She hobbled into a Los Angeles county welfare office in October 1970, a stooped, withered waif with a curious way of holding up her hands, like a rabbit. She looked about six or seven. Her mother, stricken with cataracts, was seeking an office with services for the blind and had entered the wrong room.
But the girl transfixed welfare officers.
At first they assumed autism. Then they discovered she could not talk. She was incontinent and salivated and spat. She had two nearly complete sets of teeth - extra teeth in such cases are known as supernumeraries, a rare dental condition. She could barely chew or swallow, and could not fully focus her eyes or extend her limbs. She weighed just 59lb (26kg). And she was, it turned out, 13 years old.
Her name – the name given to protect her identity – was Genie. Her deranged father had strapped her into a handmade straitjacket and tied her to a chair in a silent room of a suburban house since she was a toddler. He had forbidden her to cry, speak or make noise and had beaten and growled at her, like a dog.
It made news as one of the US’s worst cases of child abuse. How, asked Walter Cronkite, could a quiet residential street, Golden West Avenue, in Temple City, a sleepy Californian town, produce a feral child – a child so bereft of human touch she evoked cases like the wolf child of Hesse in the 14th century, the bear child of Lithuania in 1661 and Victor of Aveyron, a boy reared in the forests of revolutionary France?
Over time, Genie slipped from headlines – Vietnam was burning, the Beatles were in the midst of breaking up – but she retained the attention of scientists, especially linguists. She was a prize specimen for having grown up without language or social training. Could she now learn language?
Jostling for access, they took brain scans and audio recordings, performed countless tests, compiled reams of data, published papers. And gradually they, too, with a few exceptions, also lost interest.
By the late 1970s, Genie had vanished back into obscurity. As she was a ward of California, authorities housed her in state-run institutions, her location secret. Four decades later, she apparently remains in state care.
“I’m pretty sure she’s still alive because I’ve asked each time I called and they told me she’s well,” said Susan Curtiss, a UCLA linguistics professor who studied and befriended Genie. “They never let me have any contact with her. I’ve become powerless in my attempts to visit her or write to her. I think my last contact was in the early 1980s.”
Authorities rebuffed Guardian inquiries. “If ‘Genie’ is alive, information relating to her is confidential and it does not meet the criteria of information that is available through a PRA Request,” said Kim Tsuchida, a public records act coordinator for California’s department of social services. “We would suggest that you contact Los Angeles County with your request.” LA County referred the query to mental health authorities, who did not respond to a written request.
With Genie approaching her 60th birthday, her fate remains an enigma. Has she learned to speak? To engage with the world? To be happy? Only a handful of people know.
But the story has an additional chapter: the fate of the other players. Almost all, it turns out, were scarred. Scarred psychologically and professionally in ways none anticipated, and which in some cases endure to this day.
There were the scientists and carers who studied and, in some cases, loved her. Their collaboration collapsed into feuds, vendettas and muck-raking.
There was the author who chronicled the saga and found it taking over his life. He moved to Paris to escape only for Genie’s story to follow him and manifest itself in other ways.
There was Genie’s older brother, who also suffered grievously under their father. He lived, in his own words, like a “dead man” and failed his own daughter – Genie’s niece – who in turn failed her daughters.
The story begins with Genie’s father, Clark Wiley. He grew up in foster homes in the Pacific north-west and worked as a machinist on aircraft assembly lines in LA during and after the second world war. He married Irene Oglesby, a dust bowl migrant 20 years his junior. A controlling man who hated noise, he did not want children. Yet children came. The first, a baby girl, died after being left in a cold garage. A second died from birth complications. A third, a boy named John, survived, followed five years later by the girl who would become known as Genie.
When a drunk driver killed Wiley’s mother in 1958, he unravelled into anger and paranoia. He brutalised John and locked his 20-month-old daughter alone in a small bedroom, isolated and barely able to move. When not harnessed to a potty seat, she was constrained in a type of straitjacket and wire mesh-covered crib. Wiley imposed silence with his fists and a piece of wood. That is how Genie passed the 1960s.
Irene, stricken by fear and poor eyesight, finally fled in 1970. Things happened swiftly after she blundered into the wrong welfare office. Wiley, charged with child abuse, shot himself. “The world will never understand,” said the note.
Genie, a ward of court, was moved to LA’s children’s hospital. Pediatricians, psychologists, linguists and other experts from around the US petitioned to examine and treat her, for here was a unique opportunity to study brain and speech development – how language makes us human.
Genie could speak a few words, such as “blue”, “orange”, “mother” and “go”, but mostly remained silent and undemonstrative. She shuffled with a sort of bunny hop and urinated and defecated when stressed. Doctors called her the most profoundly damaged child they had ever seen.
Progress initially was promising. Genie learned to play, chew, dress herself and enjoy music. She expanded her vocabulary and sketched pictures to communicate what words could not. She performed well on intelligence tests.
