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The Heartbreaking Story Of Genie, A Feral Child Who Will Never Learn To Communicate

Genie YouTube/EverydayPsychology

Throughout history, several cases of “feral children,” deprived of human interaction in their early lives, have crept into scientific consciousness.

There was Victor, a boy found naked and filthy in France’s wilderness in 1800; Oxana Malaya, a Ukrainian girl who was raised by wild dogs, eating raw meat and running on all fours; and then there was the most famous case of all, happening in California, of a girl nicknamed “Genie.”

Beyond the horrors of growing up feral, the worst part is how these kids may miss a critical period of learning language and never be able to communicate like the rest of us.

Eric Lenneberg, a linguist and neurologist, first popularised the critical period (CP) hypothesis in the late 1960s. His research suggests that a specific window exists for learning language, either spoken or tactile. Outside of it, grasping the basics of communication becomes extremely difficult.

While there is much debate over how children acquire language, linguists agree that it is easiest during childhood, according to Wayne O’Neil, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Children have usually honed in on their native language’s phonology by the end of the first year of life. The window re-opens from four to seven, and learning continues,” he said. “If a child is isolated, then you’ve affected so many other things. You don’t know what the hell is going on.”

In 1997, Walter Cronkite narrated a PBS documentary telling Genie’s tragic story. We’ve broken out the highlights.

Genie lived 10 years of her life chained to this potty chair. After intensive therapy, she finally told researchers that she even slept there. But her parents never bothered to potty train her. When a social worker found her in 1970 at age 13, she still wore diapers.

Susan Curtiss, a linguistics graduate student from UCLA, gave her the name 'Genie.' 'When we think about a genie, we think about a creature who emerges out of a bottle, or whatever, into society past childhood,' she said.

Genie had a strange 'bunny-walk' and constantly spit and clawed at herself. She didn't speak or make any noise either. Genie's parents most likely beat her for making noise, Curtiss said.

Genie was the most disturbing case Jay Shurley, an expert in solitary confinement, had ever seen. 'Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And try to expand this to 10 years boggles one's mind,' he said.

Genie's mother, a nearly blind elderly woman, claimed to be a victim herself. She blamed Genie's father for much of the abuse. When Genie was a baby, her father decided she was 'retarded' and kept her in isolation.

Shortly after the authorities discovered Genie, her father shot himself. He reportedly wrote 'The world will never understand' in a suicide note.

When researchers ran diagnostic tests on Genie, sleep studies showed abnormal brain waves. Some researchers, like Shirley, thought this suggested she experienced brain damage at birth. Others, however, like Curtiss, refused to accept that theory. Throughout Genie's testing though, she showed improvement. Mentally challenged children and adults don't.

James Kent, another researcher on Genie's team, thought her condition would improve if she could form meaningful relationships with people. He began feeding her breakfast in the morning and tucking her in at night with a story and a kiss. But 'doctors aren't supposed to love their patients,' he said.

Initially, Genie didn't respond to his efforts. Then, one day, Genie frowned and pulled Kent's arm when he tried to leave. She didn't want him to go.

Genie's first, real breakthrough came during a session with language teacher Jean Butler. Jean said to Genie, 'You (tie your shoe) and then we can tell Doctor Kent what you can do.' Although difficult to understand, Genie repeated the word 'doctor.' She knew more than 100 words by that Spring. The question became: Could Genie fully recover?

Genie had her first birthday after being found -- her 14th -- at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Over the course of her therapy, Genie's timid nature morphed into a natural inquisitiveness about the world around her. Going anywhere became a fascinating, new adventure.

'She had a way of connecting with people and reaching out without saying anything,' said David Rigler, the man who would eventually act as Genie's foster parent for years.

Rigler recalled one instance where, without a word, a little boy gave Genie his brand new firetruck. The two had only passed each other on the street.

Eventually, Genie went to live with Butler. Her rehabilitation team thought a stable foster home would help.

She developed a passion for hording items, especially glasses and containers -- behaviour exhibited by many other severely abused children.

But Butler, concerned all the testing and research hurt Genie's well-being, began to restrict the other team member's access to her. Others, like Curtiss, thought Butler was using Genie to become famous.

Eventually, child services removed Genie from Butler's house. After only a few hours at Children's Hospital, she was placed with a new foster home with David Rigler, the chief psychologist at Children's Hospital. Doctors almost never undertake the role of parent too, but the team was desperate to find a stable home for Genie.

Rigler's wife, Marylin, became Genie's new teacher.

Marilyn taught Genie how to express her anger outwardly, how to scream and have a fit. She used to tear at her own hair and face.

Eventually, Genie could even use words to express her emotions. She would say 'rough time.' As an older Marilyn shows below, Genie would wag her finger if she felt very upset, while simply waving her hand meant something wasn't a big deal.

Here, Marylin tries a sort of primitive role-playing, speaking harshly to Genie like her mother might have. Eventually, these sessions elicited memories for Genie. She began using simple language to explain what had happened before language became a part of her lfe -- an incredible breakthrough.

Genie's rehabilitation continued. She could read and started to attend nursery school. Her team began to think and hope she might fully recover.

Rigler even started teaching Genie sign language. He thought her past therapists made the mistake of focusing on spoken language.

Despite Genie's shocking progress, she couldn't fully communicate. When asked to create a question, she would say, 'What red blue is in?' Genie may have known how to use everyday words, but she couldn't arrange them in a grammatical way.

Unfortunately, the National Institute of Mental Health revoked funding for Genie's treatment and research in the Fall of 1974. Because of the blurred lines between foster family and research team, no one could produce well-kept records or steadfast findings. Alleging the research damaged Genie's recovery, her mother even sued the team and hospital for excessive testing.

Genie returned to live with her mother, acquitted of all charges. But her mother soon found taking care of Genie too difficult. Genie made the rounds to foster home after foster home where she experienced abuse and harassment.

One set of foster parents severely beat Genie for vomiting. So traumatized, she returned to Children's Hospital. But she was afraid to open her mouth and regressed back to silence.

Today, it's not clear what happened to Genie. Curtiss said she spent 20 years looking for her. One person, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he hired a private investigator to locate Genie. She's in a private facility somewhere for mentally underdeveloped adults. 'It was a little pathetic, but she was happy,' he said.

Children in prison often spend time in isolation, too.

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