Genie Wiley: the terrible story of the wild girl

Genie Wiley: the terrible story of the wild girl

Genie Wiley

Throughout history there have been several cases of wild children raised in social isolation with little or no contact with other humans. But few have captured public and scientific attention like that of a girl named Genie Wiley.

He spent most of his childhood locked in a room, isolated and abused for more than a decade. Genie's case was one of the first to test the theory of the critical learning period.

Can a child raised under absolute deprivation of contact with other people and in isolation develop language patterns?

Can a consolidation environment compensate for such a horrible past?


  • 1 Genie Background
  • 2 Teaching Genie
  • 3 Critical Period and language acquisition
  • 4 The progress of Genie language acquisition
  • 5 The arguments about Genie's attention
  • 6 The beginning of the end
  • 7 Where is Genie today?

Genie Background

Genie's story came to light on November 4, 1970 in Los Angeles, California. A social worker discovered a 13-year-old girl after her mother ran away from home with the girl and went to social services. The worker soon discovered that the girl had been confined in a small room, and a subsequent investigation by the authorities revealed that the girl He had spent most of his life in this room, often tied to a small chair.

Genie's story began at 20 months of age, after her birth in 1957. Believing that she was mentally retarded, Clark Wiley locked her daughter in a room, separating her from her almost blind mother and her 6-year-old brother, on the pretext of protecting it.

The girl was given Genie's name in the case files, to protect her identity and privacy. "The name of the case is Genie. This is not the real name of the girl, but we think of what a genius is; a genius is a creature that comes out of a bottle or whatever, and emerges into human society beyond from his childhood We assume that he is not really a creature that had a human childhood, ”Susan Curtiss explained in about 1997 in the documentary entitled Secrets of the Wild Girl.

Both parents were accused of abuse, but Genie's father committed suicide the day before his appearance at the trial, leaving a note that said: "The world will never understand."

Genie life before its discovery was an absolute deprivation. He spent most of his days tied and naked to his little chair and he was only able to move his hands and feet.

When she made noise, her father beat her. Both her father, her mother and her older brother rarely talked to her. The few occasions when her father interacted with her was barking or growling.

The history of his case soon spread, attracting the attention of both the public and the scientific community. Psycholinguist Harlan Lee considered it a case of vital importance, because "our morals allow us to carry out experiments of deprivation of human beings, and these unfortunate people are all we have to move forward."

With so much interest in her case, the question became what should be done now with her. A team of psychologists and language experts initiated what could be Genie's rehabilitation process.

Teaching Genie

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provided the necessary funds for scientific research on the Genie case.

The psychologist David Rigler, who was part of the 'Genie team' said: "I think everyone who was in contact with Genie was attracted to her in some way. She had the quality of knowing how to connect with people, something that developed more and more, she was present, in fact, she was from the beginning. She had a way to reach out without saying anything, or the simple way she looked with her eyes that made people want to help her. "

A newly graduated student named also included in the rehabilitation team Susan Curtiss and to psychologist James Kent.

Upon arrival the team met with a girl who weighed only 27 kilos and moved strangely as with "rabbit feet". He often spit and was not able to straighten his arms and legs. He did not speak, had incontinence and was unable to chew, at first it seemed he was only able to recognize his own name and the word "cure."

After assessing Genie's emotional and cognitive skills, Kent described her as "the most deeply damaged girl I've ever seen in my life ... Genie's life is a desert." His silence and the inability to use language made it extremely difficult to assess his mental abilities, but in the tests that were done at that time, he obtained more or less the cognitive level of one year of age.

He soon began to make rapid progression in specific areas, quickly learned to use the toilet and dress. In the following months, he experienced even more progress in his development, but he remained poor in areas such as language. She enjoyed excursions all day outside the hospital and explored her new surroundings with an intensity that surprised her caregivers and strangers. Curtiss suggested that Genie had a great ability to communicate nonverballyHe often received gifts from strangers who seemed to understand the young woman's powerful need to explore the world around her.

Critical Period and language acquisition

Part of the reason why Genie's case fascinated psychologists and linguists was that they were presented with a unique opportunity to study language development, a debate that was hard at the time. The nativists believed that the capacity for language was innate, while the empirical suggested that these are environmental variables that play a key role. In essence, it comes down to the old debate of nature versus nurture. Who plays a more important role in the development of language, genetics or the environment?

The linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky He suggested that language acquisition cannot be explained only through learning. Instead, he proposed that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD), an innate ability to understand the principles of language. Once exposed to the language, the LAD allows children to learn the language at a remarkable rate.