“Language and thought are distinct from each other. For many of us, our thoughts are verbally encoded. For Genie, her thoughts were virtually never verbally encoded, but there are many ways to think,” said Curtiss, one of the few surviving members of the research team. “She was smart. She could hold a set of pictures so they told a story. She could create all sorts of complex structures from sticks. She had other signs of intelligence. The lights were on.”
Curtiss, who was starting out as an academic at that time, formed a tight bond with Genie during walks and shopping trips (mainly for plastic buckets, which Genie collected). Her curiosity and spirit also enchanted hospital cooks, orderlies and other staff members.
Genie showed that lexicon seemed to have no age limit. But grammar, forming words into sentences, proved beyond her, bolstering the view that beyond a certain age, it is simply too late. The window seems to close, said Curtiss, between five and 10.
“Does language make us human? That’s a tough question,” said the linguist. “It’s possible to know very little language and still be fully human, to love, form relationships and engage with the world. Genie definitely engaged with the world. She could draw in ways you would know exactly what she was communicating.”
Yet there was to be no Helen Keller-style breakthrough. On the contrary, by 1972, feuding divided the carers and scientists. Jean Butler, a rehabilitation teacher, clashed with researchers and enlisted Irene, Genie’s mother, in a campaign for control. Each side accused the other of exploitation.
Research funding dried up and Genie was moved to an inadequate foster home. Irene briefly regained custody only to find herself overwhelmed – so Genie went to another foster home, then a series of state institutions under the supervision of social workers who barred access to Curtiss and others. Genie’s progress swiftly reversed, perhaps never to be recovered.
Russ Rymer, a journalist who detailed the case in the 1990s in two New Yorker articles and a book, Genie: a Scientific Tragedy, painted a bleak portrait of photographs from her 27th birthday party.
“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.”
Jay Shurley, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural science who was at that party, and her 29th, told Rymer she was miserable, stooped and seldom made eye contact. “It was heartrending.”
A veil cloaks Genie’s life since then. But a melancholy thread connects those she left behind.
For the surviving scientists it is regret tinged with anguish. Shurley’s verdict: “She was this isolated person, incarcerated for all those years, and she emerged and lived in a more reasonable world for a while, and responded to this world, and then the door was shut and she withdrew again and her soul was sick.”
Curtiss, who wrote a book about Genie, and is one of the few researchers to emerge creditably from the saga, feels grief-stricken to this day. “I’m not in touch with her, but not by my choice. They never let me have any contact with her. I’ve become powerless in my attempts to visit her or write to her. I long to see her. There is a hole in my heart and soul from not being able to see her that doesn’t go away.”
In an interview, Rymer said Genie’s story affected all those involved, himself included. “It made for a pretty intense and disturbing several years. This took over my life, my worldview. A lot about this case left me shaken. Maybe this is cowardice – I was relieved to be able to turn away from the story. Because anytime I went into that room [where Genie grew up], it was unbearable.”
But Rymer discovered he could not turn away, not fully. “I generally go on to another story. But I had to confront how much I identified with Genie. Being shut up, unable to express herself, I think that speaks to everyone. I think the person I was writing about was to some extent myself.”
Genie infiltrated his recent novel, Paris Twilight, set in France in 1990, said Rymer. “The novel details, as the Genie tale does more literally, an attempted escape from a small dank room and a thwarted life, into a palatial future that doesn’t in the end work out. It’s about the connection between science and emotion. So right there I’m still trying to resolve some of these issues. [In my experience] as a journalist, Genie, in ways I could never anticipate, brought up issues that will never release me.”
The legacy of Clark Wiley’s abuse never released Genie’s brother, John. After the beatings, and witnessing his sister’s suffering, he told ABC News in 2008: “I feel at times God failed me. Maybe I failed him.” He saw Genie for the last time in 1982 and lost touch with their mother, who died in 2003. “I tried to put [Genie] out of my mind because of the shame. But I’m glad she got some help.”
After brushes with the law, John settled in Ohio and worked as a housepainter. He married and had a daughter, Pamela. But the marriage crumbled and his daughter – Genie’s niece – turned to drugs.
In 2010, police found Pamela intoxicated and charged her with endangering her two daughters, Genie’s grandnieces. There would be no miracle turnaround, no happy ending. John, who had diabetes, died in 2011. Pamela, who apparently never met her aunt Genie, died in 2012.
In Arab folklore, a genie is a spirit imprisoned in a bottle or oil lamp who, when freed, can grant wishes. The waif who shuffled into the world in 1970 enchanted many people in that brief, heady period after her liberation.
But granting wishes, like so much else, proved beyond her, perhaps because she never truly escaped.
