Genie (feral child)

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A black and white close-up photograph of Genie from the chest up, with her eyes focused slightly above and to the right of the camera and an expressionless, vacant, innocent look on her face.
The first publicly released picture of Genie, taken just after California authorities discovered her at the age of 13.
Born1957 (age 56–57)
Arcadia, California, United States
Known forVictim of severe abuse
Research subject in language acquisition
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A black and white close-up photograph of Genie from the chest up, with her eyes focused slightly above and to the right of the camera and an expressionless, vacant, innocent look on her face.
The first publicly released picture of Genie, taken just after California authorities discovered her at the age of 13.
Born1957 (age 56–57)
Arcadia, California, United States
Known forVictim of severe abuse
Research subject in language acquisition

Genie (born 1957) is the pseudonym of a feral child who was the victim of extraordinarily severe abuse, neglect and social isolation. Her circumstances are recorded prominently in the annals of abnormal child psychology.[1][2] Born in Arcadia, California, United States, Genie's father kept her locked alone in a room from the age of 20 months to 13 years, 7 months, almost always strapped to a child's toilet or bound in a crib with her arms and legs completely immobilized. During this time she was never exposed to any significant amount of speech, and as a result she did not acquire a first language during childhood. Her abuse came to the attention of Los Angeles child welfare authorities on November 4, 1970.[1][3][4]

In the first several years after Genie's life and circumstances came to light, psychologists, linguists and other scientists focused a great deal of attention on Genie's case, seeing in her near-total isolation an opportunity to study many aspects of human development. Upon finding that she had not yet learned a language, linguists saw Genie as potentially being an important way to gain further insight into the processes controlling language acquisition skills and linguistic development.[3][4] Extensive observation of their new-found human subject enabled them to publish multiple academic works testing theories and hypotheses identifying critical periods during which humans learn to understand and use language.[1][4] In addition, tests on Genie's brain found discrepancies far larger than any prior observations of people with fully intact brains, giving rise to many new hypotheses on brain lateralization and its effect on both language and other mental processes.[5][6][7]

After being found Genie was initially cared for at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and her subsequent placements eventually gave rise to rancorous debate. After approximately eight months at Children's Hospital she was moved to one foster home for a month and a half, which proved to be the first of several moves. Upon removal from this home she was then placed with the scientist who was heading the research team studying her, where she lived for approximately four years and where most of the testing and research on her was conducted. In mid-1975, soon after turning 18, she went back to live with her mother, who could not adequately care for her. After a few months she was then placed in the first of a series of at least six institutions for disabled adults, where she experienced further extreme physical and emotional abuse. Cut off from almost all of the people who had studied her, her newly acquired language and behavioral skills rapidly regressed.[1][4]

After early 1978 Genie's mother decided to forbid all of the scientists except for one from having contact with Genie, and all testing and observations of her ceased. Although psychologists and linguists have continued to write about Genie's case and development long after the time she was being studied, no scientific analysis of Genie after 1977 has occurred. The only post-1977 updates on Genie and her whereabouts are personal observations or secondary accounts of them, and all are spaced several years apart.[3][8][9] As of 2008, ABC News reported that Genie was living in California, "in psychological confinement as a ward of the state—her sixth foster home. And again, she is speechless."[3]

Genie's case has been extensively compared with that of Victor of Aveyron, an eighteenth-century French child who similarly became a classic case of late language acquisition and delayed development.[4][10][11]

Early history[edit]

Genie was the fourth and last child of parents living in Arcadia, California. Her father worked in a factory as a flight mechanic during World War II and got a job in the aviation industry after the war ended; her mother, originally from Oklahoma, had come to southern California as a teenager with family friends fleeing the Dust Bowl. Both of them came from highly unstable family backgrounds, and neither had any meaningful education.[12][13][14] During her early childhood Genie's mother suffered an accident in which she was struck in the head, causing neurological damage that caused her to begin having vision problems in one eye.[15][16] As a child Genie's father was not very close to his mother, who ran a brothel and had little involvement in his upbringing. While growing up he mostly lived in various orphanages, and harbored a great deal of resentment towards his mother; researchers believed this was the root of his anger problems later in life.[13][17][18] Upon his reaching adulthood she began to spend as much time with him as she could, possibly as compensation for her lack of involvement in his early life, but found him extremely strict and difficult to be around. According to Genie's mother and brother, they constantly argued about her unsuccessful efforts to convince him to adopt a less rigid lifestyle. Nevertheless, he continued to remain almost singularly fixated on his mother, always treating his marriage—and subsequently his relationships with his children—as ancillary at best.[13][19][17]

