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Kidd, K. (2005). Bruno Bettelheim and the Psychoanalytic Feral Tale. Am. Imago, 62(1):75-99.

(2005). American Imago, 62(1):75-99

Bruno Bettelheim and the Psychoanalytic Feral Tale

Kenneth Kidd

In my book Making American Boys (2004), I propose that Sigmund Freud wrote two sophisticated variants of what I call the “feral tale”—a narrative of animal-human encounter, exchange, or overlap—in his case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918). I suggest that Freud, drawing from mythology and folklore, adapted the feral tale to dramatize his psychosexual theories, just as he had adapted the tale of Oedipus.1 By the early twentieth century, the rat and the wolf were animal figures used to designate certain kinds of people. The talking wolf was a major character in European fairy tales, usually a stand-in for a predatory man, while the anthropomorphized rat was a staple of Anglo-European forensic writing on the urban poor. The rat signified squalor and dirtiness—thus the term “street rat” for an underclass and usually immigrant urban child—whereas the wolf was a more ambivalent figure of savagery or wildness, at once feared and respected. Similarly, “wolf children,” long the stuff of mythology and science alike, were at once pitied and admired, depending on the context.

Freud's appropriation of the wolf-human figure coincides historically with Lord Baden-Powell's “Wolf Cub” or Cub Scouting program, begun in 1915. This heroic articulation of the topos drew upon the Jungle Books (1894-95) of Rudyard Kipling, who had in turn found inspiration in nineteenth-century reports of wolf-boys in colonial India, transforming them into his tales of the wolf-boy Mowgli. Baden-Powell turned literature back into life, organizing scouting around a kind of animal totemism in which Cubs eventually become men. Cub Scouts are initially organized into packs with a “den mother,” then as Scouts proper they become more adventure-seeking troops presided over by a male Scoutmaster.

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