The first publicly released picture of Genie, taken just after California authorities took control of her care at the age of 13
|Born||1957 (age 60–61)|
Arcadia, California, United States
|Known for||Victim of severe child abuse and research subject in language acquisition|
Genie (born 1957) is the pseudonym for an Americanferal child who was a victim of severe abuse, neglect, and social isolation. Her circumstances are prominently recorded in the annals of linguistics and abnormal child psychology. When she was a baby her father concluded that she was severely mentally retarded, a view which intensified as she got older, causing him to dislike her and withhold care and attention. At approximately the time she reached the age of 20 months he decided to keep her as socially isolated as possible as a result of this belief, so from that time until she reached the age of 13 years and 7 months he kept her locked alone in a room. During this time he almost always kept her strapped to a child's toilet or bound her in a crib with her arms and legs completely immobilized, forbade anyone from interacting with her, provided her with almost no stimulation of any kind, and left her severely malnourished. The extent of her isolation prevented her from being exposed to any significant amount of speech, and as a result she did not acquire language during her childhood. Her abuse came to the attention of Los Angeles child welfare authorities on November 4, 1970.
In the first several years after Genie's early life and circumstances came to light, psychologists, linguists, and other scientists focused a great deal of attention on Genie's case, seeing in her near-total isolation a unique chance to study many aspects of human development. Upon determining that Genie had not yet learned a language, linguists saw Genie as providing an opportunity to gain further insight into the processes controlling language acquisition skills and to test theories and hypotheses identifying critical periods during which humans learn to understand and use language. Throughout the time scientists studied Genie, she made substantial advances with her overall mental and psychological development. Within months of being discovered Genie had developed exceptional nonverbal communication skills, and gradually learned some basic social skills, but even by the end of their case study, she still exhibited many behavioral traits characteristic of an unsocialized person. She also continued to learn and use new language skills throughout the time they tested her, but ultimately remained unable to fully acquire a first language.
Authorities initially arranged for Genie's admission to the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where a team of physicians and psychologists managed her care for several months, and her subsequent living arrangements became the subject of rancorous and protracted debate. In late June 1971 she left the hospital to live with her teacher at the hospital, but a month and a half later authorities placed her with the family of the scientist heading the research team, where she lived for almost four years. Soon after turning 18, in mid-1975, Genie returned to live with her mother, who after a few months decided she could not adequately care for her. Authorities then moved her in the first of what would become a series of institutions for disabled adults, and the people running it cut her off from almost everyone she knew and subjected her to extreme physical and emotional abuse. As a result, her physical and mental health severely deteriorated, and her newly acquired language and behavioral skills very rapidly regressed.
In January 1978 Genie's mother suddenly forbade all scientific observations and testing of Genie, and since that time little is known of her circumstances. As of July 2016 her whereabouts were uncertain, although she is believed to be living in the care of the state of California. Psychologists and linguists continue to discuss her, and there is considerable academic and media interest in her development and the research team's methods. In particular, scientists have compared Genie to Victor of Aveyron, a nineteenth-century French child who was also the subject of a case study in delayed psychological development and late language acquisition.
Genie was the last, and second surviving, of four children born to parents living in Arcadia, California. Her father worked in a factory as a flight mechanic during World War II and continued in aviation afterwards, and her mother, who was around 20 years younger and from an Oklahoma farming family, had come to southern California as a teenager with family friends fleeing the Dust Bowl. During her early childhood Genie's mother sustained a severe head injury in an accident, giving her lingering neurological damage that caused degenerative vision problems in one eye. Genie's father mostly grew up in orphanages in the American Pacific Northwest. His father died of a lightning strike and his mother ran a brothel while only infrequently seeing him. Additionally, his mother gave him a feminine first name which made him the target of constant derision. As a result, he harbored extreme resentment towards his mother during childhood, which Genie's brother and the scientists who studied Genie believed was the root of his subsequent anger problems.
When Genie's father reached adulthood he changed his first name to one which was more typically masculine, and his mother began to spend as much time with him as she could. He became almost singularly fixated on his mother, despite their relentless arguments about her attempts to convince him to adopt a less rigid lifestyle, and treated all other relationships as secondary at best. Soon after Genie's parents married, he prevented his wife from leaving home and beat her with increasing frequency and severity. Her eyesight steadily deteriorated due to lingering effects from the existing neurological damage, the onset of severe cataracts, and a detached retina in one eye, leaving her increasingly dependent on her husband.
Genie's father disliked children and wanted none of his own, finding them noisy, but around five years into their marriage his wife became pregnant. This child, an apparently healthy daughter, caught pneumonia after her father found her cries disturbing and placed her in the garage, and died at the age of ten weeks. Their second child, born approximately a year later, was a boy diagnosed with Rh incompatibility who died at two days of age, either from complications of Rh incompatibility or from choking on his own mucus. Three years later they had another son, who doctors described as healthy despite also having Rh incompatibility. His father forced his wife to keep him quiet, causing significant physical and linguistic developmental delays. When he reached the age of four his maternal grandmother took over his care for several months, and he made good progress with her before she eventually returned him to his parents.
Genie was born about five years after her brother, around the time that her father began to isolate himself and his family from others. At birth she was in the 50th percentile for weight. The following day she showed signs of Rh incompatibility and required a blood transfusion, but had no sequelae and was otherwise described as healthy. A medical appointment at three months showed that she was gaining weight normally, but found a congenital hip dislocation which required her to wear a highly restrictive Frejka splint from the age of 4½ to 11 months. The splint caused Genie to be late to walk, and researchers believed this led her father to start speculating that she was mentally impaired. As a result, he made a concentrated effort not to talk to or pay attention to her, and strongly discouraged his wife and son from doing so.
