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Genie: A Scientific Tragedy - Russ Rymer

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      21.10.2005 10:39
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      Genie's story is one of tragedy but compassion. This is a wonderful, if shocking, book.

      first learnt about the case of Genie* while I was an undergraduate psychology student learning about the development of language which, as many of you may know, is something which is of great fascination to me. Genie's case, although one of tragic and horrific circumstance, is one of great interest to psychologists as there is almost no other evidence with which to compare. Everything written within this review really happened….

      *Genie is not her real name, her real identity has been hidden for legal reasons.

      Genie lived 13 years of her life in a Los Angeles suburb with her mother, her father and her older brother. When Genie was one, her Grandmother on her father's side died and they all moved into her old house. Her father insisted they leave his mothers room untouched even though this meant they all had to sleep in the living room. All except Genie who was given the back room. This room wasn't furnished or decorated and was away from the rest of the house. During the day time she was kept tied to a 'potty chair' and during the night time she slept in a caged cot, in a sleeping jacket so that she couldn't move around. They did not potty train her, they did not teach her to speak, they did not love her, she had no stimulation whatsoever and she lived this way for12 years. What's more in order to keep her quiet her father would growl at her from behind the door, like a dog and sometimes he would beat her with a stick….

      Her father believed that she was mentally retarded. He believed that she wouldn't live past three…. He never inflicted this torture on her brother…. But Genie did live and she wasn't mentally retarded…. She got older and older and the family's secret became harder to conceal…..

      Genie's mother eventually took her and ran away. She was blind and she went to seek help from the social services. This was on November 25, 1970, it was the day that social services took Genie away from her mother and put her into care. Genie's parents were charged with child abuse. Her mother went to court and was found not guilty, partly because she eventually took her to get help and partly because she was also subject to the abusive bulling behaviour of her husband, she was a blind, nervous women and apparently couldn't do anything to help…. Genie's father shot himself a week before he was due in court…. He left a note saying 'the world will never understand'.

      The book tells Genie's story from the day of her rescue. It tells of Genies day to day life as they gradually unravel what happened to her. Of the psychologists and foster families involved in her life who attempt to stabilise her and to teach her to talk and it documents her language development over the years.

      Integrating Genie into society was a huge and difficult task. She would spit and scratch herself if she got upset, she was not potty trained and she would masturbate, sometimes in public. Genie had no idea of the social norms which govern society. She had grown up in almost total isolation and she was initially only able to say a few words including 'mama' and 'stop it'. She walked with a limp due to her years spend in the caged cot, she couldn't chew and was severely malnourished because of the years spend given only baby food and cereal to eat. When she was admitted to the hospital, she was 54 inches tall and weighed only 62 pounds…..

      Genie's case attracted a lot of attention because it gave scientists the chance to attempt to test the Critical Period Hypothesis. A theory proposed by a linguist called Lenneberg's (1967). This is the hypothesis that humans are unable to correctly learn the use of grammar after early childhood because of the lateralization of the brain. Children who have grown up in situations similar to Genie have been the only way scientists have been able to test this and there are few other cases (notable exceptions include the case of the 'chicken girl' and the Wild boy of Avelon). If Genie was able to learn language then this would disprove the theories of Noam Chomsky who argued that language was innate to all humans.

      A number of people were assigned to support Genie including Susan Curtis and Jean Butler. Once Genie was discharged from hospital she went to live with Jean for a short period and then with David Riggler and his family, where she stayed for four years. Jean Butler never forgave them for taking Genie away from her. The Rigglers changed their life for Genie and helped her immensely. Alongside Susan Curtiss they taught her how to speak, encouraged her to use sign language as well and most importantly gave her much needed love.

      However, although Genie learnt vocabulary, she did not acquire language as hoped, she could not master grammar. It remains unclear as to whether her inability to acquire language was due to the fact that she had missed her critical period or because of the severe trauma she had suffered. A debate which continues to rage today.

      Throughout the book Genie is described with compassion and with love, everyone who met her thought her to be such a special little girl…. Despite the progress that she made and the things she achieved there isn't a happy ending. Those assigned care of Genie squabbled over her best interests and who should look after her. She was pushed from place to place and I doubt she ever really settled anywhere. Her mother had a cataract operation and eventually got her back but could not handle her, she was then placed in the care of a number of foster families and finally into residential care where she remains today. To make things worse Genie was abused in one of her care homes…. Today she resides in a home for adults; she no longer speaks or uses any signs…..

      This is an amazing and compassionate book based on the research of Russ Rymer whose fascination with Genie led to his contacting all of those directly involved with the exception of Genie whose identity is still protected. It is a shocking case study that broke my heart and left a lump in my throat.... I literally couldn't put the book down and I read it in just three days. Rymer writes in a relatively detached manner, he just presents the facts and leaves the reader to make up their own mind about Genie's treatment and the events which occur in her life. Parts of the book also contain extracts from the diary of Susan Curtiss describing Genie's language and the fun they used to have in their time spend together. This really makes it feel as if you are there and is a lovely touch.

      I would most definitely recommend the book for most people, although not for children as some of the information is far too graphic… It is easy to read, compelling although deeply shokcing at points.... Although the book does contain scientific information about language development at points, this is generally interesting and easy to understand. I didn't personally feel that it got too much. However, some background knowledge with regard to language development and acquisition may be beneficial or at least a general interest in the topic.

      The book is 240 pages long and was published by HarperPerennial in 1994. It is available from most big book stores for £6.99 or on Amazon from £4.99. ISBN: 0060924659.

      If you would like to know more about Genie then input 'Genie and language into Google and you will get back masses of hits. There is also a recently released and very good film called 'Mickingbird Don't Sing' which details this case although they have changed Genie's name to Katie. Susan Curtiss' thesis written on Genie, which is one of the only published thesis in the world is also available from most good libraries.

      How this could be allowed to happen is simply beyond me… the world must ensure that children are protected and treasured. This mustn't be allowed to happen again…..


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