Now that Ray the Forest Boy has been revealed as 20-year-old Robin van Helsum, Harriet Alexander and Joan Clements of the Telegraph have spoken with his friends in Hengelo, and what they’ve uncovered is both more mundane and sadder than I’d expected.
If this entry seems long, it’s because I like to err on the side of thoroughness. If it seems obsessive, that’s because even with the hoax exposed, Robin’s story is still interesting enough to tickle the writer part of my brain.
His parents divorced when he was a toddler and his mother took him and his elder brother Thomas, now 22, to Portugal. His father, Johan van Helsum, fought a custody battle and, upon winning the case, flew out to bring his sons back to the Netherlands.
“Robin was really traumatised by those early years,” said Mo Rahim Rigi, his former flatmate. “It unnerved him. His mother would try to get in touch, send him birthday cards and that kind of thing, but he didn’t want to know.”
I’d wondered where his mother was. The article leaves a gap around the trauma of his early childhood; it is not clear why Robin wouldn’t want to hear from his mother after his father took him away from her back to the Netherlands. Perhaps his mother abused and/or neglected her small sons while she had them in Portugal, or perhaps she was so disturbed that her behavior frightened Robin even if she didn’t directly mistreat him.
Robin left the family home at the age of 16, after his father – described as strict and conservative – took a dim view of his lifestyle. Mr van Helsum agreed to let him move to the nearby town of Almelo, to live in supervised accommodation. Father visited son regularly, but the situation was far from ideal.
This is the part where I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance; the supervised accommodation doesn’t sound like anything we have here in the States. It sounds like a public service that gives unhappy teenagers an option between living in misery with their parents and living in desperation on the streets.
“He was asked to leave after he got a girl pregnant,” his stepmother, Ellen van Helsum, told a local newspaper yesterday . “She had been living with two other boys and Robin in the care home.”
Their son, Damien, is now two years old. Friends said Robin had wanted to be a good parent and visited the child occasionally but he had not planned on being a father at 18.
Again, I don’t know the culture surrounding the care home, but this event really sticks out. It sounds uniquely humiliating to get kicked out of a care home for teenagers, especially on grounds that amount to having had unprotected sex.
Furthermore, this isn’t really a criticism of the care home’s decision so much as an observation: his being asked to leave the home may have been a contributing factor in his lack of parental involvement in Damien’s life. Obviously I don’t know Robin, but when the existence of a baby is used as grounds to send his young father elsewhere and effectively uproot his late-teenage life, there should be no surprise when that father doesn’t see much of the child.
He returned to Hengelo – an attractive suburban town of 80,000 – and went to school at ROC van Twente college, where he began a course in media and communications. But he was not interested in academic life and soon dropped out.
In August 2010 he moved into a two-bedroom flat with his friend Mr Rigi, a fellow student from his early teenage years. A year later, he suddenly disappeared.
And what was going on in that time period while Robin was dropping out of school?
At the family home – a well-tended red brick house, with hanging baskets outside the front door – Mrs van Helsum said she was stunned by his actions. Robin’s father died in February and she is struggling to come to terms with the shocks.
“I am still mourning my husband, and then suddenly I find out our son has been found,” she said. “I have had two enormous shocks and it is hard to cope.”
She also said it was difficult to hear reports that her stepson’s troubled relationship with his father drove him away. “My family is being treated badly,” she said. “I feel under siege with everyone pointing the finger.”
First impression is that Mrs. van Helsum is awfully quick to start crying “me, me, me” when the criticism is of her late husband’s parenting style.
That said, she’s obviously under a lot of stress and it’s not fair to expect her to put on her most selfless face when the dust has far from settled.
As for Johan van Helsum as a father, it is possible that he both tried to do right by his sons and that he lacked the emotional skill set to maintain a healthy relationship with Robin.
In May last year, father and son had argued over money when Robin fell behind in rent. He had not spoken to his father for almost four months before he disappeared.