There is little information about Genie's early life, but available records indicate that for her first months she displayed relatively normal development. Genie's mother later recalled that Genie was not a cuddly baby, did not babble much, and resisted solid food. At times she said that at some unspecified point Genie spoke individual words, but could not recall them, but at other times she said that Genie had never produced speech of any kind. Researchers never determined which was the truth.
At the age of 11 months Genie was still in overall good health and had no noted mental abnormalities, but had fallen to the 11th percentile for weight. The people who later studied her believed this was a sign that she was starting to suffer some degree of malnutrition. When Genie was 14 months old, she came down with a fever and pneumonitis and her parents took her to a pediatrician who had not previously seen her. The pediatrician said that, although her illness prevented a definitive diagnosis, there was a possibility that she was mentally retarded and that the brain dysfunction kernicterus might be present, further amplifying her father's conclusion that she was severely retarded.
Six months later, when Genie was 20 months old, her paternal grandmother died in a hit-and-run traffic accident. Her death affected Genie's father far beyond normal levels of grief, and because his son had been walking with her he held his son responsible, further heightening his anger. When the truck's driver received only a probationary sentence for both manslaughter and drunk driving, he became delusional with rage. Scientists believed these events made him feel society had failed him and convinced him he would need to "protect" his family from the outside world, and that in doing so he lacked the self-awareness to recognize the destruction his actions caused. Because Genie's father believed Genie was severely mentally retarded, he thought she needed "additional protection" from society, and therefore decided he needed to entirely hide her existence. He immediately quit his job and moved his family into his mother's two-bedroom house, where he demanded his late mother's car and bedroom be left completely untouched as shrines to her, and thus further isolating his family.
Upon moving, Genie's father increasingly confined Genie to the second bedroom in the back of the house while the rest of the family slept in the living room. During the daytime, for approximately 13 hours Genie's father tied her to a child's toilet in a makeshift harness designed to function as a straitjacket. While in the harness, she wore only diapers and could only move her extremities. At night he usually tied her into a sleeping bag and placed her in a crib with a metal-screen cover, keeping her arms and legs immobilized, and researchers believed that he sometimes left her on the child's toilet overnight.
Researchers concluded that, if Genie vocalized or made any other noise, her father beat her with a large plank he kept in her room. To keep her quiet he bared his teeth and barked and growled at her like a wild dog, and grew his fingernails out to scratch her. If he suspected her of doing something he did not like he made these noises outside the door, and beat her if he believed she had continued to do it, instilling an intense and persistent fear of cats and dogs in Genie. No one definitively discerned the exact reason for his dog-like behavior, although at least one scientist speculated he may have viewed himself as a guard dog and was acting out the role. As a result, Genie learned to make as little sound as possible and to otherwise give no outward expressions. Genie developed a tendency to masturbate in socially inappropriate contexts, which led doctors to seriously consider the possibility that Genie's father subjected her to sexual abuse or forced her brother to do so, although they never uncovered any definite evidence.
Genie's father fed Genie as little as possible and refused to give her solid food, feeding her only baby food, cereal, Pablum, an occasional soft-boiled egg, and liquids. Her father, or when coerced, her brother, spooned food into her mouth as quickly as possible, and if she choked or could not swallow fast enough the person feeding her rubbed her face in her food. These were normally the only times he allowed his wife to be with Genie, although she could not feed Genie herself. Genie's mother claimed her husband always fed Genie three times a day but also said that Genie sometimes risked a beating by making noise when hungry, leading researchers to believe he often refused to feed her. In early 1972 Genie's mother told researchers that at night, when possible, at around 11 PM she surreptitiously tried to give Genie additional food, causing Genie to develop an abnormal sleep pattern in which she slept from 7 to 11 PM, woke up for a few minutes, and fell back asleep for an additional 61⁄2 hours. This pattern continued for several months after removal from captivity.
Genie's father had an extremely low tolerance for noise, to the point of refusing to have a working television or radio in the house. He almost never allowed his wife or son to speak and viciously beat them if they did so without permission, particularly forbidding them to speak to or around Genie. Any conversation between them was therefore very quiet and out of Genie's earshot, preventing her from hearing any meaningful amount of language. Her father kept Genie's room extremely dark, and the only available stimuli were the crib, the chair, curtains on each of the windows, three pieces of furniture, and two plastic rain jackets hanging on the wall. On rare occasions her father allowed her to play with plastic food containers, old spools of thread, TV Guides with many of the illustrations cut out, and the raincoats. The room had two almost entirely blacked-out windows, one which her father left slightly open; although the house was well away from the street and other houses, she could see the side of a neighboring house and a few inches of sky, and occasionally heard environmental sounds or a neighboring child practicing the piano.
