There have been a number of cases of feral children raised in social isolation with little or no human contact. Few have captured public and scientific attention like that of a young girl called Genie. She spent almost her entire childhood locked in a bedroom, isolated and abused for over a decade. Genie's case was one of the first to put the critical period theory to the test. Could a child reared in utter deprivation and isolation develop language?
Could a nurturing environment make up for a horrifying past?
Genie's story came to light on November 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, California. A social worker discovered the 13-year old girl after her mother sought out services. The social worker soon discovered that the girl had been confined to a small room, and an investigation by authorities quickly revealed that the child had spent most of her life in this room, often tied to a potty chair.
The girl was given the name Genie in her case files to protect her identity and privacy. "The case name is Genie. This is not the person's real name, but when we think about what a genie is, a genie is a creature that comes out of a bottle or whatever, but emerges into human society past childhood. We assume that it really isn't a creature that had a human childhood,” explained Susan Curtiss in a 1997 Nova documentary titled, "Secrets of the Wild Child."
Both parents were charged with abuse, but Genie's father committed suicide the day before he was due to appear in court, leaving behind a note stating that "the world will never understand."
Genie's life prior to her discovery was one of utter deprivation. She spent most of her days tied naked to her potty chair only able to move her hands and feet.
When she made noise, her father would beat her. Her father, mother, and older brother rarely spoke to her. The rare times her father did interact with her, it was to bark or growl.
The story of her case soon spread, drawing attention from both the public and the scientific community. The case was important, said psycholinguist and author Harlan Lee, because "our morality doesn’t allow us to conduct deprivation experiments with human beings; these unfortunate people are all we have to go on."
With so much interest in her case, the question became what should be done with her. A team of psychologists and language experts began the process of rehabilitating Genie.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provided funding for scientific research on Genie’s case.
"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,” said psychologist David Rigler, part of the "Genie team."
Her rehabilitation team also included graduate student Susan Curtiss and psychologist James Kent.
Upon her initial arrival at UCLA, the team was met with a girl who weighed just 59 pounds and moved with a strange "bunny walk." She often spat and was unable to straighten her arms and legs. Silent, incontinent, and unable to chew, she initially seemed only able to recognize her own name and the word "sorry."
After assessing Genie's emotional and cognitive abilities, Kent described her as "the most profoundly damaged child I've ever seen … Genie's life is a wasteland." Her silence and inability to use language made it difficult to assess her mental abilities, but on tests, she scored at about the level of a 1-year-old.
She soon began to make rapid progression in specific areas, quickly learning how to use the toilet and dress herself. Over the next few months, she began to experience more developmental progress but remained poor in areas such as language. She enjoyed going out on day trips outside of the hospital and explored her new environment with an intensity that amazed her caregivers and strangers alike. Curtiss suggested that Genie had a strong ability to communicate nonverbally, often receiving gifts from total strangers who seemed to understand the young girl's powerful need to explore the world around her.
Critical Period and Language Acquisition
Part of the reason why Genie's case fascinated psychologists and linguists so deeply was that it presented a unique opportunity to study a hotly contested debate about language development. Nativists believe that the capacity for language is innate, while empiricists suggest that it is environmental variables that play a key role. Essentially, it boils down to the age-old nature versus nurture debate. Do genetics or environment play a greater role in developing language?
Nativist Noam Chomsky suggested that acquiring language could not be fully explained by learning alone. Instead, he proposed that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD), an innate ability to understand the principles of language. Once exposed to language, the LAD allows children to learn the language at a remarkable pace.
Linguist Eric Lenneberg suggests that like many other human behaviors, the ability to acquire language is subject to critical periods. A critical period is a limited span of time during which an organism is sensitive to external stimuli and capable of acquiring certain skills. According to Lenneberg, the critical period for language acquisition lasts until around age 12. After the onset of puberty, he argued, the organization of the brain becomes set and no longer able to learn and utilize language in a fully functional manner.
Genie's case presented researchers with a unique opportunity. If given an enriched learning environment, could she overcome her deprived childhood and learn language even though she had missed the critical period? If she could, it would suggest that the critical period hypothesis of language development was wrong. If she could not, it would indicate that Lenneberg's theory was correct.
Genie's Language Progress
Despite scoring at the level of a 1-year-old upon her initial assessment, Genie quickly began adding new words to her vocabulary. She started by learning single words and eventually began putting two words together much the way young children do. Curtiss began to feel that Genie would be fully capable of acquiring language.
