On this day in 1970, a 13-year-old girl was discovered by authorities after her mother took her to welfare offices in LA. Her mother, Irene Wiley, was looking for financial assistance, but the social workers were more concerned by her thin daughter who “bunny walked” around with her hands in front of her and displayed other developmental disabilities.
Irene Wiley and her husband, John Wiley, were charged with child abuse. The young girl, who was given the name “Genie” to protect her identity, grew up in a life of deprivation. Her father thought that Genie was mentally retarded and confined her to a small room. She spent most of life her life tied naked to a potty chair in the secluded room. Her father would beat her every time she made noise and would mostly communicate with her in barks and growls. Genie was only spoon-fed milk and Pablum.
As a result, Genie was malnourished; she could not walk properly, and she could not speak. Because deprivation experiments are considered unethical, psychologists and psycholinguists can only study the effects of deprivation in cases such as Genie. Consequently, Genie was exploited by scientists who wanted to make a name for themselves. In fact, Jean Butler, Genie’s nursery school teacher supposedly told her colleagues that she wanted to be the next Annie Sullivan (the woman who taught the blind and deaf Helen Keller language).
At first, Genie made a lot of progress. She learned how to dress herself and use the toilet in three days. In a few months, she had a vocabulary of over 100 words, although her vocalizations were hard to understand.
However, after five years of research the “Genie Team” lost funding from a research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) because the research was disorganized and was not yielding results. Genie had been living with one of the doctors on the “Genie Team,” Dr. David Rigler, but he ended his care.
Genie’s mother sued the “Genie Team” for their exhaustive research. Genie lived with her mother for awhile, but eventually her mother could no longer support her. She moved from foster home to foster home. In one foster home, Genie was beaten for vomiting. She did not open her mouth for months afterwards. Genie is now in a home for retarded adults, with no contact with any of her former doctors.
Studying Genie was supposed to teach doctors about nature vs. nurture, the critical period of development, and language acquisition. However, the true lesson from her tragic case is that there is an ethical dilemma in studying people like Genie. Sometimes, Genie’s care came second to research (as her mother claimed); however, sometimes the research came second to caring for Genie (as the scientists at NIMH claimed). How much research is too much research? Is a case like Genie’s too important to go unstudied? Can psychologists both treat cases like Genie and conduct research?
For more information, here is an official “Genie Team” report (it’s long but details her linguistic development). I also recommend the PBS documentary Secret of the Wild Child which has video of Genie working with the research team. It’s interesting to see video of Genie because though she struggled with language and never learned grammar, she was very gifted at expressing herself non-verbally.