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November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Lessons from a Feral Child

Danielle The beginning of this story might make you want to retch, but the ending points to what I'm thankful for this year.

Last July, Lane DeGregory, an exceptional writer for the St. Petersburg Times, pushed investigative journalism to a new height with "The Girl in the Window," a grotesque story of the redemption of a feral girl.

Webster's definition of feral: "of, relating to, or suggestive of a wild beast."

In 2005, some Florida residents reported seeing a child peering out of their neighbors' window. They had never seen the child before, not outside, not anywhere. And the family--a mother and two grown sons--had lived on the premises for three years.

When the police entered the house, they found 7-year-old Danielle in the back room:

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked — except for a swollen diaper.

Long story short: the mother was arrested, the girl was put up for adoption, and welcomed by a churchgoing couple, Bernie and Diane Lierow, who said, "She just looked like she needed us."         

When they first brought Danielle home, she couldn't talk, or take herself to the bathroom, or stop drooling. She was inconsolable, the product of a lifetime of neglect:

They gave her a doll; she bit off its hands. They took her to the beach; she screamed and wouldn't put her feet in the sand. Back at her new home, she tore from room to room, her swim diaper spewing streams across the carpet.

She couldn't peel the wrapper from a chocolate egg, so she ate the shiny paper too. She couldn't sit still to watch TV or look at a book. She couldn't hold a crayon. When they tried to brush her teeth or comb her hair, she kicked and thrashed. She wouldn't lie in a bed, wouldn't go to sleep, just rolled on her back, side to side, for hours.

Here's how her new family responded:

Bernie and Diane were told to put Dani in school with profoundly disabled children, but they insisted on different classes because they believe she can do more. They take her to occupational and physical therapy, to church and the mall and the grocery store. They have her in speech classes and horseback riding lessons.

Three years later:

Danielle is better than anyone dared hope. She has learned to look at people and let herself be held. She can chew ham. She can swim. She’s tall and blond and has a little belly. She knows her name is Dani.

In her new room, she has a window she can look out of. When she wants to see outside, all she has to do is raise her arms and her dad is right behind her, waiting to pick her up.

Two thousand years ago, a group of guys stumbled across a "feral" man:

For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs ... and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

Like the Lierows, Christ was undeterred from extending the kind of love that transforms a beast into a human. Not long afterward, some villagers found the feral man "dressed and in his right mind." Much like Danielle.

In a sense, that's what Christ does for all of us. Without Him, we're all feral creatures, wild and untamed by love. He "dresses us and puts us in our right minds." Those of us who have experienced His transforming grace know what it feels like to have a "dad [who] is right behind [us], waiting to pick [us] up."

And that's what I'm thankful for this year!

(Image © Melissa Lyttle for the St. Petersburg Times)

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