Throughout this time Genie's father almost never permitted anyone else to leave the house, only allowing his son to go to and from school and requiring him to prove his identity through various means before entering, and to discourage disobedience he frequently sat in the living room with a shotgun in his lap. He did not allow anyone else in or near the house, and kept his gun nearby in case someone did come. No one in the neighborhood knew about the abuse Genie's father carried out on his family, or was aware that Genie's parents ever had a child besides their son. Throughout this time, Genie's father kept detailed notes chronicling his mistreatment of his family and his efforts to conceal it.[a]
Genie's mother was passive by nature and almost completely blind by this time. Her husband continued to beat her and threatened to kill her if she attempted to contact her parents, close friends who lived nearby, or the police. Genie's father also forced his son into silence, giving him instructions on how to keep his father's actions secret and beating him with increasing frequency and severity, and as he got older his father forced him to carry out progressively more of his abuse of Genie in the same manner. He felt completely powerless to do anything to stop it and feared severe retribution for attempting to intervene, and on multiple occasions tried to run away from the house. Genie's father was convinced Genie would die by age 12 and promised that, if she survived past that age, he would allow his wife to seek outside assistance for her, but he reneged when Genie turned 12 and her mother took no action for another year and a half.
In October 1970, when Genie was approximately 13 years and 6 months old, Genie's parents had a violent argument in which her mother threatened to walk out if she could not call her own parents. Her husband eventually relented, and later that day she left with Genie when he was out of the house and went to her parents in Monterey Park; Genie's brother, by then 18, had already run away from home and was living with friends. Around three weeks later, on November 4, Genie's mother decided to apply for disability benefits for the blind in nearby Temple City, California and brought Genie with her, but on account of her near-blindness Genie's mother accidentally entered the general social services office next door. The social worker who greeted them instantly sensed something was wrong when she saw Genie and was shocked to learn her true age, having estimated from her appearance and demeanor that she was around 6 or 7 and possibly autistic, and after she and her supervisor questioned Genie's mother and confirmed Genie's age they immediately contacted the police. Genie's parents were arrested and Genie became a ward of the court, and due to her physical condition and near-total unsocialized state a court order was immediately issued for Genie to be taken to the Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
Upon Genie's admission to Children's Hospital, David Rigler, a therapist and University of Southern California psychology professor who was the chief psychologist at the hospital, and Howard Hansen, then the head of the psychiatry division and an early expert on child abuse, took direct control of Genie's care. The following day they assigned physician James Kent, another early advocate for child abuse awareness, to conduct the first examinations of her. Most of the information doctors received on Genie's early life came from the police investigation into Genie's parents. Even after its conclusion, there were a large number of unresolved questions about Genie's childhood that subsequent research never answered.
News of Genie reached major media outlets on November 17, receiving a great deal of local and national attention, and the one photograph authorities released of Genie significantly fueled public interest in her. Although Genie's father refused to speak to police or the media, large crowds subsequently went to try to see him, which he reportedly found extremely difficult to handle. On November 20, the morning before a scheduled court appearance on child abuse charges, he committed suicide by gunshot. Police found two suicide notes, one intended for his son which in part said, "Be a good boy, I love you", and one directed at police. One note—sources conflict as to which—contained the declaration, "The world will never understand."
After Genie's father committed suicide authorities and hospital staff exclusively focused on Genie and her mother; Genie's brother said his mother soon began dedicating all of her love and attention to Genie, and he left the Los Angeles area. At the request of Hansen, attorney John Miner, an acquaintance of Hansen, represented Genie's mother in court. She told the court that the beatings from her husband and her near-total blindness had left her unable to protect her children. Charges against her were dropped, and she received counseling from Children's Hospital; Hansen was her therapist's direct supervisor.
Characteristics and personality
James Kent stated that his initial examinations of Genie revealed by far the most severe case of child abuse he would ever encounter, and he came away extremely pessimistic about Genie's prognosis. Genie was extremely pale and grossly malnourished, standing 4 ft 6 in (1.37 m) and weighing only 59 pounds (27 kg), and had two nearly full sets of teeth in her mouth and a distended abdomen. The restraining harness her father used had caused a thick callus and heavy black bruising on her buttocks, which took several weeks to heal. A series of X-rays found Genie had moderate coxa valga in both hips and an undersized ribcage, and doctors determined her bone age to be that of an 11-year-old. Despite early tests confirming she had normal vision in both eyes she could not focus them on anything more than 10 feet (3 m) away, corresponding to the dimensions of the room her father kept her in.
Genie's gross motor skills were extremely weak; she could neither stand up straight nor fully straighten any of her limbs, and had very little endurance. Her movements were very hesitant and unsteady and her characteristic "bunny walk", in which she held her hands in front of her like claws while ambulating, suggested extreme difficulty with sensory processing and an inability to integrate visual and tactile information. Kent was somewhat surprised to find her fine motor skills were significantly better, determining they were at approximately the level of a two-year-old. She could not chew and had very severe dysphagia, totally incapable of swallowing solid or even soft food and barely able to swallow liquids. When eating she held anything she could not swallow in her mouth until her saliva broke it down, and if this took too long she spat it out and mashed it with her fingers. She was also completely incontinent, and did not respond to extreme temperatures.
