claimed that he and his father took to the woods after his mother died about five years ago. The boy recalled his mother’s name as Doreen and his father’s as Ryan, but could not remember anything else about his family history.

Ray, who speaks fluent English and a few words of German, said he remembers nothing else about his family or early life except that his mother died in a car accident. He buried his father in the forest two weeks before arriving in Berlin asking for help.

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In Europe, Ray has become famous as “the forest boy,” perhaps drawing upon popular ideas of so-called “feral children” supposedly raised by wolves or other animals (brothers Romulus and Remus are examples from Roman mythology). There have been many alleged cases of so-called “wild children” brought up without parents or supposedly raised by animals, however there is little or no credible evidence for most of the cases. One 1997 book, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, told the true story of a young Jewish girl who survived the German Holocaust and wandered Europe searching for her parents with the help of a pack of wolves who adopted her. The memoir, which sold well in Europe and was adapted into a film, was later exposed as a hoax.

Ray’s case, however, is somewhat different. He is not claiming that he was raised in the wild, merely that he’d been living in the forest with his family for years. There are, in fact, hundreds of thousands of people throughout Europe living rural, quasi-nomadic lifestyles (including the much-maligned Romany, or Gypsies). So the idea that a father and son could live in a tent in the woods (possibly for years) is quite plausible.

However authorities grew more suspicious of Ray’s story as weeks passed and no new leads turned up to support his story. For example Ray was unable to lead investigators to the forest where he claimed to have lived for five years, despite (apparently) having walked to Berlin from those woods just weeks earlier. His clothing, possessions, and tent were in unusually good condition for having been in continuous use for years. Furthermore, German police records revealed no car crash deaths of a woman named Doreen in the previous ten years. Ray also was reluctant to publicize his photograph, and refused to help police find members of his extended family, claiming that it would be pointless because they had all died. All this cast considerable doubt on the “forest boy’s” story.

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Faking amnesia is, of course, not very difficult as long as you stick to your story. Why would someone make up a story like that? There are many reasons; some might do it seeking political asylum; others might do it as a prank or hoax for attention; still others may simply have true amnesia or psychological issues.

A new twist (and possible breakthrough) to the story emerged a few days ago when an elderly couple in Switzerland claimed that Ray was their grandson. They contacted police after seeing a photo of the boy on the news, and have submitted DNA samples to confirm their belief. Was “Ray the forest boy” all a hoax, or a mistake? Perhaps genetic testing (or a confession) will solve the riddle.

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