Here is another spot where the logistics are unclear. Robin wasn’t living with his father, so why did they argue over money? I suppose Robin asked to borrow money to catch up with his rent, and Johan was not amused. There were five months between May and September, during four of which he did not speak with his father. Following the argument, Robin presumably got his housing payments under control and didn’t try speaking with Johan again.
But in an emotional letter home to his father and stepmother from Berlin, Robin said he was “sorry for all the suffering” he had caused and had left because he was “totally fed up with this lifestyle.” He also apologised to his father, who was fighting cancer, for not visiting him.
“I have had no time to spend with you and even no time to visit you in hospital where you have had so many operations. Visiting you would have sent me deeper into the dark hole.”
Visiting you would have sent me deeper into that dark hole. Holy shit.
Hi there, depression! Do you come here often?
Richard, one of [Johan's] colleagues, said: “He did everything for his boys. He changed shifts frequently to be with them for important occasions, and then gave a party for colleagues who had changed shifts with him. His two boys were at that party. He was a nice man.”
Again: it is entirely possible that he made every effort to spend time with his sons, but did not use that time effectively. Intent is not magic, even with parents dealing with their children.
Robin’s friends tell a different story, explaining that it was noticeable how distant he was from his family.
“He was quite mysterious about his parents,” said one of his friends, pausing from her waitressing work in a central Hengelo café, amid the Saturday street market. “We are really close but he never ever talked about them.”
It makes sense that he never talked about his parents if he had lousy or nonexistent relationships with each of them.
He occasionally smoked marijuana and was known to have financial and family problems. But it was not considered anything serious.
Mr Rigi, his former flatmate, said: “It’s true that he didn’t have the most balanced start. But he wasn’t a person to whinge about it; he had big dreams of working to help young people who went through similar experiences.
It sounds like he didn’t know where to start in realizing his big dreams.
“That’s why it is so strange that he just disappeared. I knew him really well – we would spend hours talking – and no one saw this coming.”
He spent hours talking, but that doesn’t mean he told his friends what was bothering him.
Robin’s friends heard that he set off to Berlin by foot, then hitchhiking and taking the train for short stretches.
He travelled with his friend Lex, who had also been in the care home in Almelo. But Lex found the journey too tough, and to Robin’s anger he telephoned his mother and persuaded her to pay for him to return to the Netherlands.
“We found out from Lex that Robin was in Berlin,” said Mr Rigi. “But he wouldn’t get in touch with any of us. We were sad and a bit confused, but just hoped that he was doing OK and getting on with his life. None of us knew about this Forest Boy story.”
The fact that he initially took off with a friend is significant. It suggests that the Forest Boy story was a last-minute invention. He probably had some half-baked idea of him and Lex taking off and making an independent life for themselves in Berlin, where no one from Hengelo or Almelo would know to look for them. Then Lex bailed out, and Robin was totally on his own.
He invented the character Ray, who was in many ways his polar opposite, or at least sufficiently different to have the opposite status. Ray spent years with no one in the world except for his father, he followed his father’s instructions, and took responsibility for his father’s dead body, while Robin was too confused and unhappy to visit his cancer-stricken father in the hospital. Ray was removed from society, had consequently never had the chance to grow up, and anyway was still a minor, while Robin had grown up too fast and reached legal adulthood with a baby son he didn’t know how to parent. Ray had his mother in his life until she died in a car crash when he was 12, but he didn’t remember anything else about her. Robin was taken away from his mother as a small child and since then was unwilling to communicate with her. Ray’s life was a simple matter of survival in the wild until his father died. Robin had options but didn’t know which path he should take. Ray could have come from anywhere in Europe; Robin came from a small Dutch city on the German border.
It is not a big leap to infer that Ray is everything Robin would have liked to be. Ray is sheltered, blameless and a dedicated son even when his father is perfectly healthy. Ray is still young enough to ask for help, and free of the ambivalence and guilt that plague Robin.
From the beginning the story didn’t add up, seeing how Robin wasn’t even dirty enough to have been living in the woods for a week. While the character of Ray was fictional, Robin’s exact words when he first walked into the City Hall were not really a lie so much as a matter of interpretation:
“I’m all alone in the world, I don’t know who I am. Please help me.”