Genie Wiley, the Feral Child

Girl looking Down

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Genie Wiley (born April 1957) was a severely neglected and abused child who was discovered and taken into custody by authorities when she was 13 years old. While her circumstances until that point were undeniably tragic, they also presented an opportunity for psychologists, linguists, and other researchers to study psychosocial, emotional, and cognitive development in an individual who had suffered from severe social isolation and deprivation. In particular, the discovery of Genie presented an opportunity to study whether a child who was past the so-called "critical period" for language acquisition could learn to speak a first language.

Key Takeaways: Genie Wiley

  • Genie Wiley was abused and neglected for over a decade until she was discovered in 1970 when she was 13 years old.
  • Known as the feral child, Genie became an important subject of research. Of special interest was whether she could acquire language, as she was no longer within the "critical period" for language development.
  • Genie's case presented an ethical dilemma between prioritizing her care or prioritizing research on her development.

Early Life and Discovery

The case of Genie Wiley came to light on November 4, 1970. Genie was discovered by a social worker when her mother, who was partially blind, went to apply for social services. Genie had been isolated in a small room starting at the age of 20 months until her discovery at 13 years and 9 months old. She spent most of her time naked and tied to a potty chair where she was given limited use of her hands and feet. She was completely cut off from any kind of stimulation. The windows were curtained and the door was kept closed. She was only fed cereal and baby food and wasn’t spoken to. Although she lived with her father, mother, and brother, her father and brother would only bark or growl at her and her mother was only permitted very brief interactions. Genie’s father was intolerant of noise, so no TV or radio was played in the house. If Genie made any noise, she was physically beaten.

Portrait of Genie Wiley
Portrait of Genie Wiley. Bettmann / Getty Images

Upon her discovery, Genie was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles for evaluation. She was severely underdeveloped. She was thin and looked like a child of six or seven. She couldn’t stand up straight and could only walk with a hunched “bunny walk.” She was unable to chew, had trouble swallowing, and spat frequently. She was incontinent and mute. At first, the only words she recognized were her name and “sorry.” Testing shortly after she came to the hospital revealed that her social maturity and mental abilities were at the level of a one-year-old.

Genie didn’t walk at a normal age, so her father came to believe she was developmentally disabled. However, the researchers brought onto the case after Genie’s discovery found little evidence of this in her early history. It appeared she never suffered from brain damage, mental disability, or autism. Therefore, the impairments and developmental delays Genie exhibited upon being assessed were the result of the isolation and deprivation she was subjected to.

Both of Genie’s parents were charged with abuse, but Genie’s 70-year-old father committed suicide the day he was supposed to appear in court. The note he left said, “The world will never understand.”

The Rush to Research

Genie’s case drew media attention as well as great interest from the research community, which considered it a rare opportunity to discover whether it was possible for Genie to mentally develop after such severe deprivation. Researchers would never deliberately conduct deprivation experiments with people on moral grounds. So, Genie’s sad case was ripe for study. Genie was not the child’s real name, but the name given to the case in order to protect her privacy.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provided funding for research and a team was assembled whose goal was to rehabilitate and study Genie’s progress. Genie soon learned basic social skills like using the toilet and dressing herself. She was fascinated by her environment and would study it intensely. She especially enjoyed visiting places outside the hospital. She was talented at nonverbal communication, but her ability to use language did not proceed rapidly. As a result, psychologist David Rigler decided to focus the research on Genie's language acquisition.

Language Acquisition

The discovery of Genie coincided with a debate about language acquisition in the scholarly community. Linguist Noam Chomsky, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claimed humans are born with an innate ability to develop language. He believed language isn’t acquired because we learn it, but because it’s part of our genetic inheritance. Then, neuropsychologist Eric Lenneberg added a caveat to Chomsky’s ideas. Lenneberg agreed that humans are born with the ability to develop language, but suggested that if a language wasn’t acquired by puberty, it might never be. Lenneberg’s proposal was called the “critical period hypothesis.” Yet, there was no ability to test the theory until Genie came along.

Within the first seven months after her discovery, Genie learned many new words. She had even begun to speak but only in single words. By July 1971, Genie could put two words together and by November she could put together three. Despite signs of progress, Genie never learned to ask questions and she didn’t seem to understand the rules of grammar.

After beginning to speak in two-word phrases, normal children experience a language “explosion” a few weeks later in which speech develops quickly. Genie never experienced such an explosion. Her speech seemed to plateau at creating two to three-word strings, despite four years of additional work and research with her.

Genie demonstrated that it’s possible for an individual to learn some language after the critical period. Yet, her inability to learn grammar, which Chomsky believed was key to human language, indicated that passing the critical period was detrimental to the complete acquisition of a first language.

Arguments and Ethical Considerations

During Genie’s treatment, there were disputes amongst the members of her team. In the early days after her discovery, she entered her first foster home with her teacher Jean Butler. Butler claimed she felt that Genie was being subject to too many tests and attempted to make changes to Genie’s treatment. She wouldn’t allow the linguist Susan Curtiss or the psychologist James Kent into her house to see Genie. Other team members claimed Butler thought she could become famous through her work with Genie and didn’t want anyone else to get credit. Butler’s application to become Genie’s permanent foster parent was rejected about a month later.

Psychologist David Rigler and his wife Marilyn stepped in and fostered Genie for the next four years. They continued to work with her and let others continue their research throughout that time. However, Genie left the Riglers’ home after NIMH stopped funding the project due to problems with data collection.

Throughout the four years in which Genie was being tested and studied, there was debate about whether she could be a research subject and a rehabilitation patient at the same time. The ethics of the situation were murky.

In 1975, Genie’s mother regained custody after being acquitted of all charges of child abuse. Genie’s care quickly became too much for her to handle, though, so Genie began to bounce from foster home to foster home. She was once again subjected to abuse in those homes. Soon, she stopped talking and refused to open her mouth entirely.

Meanwhile, Genie’s mother filed a lawsuit against Genie’s team and the Children's Hospital alleging that the researchers prioritized testing Genie over her welfare. She contended that they pushed Genie to the point of exhaustion. The case was eventually settled but the debate continues. Some believe the researchers exploited Genie, and therefore, didn’t help her as much as they could have. However, the researchers say they treated Genie to the best of their ability.

Historian and psychologist Harlan Lane points out that “there's an ethical dilemma in this kind of research. If you want to do rigorous science, then Genie's interests are going to come second some of the time. If you only care about helping Genie, then you wouldn't do a lot of the scientific research. So, what are you going to do?”

Genie Today

Genie is believed to be alive and living in an adult foster home as a ward of the state of California. While the linguist who worked with Genie, Susan Curtiss, has attempted to get in touch with her, she’s been repeatedly rebuffed. However, she said that when she calls the authorities, they inform her that Genie is well. Yet, when journalist Russ Rymer saw Genie at her 27th birthday party, he painted a much bleaker picture. Similarly, psychiatrist Jay Shurley, who was at Genie’s 27th and 29th birthdays, claimed Genie was depressed and had withdrawn into herself.

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