child development

How Would the Ordeal in Room Affect a Kid in Real Life?

Photo: George Kraychyk

Throughout her seven-year imprisonment at the hands of a sadistic stranger, Joy, the protagonist of Room — which was recently nominated for four Oscars, and which will be spoiled in the sentences that follow — finds meaning and salvation in caring for her son, Jack. After they finally escape, Joy is wracked not only by the psychological scars of her confinement, but by guilt over whether her 5-year-old son could be permanently traumatized by having spent the first half-decade of his life in near-total isolation. In one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, a TV journalist asks Joy an immensely painful question: Did Joy do the right thing in keeping her son? Might Jack have incurred less psychological damage if his mother had asked their captor to give the boy to a foster home instead? The reporter’s blunt questions send Joy over the edge: Shortly after the interview, she swallows a near-fatal dose of sleeping pills.

As it turns out, her worries are unwarranted: After an initial period of shyness, Jack soon begins to adapt. Within months of their rescue, he is proving his resilience and developing close relationships — first with a dog, then with his grandmother, and eventually with another boy his own age. As the credits roll, his future looks practically rosy.

But how would a real-life boy in Jack’s situation — one who grew up believing that the world consisted of 100 squalid square feet — actually fare? The first few years of life are critical for cognitive, social, and linguistic development, after all, and in spite of his mother’s best efforts, Jack’s environment was seriously limited until age 5. How would a child develop if he grew up interacting with only one other person? Would his speech and behavior be irrevocably impaired? Would he even be able to integrate into normal society? These questions are impossible to answer without the kind of empirical research that ethics preclude (Imagine making that pitch to an ethics board: The treatment group, its members determined by a coin flip, gets locked in a room for their early years, while the control group gets a normal childhood). But psychologists are willing to speculate, and a few real-life cases offer further clues.                                                                                 

He would probably struggle to communicate with other kids, at least at first. “If Jack is just hearing his mother speak, he may not understand words, registers, or speech acts that would be unlikely in an interaction between a parent and child,” said Jesse Snedeker, a professor at Harvard’s Lab for Developmental Studies. Peers play a crucial role in children’s language acquisition. Research suggests that later-born children — who spend more time interacting with their siblings than do firstborn or only children — have an edge in developing conversational skills (though firstborns, who have more opportunities to engage with adults, end up with bigger vocabularies at the same age).

Snedeker speculates that Jack’s biggest struggle would be with pragmatics, “the place where language intersects with social communication.” He would have had no opportunities to navigate the complex social dynamics and hierarchies that most kids participate in and observe; he would have learned about humanity from a single source. “He might initially be frightened of others and be uncommunicative,” said Snedeker. “He might be overly familiar once he gets to know someone even a little. He might have trouble being a part of conversations with multiple participants.” 

Jack might also be affected by witnessing his mother’s suffering. Though Joy does her best to shield her son from the violence she endures — and succeeds in preventing Old Nick from touching or seeing their son — Jack does sometimes hear him sexually or verbally abusing his mother. Witnessing the abuse of a parent can be almost as damaging as being a direct victim. A 2003 meta-analysis found that children who were both victims and witnesses of domestic violence fared just slightly worse than those who were only witnesses. “During a critical period of development, Jack was exposed to high levels of stress, which would increase the risk that he would develop symptoms of anxiety or depression or PTSD,” said Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard.

It’s clear, then, that Jack would face an uphill battle. But a handful of real-life cases suggest that kids who grow up in conditions of even more severe isolation and sensory deprivation can make a full recovery. The Fritzl case, which loosely inspired Room author Emma Donoghue, might provide the most relevant model for how a boy like Jack would react to the outside world. Imprisoned in her father’s basement for 24 years, Elisabeth Fritzl raised three children in captivity, including Felix — who, like Jack, was 5 years old when the family was rescued. Upon their release, Felix and his teenage siblings would communicate mostly “with noises that are a mixture of growling and cooing,” a local police chief said at the time. The siblings were both awed and frightened by the outside world. Felix was reportedly thrilled to ride in a police car and transfixed by the sight of the moon; one of his favorite pastimes was sitting on the hospital lawn, playing with grass. The family has largely stayed out of the press, but five years after their escape, it was reported that Felix was attending a regular school and leading a normal life.

Another positive sign for Jack is the recovery of a child known as Isabelle, born in Ohio in 1932. The family did not approve of the fact that Isabelle’s mother was unmarried, and locked her and her daughter in a dark room of the family home for the first six years of Isabelle’s life. Isabelle’s mother was deaf and mute, and the two communicated mostly through gestures. When the girl was discovered, she was incapable of speech and terrified of strangers; in a 1947 paper, sociologist Kingsley Davis likened her behavior to “that of a wild animal.” The doctors assigned to her case had little hope for her future: “The general impression was that she was wholly uneducable,” wrote one speech specialist who worked with her. But they went ahead with an intensive treatment plan anyway, and within a year and a half, Isabelle was described as “a very bright, cheerful, energetic little girl.” By age 14, she was fitting in with her peers at a local public school. “At least for some individuals, extreme isolation up to age 6 does not permanently impair socialization,” Davis concludes.

Perhaps a key thing to keep in mind here is that even in the most trying of circumstances, good, attentive parenting can go a long way. The psychologists I spoke to emphasized that — in spite of what the TV reporter implied — Jack’s relationship with his mother might well insulate him from serious psychological damage. Throughout their captivity, Joy does her best to stimulate her son’s mind and create some semblance of a normal environment. She tells him stories, sings him lullabies, and adapts calisthenic exercises for their ten-by-ten-foot space. “The bottom line is that the right kind of maternal care might well buffer Jack against most of the deleterious effects of his isolation,” said Frank Keil, director of the Cognition and Development lab at Yale.

As for what steps a parent could take after the end of their ordeal to help ensure their child’s healthy development, psychologist Rebecca Bailey, who has helped kidnapping victims like Jaycee Dugard reintegrate into society, would advise the family to work with a team of therapists and gradually introduce Jack to the world. “You can’t make the victims feel like there’s something wrong with them,” she said. “You can’t make them feel like they’re sick.” Befriending his step-grandfather’s dog would be a healthy step for Jack: Bailey says animals can be “a fabulous bridge” between seclusion and the complexities of the human world. (Horse therapy was a big part of Dugard’s recovery.)

Ultimately, “If his mom received treatment and Jack was then raised in a normal world, the odds of his recovering from this would be good,” said Nelson. “Although whether he would make a full recovery is unclear.” It’s a grisly thought experiment — and hopefully, we’ll never have enough data to know for sure. 

How Would the Room Affect a Real-Life Kid?