From the start, the family and friends of Genie's mother had strongly opposed their marriage because her husband was around twenty years older than her.[20] In the years immediately after getting married they seemed to be happy and living well to most who knew them, but others thought of Genie's father as something of a distant loner.[21][20] Genie's mother recalled that the constant presence of her mother-in-law was a continual source of frustration to her, as she felt it was interfering with their marriage, and she and her husband often argued about this with each other.[20] She began suffering increasingly frequent beatings at his hands, which progressively became more severe.[21][20] Their son later recalled that they constantly fought with each other.[14] After she married, her eyesight in both eyes started more rapidly deteriorating due to lingering effects from the pre-existing neurological damage, severe cataracts and a detached retina. Her diminishing vision forced her to become increasingly dependent on her husband.[15][16]

From the outset of their relationship, Genie's father made it very clear that he neither liked children nor wanted to have any. Still, after about five years of marriage he impregnated his wife. Genie's father continued to beat her throughout her pregnancy, and near the end apparently attempted to beat and strangle her to death. She was in the hospital recovering from this when she went into labor, but gave birth to a daughter who appeared to be healthy. When the girl's crying disturbed her father, he placed her in the garage; as a result, at 10 weeks old she died of pneumonia.[16][22] Their second child, born a year later, was a boy diagnosed with Rh incompatibility who died at two days of age, allegedly from both complications of Rh incompatibility and choking on his own mucus.[22][23] Another son was born three years later, once again with Rh incompatibility. His father forced his wife to keep their son quiet as much as possible, and as a result he was slow to develop and late to walk and to talk.[23][24] When he was four his mother went to a mental hospital due to her husband's treatment of her, causing his paternal grandmother to grow concerned about her son's increasing instability and her grandson's developmental delays. At that point, she decided to take over her grandson's care; he made good progress with her for several months before eventually being returned to his parents.[14][23][24] Genie was born four years after her brother, and it was around this time that her father began to isolate himself and his family from those around them.[25][26]

Genie's birth was a standard Caesarean section with no complications, and she was in the 50th percentile for weight.[27] The next day she showed signs of Rh incompatibility and required a blood transfusion, but was otherwise a healthy weight and size.[28] A medical appointment at three months showed that she was gaining weight normally, but found a congenital hip dislocation which required her to use a highly restrictive Frejka splint from the age of four and half to eleven months.[28][29] Due to the splint Genie was late to walk, and researchers believed this led Genie's father to start speculating that she was mentally retarded.[27] Because of this belief, he made it very clear that he did not like Genie. He made a concerted effort not to talk to or pay attention to her, and strongly discouraged his wife and son from doing so.[28][30] Genie's mother later recalled that Genie was not a cuddly baby, did not babble much, and resisted solid food, but at the age of six months she was reportedly in overall good condition and, "taking food well."[27][28] She further stated that at some point Genie began to say some individual words, but researchers questioned whether this was true because Genie's mother could not remember any specific details.[27][31]

At subsequent doctor's appointments, up until the age of 11 months, records indicate that Genie was alert and sitting up on her own but falling behind in weight gain; by the time she reached 11 months, she was down to the 11th percentile for weight. The people who later studied her interpreted this as a sign that she was starting to suffer some degree of malnutrition. After the splint was removed the doctor said Genie would need additional physical therapy, but her father refused to allow access to any further treatment.[28] When Genie was 14 months old, she came down with a fever and pneumonitis and was taken to a pediatrician. The doctor said that although her illness prevented a definitive diagnosis, there was a possibility that she was mentally retarded.[28][7][32] He also suggested that the brain dysfunction kernicterus might be present; Rh incompatibility is a significant risk factor for kernicterus, and severe cases can lead to serious brain damage.[33] Her father took this opinion to mean that Genie was severely retarded, using it as justification for isolating and abusing her.[28][7][34]

