About Genie and Pschology about her
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A tragic story of an abused child who was rescued only to be used for a science
experiment of First language Acquisition and further exploration of the Critical Period Hypothesis.
Genie's story is a complicated and sad one. It was the
first time scientists could test the Critical Period Hypothesis and how it affects first language acquisition.
On November 25, 1970 in Arcadia, Los Angeles 13 year old Genie was discovered.
Genie did not have any sense of language and grew up in almost complete isolation. Her only words when found were "stop
it." Her father claimed that Genie was mentally retarded, so that is why she spent her days tied to a potty seat and
nights in a sleeping bag that was designed so she could not move .
Results for Genie
Genie was rescued from a situation in which she was beaten every time she made noise or
tried to speak. She was only given baby food and cereal to eat. When she was admitted to the hospital, she was
54 inches tall and weighed only 62 pounds. She could hardly stand, chew solid foods, and could not make sounds.
But yet her case was treated as more of a science experiment, and as soon as the funding was up for Genie's care the doctors
who had become her family left.
Genie did not acquire language as hoped, but only learned about 100 words over
a 4 year period. She did pick up the difference between singular and plural nouns, negative and positive phrases, and
some modifications. It is unclear if her inability to acquire language was due to the fact that she had missed her critical
period or because of the severe trauma she had suffered.
In 1970, a wild child was found in California. Genie, now 24, has stirred up new questions
about language and intelligence.”
Only a few cases are recorded of human beings who have grown up without any real contact with
other humans. So rare is the phenomenon that when a 12-year-old “wild boy” was found in the forest of Aveyron
in 18th-century France, the government ordered him brought to Paris to be examined by doctors in an institution for deaf-mutes.
There he came under the care of the physician Jean Itard, who also acted as the boy’s tutor. Itard left detailed records
of his experience, which was later dramatized in the 1970 movie The Wild Child. Although the boy was not deaf, and despite
Itard’s work, the child never learned to speak.
In 1970, a wild child was found in California: a girl of 13 who had been isolated in a small
room and had not been spoken to by her parents since infancy. “Genie,” as she was later dubbed to protect her
privacy by the psycholinguists who tested her, could not stand erect. At the time, she was unable to speak: she could only
The case came to light when Genie’s 50-year-old mother ran away from her 70-year-old
husband after a violent quarrel and took the child along. The mother was partially blind and applied for public assistance.
The social worker in the welfare office took one look at Genie and called her supervisor, who called the police. Genie was
sent to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital for tests. Charges of willful abuse were filed against both her parents,
according to the Los Angeles Times. On the day he was due to appear in court, however, Genie’s father shot himself to
death. He left a note in which he wrote. “The world will never understand.”
The discovery of Genie aroused intense curiosity among psychologists, linguists, neurologists,
and others who study brain development. They were eager to know what Genie’s mental level was at the time she was
found and whether she would be capable of developing her faculties. “It’s a terribly important case,” says
Harlan Lane, a psycholinguist at Northeastern University who wrote The Wild Boy ofAveyron. “Since our morality doesn’t
allow us to conduct deprivation experiments with human beings, these unfortunate people are all we have to go on.”
Genie was 24 years old when this article was written in 1981. Through years of rehabilitation
and special training, she has been observed and repeatedly tested. Hundreds of videotapes record her progress. She has been
the subject of several journal articles and a book. Since the book was published in 1977, additional studies have brought
into focus some of the issues raised by Genie’s case. Far from settling any scientific controversies, she has provided
fresh ammunition for arguments on both sides of a major issue: is there a “critical period” in a child’s
development during which, if language acquisition is not stimulated or encouraged, it may be impaired later on or not emerge
at all? She has inspired a California researcher who worked with her, Susan Curtiss, to develop a controversial hypothesis
about how language learning affects the two hemispheres of the brain. Genie has also stirred up debate about the relationship
between language and other mental abilities. As a result, new research is now in progress on the surprising language ability
of some mentally retarded children.
As described in Curtiss’s book, Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day “Wild
Child” (Academic Press), Genie is living proof of human resilience. It is surprising that she survived at all. Her
father apparently hated children and tried to strangle Genie’s mother while she was pregnant with her first child. According
to Curtiss’s book, when an earlier baby girl was born, he put the child in the garage because he couldn’t stand
her crying: the baby died of pneumonia at two-and-a half months. A second child, a boy, died two days after birth, allegedly
from choking on his own mucus. A third child was rescued and cared for by his grandmother when he was three years old and
is still alive. Genie, the fourth child, was denied such help, however, because shortly after she was born, her grandmother
was hit by a truck and killed.
