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.
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....
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