Doctors found it extremely difficult to test or estimate Genie's mental age or any of her cognitive abilities, but on two attempts they found Genie scored at the level of a 13-month-old. To the surprise of doctors she was intensely interested in exploring new environmental stimuli, although objects seemed to intrigue her much more than people. She seemed especially curious about unfamiliar sounds, and Kent noted how intently she searched for their sources. Doctors noticed her extreme fear of cats and dogs very early during her stay, but initially thought this was due to her being incapable of rational thinking; they did not discern its actual origin until years later.
From the start Genie showed interest in many hospital staff members, often approaching and walking with complete strangers, but Kent said she did not seem to distinguish between people and showed no signs of attachment to anybody, including her mother and brother. At first she would not allow anyone to touch her, quickly shying away from any physical contact, and while she sat on her mother's lap when requested she remained very tense and got up as quickly as possible; hospital staff wrote that her mother seemed entirely oblivious to Genie's emotions and actions. Genie's behavior was typically highly antisocial, and proved extremely difficult for others to control. Regardless of where she was she constantly salivated and spat, and continually sniffed and blew her nose on anything that happened to be nearby. She had no sense of personal property, frequently pointing to or taking something she wanted from someone else, or situational awareness. Doctors wrote that she acted on impulse irrespective of the setting, especially noting that she frequently engaged in open masturbation and would sometimes attempt to involve older men in it.
From the start Genie showed a small amount of responsiveness to nonverbal information, including gestures and facial expressions from other people, and made reasonably good eye contact. However, her demeanor was completely devoid of any expressions or discernible body language, and she could only nonverbally get across a few very basic needs. She clearly distinguished speaking from other sounds but remained almost completely silent and unresponsive to speech, and any responses she gave were to accompanying nonverbal signals. When upset Genie would wildly attack herself, but remained completely expressionless and never cried or vocalized; some accounts said she could not cry at all. To make noise, she would push chairs or other similar objects. Her outbursts initially occurred very often and had no discernible trigger—Kent wrote that she never tried to indicate the source of her anger—and continued until someone diverted her attention or she physically tired herself out, at which point she would again become silent and non-expressive.
Linguists later discerned that, in January 1971, Genie showed understanding of only her own name, the names of a few others, and about 15–20 words, and her active vocabulary at the time consisted of two phrases, "stop it" and "no more". They could not determine the extent of her expressive or receptive vocabulary at any point before January 1971, and therefore did not know whether she had acquired any or all of these words during the preceding two months. After observing Genie for some time they concluded that she was not selectively mute, and tests found no physiological or psychological explanation for her lack of language. Because her existing medical records also contained no clear indications of mental disabilities researchers determined that, due to her extreme isolation and lack of exposure to language during childhood, she had not acquired a first language.
Within a month after Genie's admission to Children's Hospital, Jay Shurley, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma and a specialist in extreme social isolation, took an interest in her case. Shurley noted that Genie's was the most severe case of isolation he had ever studied or heard about, which he maintained more than 20 years later. Over the next year and a half he came on three three-day visits to conduct daily observations and to carry out a sleep study, hoping to determine if Genie was autistic, whether or not she had sustained any brain damage, and whether or not she was born mentally retarded. Shurley concluded she was not autistic, with which later researchers concurred; he noted that she had a high level of emotional disturbance, but wrote that her eagerness for new stimuli and lack of behavioral defense mechanisms were uncharacteristic of autism.[b]
Shurley found no signs of brain damage but observed a few persistent abnormalities in Genie's sleep, including a significantly reduced amount (and much larger than average variance in duration) of REM sleep and an unusually high number of sleep spindles. He eventually concluded Genie had been mentally retarded from birth, specifically citing her significantly elevated number of sleep spindles. The other scientists following the case remained divided on this issue. Much later, for example, Susan Curtiss emphatically argued that, though Genie clearly had serious emotional difficulties, she could not have been retarded. She pointed out that Genie made a year's developmental progress for every calendar year after her rescue, which would not be expected if her condition was congenital, and that some aspects of language Genie acquired were uncharacteristic of mentally disabled people. She instead believed that Genie was born with at least average intelligence, and that the abuse and isolation of her childhood had left her functionally disabled.
In his first meeting with Genie, James Kent initially observed no reactions from her but eventually drew a small amount of nonverbal and verbal responsiveness with a small puppet. Playing with this and similar puppets quickly became her favorite activity and, apart from her tantrums, accounted for most of the few times she expressed any emotion during the early part of her stay. Within a few days she started learning to dress herself and began voluntarily using the toilet, but she continued to suffer from nighttime and daytime incontinence which only slowly improved. Kent quickly realized there would be a large number of people working with Genie, and was concerned that she would not learn to form a normal relationship unless somebody was a steady presence in her life, so he decided to accompany her on walks and to all of her appointments.
