On Lane DeGregory’s “The girl in the window” (Tampa Bay Times, July 2008)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: In a home almost unfit even for roaches, one mother neglected her daughter so badly that she never learned to talk, play with toys, or even eat. Then the police found out, and before long, the girl was adopted. Her new parents try to develop her into a communicative, well-behaved child.

In this story, Lane DeGregory is dealing with two things: extreme repulsiveness, and extreme fragility. Illuminating this stark contrast requires a balance that DeGregory achieves supremely by repulsing the readers enough to leave them deeply invested in what happens to this clearly dysfunctional 5-year-old, but not so much to turn them away. (Disclaimer: The depiction of this trailer home leaves you teetering just on the edge of hurling, but you can’t blame the writer for that one.)

She begins with fragility—the second sentence here: “A little girl, pale, with dark eyes, lifted a dirty blanket above the broken glass and peered out, one neighbor remembered.” And then a few short grafs down the line, when the police enter this place, repulsion: “Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters stuffed into broken, grimy windows. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters… The floor, walls, even the ceiling seemed to sway beneath the legions of scuttling roaches.”

This pattern continues through the detectives’ investigation through the trailer and their discovering the little girl, named Danielle, living with her own excrement. The police carry her out the door, and with that, DeGregory leaves us wanting to cry for the girl, fuming with her mother, and dying to know what will happen to them both.

The rest of the story is one of evolution. Aside from stories from the mother’s past that surface later on, the girl’s story is a straight line: from the time she was taken away from her home to the present time, where we will see how far she has evolved.

We learn next, after she is taken, that doctors have deemed her a “feral child”—a rarity. DeGregory provides the history behind the few children who have had this label—not a Wikipedia entry, but an engaging run of information that bolsters the rareness of this case and improves understanding of its position on the spectrum of extremes—which is at the farthest end.

The second part of the story is dubbed “Becoming Dani”—signaling her transformation from who she once was—Danielle—into the daughter with a personality—Dani. Here Dani is adopted by loving people. We understand the extent to which her developmental problems have permanently damaged her based on comparison to other children her age and her parents’ efforts to treat her like they would a “normal” child:

“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.”

We see Dani struggle through her speech therapy, where she tries to blow air through her lips to make noise. We see her learn how to nod yes or no. Through extensive illustration of Dani’s trials and errors while learning how to function the way we all take for granted, DeGregory makes these small moments like learning to nod feel momentous.

The ending to this story is not definitive: Dani is still learning. But DeGregory’s showcase of her evolution to this point does justice to the rareness of the girl’s case, and DeGregory’s illustration of human fragility among the most repulsive conditions is pristine.