In November of 1970, a stooped young girl, led by her nearly blind mother, shuffled into a Los Angeles County welfare office. Since that day, the unfortunate child has found her way into the pages of countless textbooks of linguistics. Russ Rymer’s Genie: An Abused Child’s Flight from Silence tells the story of that tortuous and extraordinary journey. At once a fascinating piece of investigative journalism, a lively presentation of important ideas in the field of linguistics, and a serious study of the ethics of human research, Rymer’s highly readable narrative weaves together three threads: the child’s sad personal history, the fascinating questions about language and human nature that scientists hoped she might answer, and the intense and bitter controversy that arose over her treatment and scientists’ right to study her.
Genie, as she is called in the textbooks to protect her real identity, was the fourth child born to Clark and Irene, a couple living in Temple City, California, fifteen miles from Hollywood. Clark did not want children, in part because of his extreme intolerance for noise. When their first child was born, Clark was infuriated by her crying and put the baby in the garage, where the two-month-old infant soon died. A second infant died shortly after birth because of the incompatibility with the Rh factors in Irene’s blood. The third child, a boy, survived intact.
Born in April, 1957, Genie, too, had Rh disease. Although she received a blood transfusion soon after birth, her pediatrician noted that she had kernicterus, a condition resulting from Rh incompatibility in which bile pigments deposited in the brain and spinal cord cause degeneration of nerve cells. How much the Rh disease may have affected Genie’s nervous system will never be known, because Clark’s abuse soon compounded the damage.
Convinced that the child would be profoundly retarded, Clark believed that she needed his “protection” from an evil world. He sewed a harness with which to fasten Genie, twenty months old, to a potty seat in a small bedroom. She was sometimes removed from the potty chair at night and placed in a restraining sleeping bag inside a cagelike crib. Alone and naked except for her harness, Genie was to remain in her tiny room day after day, month after month, for almost twelve years. She heard few sounds except distant traffic, saw little but the walls, the crib, the potty chair, and two plastic raincoats hung on the wall. Her mother was forbidden to have any contact with her except for feeding her baby food in silent haste. Genie heard no human speech except her father’s occasional curses when he beat her for making a sound.
Irene, imprisoned in her own home, lost her sight during these years. When Genie was thirteen and a half, Irene finally left her husband after a violent argument. Seeking services for the blind, she happened into the Los Angeles County welfare office with Genie in tow. She and Clark were promptly arrested and charged with child abuse. Clark soon shot and killed himself; Irene was later acquitted. Genie, meanwhile, was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
At age thirteen, Genie weighed only fifty-nine pounds. She was incontinent and could not chew or fully extend her limbs. She could speak only three or four words and understood fewer than twenty. It was her lack of language that was to embroil her in scientific controversy.
The intellectual history of the struggle to understand the nature and significance of human language is both long and complex. Rymer does an admirable job of presenting this history with a vitality not found in any textbook. The history of language study goes back at least twenty-seven hundred years, to King Psamtik I of Egypt, who isolated two infants in a shepherd’s hut, forbade the shepherd to speak to them, and waited for their speech to reveal the original human tongue. Ever since, students of human nature and human language have been excited by the rare occurrence of “natural experiments” that echo King Psamtik’s experiment-“wild children” who, through some accident, have grown up isolated from human language. Until Genie, the most famous of these was Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, discovered in France in 1800.
As Rymer points out in some detail, Victor’s history and Genie’s show uncanny parallels. Both unfortunate children were burdened with the high hopes of scientists looking for answers to fundamental questions. Is language an innate, built- in, biological function like digestion? Or does one learn it from one’s environment? This question reflects a deeper, more fundamental question concerning human nature itself: Are the attributes of humanity (language among them) innate? Are we born with them? Or are we born “blank slates” to be molded by our environment into more or less human creatures?
In 1970, when Genie stumbled on the scene, these age-old questions were very...