After a year of treatment, she even started putting three words together occasionally. In children going through normal language development, this stage is followed by what is known as a language explosion. Children rapidly acquire new words and begin putting them together in novel ways. Unfortunately, this never happened for Genie. Her language abilities remained stuck at this stage and she appeared unable to apply grammatical rules and use language in a meaningful way. At this point, her progress leveled off and her acquisition of new language halted.
While Genie was able to learn some language after puberty, her inability to use grammar (which Chomsky suggests is what separates human language from animal communication) offers evidence for the critical period hypothesis.
Of course, Genie's case is not so simple. Not only did she miss the critical period for learning language, she was also horrifically abused. She was malnourished and deprived of cognitive stimulation for most of her childhood. Researchers were also never able to fully determine if Genie suffered from pre-existing cognitive deficits. As an infant, a pediatrician had identified her as having some type of mental delay. So researchers were left to wonder whether Genie had suffered from cognitive deficits caused by her years of abuse or if she had been born with some degree of mental retardation.
Arguments Over Genie’s Care
Psychiatrist Jay Shurley helped assess Genie after she was first discovered, and he noted that since situations like hers were so rare, she quickly became the center of a battle between the researchers involved in her case. Arguments over the research and the course of her treatment soon erupted. Genie occasionally spent the night at the home of Jean Butler, one of her teachers. After an outbreak of measles, Genie was quarantined at her teacher's home. Butler soon became protective and began restricting access to Genie. Other members of the team felt that Butler's goal was to become famous from the case, at one point claiming that Butler had called herself the next Anne Sullivan, the teacher famous for helping Helen Keller learn to communicate.
Eventually, Genie was removed from Butler's care and went to live in the home of psychologist David Rigler, where she remained for the next four years. Despite some difficulties, she appeared to do well in the Rigler household. She enjoyed listening to classical music on the piano and loved to draw, often finding it easier to communicate through drawing than through other methods.
The Beginning of the End
NIMH withdrew funding in 1974, due to the lack of scientific findings. Linguist Susan Curtiss had found that while Genie could use words, she could not produce grammar. She could not arrange these words in a meaningful way, supporting the idea of a critical period in language development. Rigler's research was disorganized and largely anecdotal. Without funds to continue the research and care for Genie, she was moved from the Rigler's care.
In 1975, Genie returned to live with her birth mother. When her mother found the task too difficult, Genie was moved through a series of foster homes, where she was often subjected to further abuse and neglect. Genie’s birth mother then sued the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the research team, charging them with excessive testing. While the lawsuit was eventually settled, it raised important questions about the treatment and care of Genie. Did the research interfere with the girl's therapeutic treatment?
Genie’s situation continued to worsen. After spending a significant amount of time in foster homes, she returned to Children’s Hospital. Unfortunately, the progress that had occurred during her first stay had been severely compromised by the subsequent treatment she received in foster care. Genie was afraid to open her mouth and had regressed back into silence.
Where Is Genie Today?
Today, Genie lives in an adult foster care home somewhere in southern California. Little is known about her present condition, although an anonymous individual hired a private investigator to track her down in 2000 and described her as happy. This contrasts with the account of psychiatrist Jay Shurley who visited her on her 27th and 29th birthdays and characterized her as largely silent, depressed, and chronically institutionalized.
"What do we take away from this really sad story?" asked Harlan Lee in the NOVA documentary, "The Secret of the Wild Child." "Look, there's an ethical dilemma in this kind of research. If you want to do rigorous science, then Genie's interests are going to come second some of the time. If you only care about helping Genie, then you wouldn't do a lot of the scientific research. So, what are you going to do? To make matters worse, the two roles, scientist, and therapist, were combined in one person, in her case. So, I think future generations are going to study Genie's case … not only for what it can teach us about human development but also for what it can teach us about the rewards and the risks of conducting 'the forbidden experiment.'"
Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley.
Pines, M. (1997). The civilizing of Genie. In Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology, Loretta F. Kasper, Ed..
PBS. (1997). The secret of the wild child. NOVA.
Rolls, G. (2005). Classic Case Studies in Psychology. London: Hodder Arnold.
Rymer, R. (1993). Genie: A scientific tragedy. New York: Harper Collins.
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.