Genie quickly began growing and putting on weight and steadily became more confident in her movements, and by December she had good eye–hand coordination and was much better at focusing her eyes. She rapidly developed a sense of possession, hoarding objects to which she took a liking for reasons doctors did not know, and became extremely upset if someone touched or moved anything she collected. She took all kinds of items but particularly sought colorful plastic objects, which doctors speculated was due to these having been the items she had access to as a child, and she did not seem to care whether they were toys or ordinary containers but especially sought out beach pails. During the first few months of her stay, giving her one of these objects could bring her out of a tantrum.
After a few weeks Genie became much more responsive to other people, and shortly afterwards began paying attention to people speaking, but at first she remained mostly unexpressive and it was unclear whether she responded more to verbal or nonverbal stimuli. Shortly afterwards Genie showed clear responses to nonverbal signals, and her nonverbal communication skills quickly became exceptional. A month into her stay Genie started becoming sociable with familiar adults, first with Kent and soon after with other hospital staff. She was clearly happy when someone she knew visited and sometimes worked very hard to get a person to stay, expressing disappointment if she failed; for no discernible reason, her greetings were far more energetic than her relatively mild unhappiness when people left. After the state dropped charges against Genie's mother she began visiting Genie twice a week, and over the course of a few months they steadily grew better at interacting with each other.
Around the same time it was noted that Genie took pleasure in intentionally dropping or destroying small objects, and enjoyed watching someone else do the same to something she had been playing with. Kent wrote that she did the same series of actions several times over and that it appeared to ease some internal tension for her, and therefore thought she did this to gain control of traumatic childhood experiences. She also showed deep fascination with classical piano music played in front of her, which researchers believed was because she could hear some piano music during her childhood. She did not have the same reaction to recordings, and if someone played anything other than classical music she would change the sheet music to a book which she knew had pieces she liked.
By December 1970, Kent and the other hospital staff working with Genie saw her as a potential case study subject. That month David Rigler obtained a small grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to do preliminary studies on her, and began organizing a research team to submit a larger request. In January 1971 doctors administered a Gesell Developmental Evaluation and found Genie to be at the developmental level of a 1- to 3-year-old, noting she already showed substantial developmental disparities. The following month psychologists Jeanne Block and her husband Jack Block evaluated Genie, and her scores ranged from below a 2- to 3-year-old level to, on a few components, a normal 12- to 13-year-old level. Around the same time, doctors noted that she was very interested in people speaking and that she attempted to mimic some speech sounds.
By April and May 1971, Genie's scores on the Leiter International Performance Scale tests had dramatically increased, with her overall mental age at the level of a typical 4-year-9-month-old, but on individual components she still showed a very high level of scatter. Her progress with language accelerated, and doctors noticed that the words she used indicated a fairly advanced mental categorization of objects and situations and focused on objective properties to a degree not normally found in children. Around that time, when a minor earthquake struck Los Angeles, she ran frightened into the kitchen and rapidly verbalized to some of the hospital cooks she had befriended, marking the first time she sought out comfort from another person and the first time she was so readily verbal. However, she still had a hard time being with large crowds of people; at her birthday party, she became so anxious at all the guests present that she had to go outside with Rigler to calm down.
During the later part of Genie's stay at the hospital she also started engaging in physical play with adults, and eventually began to enjoy giving and receiving hugs. She continued to exhibit frustration and have tantrums, but in response to situations that would have elicited similar reactions in most young children, and she could sulk for a long time despite receiving an object she liked. In April 1971, to the great surprise of doctors she began attacking another girl because she felt she owned the hospital dress the other girl had on. This was both her first exhibition of a sense of possession over items she thought were hers but was otherwise impartial towards and the first time she directed her anger outwards, but she did not entirely stop harming herself when angry.
Beginning in January 1971 scientists conducted a series of neurolinguistic tests on Genie to determine and monitor the course and extent of her mental development, making her the first language-deprived child to undergo any detailed study of her brain. Genie's entire brain was physically intact and Shurley's sleep-studies found sleep patterns typical of a left-hemisphere dominant person, leading scientists to believe she was most likely right-handed. Over the following years multiple tests of her handedness supported this conclusion, as did observations of her in everyday situations. Based on their early tests, doctors suspected Genie's brain was extremely right-hemisphere dominant.
In early March of that year, neuroscientists Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima came from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies to administer their own series of brain exams on Genie. Audiometry tests confirmed that she had regular hearing in both ears, but on a series of dichotic listening tests Bellugi and Klima found that she identified language sounds with 100% accuracy in her left ear while correctly answering at only a chance level in her right ear. Such an extreme level of asymmetry on these tests had previously only been documented in patients with either split-brain or who had undergone a hemispherectomy as an adult. When they gave her monaural tests for both language and non-language sounds she answered with 100% accuracy in both ears, which was normal. On non-language dichotic listening tests she showed a slight preference for identifying non-language sounds in her left ear, which was typical for a right-handed person and helped rule out the possibility of her brain only being reversed in dominance for language.
