EN 720: Psycholinguistics                                                                                                Book Overview

Carrie Fitzpatrick                                                                                                                  7/23/01


Book:     Curtiss, Susan. Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern Day Wild Child. New York: Academic Press, 1977.


   Overview:  This text, written as the author’s graduate thesis, discusses the case study of Genie, a child deprived and isolated from almost all social interaction and language development until adolescence. The case was referred to as “the forbidden experiment.”  The book synthesizes the linguistic research carried out through the author’s experiences in studying and working with Genie, and attempts to answer several questions: Is there a critical period for language acquisition? If so, what kind of language development is possible beyond the critical period? What happens to cerebral organization in general when one of the brain’s basic functions fails to develop?


Part I (Chapters 1-5)

This section provides a case history and background information on Genie’s personality and language behavior. Unlike most scientific writing, this section reads like a narrative, providing relevant background information and an account of the interaction between the author and Genie.


Background Information

Genie was born into a family where abuse was already common. Genie’s father repeatedly threatened to kill his wife, beating her regularly over the years. Despite the fact that her husband disliked kids, Genie’s mother gave birth to four children, but only Genie and one older brother survived. The father’s constant abuse made the entire family live in fear and isolation.

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Genie was born a normal child. She was first taken to a pediatrician at the age of 3 months and her weight was 12 pounds, 2 1/4 ounces, and her height was 23 inches, normal for her age. She was taken back to the pediatrician regularly for the first six months and appeared healthy. After her 6-month visitation, Genie wasn’t brought back to the pediatrician until she was 11 months old. At that visit, she weighed only 17 pounds and was below the 16th percentile for her age and sex. Despite that, Genie was described as alert with normal primary dentition for her age. At 14 months, she developed pneumonia and was taken to see a different pediatrician. She was feverish, listless and unresponsive. The physician stated that she showed signs of possible retardation, but because of the fever, it was difficult to assess her development. Genie’s father used this statement of “possible retardation” as justification for the subsequent isolation and abuse Genie suffered.

The living conditions for Genie were deplorable at best. She was confined to a small bedroom at the back of the house, usually harnessed to an infant’s potty seat. Unclad except for the harness, Genie was left to sit on that chair, unable to move anything except her fingers, hands, feet, and toes.  At night, if she was not forgotten, she was removed from her harness only to be placed into another restraining garment, a sleeping bag fashioned to act like a straight jacket. She was then placed in a bed with wire mesh sides and a wire mesh cover overhead. These were her primary experiences for 13 years.

Since the father had an intolerance for noise, there was no radio or TV and conversation was little and at a low volume. Genie heard little to no language outside her door, and did not receive practically any auditory stimulation, aside from bathroom noises. The only exception was that one window in her room was kept open several inches, so she may have heard some occasional environmental noises. Genie’s father did not allow anyone to speak to her.

Early on in her life, Genie learned to keep silent because her father would beat her whenever she made noise, or he would bark and growl like a dog to warn her that he was outside the door. Many wondered where Genie’s mother was at this time. Records indicate that her mother had become blind, so the father and brother were Genie’s primary caretakers.

Genie was fed three times a day, if she wasn’t being punished. Her diet consisted of baby foods, cereals, and an occasional soft-boiled egg. Genie lived this life until she turned 13 ½ when, after a severe fight with Genie’s father, Genie’s mother took Genie and left. They escaped to the grandmother’s home, where she and Genie stayed for three weeks. While Genie’s mother was applying for financial assistance, Genie was discovered and taken into custody. Charges were filed against the parents, but on the day of the trial, the father killed himself, leaving a note stating, “The world will never understand.”

Genie was admitted to a hospital for treatment. She was hardly human, salivating copiously, incontinent of feces and urine, unable to stand erect, unable to communicate with words, severely nearsighted, and weighing a mere 59 pounds at 54 inches tall. She was a strange, unsocialized, silent human being. The question was what lay beneath the surface?

