The case of Genie the feral child came to public attention in 1970 on November 4 by accident. A mother, suffering from cataracts, walked into a Los Angeles County welfare office by mistake. She was looking for assistance for her own medical health problems. But caseworkers were quickly alerted to the filthy little girl that accompanied her.
The girl exhibited extremely odd behaviour. She didn’t stand upright but stooped and took little hops to follow her mother around. She couldn’t extend her arms or legs and would frequently spit.
The girl wore diapers, was incontinent, and did not talk, nor did she seem able to focus her eyes. She had two complete sets of teeth yet could not chew or eat properly. Caseworkers judged the girl’s age to be around 5 from her appearance and behavior but were stunned to learn from the mother that Genie (her name has been changed to protect her identity) was 13 years old. Was this girl disabled or had she been injured, they wondered? When the truth finally emerged, it shocked the world. Genie had spent all her childhood in a blacked-out room isolated from the family. She had been forced to sit in a homemade straitjacket, strapped to a chair with a potty underneath for all her childhood. Forbidden to cry, talk, or make any noise, no one talked to Genie or touched her. Her father would periodically growl and beat her. But how did this happen in the quiet and tranquil streets of suburban America? Genie’s father, Clark Wiley, was a controlling man with an acute aversion to noise. He worked as a machinist during WW2. As a child, he lived in whichever brothel his mother happened to be working in at the time. He married the much younger Irene Oglesby, a helpless submissive woman who acquiesced to his every demand. Clark did not want children from his marriage.
They were too much trouble and too noisy. But he did want to have sex with his young wife. So, inevitably, children came along. This infuriated Clark. When his first daughter was born, he left her in the garage to freeze to death. Luckily for Clark, the next baby died of complications at birth.
Then, a son survived – John, and finally, Genie. It was when Clark’s mother was killed by a drunk driver in 1958 that he descended into brutality and rage. Genie bore the brunt of his cruelty. She was little more than 20 months old, but Clark had decided she was mentally deranged and useless to society. She should, therefore, be shut away from everyone. From this day, Genie’s nightmare began. She spent the next 13 years in this room, with no contact with the outside world, suffering beatings in complete silence. But now she was in the custody of Los Angeles Children’s Services, the question was – could this feral child be saved? Genie was moved to an LA children’s hospital and the race was on for who would get the chance to examine and rehabilitate her. After all, Genie was a blank slate. She presented a unique opportunity to study the effects of severe deprivation on a child. Funding was provided and a ‘Genie team’ assembled, which consisted of psychologists David Rigler and James Kent, and UCLA linguistics professor Susan Curtiss. “I think everybody who came in contact with her was attracted to her. She had a quality of somehow connecting with people, which developed more and more but was present, really, from the start. She had a way of reaching out without saying anything, but just somehow by the kind of look in her eyes, and people wanted to do things for her.” Rigler UCLA linguistics professor Susan Curtiss worked with Genie and soon discovered that this 13-year-old had the mental capacity of a 1-year-old toddler. Despite this, Genie proved to be exceptionally bright and quick to learn. At first, Genie could only speak a few words, but Curtiss managed to expand her vocabulary and the horrifying story of Genie’s life emerged. “Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry ... Not spit. Father. Hit face—spit ... Father hit big stick. Father angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Me cry.” Kent described Genie as “the most profoundly damaged child I’ve ever seen ... Genie’s life is a wasteland.” In spite of the horrific abuse, Genie’s progress was rapid and encouraging. Curtiss had become attached to the feral child and was hopeful for Genie. Genie would draw pictures when she could not find the right words. She scored highly on intelligence tests and was engaging with people she met. But try as she might, Curtiss could not get Genie past telegraphic speech. Telegraphic speech is made up of two or three words and is one of the first steps in language development, (e.g., Want doll, Daddy come, Funny dog). It is typical of 2-3 year-olds. Gradually, a child will begin to add more words and start to construct sentences that include adjectives and articles, (e.g., The car drives. I want a banana, Mummy brings me teddy). Language acquisition Language sets us apart from other animals. While it is true that animals do communicate with each other, it is only humans that use complex forms of language which includes grammar and syntax. But how do we acquire this capability? Do we pick it up from our environment or it is instilled within us from birth? In other words, nature or nurture? Behaviorist BF Skinner proposed that language acquisition was the result of positive reinforcement. We say a word, our mothers smile at us and we repeat that word. Linguist Noam Chomsky disputed this theory. Positive reinforcement cannot explain how humans form grammatically correct unique sentences. Chomsky theorised that humans are prewired to acquire language. He called it the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). However, there is only a small window of opportunity for grammatical language to be acquired. This window is available between the ages of 5 – 10 years old. After that, the child may still build up a large lexicon of words, but they will never be able to form sentences. And this what happened with Genie. Because she was kept in isolation and complete silence, she did not have the opportunity to listen or converse with others. This is what activates the LAD. Genie was such a special case that right from the start researchers and psychiatrists had vied for the chance to study her. But in 1972, the funding had been used up. Fierce debates about Genie’s future ensued, with Curtiss battling on one side and scientists and teachers on the other. One such teacher specializing in rehabilitation – Jean Butler, convinced Genie’s mother Irene to sue for custody of Genie, which was successful. However, Irene was ill-equipped to deal with Genie’s complex needs. Genie was placed into a foster home, but this quickly failed. She ended up in state institutions. Curtiss, who had made so much progress with Genie in the initial stages of her recovery, was forbidden to see her. As were all the other researchers and teachers. Genie fell back into her old feral child ways, defecating and spitting whenever she felt stressed. Staff beat her for these infractions and she regressed even further.
The promising improvement she had made since her release was now a thing of the past.
There have been a few reports of Genie since her separation from Curtiss and placement into the state. Journalist, Russ Rymer, author of ‘Genie: A Scientific Tragedy’ wrote of his shock at the devastating effect the years in state institutions had on Genie: “A large, bumbling woman with a facial expression of cowlike incomprehension ... her eyes focus poorly on the cake. Her dark hair has been hacked off raggedly at the top of her forehead, giving her the aspect of an asylum inmate.” – Rymer Psychiatry and behavioural science professor Jay Shurley attended Genie’s 27th and 29th birthday parties. He was heartbroken at Genie’s appearance, describing her as depressed, quiet, and institutionalised. No one knows what happened to the little feral child that hopped into that LA welfare office all those decades ago. Even Curtiss can’t reach her, although she believes that Genie is still alive. It is thought that Genie the feral child today is living in an adult foster home. Watch this documentary to learn more about this tragic story: Some believe that the rush to learn and study Genie the feral child was at odds with Genie’s wellbeing and recovery. However, at the time, little was known about acquiring language and Genie was a blank slate. This was an ideal opportunity to learn. So, should she have been studied so intensely? Was Genie’s case simply too important to put her welfare first and to ensure she received continued care? What do you think? References:.
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