Based on these results, Bellugi and Klima believed that Genie had been developing as a typical right-handed person until the time her father began isolating her. They attributed the imbalance between Genie's hemispheres to the fact that Genie's sensory input as a child was almost exclusively visual and tactile, stimulating functions which are predominantly controlled in the right hemisphere of a right-handed person, and although this input had been extremely minimal it was sufficient to cause their lateralization to the right hemisphere. They therefore believed that because Genie had no linguistic input during her childhood, it underwent no specialization whatsoever and as a result her language functions never lateralized to it. Since Genie accurately distinguished speech sounds with her right hemisphere, they thought her language functions had lateralized there instead.
Interest as a case study and grant funding
At the time of Genie's admission to Children's Hospital there was wide discussion in both lay and academic circles about the hypotheses of Noam Chomsky, who had first suggested that language was innate to humans and distinguished humans from all other animals, and Eric Lenneberg, who in 1967 hypothesized that humans have a critical period for language acquisition and defined its end as the onset of puberty. Despite the interest in these hypotheses, prior to Genie's discovery there had been no way to test them. Though ancient and medieval texts made several references to language deprivation experiments modern researchers labeled such ideas "The Forbidden Experiment", impossible to carry out for ethical reasons. Coincidentally the François Truffaut film The Wild Child, which chronicled the life of Victor of Aveyron in the years immediately after his discovery and the efforts of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard to teach him language and integrate him into society, also premiered in the United States only a week after Genie's rescue. The movie was a major success, and further heightened public interest in cases of children subjected to extreme abuse or isolation.
Prompted by this coincidence of timing, David Rigler led a team of scientists who sought and obtained a three-year grant from the NIMH to study Genie in May 1971. At the suggestion of Jean Butler, Genie's special education teacher at the hospital, they screened The Wild Child during their first meeting, and the scientists later said the film had an immediate and profound impact. The huge variety of suggestions for how to work with Genie made it extremely difficult for researchers to give the proposal a coherent direction. To the surprise of several scientists involved in the grant meetings, Rigler decided the primary focus of the study would be to test Chomsky and Lenneberg's hypotheses and selected UCLA linguistics professor Victoria Fromkin to head linguistic evaluation.[c] The research team also planned to continue periodic evaluations of Genie's psychological development in various aspects of her life. From the time of her admission to Children's Hospital researchers had tried to keep her identity concealed, and it was around this time that they adopted the pseudonym Genie for her, referencing similarities between a genie coming out of a lamp without having a childhood and Genie's sudden emergence into society past childhood.
Soon after the NIMH accepted the grant proposal, in late May 1971, Susan Curtiss began her work on Genie's case as a graduate student in linguistics under Victoria Fromkin, and for the remainder of Genie's stay at Children's Hospital Curtiss met with Genie almost every day. Curtiss quickly recognized Genie's powerful nonverbal communication abilities, writing that complete strangers would frequently buy something for her because they sensed she wanted it and that these gifts were always the types of objects she most enjoyed. Curtiss concluded that Genie had learned a significant amount of language but that it was not yet at a usefully testable level, so she decided to dedicate the next few months to getting to know Genie and gaining her friendship. Over the following month, she and Genie very quickly bonded with each other.
At around the same time Curtiss began her work, doctors reevaluated Genie on the Leiter scale and measured her on the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scale, which placed her estimated mental age between a 5- and 8-year-old with a very high degree of scatter. Doctors believed Genie had learned to use her gestalt perception to determine the number of objects in a group, and by the start of the case study she could accurately discern the correct number of up to 7 objects via gestalt perception. Child psychologist David Elkind, who was involved in the grant meetings, evaluated Genie in May 1971 and reported that she was in the concrete operational stage of development, noting that she understood object permanence and could engage in deferred imitation. Genie's physical health also continued to improve, and by this time her endurance had dramatically increased. Her social behavior was still highly abnormal, and doctors were especially concerned that she almost never interacted with people her age, but evaluations from the time expressed some optimism about her prognosis.
First foster home
In June 1971, Jean Butler obtained permission to take Genie on day trips to her home in Country Club Park, Los Angeles. Near the end of that month, after one of these trips Butler told the hospital that she (Butler) might have contracted rubella, to which Genie would have been exposed. Hospital staff were reluctant to give foster custody to Butler and were very skeptical of her story, strongly suspecting she had concocted it as part of a bid to take over as Genie's guardian and primary caretaker, but decided that placing Genie in an isolation ward at the hospital could potentially be highly damaging to her social and psychological development, so they agreed to temporarily quarantine her in Butler's home. Butler, who was childless, unmarried, and at the time living alone, subsequently petitioned for foster custody of Genie, and despite the hospital's objections authorities extended Genie's stay while they considered the matter.
Soon after moving in with Butler, Genie started showing the first signs of reaching puberty, marking dramatic improvement in her overall physical health and definitively putting her past Lenneberg's proposed critical period for language acquisition. Butler continued to observe and document Genie's hoarding, in particular noting that Genie collected and kept dozens of containers of liquid in her room. Although she could not discern the reason for Genie's intense fear of cats and dogs, after witnessing it firsthand Butler and the man she was dating—who was a retired