What is it that makes us human? Is it some innate quality we are born with, or is it mostly the shaping and molding we undergo as we stumble through childhood and the society that we have constructed? It is a question that has been debated and philosophized on for a long time, and still the essence of the answer to this very basic question eludes us. Another question would be what happens when you strip all of what we take for granted and which has molded us away? What happens when we strip away all human contact and grow up in complete isolation from civilization? Does the humanity remain or do we become something else? To look for clues to the answers to these questions we can look to the very strange and tragic story of a girl who was raised in nearly complete isolation, and who would pose insights into what it truly means to be human.
In October of 1970, one Los Angeles county welfare office was in for a shock when into their facility stumbled a woman with eyes ridden with cataracts and seemingly blind. By her side was crouched a withered, pale, and gaunt looking girl, who furtively looked about and held her hands up to her chest like some sort of wild animal. The girl could not walk or talk, hopped about like a rabbit, was wearing diapers, and although the workers estimated that she was only 6 or 7 years old it soon became clear that she was actually nearly 14. The horrified welfare workers immediately took the girl into custody and informed police, and from there the strange and tragic story of the wild girl they would call “Genie” unfolds.
Upon taking the girl to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles she was named “Genie” to protect her true identity and studied by teams of doctors and psychologists, who found her to be very unique indeed. Physically she was underdeveloped, extremely malnourished, smaller than usual for her age at only 59 pounds, unable to walk on two legs but rather crawling or hopping about, and she was seemingly unable to even fully extend her limbs. Although she was determined to have normal vision in both eyes, she had great difficulty focusing on anything more than 10 feet away from her. She also drooled and spat constantly and was incontinent, just defecating or urinating wherever she happened to be. Within her mouth were found two complete sets of teeth, due to a rare dental condition called “supernumeraries,” and it was found that she was unable to chew or swallow food on her own, requiring her to be specially hand fed. Mentally she seemed profoundly stunted, apparently not able to speak except for a few very basic words, and she usually remained completely silent, and she did not show signs that she even comprehended what was being said to her. Neither did she understand basic gestures or seem to be able to process what facial expressions conveyed. She exhibited a complete lack of socialization, scurried and cringed away from physical contact, and generally acted more like a wild animal than a human being, and although it was first assumed that she was merely extremely autistic, it would soon be learned that there was more to this as the police looked into her case.
It would turn out that when Genie was born, her true name was Susan Wiley, her parents Dorothy and Clark Wiley had been told that there was a chance that their baby was retarded. Her father was a bit of a social outcast, had lost two children already due to neglect, and had never wanted children in the first place, although he did have a son as well. Upon learning that his new daughter might be retarded he didn’t take it well, and went about chaining the girl in her room, constrained in a type of straitjacket and surrounded by chicken wire and wire mesh. Much of the time during the day she was harnessed to a toilet seat, and she was not allowed to leave her gloomy room under any circumstances, she was barely fed, and she was mostly totally ignored and left in a darkened room, with no one at all to keep her company. Clark was also extremely cruel, and would beat both her and her brother ruthlessly, especially if they talked or made any noise, and he would sometimes even bark and growl at the children like a crazed dog. Genie would spend her entire first 13 years in these stark, desolate conditions, in extreme isolation, having never been socialized or even taught language, and never meeting anyone except only the very briefest contact with her own father, brother, and mother, and it would appear that no one in the neighborhood had been aware that any of this had been going on for years. Genie was for all intents and purposes a truly feral child, raised in a total vacuum under some of the worst conditions imaginable.
It was not until 1970 that Genie’s mother, who had neurological damage from a past head injury, was blind, and had also suffered extreme abuse from her husband, decided to make a run for it and escape with her daughter, who at the time was 13 years and 7 months old. She took Genie with the intention of staying with her own parents in Temple City, California, who she had been forbidden from ever contacting by her husband. Along the way she meant to go and apply for disability benefits due to her blindness, and had stumbled about trying to find the office. It was at that point that she had accidentally wandered into the welfare office, which was right next door to the disability office, and that was where Genie’s grim plight would be finally discovered.
