I dream of Genie

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I want to tell you that everything ended well for Genie, but this new period was marked by its own litany of horrid events. A somewhat watered or sanitised version of this is recalled by Susan Curtiss (a scientist that became personally and professionally involved with Genie’s case) in a 1997 Nova documentary titled Secrets of the Wild Child (fortunately I have been able to find the BBC special below. The Nova documentary is, at the time of writing, also available on YouTube).


Genie Horizon Documentary


The documentary explores the grey area of ethics and scientific advancement in relation to their work on language acquisition, but it does not spend enough time considering the central question of nature versus nurture with regard to Genie’s functional problems. Scientists still remain divided on this issue. Susan Curtiss was adamant, however, that despite Genie’s serious emotional difficulties, she continued to make approximately a year’s developmental progress for every year following her rescue (at least while they were involved). This would not, she argued, be expected if Genie’s condition were congenital. It was evidence therefore that she did not suffer from mental retardation. She believed Genie was born with at least average intelligence and that the abuse and isolation she endured had left her functionally impaired.

The extreme and unusual nature of Genie’s story made her a curiosity to science. Deprivation experiments cannot not be sanctioned by any moral or just society and so she presented a unique opportunity for behaviourists and psycholinguists. With their subsequent offers to help ‘heal’ her and with funding acquired from the The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) she arrived at UCLA barely thirteen years old. She weighed a little over four stone body with the body of someone less than half her age, a testament to years of malnourishment. She had an odd ‘bunny walk’, the result of a congenital hip problem that was left untreated in combination with the way she was kept. She was incontinent, non-verbal and had profound problems swallowing and chewing food. She would reportedly keep food in her mouth until her saliva softened it sufficiently for her to swallow or failing that she would spit it out and try something else. The extent of her verbal recognition appeared to be her own name and one word…..sorry. Following an assessment of Genie’s emotional and cognitive abilities, she was likened by one of the scientists to a wasteland, prompting another to remark that she was ‘the most profoundly damaged child he’d ever seen’. Although they were unable to accurately gage the depth or breadth or Genie’s inner life, tests concluded that her ability to manipulate language made was comparable to that of a one year old child. In the time that followed Genie made some progress attending to her own hygiene needs (in addition to other developmental advances), but her greatest joy appeared to simply being in the world. She was transfixed by all aspects of her environment, drinking it in like a desert starved of rain.

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