From the age of 20 months, when her family moved into her grandmother’s house, until
she was 13 and a half, Genie lived in nearly total isolation. Curtiss’ book and newspaper reports describe Genie’s
life at the time: naked and restrained by a harness that her father had fashioned, she was left to sit on her potty seat day
after day. She could move only her hands and feet. She had nothing to do. At night, when she was not forgotten, she was put
into a sort of straitjacket and caged in a crib that had wire-mesh sides and an overhead cover. She was often hungry.
If she made any noise, her father beat her. “He never spoke to her,” wrote Curtiss.
“He made barking sounds and he growled at her.... Her mother was terrified of him—and besides, she was too blind
to take much care of Genie. The task fell largely on Genie’s brother, who, following his father’s instructions,
did not speak to Genie either. He fed her hurriedly and in silence, mostly milk and baby foods. There was little for Genie
to listen to. Her mother and brother spoke in low voices for fear of her father.
When Genie arrived in Children’s Hospital in November 1970, she was a pitiful, malformed,
incontinent, unsocialized, and severely malnourished creature. Although she was beginning to show signs of pubescence, she
weighed only 59 pounds. She could not straighten her arms or legs. She did not know how to chew. She salivated a great deal
and spent much of her time spitting. And she was eerily silent.
Various physicians, psychologists, and therapists were brought in to examine her during those
first months. Shortly after Genie was admitted as a patient, she was given the Vineland Social Maturity Scale and the Preschool
Attainment Record, on which she scored as low as normal one-year-olds. At first, she seemed to recognize only her own name
and the word sorry. After a while, she began to say two phrases that she used as if they were single words, in a ritualized
Psychologists at the hospital did not really know how much she understood. Nor did they know
how to evaluate whatever language she had: to what degree did it deviate from the standard pattern? They eventually asked
Victoria A. Fromkin, a UCLA psycholinguist, to study Genie’s language abilities. Fromkin brought along a graduate student,
Susan Curtiss (now an assistant professor of linguistics at UCLA), who became so fascinated by Genie that she devoted much
of the next seven years of her life to researching the girl’s linguistic development.
Working with Genie was not an easy task. Although she had learned to walk with a jerky motion
and became more or less toilet trained during her first seven months at Children’s Hospital, Genie still had many disconcerting
habits. She salivated and spat constantly, so much so that her body and clothing were filled with spit and “reeked of
a foul odor,” as Curtiss recounts. When excited or agitated, she urinated, leaving her companion to deal with the results.
And she masturbated excessively.
Nevertheless, Genie was decidedly human, and her delight at discovering the world—as
well as her obvious progress—made the struggle worthwhile. When Curtiss started working with Genie, she began by simply
spending time with her or taking her to visit places, in order to establish a relationship. She took Genie to the supermarket,
where Genie walked around the store and examined the meats and the plastic containers with some curiosity. Every house seemed
exciting to Genie, who had spent so much of her life cooped up in one room: on walks she would often go up to the front doors
of houses, hoping that someone would open the door and let her in.
During her first seven months of freedom, Genie had learned to recognize many new words—probably
hundreds by the time Curtiss started investigating her knowledge of language systematically in June 1971. And she had begun
to speak. On a visit with Curtiss to the home of one of the therapists, Genie eagerly explored every room, then picked up
a decorator pillow: when asked what it was, she replied “pillow.” Asked if she wanted to see the family cat, Genie
replied, “No. No. Cat,” and shook her head vehemently. Most of the time, however, she said nothing.
At first Genie spoke only in one-word utterances, as toddlers do when they start to talk.
Then in July of 1971, she began to string two words together on her own, not just while imitating what somebody else had said.
She said “big teeth,” “little marble,” “two hand.” A little later she produced some verbs:
“Curtiss come,” “Want milk.” In November of the same year she progressed to occasional three-word
strings: “small two cup,” “white clear box.”
Unlike normal children, however, Genie never asked questions, despite many efforts to train
her to do so. Nor did she understand much grammar. And her speech development was abnormally slow. A few weeks after normal
children reach the two-word stage, their speech generally develops so rapidly and explosively that it is difficult to keep
track of or describe. No such explosion occurred for Genie. Four years after she began to put words together, her speech remained,
for the most part, like a somewhat garbled telegram.