It soon became big news at the time, and was seen as one of the worst cases of abuse, neglect, and extreme isolation on record, thoroughly shocking the outraged public. The publicity would prove to be too much for the father, Clark Wiley, who was remorselessly attacked by the media and public, and he would shoot himself dead, leaving behind a suicide note simply reading, “The world will never understand.” The mother had all charges of abuse dropped against her when it was determined that she had no way to protect her daughter and had been just as much of a victim as her. In the meantime, psychologists and doctors were fascinated by the girl herself. It was found that she had no brain damage and did not display any classic signs of mental retardation or autism, with a normal level of intelligence and her mental condition and lack of language deemed to be solely due to her absolute isolation for so many years. It was seen as especially interesting that she had never acquired language, and this was a chance for linguists and psychologists to try and learn about language development in children. In particular she was studied and even befriended by a linguist named Susan Curtiss, who tried to teach her language and found the girl to be very smart despite her inability to speak. Curtiss would say of Genie and her language abilities, or lack thereof:
Language and thought are distinct from each other. For many of us, our thoughts are verbally encoded. For Genie, her thoughts were virtually never verbally encoded, but there are many ways to think. She was smart. She could hold a set of pictures so they told a story. She could create all sorts of complex structures from sticks. She had other signs of intelligence. The lights were on. Does language make us human? That’s a tough question. It’s possible to know very little language and still be fully human, to love, form relationships and engage with the world. Genie definitely engaged with the world. She could draw in ways you would know exactly what she was communicating.
Under Curtiss’ tutelage, Genie was able to slowly learn rudimentary languages skills, speaking in disjointed words mixed with primitive sign language and nonverbal cues, including a whole type of sign language she developed herself, consisting of various gestures and pantomimes. Interestingly, she rarely used drawing pictures to communicate, only doing so when asked to. Although this was all very promising, Genie never was able to make full, grammatical sentences, leading to the conclusion that there is a certain critical period past which learning a first language is too late. A typical long utterance by Genie can be seen when she was once talking about her father, who she seemed to not have fond memories of. She would say in her halting, oddly high pitched voice:
Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry … Not spit. Father. Hit face—spit. Father hit big stick. Father is angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Father make me cry. Father is dead.
Besides learning language and communication skills to some extent, Genie also improved her general motor skills, learning to walk and feed and dress herself, as well as to properly use a toilet, making great progress during her time in the hospital, even though she still displayed many antisocial behaviors, such as showing a fierce sense of possessiveness and unwillingness to share some items she felt she owned, and she also seemed to derive pleasure from breaking things. She was also still rather unemotional and distant most of the time, disliked physical contact, and was uncomfortable if there were more than one or two people in the room with her, never able to adjust to being with large groups. Genie still showed a certain impulsiveness and disregard for what others thought, doing pretty much what she liked when she liked with little apparent thought to the consequences, although from her reactions it was thought that she knew when she was doing something wrong, she just didn’t care. Although this all improved and got better with time, she still never really fully adjusted to social norms and being with people.
In 1971 Genie began going through a series of custody changes. She was turned over to the care of a rehabilitation teacher by the name of Jean Butler, after which she went into the care of a scientist on the research team, before finally returning to the care of her mother when she turned 18 years old. Her mother soon decided that she was unable to deal with Genie’s problems and idiosyncrasies, and so she did stints with several foster homes and state institutions for disabled adults, going through several custody disputes in the process even as funding for studying her dried up. Throughout all of this she apparently devolved rather rapidly to her past, feral state, losing her communication skills and slipping back to her old ways in a spiraling process of regression. In the end, Genie’s mother would step in and forbid any further studies on her daughter, and everyone who had helped her to make so much progress and who she ever showed an inkling of caring about was cut off from her, causing Curtiss, who wrote a dissertation and book on Genie, to lament:
I’m not in touch with her, but not by my choice. They never let me have any contact with her. I’ve become powerless in my attempts to visit her or write to her. I long to see her. There is a hole in my heart and soul from not being able to see her that doesn’t go away.
It is sadly largely unknown what became of Genie after this. It is thought that she is a ward of the state of California in the care of an undisclosed psychiatric institution somewhere in Los Angeles, but no one is sure where. Her mother is known to have passed away in 2003 and her brother in 2011, but other than that, nothing is known of her life after she was cut off from the world, what happened to her, or what her current condition is. Although her case would be the basis for many linguistic theories still in place today, it is somewhat sad that the one behind it all has faded into obscurity, languishing away forgotten within the cold walls of a mental institution. We are left to wonder just how she has fared in the intervening years? Did she ever learn to adjust to life with others? Did she learn language in the end? Does she have friends and a life somewhat resembling normalcy, getting back some semblance of what was taken from her in her childhood? Or is it, as some suspect, as if she never escaped that dark, lonely room at all?