In November of 1970, a stooped little girl, led by her nearly blind mother, shuffled into a Los Angeles County welfare office. Genie (not her real name) had been strapped to a potty chair and confined to a small room for twelve of her thirteen-and-a-half years. Isolated from nearly all human contact by her abusive father, Genie could speak and understand only a handful of words. Her discovery immediately aroused intense interest among scientists who wished to investigate the questions: Is human linguistic ability innate, or is it learned from the environment? Canlanguage be acquired after the critical period that ends at puberty?
Genie was soon embroiled in a bitter controversy in which compassionate concern for her ethical treatment was hopelessly entangled with professional ambition and jealousy. Through extensive interviews with the principal players in this drama, Russ Rymer has reconstructed Genie’s personal history and that of the many scientists who became deeply involved in her life. Lively and engrossing, GENIE is at once a fascinating piece of investigative journalism, an excellent presentation of important ideas in the field of linguistics, and a serious study of the ethics of human research. Through interviews with numerous prominent linguists, Rymer presents a clear and fascinating picture of current understanding of the nature of human language and how we acquire it.
Rymer’s disturbing tale makes clear, however, that the most significant lessons arising from Genie’s sad history do not finally concern language at all, but an even more fundamental aspect of human nature: our age-old conflict between self-interest and compassion. While GENIE will be of special interest to students of language, the ethical and human questions Rymer raises are of universal concern.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. April 27, 1993, p.61.
Choice. XXXI, October, 1993, p.369.
Kirkus Reviews. LXI, March 1, 1993, p.288.
Lancet. CCCXLII, August 7, 1993, p.355.
Library Journal. CXVIII, April 15, 1993, p.114.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 4, 1993, p.11
New Statesman and Society. VI, May 14, 1993, p.33.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 25, 1993, p.12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 5, 1993, p.60.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 6, 1993, p.27.