Masson's 'Lost Prince': solitude to loneliness


"Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser" by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. The Free Press. 254 pages. $23 This is the story of Kaspar Hauser, an adolescent who appeared one day in the spring of 1828 on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He could barely speak or walk. He was disoriented. He seemed terrorized and fascinated by his surroundings at the same time. The authorities soon determined that he had been confined for up to 12 years in a tiny cell, from his infancy. He grew up without knowing a human being, except for the man whose face he never saw who delivered his daily diet of bread and water.

He was a feral child, but gentle not savage. Like an animal he had no self-awareness. He could not understand perspective: why a road narrowed as it receded. He could see in the dark. He could not distinguish between living things and inanimate objects: he believed that leaves and paper, when blown by the wind, were creating their own motion.

Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, the German jurist whose biography of Kaspar Hauser forms the greater part of this book, denounced what was done to the boy as "a crime against the life of the soul." This "Child of Europe," as he became known, was murdered five years after he first appeared. His killers were never found.

Many people believed Kaspar Hauser was the hereditary Prince of Baden, and a victim of royal skullduggery. Books and plays were written about him, and a poem by Paul Verlaine. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes his story as "one of the most celebrated mysteries of the 19th century."

Though dated, it is still a story capable of yielding insight into contemporary issues, such as the "nature vs. nurture" controversy or the development of language. Mr. Masson believes it can contribute to the debate over recovered memory or reveal something about child abuse in the 19th century.

These areas are specialties of the author, who writes on psychological themes. He is the former head of the Freud Archives, and was one of those who helped popularize the notion that memories of sexual abuse at a very young age might be suppressed, and later "recovered" through therapy. The idea is out of fashion these days in psychiatry.

Mr. Masson believes child sexual abuse was prevalent in Europe in the last century, but was rarely acknowledged as a social problem. He argues, in fact, that Sigmund Freud, who first let it be known that he believed in the widespread sexual abuse of children, later recanted. He did this, Mr. Masson suspects, not because he was disabused of his earlier conviction, but because he found he was being shunned by his medical colleagues.

Mr. Masson's use of Kaspar Hauser's experience does not have the effect he desires. The youth's experience, sad as it was, did not seem to include the sexual abuse element. The book has an unfinished quality; it is a hodgepodge of various items: there is the Feuerbach monograph, Mr. Masson's own long introduction and commentary on it, a few scraps of other Hauser material, and many notes and appendixes. But it is worth having, not for what can be extrapolated from it, but for Alselm Feuerbach's loving and indignant telling of the Kaspar Hauser's story. He was a young man who never had a chance, who emerged from a world of complete solitude into a life of utter loneliness, and early death.

Richard O'Mara is a features writer for The Sun. For 12 years, he was foreign editor and before that, foreign correspondent in Latin America and Europe.

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