While Genie did not speak in a fully developed, normal way, she acquired some language after
she was discovered. That contradicted one aspect of the theory that says language can be learned only during a critical period
between two years of age and puberty. According to Eric Lenneberg, a Harvard psychologist who put forth the theory in 1967,
the brain of a child before the age of two is not sufficiently mature for the acquisition of language, while after puberty,
when the brain’s organization is complete, it has lost its flexibility and can no longer acquire a first language. Genie
proved him wrong in one sense. Fromkin says, since the child “showed that a certain amount of language can be learned
after the critical period.”
On the other hand, Genie failed to learn the kind of grammatical principles that, according
to Noam Chomsky, distinguish the language of human beings from that of animals. For example, she could not grasp the difference
between various pronouns, or between active and passive verbs. In that sense, she appeared to suffer from having passed the
Her language deficiencies could not be attributed to a lack of teachers. Though at first it
did not seem possible that she could ever attend any school, within a few months of her arrival at Children’s Hospital
she began going to nursery classes for normal children. She soon transferred to a special elementary school for handicapped
children. Next, she spent several years in a city high school for the mentally retarded. Outside school, a speech therapist
worked with her consistently for many years. Meanwhile, one of the therapists and his wife took Genie into their own home
to live with their two teenage sons, a teenage daughter, a dog, and a cat. They tried to teach Genie to trace with her fingers
the shape of sandpaper letters, to recognize words or work with Play-Doh, as well as deal with the demands of family life.
She apparently had no trouble writing her name, and drew a number of pictures based on experiences she had had.
Nor did Genie’s deficiencies appear to be inborn. Although many details of her early
history are unclear, and Genie’s mother has given contradictory accounts of them. Genie seems to have been a normal
baby. She suffered from an Rh blood incompatibility, but received an exchange transfusion one day after birth. During her
first year of life, before she was isolated from the rest of her family, she may have been on the road to language, since
her mother reported that she heard Genie saying words right after she was locked up.
The gift of language has always been viewed as distinctively human, or even as proof of the
existence of the soul. In the early 19th century. Itard tried desperately to teach Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, to speak.
He began when Victor was about 12 years old—around the time of puberty, as with Genie. However. Victor never spoke more
than a few single words, perhaps because of an injury to his throat, where he had a scar.
Chomsky believes that human beings are born with a unique competence for language, built into
their brains. But he adds that the innate mechanisms that underlie this competence must be activated by exposure to language
at the proper time, which Chomsky speculates must occur before puberty.
human beings, four-week-old babies can recognize the difference between some 40 consonants that are used in human languages,
as shown by how their sucking and heartbeats change when different consonant sounds are presented by audiotape. That ability
seems to be innate, since babies respond to many more consonants that are used in their parents’ language—English,
for example, has only 24 consonant sounds, yet babies of English-speaking parents react to the consonants present in Japanese.
Babies lose that ability as they grow up. By the age of six, when children enter school, their ability to hear the difference
between sounds to which they have not been exposed in their own language is severely reduced. Feature detectors responsible
for recognizing about a dozen consonant sounds have so far been inferred to exist in the human brain. They need to be triggered
by the environment, however: if not, they appear to atrophy.
something similar happened to Genie’s brain? Curtiss raised that possibility when she reported that Genie, unlike 99
percent of righthanded people, seemed to use the right hemisphere of her brain for language. Since the left hemisphere is
predisposed for language in righthanded people, that could account for some of the strange features of Genie’s language
of “dichotic listening,” for example, which involve presenting different sounds to both ears simultaneously
and asking the subject to react to them, “Genie’s left ear outperformed her right ear on every occasion,”
Curtiss reports in her book. (Sound from the left ear is linked to the right hemisphere: from the right ear, to the left hemisphere.)
Furthermore, “the degree of ear advantage is abnormal:
left ear performed at 100 percent accuracy, while the right ear performed at a level below chance.” That indicated Genie
was using her right hemisphere as consistently as do people in whom, because of damage or surgery, only the right hemisphere
Genie’s brain-wave patterns were examined at the UCLA Brain Research Institute—first as she listened to different
sentences, then as she looked at pictures of faces—the data suggested that Genie used her right hemisphere for both
language and nonlanguage functions. Genie also proved to be particularly good at tasks involving the right hemisphere, such
as recognizing faces. On the Mooney Faces Test, which requires the subject to distinguish real from “false” faces
in which features are misplaced and to point out several features on each face, Genie’s performance was “the highest
reported in the literature for either child or adult,” according to Curtiss.
the very beginning, Genie’s vocabulary revealed an extraordinary attention to the visual world, which is the special
province of the right hemisphere—to color, shape, and size. All of her first two-word phrases were about static objects.
