Our course textbook describes the case study of Genie. For this week’s discussion, consider this case in light of Genie’s inability, after being rescued, to fully catch-up to the enormous language growth seen in children her age not tragically isolated as she was, what do you think this implies about the existence of a sensitive period for language development? Second, let’s talk about the ethics of this situation. The work with Genie following her rescue from a childhood of brutal deprivation raised controversy regarding whether her best interests were considered foremost in decisions about who would provide her care. Share you thoughts here about that situation, including both pros and cons related to the decision about where she would reside. How important was your extended family to you and your parents or caregivers during your early childhood years? Share your view of the role of the extended family today as opposed to your own early years.
The tranquility of Temple City, California, was shattered in November, 1970, by disquieting, almost unbelievable, news. Screeching headlines described the discovery of a young girl who had been “held prisoner” by her family for 13 years. Her mother, almost completely blind and feeling the ravages of an abusive marriage, sought assistance for the blind in the local welfare office. With Genie, she mistakenly stumbled into a social services office, where an alert eligibility worker became fascinated, not by the mother but by the girl.
No wonder. The 13-year-old girl weighed only 59 pounds and was 54 inches tall. She was even in worse condition than she looked. She wasn’t toilet trained, she couldn’t chew solid food, and she could barely swallow. She drooled continuously and had no compunction about spitting—no matter where she was. And these were Genie’s less obnoxious characteristics. Perhaps most important of all, she couldn’t talk.
After her discovery, investigators began to trace the road that led Genie to her present state. At about 20 months of age, she received a rare physical examination by a pediatrician who stated that she seemed a little “slow,” which the father interpreted as meaning that she was profoundly retarded. With the physician’s label ringing in his ears, Genie’s father, Clark, developed a weird and abusive style of childrearing for his youngest child.
He kept her in a small bedroom tied to an infant’s potty seat. Trapped in this harness, Genie couldn’t move anything but her hands and feet. She sat there, day after day, month after month, year after year. At night, she was placed in a sleeping bag designed by her father that kept her arms motionless, much like a straitjacket. She was then placed in a crib with an overhead cover and wire mesh sides. She heard nothing—no human voices (only when her father swore at her), no radio, no language. When she made noise, her father beat her. She quickly learned to keep quiet rather than be beaten by a board her father kept in the room.
The room contained no other furniture, no pictures, one ceiling bulb. She was allowed to play with two dirty plastic raincoats, empty cottage cheese containers, and empty spools of thread. Her diet was baby foods, cereal, and an occasional soft-boiled egg. If she choked and spit out any food, Clark rubbed her face in it. Almost totally blind, Genie’s mother was helpless; she was at the mercy of her husband. Finally, things became so bad that Clark relented and called Genie’s maternal grandparents, who took Genie and her mother with them, which eventually led to Genie’s discovery. Her parents were arrested. Despondent about the emotional valleys in his life, Clark killed himself. Genie was hospitalized and became the object of intensive and prolonged study.
The startling case of Genie illustrates the durability of language but also demonstrates its vulnerability. After treatment in the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Genie was placed in a foster home where she acquired language, more from exposure than any formal training. Estimates are that she has acquired as much language in eight years as the normal child acquires in three. She continues to have articulation problems and difficulty with word order.
Although Genie made remarkable language progress, difficulties persist. For example, she does not appear to have mastered the rules of language (her grammar is unpredictable), she continues to use the stereotypic speech of the language-disabled child, and she seems to understand more language than she can produce. Thus the case of Genie suggests that although language is difficult to retard, sufficiently severe conditions can affect progress in language. Here we see the meaning of sensitive period applied to language development.
If you’d like to learn more about this tragic case, read R. Rymer (1993). Genie: A Scientific Tragedy. New York: Harper. This is one of the best summaries of Genie’s years of hell.
Dacey, J. S., Travers, J. F. & Fiore, L. (2008). Human development across the lifespan. McGraw Hill Publishing.