Susan Curtiss was a graduate student of linguistics at the time Genie was discovered and was given the opportunity to work with Genie. Curtiss and several other doctors and professionals set out to rehabilitate and educate her to the fullest extent possible.


Part II (Chapters 6-11)

The second half of the book reviews the methods of data collection and discoveries concerning Genie’s linguistic development and language acquisition. The primary focus of the research was to discover if and/or what language could develop after the “critical period” since Genie wasn’t found until adolescence. The “critical period” was proposed by American neurolinguist Eric Lenneberg, claiming that there is a critical period for first language acquisition from two years up through early childhood.   


Testing & Language Acquisition

During Genie’s rehabilitation, several types of data were collected in a variety of ways: interviews with Genie’s mother, reports from the division of psychiatry at the children’s hospital, videotapes, tape recordings, observations of Genie’s speech, psychological testing, language tests, neurolinguistic tests, work with written language, and sign language.

                During the earliest observations, Genie was identified as having understood only a few single words and negative command intonation.  She appeared to zero in on single words and ignore the sentences in which they occurred, depending critically on gestures and other nonlinguistic cues to make sense of the speech directed at her. Genie was faced with learning her first language at the age of 13 years and 7 months.

From continued rehabilitation, observation and testing, findings were varied and difficult to interpret. Several doctors noted that in some ways her behavior was that of a 2 year old, in others like a 5 year old, and in still others like a 12-13 year old. This contradiction was further exacerbated by the on-going debate on whether Genie was born brain damaged or not. Studies of Genie’s brain showed extreme spindles that are characteristic of mental retardation, but psychological tests measuring mental age, indicated that every year after she had been found her mental age increased by one year, not characteristic of mental retardation.

Over the four years of the study, Genie was documented as having delayed responses, lazy behavior, haplologies, ritualistic speech, reliance on gestures, and limited sound production. In contrast, she appeared to be “tuning in” to language by paying attention to conversations around her, and she began to use language in new ways by being able to reflect about past events.     

Curtiss concluded that Genie appeared to be a right-hemisphere thinker, using the right hemisphere for language. Neurolinguistic research suggests that this nondominant hemisphere for language understands much more language than previously thought, but it understands language only outside the rigors of formal testing, and only when redundancies and extra linguistic cues remain available.

Genie’s language was abnormal in specific ways. For example, in Genie’s phonological system, the rules are optional, and many substitutions and deletions distort the phonological structure to a degree that at times makes Genie’s speech almost impossible to understand. However, her substitutions are not random and utilize classes of sounds. Vowels are not substituted for consonants and consonants are not substituted for vowels. In another example, Genie can, in effect, understand the meaning of everyday English sentences but she cannot understand most grammatical rules. She was not able to put words together in a normal, grammatical way. She might say something like, “Applesauce buy store,” rather than, “We need to buy applesauce at the store.”  

                According to Curtiss, Genie’s language resembles that of other cases of right hemisphere language as well as the language of those generally acquiring language outside the “critical period,” supporting Lenneberg’s “critical period” hypothesis and suggesting specific constraints and limitations on the nature of language acquisition outside of this maturational period. Genie is an “appositional” thinker, visually and tactilely oriented, better at holistic than sequential, analytic thinking.


Case Study Update from NOVA Transcript

                Curtiss left out important details in the book that raise several ethical questions surrounding the study of Genie. The studies and testing for Genie were funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and David Rigler, a scientist on Genie’s case, agreed to care for Genie, acting as a scientist, therapist, and foster parent to Genie for four years. Rigler found it difficult to juggle his many roles and did not accurately document the research project. After several warnings from the NIMH, funding was stopped for the Genie project, citing a failure to collect data in a scientifically meaningful way. In the year following the loss of the research grant, the Riglers ended their care for Genie. She currently lives in an adult foster care home in southern, California. It’s at least the sixth home she has lived in since the research project ended.

                This leaves us with several questions: Did the team go as far as it could go in treating Genie, or did the research get in the way? Was this case treated ethically? What could or should have been done differently? What can it teach us about the rewards and risks of conducting “a forbidden experiment?”