Book Review: Room and cases of extreme isolation

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For those of you who may not yet know what Room is about, Emma Donoghue’s novel is the story of a woman who is kidnapped and forcibly held in a room for 6 years in a shed in her kidnappers back yard, essentially serving as his sex slave. She gives birth to a son, and so when the book begins, we see the world through the perspective of Jack, her now 5 year old son who has never been outside the shed or seen anything of the outside world except what is visible through a high skylight. They have a television with some limited reception but his mother has told him that everything in the television is not real, and that the Outside itself is not real. So all Jack knows is the room and its rather limited contents.

I have to say, I was a little afraid that we would spend the whole of the book in the room, and I don’t think I could have handled that. I was quite glad that Jack and his mother escape, because then you get to explore a very interesting question sociologically speaking: what happens to people who endure cases of extreme social isolation?

Socialization as sociologists use the term is not just hanging out with people, but the process through which we learn to become a member of a group. This happens all throughout our lives, but primary socialization is what happens when we are very young and sociologists would argue that it is part of how we learn to become a part of the group called humans. A “wild child” is a child who has suffered from extreme isolation and has therefore received almost no socialization, because you need interaction with other humans to teach you how to be human. It’s an interesting fact about us as humans that we find social isolation deeply uncomfortable, even for relatively small amounts of time. Wild children have experienced prolonged periods of isolation. Cases of this kind of extreme isolation are rarer in modern society, but in the 1970s, a young girl was discovered who had been locked in a room by herself most of the time until the age of thirteen. Genie, as the scientists who began to study and treat her called her, could walk but not talk. Like many other wild children, she would bite and scratch, and she had decreased sensitivity to cold. Feral children are often described as animal-like and exhibit animal-like (nonhuman animals, that is) behavior. Unlike Jack in the novel, Genie was shut in a room for much longer and with no other person in there with her for most of the time.

Genie, the subject of Secrets of
the Wild Child

There are moments in Room that vaguely refer to this tradition of the study of wild or feral children. Scientists find them especially interesting because they believe they might allow us to answer questions about the old nature versus nurture debate. What happens when you pretty much remove the nurture from the equation? And is there a critical window for socialization that once missed, can never be recovered?

In Room, we learn more about the process of re-socialization which Jack undergoes once he leaves the room and what it would be like to exist in a world with just one other person and then enter a world with millions. If you’ve never walked up or down steps, that’s something you’d have to learn. Or how to figure out when people are talking directly to you when there’s more than two of you. And how to tell when people are talking about you (that the “he” they keep saying actually refers to you).

I think the novel does a fairly good job of imagining how that would feel, as its told first person from Jack’s perspective. And in Jack’s case, unlike that of Genie, we have a sense that he’s going to be able to adjust to the world outside of the room. As a sociologist, you might see this as an example of how powerful socialization can be. It’s part of what explains our adaptability as humans to a wide variety of different situations, even when some of them (prison, slavery, war) seem pretty awful.

I also liked that the Room is about more than just imagining a certain psychological or sociological phenomenon. Like all good novels, it’s a bigger story about what it means to be human, even if it’s a case of a rather unique human experience. It’s a fast read because first you want to know if they’re going to escape, and then you want to know what happens after they escape. But though you finish it quickly, it stays with you for a while, wondering how you would handle being locked in a room for that long.

If you’re interested in cases of extreme isolation, check out the NOVA documentary, Secrets of the Wild Child (which is also an interesting study in science and ethics) or Kingsley Davis’ Final Note on a Case of Extreme Isolation.

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  1. Yes, yes, and yes. Very nicely done!

  2. Thanks, Emily. I feel Carla and all the sociology professors at Millsaps would be proud.

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