Genie: A Scientific Tragedy: Russ Rymer


When choosing A levels, I was advised to demonstrate some scientific aptitude alongside my arts-dominated curriculum. I chose Psychology which, despite some erratic teaching, opened my eyes to a whole world of incredible case studies. Three in particular have stayed with me: Philip Zimbardo’s Stamford Prison Experiment; Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority; and the story of Genie, a child discovered in November 1970, who spent her first thirteen years in enforced isolation from virtually all human contact. I had no idea, though, that her life had been discussed at any length outside academic textbooks and conferences. When I stumbled across this book the other day, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with the details of this distressing case, which has haunted me ever since I first read about it in my schoolbooks.

The facts are these. In late 1970, a woman arrived at a social services office in California with her daughter. The woman, Irene, had almost entirely lost her sight and had taken a wrong turn while looking for services for the blind. But it was her daughter who caught the receptionist’s attention. It transpired that mother and child had managed to escape their home, where they had lived under the totalitarian rule of Irene’s husband Clark. The little girl, Genie, had spent her life in confinement in the back bedroom of their house, strapped to a potty chair and at night put to sleep in a crib which resembled a wire cage. Her father, who hated noise, had beaten her whenever she made a sound and so she wasn’t only unable to speak, but was unwilling to vocalise in any form. On top of this, she was severely malnourished, incontinent and psychologically underdeveloped. She was immediately taken into care at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where her nutritional needs were seen to, but her other needs were more complex.

Rymer’s book begins with the story, taken from Herodotus, of the 7th century BC pharaoh Psamtik I of Egypt. He isolated two infants in the hope of discovering the innate language of mankind and, although his methods and conclusions aren’t considered defensible now, it’s a question that continues to niggle. Genie’s discovery, says Rymer, came at a time when linguistics was hot property and the question of language acquisition, in particular, was at the centre of an academic dispute. The young Noam Chomsky had recently published a paper arguing that, although vocabulary had to be learned, human children were all born with a genetic awareness of syntax, whose components were identical across all languages. His opponents, by contrast, argued that both syntax and vocabulary were socially acquired by the child’s interaction with the world around them. Rymer indicates that some linguists merged the two ideas: that the understanding of syntax was innate, but that some kind of stimulation was necessary to spark it into life and to begin the child’s own task of acquiring language. But when could this happen? Shortly before Genie was found, a new book had been published – Eric Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language – which argued that there was a time limit: a ‘critical period’. If a child had not learned the rudiments of a first language – a mother tongue – by the age of twelve, when puberty set in, then he or she would never be able to acquire the skills.

You can see why Genie’s arrival excited the scientific community so much. Here, finally, was a case that could prove one way or the other whether language was innate and if it was restricted by a critical period: Genie, of course, was thirteen. (I am reminded, writing this, of a similar but fictional doomed experiment, in Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels.) And so Genie became a linguistic cause célèbre, the focus of rigorous testing, research funding applications and exhaustive documentation. But Rymer recounts how the circle of people around Genie rapidly began to split – on one side were the scientists, who saw this as a case which could answer major questions about human development, and which could confirm or refute the central debate of their discipline – and on the other were those who saw a damaged little girl who needed gentle, consistent love and care rather than the constant intrusion of research programmes. I’ve simplified in order to make the contrast clear: on the scientific side, there were many who cared about Genie; and on the nurturing side, there were some who wanted to be acknowledged in scientific papers. But you can easily see how these two viewpoints would clash, resulting in major upheaval to Genie herself, especially since her team were now trying to find an appropriate foster home for her beyond the hospital. But who should care for Genie? And how much access should the scientists have? What was most important: an unmatched research opportunity, or a child’s well-being? Who got to judge? And was anyone impartial enough to do so?

This is a split story: half of it looks at Genie’s deprivation, and how she was coaxed through developmental stages, while the other half looks at the running of the project itself. As far as I can see, Rymer takes a very balanced view. Both sides have space to put their views forward and there are no heroes or villains, just a morass of grey on either side. There are discussions of linguistic theory, insofar as it affects Genie’s case, and an interesting discussion of Genie’s most famous predecessor: Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. In a case which has prompted notoriously vicious attacks, and even court cases, between the scientists, Rymer tries to get at the truth, which surely lies somewhere in the middle. Yet he never forgets, and never allows us to forget, that at the heart of this tale is a little girl: a real person, whose fate is bandied about in the swells and troughs of academic favour. Your heart breaks for Genie as you read of her unsettled period after the funding ran out: the transition from one foster home to another; the new abuse; the miserable return to neglect after a period when every attention was lavished on her. It is, if only implicitly, a powerful rebuke to the objectification of scientific subjects. But it is, also, a celebration of our quest to understand our own nature as human beings.

This is a well-known case and so it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Genie’s story does not have a happy ending. It doesn’t finish in the revelation of new abilities that would suit an academic research programme, a Hollywood film or a fairy tale. And there are some things that aren’t covered. What, for example, about Genie’s older brother? He seems to have been much less affected by his sister, and to have kept a firm distance from the research, but I wonder what impact their childhood had on him? And of course, as a reader, the book leaves you torn. In reading, are you any less of a voyeur than the researchers who recorded every detail of Genie’s life in the name of science? Or is it important to be aware of things like this: to know that the ethical boundaries in science can be uncomfortably blurred? On these questions, I think Rymer’s afterword is helpful. He explains his own involvement with the case and his own decision not to become more personally involved than he felt was appropriate for his position. And he stresses, again, that Genie is not just a name in a book. She’s real. She’s still alive, it seems, and it brought it home to me to realise that she’s only a little younger than my mum. Think about what this brave, remarkable woman must have been through in the course of her life. We can only hope that, in recent years, she has found the peace and security she needs in order to maximise her quality of life.

Spurred to search for the other cases I remember, I found books on both Zimbardo and Milgram, so in due course I might get hold of those as well. These are slightly different scenarios, of course, being based on experiments rather than human tragedies, but both are equally controversial. And, moreover, both have chilling resonance in today’s increasingly tribal and authoritarian world.

Buy the book

These are photographs of Genie which are published on the Wikipedia page about her case (where she is, surely inaccurately, described as a ‘feral child’). To see her in real life is to bring it home, even more forcibly, that she is not merely a case study to reference in an exam. She looks so lively, so happy here, that her tragedy weighs all the heavier.

3 thoughts on “Genie: A Scientific Tragedy: Russ Rymer

  1. RT says:

    Was fascinated to read that people are still enjoying this book – I published it originally in the UK with Michael Joseph! I too found it well balanced, and I particularly liked the way he conveyed the scientific information clearly for the layman without dumbing it down or patronising the reader. Heartbreaking stuff. It was my daughter’s route into psychology too, which she is now reading at uni!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      What a coincidence! Yes, I did occasionally feel that I was having a crash course in linguistics but I think it’s vital to have all that information, otherwise you don’t understand why the scientists are so excited about studying Genie’s development. And how interesting to hear that the case had a similar impact on your daughter! It’s definitely a story that preys on the mind…

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