Locked in her Bedroom for 13 Years
On the 4th November 1970 a news bulletin announced “Officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia have taken custody of a 13 year old girl they say was kept in such isolation by her parents that she never even learned to talk. The girl still wore diapers and was uttering infantile noises when a social worker discovered the case. Authorities are hoping she may still have a normal learning capacity”.
Among the first to see the child was Temple City detective Sergeant Frank Linley “I already knew that the child was 13 years old. I took one look at her, she wasn’t much bigger than my daughter who just turned seven, and I really had a hard time conceiving that she was the age she was meant to be. The child had obviously been severely mistreated”.
This was the home of the family. The father, Clark, turned his back on the world after his mother had been killed by a hit and run driver. Things in their household were never the same again.
Sergeant Linley continues, “The house was completely dark, all the blinds were drawn and there were no toys, no clothes, nothing to indicate that a child of any age had lived there. The child’s bedroom was at the back of the house with the window covered. The furnishings of the bedroom consisted of a cage with a chicken-wire lid, and a potty chair with some kind of home-made strapping device”.
For 13 years, Genie lived like this. Her nights spent locked in bed, her days strapped to her potty chair. During this time, Clark ordered his son John and wife Irene never to talk to her. She lived in almost total isolation.
During their entire marriage, Clark imposed his will on Irene. Near blind with cataracts, she was too scared to resist. When police interviewed them, neither would talk about any family nor did they even acknowledge that they understood the questioning.
Clark ensured his silence was permanent. Just before he was due in court to be arraigned for child abuse, he shot and killed himself.
After life in solitary confinement, Genie Wiley was free at last. Her story would reveal more about feral children than any previous case. Genie is the name given to her by carers. Her real name has always remained private to protect her privacy.
For 13 years she had endured severe sensory and social deprivation in a city bedroom. Genie was as much without human contact as if she had grown up in the wild. The teenager was the size of a six year old and, worst of all, she had never been taught to speak. The question now, would she ever learn?
Genie’s case was so important to science that the US Government funded a team to help answer the many questions she posed. The two scientists first on the scene who would become especially significant in Genie’s life were child psychologist Dr James Kent and linguist Susan Curtiss. Neither specialist had ever encountered neglect as extreme as Genie’s.
Genie was discovered at a pivotal moment in the field of linguistics. For years, theories of language had been little more than guesswork. Now, two scientists, psychologist Eric Lenneberg and linguist Noam Chomsky made a major breakthrough in understanding how we acquire language.
James Law a professor of language and communication explains, “Chomsky revolutionised the way we saw language. He wrote in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy, which is that language is something we are taught. Chomsky said “Not true, they’re not taught grammar, they acquire grammar”. He said that children develop language because they’re pre-programmed to do this”.
What would happen to a girl like Genie? A girl who had never had even the smallest amount of language.
Eric Lenneberg thought he had the answer. Susan Curtiss tells us, “Eric Lenneberg published a book called The Biological Foundation of Language. In this book he proposed the hypothesis that human language is a species specific trait that has a critical period during which it developed and outside of this critical period normal human language would not develop”.
If Lenneberg was correct it would now be too late for Genie to ever learn a language. Her brain had missed its window of opportunity.
Incredibly, the 14 year old seemed to be proving the theory wrong. Within a year of being found, she was blossoming. She delighted in the world outside her prison; she was hungry for the names of the new things she was seeing.
Susan Curtiss, professor of linguistics, tempers this apparent success “She has learned a lot of words, she has an enormous vocabulary, but language is not words, language is grammar, language is sentences. So it wasn’t that she was mentally deficient, she was deficient in the mental faculty we call grammar”.
Genie had not escaped the effects of her past so easily. She was haunted by her traumatic upbringing, trapped by memories of her ordeal and it seemed she had missed the critical window for learning language.
When Genie was found, neurology was in it’s infancy. Today, it can give a much clearer picture of cases of extreme neglect.
Bruce Perry explains that left part of the cerebral cortex in Genie’s brain, which is responsible for speech and language has not received the stimulation required for normal development. This lack of development has left her speech centres irreparably damaged.
The left hand scan shows the brain of a normal three year old with healthy neural development. The right hand scan shows dark patches where whole areas of the feral brain have shrunk from lack of stimulation.
Starved of stimulation, Genie’s brain simply did not develop the capacity for language. Now that she is in her teens she will never be able to learn.
Genie now lives in an adult care home somewhere in Los Angeles and is, following court action by her misguided mother, prevented from seeing the people who once meant so much to her.
Savage Girls and Wild Boys – Michael Newton
Genie: A Scientific Tragedy – Russ Rymer