Genie: The Feral Child

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In October 1970, a blind woman accidentally entered into a Los Angeles County welfare office with a child in tow. 

The staff in the office immediately noticed the odd girl with the woman. She walked funny, was emaciated, drooling, didn’t make a sound, and when asked, the woman mentioned that the girl was 13. 

The staff thought she was seven. 

This began one of the saddest cases of child welfare in history, and one which fascinated researchers for years. 

Learn more about Genie, the feral child on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The case of Genie is one of the worst documented cases of child abuse in recorded history. 

Genie, which is not her real name. It was a pseudonym given to her to protect her identity, was born in 1957. 

Genie’s father was not a good guy. He was abusive to his wife to try to control her to prevent her from leaving the house. 

He had no interest in having children, although he had five of them. The first two children died. The first died 10 weeks after he was born from catching pneumonia after being kept in the garage. The second child may have died due to a genetic defect known as Rh incompatibility or possibly to choking on their own mucus. 

A third child, a boy, was born five years before Genie. He was raised in conditions similar to Genie where the father would beat him if he made any noise, but eventually, the boy’s grandmother took over his care. 

Up until the age of 20 months, she was raised and treated as a normal child. The one issue she has was a congenitally dislocated hip, which delayed her ability to walk.

It was at the point when Genie was 20 months old that her father’s mother died. They were described as having an abnormally close relationship. 

The family moved into the grandmother’s house and it was then when Genie’s father kept Genie confined to a bedroom. She wasn’t just confined to a room, however. She would spend the majority of every day chained to a child’s toilet, and the only thing she was allowed to wear was a homemade straightjacket.

Her room was almost totally dark, with the window only occasionally being left open to allow her to see the sky.

If Genie made the slightest sound, her father would come in and beat her. 

He prevented anyone from speaking to Genie or having any contact with her. 

He was extremely paranoid, not allowing anyone in the family out of the house, other than his son going to school. Likewise, no one ever came into the house, and none of his neighbors had a clue that they had another child. 

In all of this, Genie’s mother was also beaten by her father. She was also legally blind by this time, which left her unable to protect her children. 

In 1970, when Genie was 13 ½, her mother and father had a violent argument. When Genie’s father left the house one day, her mother took Genie and left to go to a government office to apply for disability benefits. 

However, she accidentally entered the wrong office, and instead entered the office for social services.

The staff there was shocked at what they saw. Genie could barely walk. She walked with a hop like a rabbit and held her hands out as if they were paws. She couldn’t speak. She could barely chew her own food. She just had a blank stare on her face, with no expression. 

The staff was stunned to find out she was 13. She was so malnourished and her growth so stunted, she looked to be 7. 

Genie was immediately taken into protective custody and sent to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. 

The case made international news. 

Genie’s father refused to talk to the police or the media, and the day before he was supposed to appear in court on child abuse charges, he killed himself. In a note he left behind he said, “The world will never understand.”

He was right about that. 

Genie was a feral child. 

A feral child is something that rarely occurs, and there have only been a few documented cases in history anywhere on Earth. 

A feral child is one that grows up with no socialization. They might have been abandoned or their parents died, or they escaped some trauma by fleeing into the woods. They would grow up without any spoken language, human contact, or understanding of how to co-exist with other people. 

The other cases of feral children were of children found in the wilderness. In Genie’s case, she was in the middle of a large urban area. 

Genie became a ward of the state, and at this point, she couldn’t control her bowels, speak, chew, show facial expressions, and knew nothing about behaving around other people. She weighed 59 pounds, and she would eat by letting food dissolve in the saliva in her mouth. Even though her eyes were fine, she couldn’t focus on anything more than 10 feet away, which was the size of the room she was kept in.

It was here after she was taken in as a ward of the state, where the story changes. 

Psychologists and linguists have theories as to how speech and the human brain develops. However, these theories are very difficult to test. You can’t really run controlled experiments, raising children in control groups that aren’t allowed to speak. 

However, in the case of Genie, they had an actual subject where they could try to learn how the human brain worked. There was also a team of people who worked on rehabilitating Genie.

She did know a few words, but probably no more than about six: her name, mother, orange, blue, go, and sorry. 

They had a very difficult time determining her mental age, but they figured she had a mental age of about 13 months. She was fascinated with objects more than people. She would try to find the sources of unexpected noises.

She would walk alongside strangers, and she didn’t seem to be able to differentiate one person from another. 

She didn’t enjoy being touched, and she would spit or blow her nose anywhere, or onto anything. She also showed absolutely no sensitivity to temperature. 

The initial signs were promising. Genie quickly learned to chew, dress herself, use the toilet, and enjoy music. 

When intelligence tests were administered, researchers found that Genie had intelligence. As one researcher said, “the lights were on”. She could communicate via pictures, and she could draw. 

She wasn’t disabled, she had just suffered extreme neglect for an extended period of time exactly when a human brain develops and learns how to speak and socialize. 

Genie was learning new words, but she seemed unable to develop any sort of ability to understand grammar. 

Here is the transcript of one of her sessions where she described her father:

Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry … Not spit. Father. Hit face—spit … Father hit big stick. Father angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Me cry.

Genie, however, scored incredibly high on tests that focused on the right side of her brain. She scored the highest score ever on some spatial awareness tests and the highest score in the medical literature on the Mooney Face Test. 

A working theory was that her right brain overcompensated due to the lack of development in her left brain which handles things like grammar and language. 

Eventually, Genie became the center of dispute amongst the researchers and caregivers. 

In 1974, the National Institute of Mental Health withdrew its funding due to the lack of scientific findings.

Researches began fighting over the ethics of studying her versus her own well-being. 

She was put in a foster home with one of the researchers, and eventually in 1975, she moved in with her mother, who has regained her sight after cataract surgery.

However, this was short-lived, and she eventually bounced between foster homes, where she was further abused and beaten by some of her foster families, which only made her regress. 

When she turned 18, her mother, who became her legal guardian again, forbade researchers from having any further contact with Genie. After that, she disappeared from the researchers and from the public eye. 

Little has been known of Genie since then. One of her researchers saw her during her 27th birthday party in 1984 and said she looked despondent and didn’t communicate. 

In 2000, a television news crew hired a private investigator who found her living in a state-run foster care facility for adults and said she was doing well and was happy. 

As of today, Genie is still alive at the age of 64 and living somewhere in Southern California. 

Her case has become famous in linguistic and psychology circles. Many papers have been written about her, she was the subject of several documentaries and the subject of countless debates of research ethics. 

If there is anything positive that can be taken from the case of Genie, one of the worst cases of child abuse and neglect in history, is that we have a slightly better understanding of how the human brain develops and how we learn languages. That being said, there is no excuse for what happened to Genie, and hopefully there will never be another case like hers again.