Genie (linguistics)

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Genie is the name used for a feral child discovered by California authorities on November 4, 1970 in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia. Her real name remains private. She was born in April 1957 and was the fourth (and second surviving) child to unstable parents. Her mother was partially blind due to cataracts and a detached retina, and her father (who was 20 years the mother's senior) was mentally unbalanced due to depression over his mother's death from a hit-and-run accident.

At the age of 20 months, Genie was just beginning to learn how to speak when a doctor told her family that she seemed to be developmentally disabled and possibly mildly retarded. Her father took the opinion to extremes, believing that she was profoundly retarded, and subjected her to severe confinement and ritual ill-treatment in an attempt to "protect" her.

Genie had spent her life locked in her bedroom. During the day, she was tied to a potty chair in diapers; and most nights, she was then bound in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed crib with a metal lid to keep her shut inside. Her father would beat her every time she vocalized and he barked and growled at her like a dog in order to keep her quiet; he also forbade his wife and son to ever speak to her. She became almost entirely mute, and knew only a few short words and phrases, such as "stopit" and "nomore."


Genie was discovered at the age of 13, when her mother ran away from her husband and took Genie with her. On November 4, 1970, they came into a welfare office in Temple City, California to seek benefits for the blind. A social worker discovered them and thought that Genie was six or seven years old and possibly autistic. When it was revealed that she was actually 13 years old, the social worker immediately called her supervisor, who called the police. Her parents were charged with child abuse, and Genie was taken to Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Genie's mother, weak and almost blind, claimed she was herself a victim of abuse by Genie's father. The father committed suicide shortly after Genie's discovery.

When released for the first time, Genie developed a strange "bunny walk," held her hands up in front of her like paws, and constantly sniffed, spat and clawed. She was almost entirely silent. She masturbated excessively, which turned out to be the most serious anti-social behavior problem of all (Curtiss 1977). Many of the items she coveted were objects with which to masturbate and she would attempt to do so, regardless of where she was (Curtiss 1977). In spite of her condition, hospital staff hoped they could nurture her to normality. When interest in the case widened, Genie became the focus of an investigation to discover if there was a critical age threshold for language acquisition. Within a few months she had advanced to one-word answers and had learned to dress herself. Her doctors predicted complete success. They even screened François Truffaut's movie The Wild Child for ideas. Psychologist James Kent became her surrogate parent.

The first foster home

Jean Butler was Genie's teacher at Children's Hospital. Butler became Genie's foster parent by accident or, what members of the Genie team suspected, a scheme that Butler concocted to allow Genie to stay with her. Butler claimed that she herself had had a rash that was likely measles, and thus when Genie had visited her home, Genie may have contracted it. Genie was moved to Butler's home with the initial intent of a temporary quarantine, but the stay became prolonged when Butler petitioned to make it permanent. Butler became very protective of Genie and resisted visits by other members of the Genie team including Susan Curtiss and James Kent. Butler's personal journal recorded concern that Genie was taxed too greatly by the Genie team and experiments; however (according to Susan Curtiss in the Nova transcript), Butler didn't hide that she hoped Genie would make her famous. Her true intentions may never be known, but many members of the Genie team claimed genuine affection for Genie and an overwhelming desire to "rescue" her.

Butler did, however, continue the essential practice of observing and documenting Genie's behavior while in her home. One such behavior Butler documented was Genie's practice of hoarding, a behavior typical of children who have been moved from abusive homes. When Butler applied to be Genie's legal foster parent, she was rejected.

The second foster home

Genie returned to the hospital and was handed over to a new foster parent, therapist David Rigler. His wife Marilyn became Genie's new teacher. Marilyn found the need to teach Genie unconventional lessons, for example in anger management. Genie would go into a fit of rage and act out against herself, so Marilyn taught Genie to "rage" through jumping, slamming doors, stomping her feet and generally "having a fit." Marilyn noted that Genie had a stronger command of vocabulary than most children acquiring language. During this period Genie was even able to discuss her years of abuse:

M.R.: Where did you stay when you lived at home? Where did you live? Where did you sleep?
Genie: Potty chair.
M.R.: You slept in the potty chair?
GENIE: Mmm-hmm. Potty chair.

She stayed with the Rigler family for the next four years. During that period she began to learn some language, and the Riglers arranged for her to learn sign language. She also learned to smile. If she could not express herself in language, she would try to communicate by drawing a picture.

Loss of funds and interest

Despite Genie's relative success, the National Institute of Mental Health, which had funded the project, grew concerned about the lack of scientific research data generated. In 1974 the Institute cut off funding. The following year the Riglers decided to discontinue their foster parenting. Genie had not yet learned full grammatical English and only went so far as phrases like "Applesauce buy store".

Later childhood

In 1975, Genie was returned to the custody of her mother, who had been acquitted of child abuse and wished to care for her daughter. After a few months, the mother found that taking care of Genie was too difficult, and Genie was transferred to a succession of six more foster homes. In some of the homes she was physically abused and harassed, and her development regressed severely, returning to her coping mechanism of silence, and adding a new fear of opening her mouth. The new fear of opening her mouth developed after being severely punished for vomiting in one of her foster homes; she didn't want to open her mouth, even to speak, for fear of vomiting and facing punishment again (Nova).

The original research team heard nothing more about Genie until her mother sued them for excessive and outrageous testing and claimed the researchers gave testing priority over Genie's welfare, pushing her beyond the limits of her endurance. The case was eventually settled.

Present condition

Genie now lives in a sheltered accommodation in an undisclosed location in Southern California; it is at least her sixth adult foster home. Her mother died c. 2002–2003. Genie has an older brother who is still living.

An independent film entitled Mockingbird Don't Sing is based on Genie's life.


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