Girl who lived with monkeys spins incredible tale

The opening story about being kidnapped as a child of four and abandoned in the jungle, where she lived with monkeys, is just the first incredible incident of the new book The Girl With No Name.

Now a British grandmother, her book tells of life as a feral child

Marina Chapman

8 years ago
Woman talks to CBC about memoir of childhood among the monkeys. 5:36

Marina Chapman's opening story about being kidnapped as a child of four and abandoned in the jungle, where she lived with monkeys, is just the first incredible tale told in the new non-fiction book The Girl With No Name.

Her story, told with the help of her daughter, Vanessa James and ghost writer Lynne Barrett-Lee, is difficult to either verify or disprove.

Recalls following monkeys

Born in the 1950s, in what she believes was Colombia, Chapman says she recalls being carried on a man’s back and being dumped in the jungle. There she says she nearly starved until she began to follow a family of monkeys who led her to find nuts and fruit and who eventually accepted her as one of their tribe.

Marina Chapman, on a visit to Colombia, shows how she would find shelter in the jungle as a feral child. (John Chapman/Greystone)

"They don’t give you anything. You just have to wait until something drops and then you have to move quickly because if you don’t another monkey will take it away," Chapman said in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

She estimates she was about nine when she allowed herself to approach some people in the jungle, who then sold her to a brothel. Unable at first to speak, she became a household slave and was badly treated until she ran away and lived on the streets.

"I learned quickly with children to speak, when I came to the city, but with adults, I found them difficult to understand. With monkeys you know where you stand with them, but with humans it’s complicated," she said.

As a street kid, she put the skills she’d learned in the jungle — climbing and moving quickly — to stealing food. But she wanted a less precarious life and went to work as a servant, only to discover the family she served were gangsters. She escaped from them when it became clear they would have her killed because she overheard them talking about a violent murder.

Evaluated for 'false memory' syndrome

Chapman is now a grandmother living in Bradford, U.K.  Her publisher had her story evaluated by primate experts who said the story about living and learning from monkeys was plausible.

The publisher also had a psychologist evaluate her for "false memory" syndrome and say she does not appear to be suffering from that condition.

Chapman is surprised at the stir her story has created, beginning in Britain where the book was first released and now in North America, where it was released last week.

"I'm really surprised.  I'm really surprised because believe me I spent some time with some children in the streets and they had so many stories to tell that I don't think mine was anything [special]," she told CBC News.

Marina Chapman is shown with her family in Bradford, U.K. (Carl Bromwich/Greystone)

Chapman says she followed monkeys in the jungle out of an instinct to survive and realized later that it was unusual for her to be accepted by them.

"No they did not accept me at first. They kept apart from me for a while, with me, observing me but eventually one of them landed on my shoulders and that was fantastic because it feels like somebody was giving you a cuddle. And when you are lonely, abandoned, believe me you want some comfort," she said.

Her daughter Vanessa James said she started writing down the stories of her mother’s childhood because she had heard them as a little girl. 

Taught family to climb trees

"I didn’t know any different, it was completely normal to me. Looking back – now that people are asking questions what is different about you," James said. She recalled that her mother taught her to climb trees, and sometimes, at the breakfast table, would urge her children to make monkey noises to get their porridge, as well as telling stories about living with monkeys.

Chapman was slow to remember incidents, especially from early in her life, but sometimes being with her grandchildren, or seeing a landscape that reminded her of the jungle, would trigger a memory, James said.

Chapman said she had no intention of telling her story to a wider public, but the book emerged after her daughter convinced her it was a fantastic tale that needed telling.

She also hoped that publishing the book would help her find her original family – the one who she’d been stolen from at the age of four. A lifelong lover of animals, she also plans to travel to Colombia in the hopes of finding her monkey family.

The Girl With No Name: The True Story of a Girl Who Lived with Monkeys is published by Greystone Books.