Genie, the Wild Child
I have a personal fascination with feral children. The child I find the most remarkable, and the situation I find most bizarre, is "Genie," the subject of several books and films (such as a documentary by NOVA and a movie called Mockingbird Don't Sing).
While the concept of a feral child usually involves one who has been raised in the wilderness by animals after abandonment early in life, there are many others who become “feral children” after years of intense isolation indoors. Genie (which is a name given to protect her identity) is probably the most famous case. Discovered in California in 1970, she had the appearance of a seven-year-old, weighing just 59 pounds, even though she was thirteen.
During a routine medical exam as a baby, a doctor told the family that Genie seemed “slow” and could possibly have a form of mild retardation. Genie’s mentally unstable father, Clark, decided to “protect” her from the rest of the world by holding her hostage; Genie’s mother, Irene, was partially blind and dependent on her delusional husband. The parents and their older son slept in the living room while Genie was confined to a bare bedroom. She was tied to a potty-chair and made to sleep in a crib enclosed with metal screening, bound in a makeshift straitjacket. Year after year, Genie sat in the chair wearing diapers, with very little mobility. Clark beat her for making noise and would growl and bark like a dog to terrify her into silence.
Finally, Irene left the house with Genie and entered a welfare clinic, where a social worker alerted the police to the child’s condition. Shortly after, Clark killed himself, rather than face prison.
Genie soon became a prized patient for many doctors, psychologists, and linguists, as she bounced from home to home and endured an endless variety of tests, treatments, therapies, and examinations. She had be taught to chew, as well as to divert her anger and emotions outward, instead of violently scratching herself. During frequent temper tantrums, she would bite and kick, and would often urinate or masturbate without discretion. She also had a strange walk, which therapists called the "bunny walk;" she functioned as if blind due to her lengthy sensory deprivation and thus walked with her elbows bent and hands pointed down.
Eventually Genie, who gravitated toward shiny, plastic objects, warmed up to acts of affection, made eye contact, smiled, and formed personal bonds. But the biggest challenge was language acquisition, since she was practically nonverbal.
Language is the most important method of human communication and interaction, and it is integral to society and the functionality of its participants. Noam Chomsky wrote of the human brain’s innate language ability and believed that if you placed infants on an island together, they would eventually form their own language despite having never been exposed to one. Another theory suggests that puberty acts as an age limit for acquiring the ability to speak a language, as well as the proper use of grammar. When she was discovered, Genie was dangerously close to that barrier, having surpassed the “critical period” of early childhood when language is typically learned. Though she did begin to speak, as well as to sign, Genie was never able to create syntactically correct sentences and could not hold a conversation or communicate abstract thought.
Genie's fate and situation may be sad, but her case serves to show just how bright the human spirit can shine, against all odds.