Sarah Jacobs and the others: who are the fasting girls who inspired the character of Anna O’Donnell, protagonist of The Prodigy?
Although the underlying plot of the film The prodigy is a work of fiction, Emma Donoghuethe writer of the novel from which it is based, has narratively reworked a cue derived from historical sources: chronicles, dated above all between the 15th and 19th centuries and attributable to different countries of Europe and North America, of miraculous fasts faced by very young girls who, like the character of Anna, claimed they could do without food because they were fed directly by God.
The prodigy: the real phenomenon of fast girls at the basis of the plot of fiction
The prodigyrecently added to Netflix catalogtells the story of Anna O’Donnellan eleven-year-old Irish girl who, in 1862, was the object of a parareligious cult because she claimed she didn’t need to eat to live: she just had to eat “manna from heaven”. The English Nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), trained in a school of excellence and war veteran, is hired by a local committee to observe the small fasting and track down, if ever there are, the scientific reasons behind what seems to all intents and purposes a rationally inexplicable miracle .
The plot, adapted to a feature film for the small screen by the Chilean director Sebastian Leliofollows the novel by Emma Donoghue: the author has indeed invented the story, but inspired by real facts. In particular, to the phenomenon of fast girls: between the 15th and 19th centuries century, in some countries in Europe and North America (Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, USA and Canada) historians record cases – to tell the truth initially small, then progressively more recurring – of very young girls, preteens or adolescents, who give up food and justify their inappetence with the willingness to feed only on the presence of Jesus Christ.
Their relationship with food is similar to that of ‘modern’ anorexics: food, eliminated from their lives, is conceived by them above all as a symbol. Replaced with nothing – an ascetic nothingness; a nothing that proceeds from a superior world, of which it assumes the surrogate features -, rejected food becomes an instrument of a claiming independence from what it feedsprimarily from the mother (or also, as we will see in the case of Sarah Jacob, from the land and its rules). It is no coincidence that even in the film the relationship between Anna and her mother represents a central conflict point in the dramaturgy.
Sarah, Mollie and Therese: the young fasting girls who really existed behind the character of Anna
Emma Donoghue he especially studied three cases among those reported by historical chronicles: the story of Sarah Jacobsthe one of Mollie Fancher and that of Therese Neumann. The first of her, Welsh, lived her childhood in the 1860s, exactly like Anna O’Donnell. Seriously ill at the age of nine, Sarah was forced to recover in bed. Immediately after she began to regain her strength, she decided to refuse the food she was given because she feared that once she was fully recovered, she would have to resume work on the family farm. Her parents, instead of discouraging the protest implicit in her daughter’s fasting, thought it best to exploit it and publicly declared that the little girl had been depriving herself of food and water for the past two years. Six nurses were assigned to initiate an observation – like Lib Wright, in the novel and film – and remained with the child until her death, which occurred five days after their arrival. The parents were convicted of manslaughter.
The second, originally from Brooklyn, perfectionist student with excellent gradesat nineteen, following a diagnosis of dyspepsia – a disorder that manifested itself through pain in the upper part of the abdomen due to a sense of satiety reached early – he began to fast for very long periods, without reporting any apparent consequences. He also attributed to himself divinatory faculties. Although public opinion had pushed for it to be submitted to the attention of the scientific communityno doctor assigned to observe her was ever able to prove that she was lying.
The third, a German, began to suffer from blindness, gastric disturbances and paralysis in 1918, when she was twenty, after falling from a stool. A few years later she began to refuse water and food: she claimed to have received a visit from the saint following which doing the Eucharist would have been enough for her to feed. Also in this case, as in the previous one, no man of science was able to demonstrate in rational terms the origin of his ‘supernatural’ powers. Suspicions that her father was maneuvering her, however, never ceased.