On the other hand, the linguist Eric Lenneberg suggested that, like many other human behaviors, the possibility of acquiring language is subject to what is known as critical periods. A critical period is a limited period of time during which an organism is sensitive to external stimuli and able to acquire certain skills. According to Lenneberg, the critical period for language acquisition lasts until about 12 years, shortly after the onset of puberty, at which time the brain organization is fixed and is no longer able to learn and use language in a fully functional way.

For this and other reasons, Genie's case presented the researchers with a unique opportunity. The question was: If you are given an enriched learning environment, could you overcome a childhood full of deprivation and learn the language, despite having exceeded the critical period? If I could, this would suggest that the hypothesis of the critical period of language development was wrong. If I couldn't, it would indicate that Lenneberg's theory was correct.

The progress of Genie's language acquisition

Despite exceeding the critical level's age level for one year, Genie quickly began adding new words to his vocabulary. He started by learning loose words and finally he started putting two words together in the way young children do when they are learning to speak. Curtiss began to feel that Genie would be fully capable of acquiring language.

After a year of treatment, Genie even started putting three words together from time to time. In normal children who go through language development, this stage is followed by what is known as the explosion of a language. Children quickly acquire new words and begin to put them together in novel ways. Unfortunately, this never happened with Genie. His language skills remained stagnant at this stage and he seemed unable to apply grammar rules and use language in a meaningful way. At this point, his progress stagnated and his acquisition of the new language stopped.

While Genie was able to learn some word after puberty, her inability to use grammar (which Chomsky suggests is what separates human language from animal communication) offers evidence of the critical period hypothesis.

Of course, Genie's case is not so simple. Not only did she miss the critical period for language learning, too was mistreated in a horrible way. She was malnourished and deprived of all cognitive stimulation during most of her childhood. The researchers were also unable to determine if Genie suffered cognitive deficiencies before.

The arguments about Genie's attention

Psychiatrist Jay Shurley helped evaluate Genie after being discovered for the first time, and since the situation she was in was so strange, it quickly became the center of a battle between different investigators involved in her case. Soon differences arose among researchers for the course of their treatment. Genie occasionally spent the night at the house of Jean butler, one of his teachers. After a measles outbreak, Genie was also quarantined at her home. Butler soon became a kind of "protector" and began to restrict access to Genie. Other team members felt that Butler's goal was to become the most famous of the case, at a time when Butler called herself the next Anne Sullivan, famous teacher for helping Helen Keller learn to communicate.

Over time, Genie was removed from Butler's protection and went to live at the home of psychologist David Rigler, where he remained for the next four years. Despite some difficulties, Genie seemed to be well in the Rigler home. He enjoyed listening to classical music and loved to draw, he often found it easier to communicate through drawing than other means.

The beginning of the end

In 1974 the NIMH withdrew funding due to the lack of scientific findings. Linguist Susan Curtiss had already found that while Genie was able to use words, she could not produce grammar language. He could not organize words in a meaningful way, supporting the idea of ​​the critical period in language development. With no funds to continue Genie's investigation and care, she was removed from Rigler's care.

In 1975, Genie returned to live with her biological mother. When her mother but she is in a very difficult time, and Genie becomes part of a series of foster homes, where she was frequently subjected to further abuse and neglect. Genie's biological mother sued the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and the research team, accusing them of conducting excessive tests. Important questions were raised about the treatment and care of Genie as Does the research interfere with the therapeutic treatment of the girl?

Unfortunately and due to all this lack of care and welcome, Genie's situation continued to worsen. After spending a great deal of time in foster homes, he returned to the Children's Hospital. Unfortunately, the advances that had taken place during his first stay were seriously compromised by the subsequent treatment he received in foster care. Apparently Genie was afraid to open her mouth and returned to silence.

Where is Genie today?

Today, Genie lives in an adult care home somewhere secret in southern California. Little is known about her current condition, although an anonymous individual hired a private investigator to follow his trail in 2000 and described her as a happy person. This contrasts with what psychiatrist Jay Shurley explains that visited her on her 27th and 29th birthdays, and said she looked depressed, with long silences and chronically institutionalized.

With Genie approaching her 60th birthday, her destiny remains an enigma. Did you finally learn to speak? Are you happy? Only a handful of people know it.

What has remained at the end of all this is a long ethical debate about the pretensions of study and the generation of new knowledge, overcoming people's vital and emotional needs, as has happened with poor Geni who, after passing From hand to hand by different researchers and foster homes, she was finally abandoned to her fate in an institution and forgotten when she stopped being "interesting."

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