While normal children usually start talking about people and actions or about the relations between people and objects, Genie
spoke primarily about the attributes of things: “black shoe,” “lot bread.”
summarizing the numerous tests made on Genie until 1979, Curtiss noted that Genie’s performance had increased consistently
over the years. For example, on the Leiter International Performance Scale, which was developed for use with deaf children
and does not require verbal instructions, she had an IQ of 38 in 1971, an IQ of 53 in 1972, an IQ of 65 in 1974, and an IQ
of 74 in 1977. However, she had made much less progress on tasks governed primarily by the left hemisphere. Even at the age
of 20, she still performed at a three-year-old level on tests of auditory memory (a left-hemisphere task): she scored at a
6-to-12-year-old level on tests of visual memory (which tap both hemispheres), and at an adult level on tests of Gestalt perception
The theory of language
learning recently offered by Curtiss is an attempt to explain Genie’s dependence on her right hemisphere. Possibly,
Curtiss wrote in a paper on cognitive linguistics published by UCLA, the acquisition of language is what triggers the normal
pattern of hemispheric specialization. Therefore, if language is not acquired at the appropriate time, “the cortical
tissue normally committed for language and related abilities may functionally atrophy,” Curtiss wrote. That would
mean that there are critical periods for the development of the left hemisphere. If such development fails, later learning
may be limited to the right hemisphere.
Genie has many problems besides her lack of syntax or her dependence on the right hemisphere of her brain. During her most
formative years—her entire childhood—she was malnourished, abused, unloved, bereft of any toys or companionship.
Naturally, she is strange in many ways. Yet her language deficits remain particularly striking since she often found means
of explaining what was important to her. She used gestures if necessary (starting in 1974, she received regular lessons in
American Sign Language to complement her spoken language). Once she wanted an egg-shaped container that held panty hose that
was made of chrome-colored plastic. She signaled her desire by making the shape of an egg with her hands, and then pointing
to many other things with a chromium finish.
book, Curtiss describes how Genie occasionally used her limited language to remember her past and to tell about details of
her confinement. “Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry,” she said once. Another time, when Curtiss took her into
the city to browse through shops, Genie said, “Genie happy.”
Genie’s mother became her legal guardian. During all the years of Genie’s rehabilitation, her mother had also
received help. An eye operation restored her sight, and a social worker tried to improve her behavior toward Genie. Genie’s
mother had never been held legally responsible for the child’s inhuman treatment Charges of child abuse were dismissed
in 1970, when her lawyer argued that she “was, herself, a victim of the same psychotic individual”—her husband.
There was “nothing to show purposeful or willful cruelty,” he said.
many years the court assigned a guardian for Genie. Shortly after Genie’s mother was named guardian, she astounded the
therapists and researchers who had worked with Genie by filing a suit against Curtiss and the Children’s Hospital among
others—on behalf of herself and her daughter—in which she charged that they had disclosed private and confidential
information concerning Genie and her mother for “prestige and profit” and had subjected Genie to “unreasonable
and outrageous” testing, not for treatment, but to exploit Genie for personal and economic benefits. According to the
Los Angeles Times, the lawyer who represents Genie’s mother estimated that
the actual damages could total $500,000.
1981, the case had not yet come to court, but in the two years since it was filed, Genie has been completely cut off from
the professionals at Children’s Hospital and UCLA. Since she is too old to be in a foster home, she apparently is living
in a board-and-care home for adults who cannot live alone. The Los Angeles Times reported
that as of 1979 her mother was working as a domestic servant. All research on
Genie’s language and intellectual development has come to a halt.
from Chomsky and his followers, who believe that fundamental language ability is innate and unrelated to intelligence, most
psychologists assume that the development of language is tied to—and emerges from—the development of nonverbal
intelligence, as described by Piaget. However, Genie’s obvious nonverbal intelligence— her use of tools,
her drawings, her knowledge of causality, her mental maps of space—did not lead her to an equivalent competence in the
grammar normal children acquire by the age of five.