Six months later, when Genie was 20 months old, her paternal grandmother was killed when a pickup truck ran her over in a hit-and-run traffic accident.[26][17] Her death deeply affected Genie's father, beyond a normal level of grief. Because she had been walking with her grandson Genie's father viewed him as responsible, which heightened his anger.[26][13] When the truck's driver subsequently received only a probationary sentence for both manslaughter and drunk driving, he became nearly delusional with rage.[26][35][36] One of the scientists who later worked with Genie and her mother believed that these events made Genie's father feel as if the outside world had failed him. He therefore decided that he would need to protect his family from everybody else, and in doing so he lacked the self-awareness to recognize the destruction his own actions caused.[32][36][31]

Upon learning of the court's decision, he immediately quit his job and further increased the family's isolation. He still thought that Genie was severely retarded and would therefore need to be given additional protection, and believed the best way to provide this for her was to hide her existence entirely.[32][36] They moved into the two-bedroom house his mother had been living in, and Genie's father insisted on leaving his mother's bedroom completely untouched as a shrine to her. Genie was increasingly confined to the second bedroom, while the rest of the family slept downstairs in the living room.[13][26][37]


During the daytime, for approximately 13 hours a day Genie was tied to a child's toilet in a makeshift harness which, according to Genie's brother, their father forced his wife to make. The harness was designed to function like a straitjacket to prevent her from moving her arms or legs, and while in it Genie wore only diapers and could only move her extremities. [14][31] At night, usually around 7 PM, when her father remembered to move her she was put into a sleeping bag where she would be bound and placed in a crib with a metal-screen cover, her arms and legs immobilized. Researchers believed that at times she was simply left tied to the child's toilet overnight, although her mother disputed this.[38][31][39] Genie's mother said that at first she could take Genie out to the back yard and put her in a small playpen, but she reportedly angered her father because she frequently took the structure apart; although Genie's mother said she was allowed to stay with her daughter while in the yard, doctors who worked with Genie believed this was a sign that she was often left there by herself for extended periods of time. After a short period of time, Genie's father decided not to allow her outside her room at all.[26]

Researchers concluded that, if Genie vocalized or made any other noise, her father beat her with a large plank he kept in her room. To keep her quiet he would bare his teeth and bark and growl at her like a wild dog, sometimes making Genie's brother do this as well, and he grew his fingernails out to scratch her. If he suspected her of doing something he did not like he would make these noises outside the door to intimidate her, and beat her if he believed she had continued to do it.[7][40][41] The exact reason for his dog-like behavior was never definitively discerned, but at least one scientist speculated he may have viewed himself as a guard dog and was acting out the role.[42] This instilled an intense fear of cats and dogs in Genie that persisted long after she was freed.[43][44] Doctors also gave serious consideration to the possibility that Genie's father subjected her to sexual abuse or forced her brother into doing so, although they never uncovered any definite evidence of it.[45][46]

Apart from her father's beatings, Genie's only meaningful human interaction occurred during the few minutes when she was being fed.[27][47] Her father fed her as little as possible, and never gave her any solid food; instead, she was fed baby food, cereal, Pablum, an occasional soft-boiled egg, and liquids.[47][46] Either her father or, when coerced, her brother, spooned food into her mouth as quickly as possible. If she choked or could not swallow fast enough, it would be rubbed into her face. Although Genie's mother claimed Genie was fed three times a day, she also said that when hungry Genie sometimes risked a beating by making noise to get attention, leading researchers to believe Genie's father often refused to feed her.[13][47] The time that she was being fed were normally the only times Genie's father allowed his wife to be in the same room with Genie, but she could not feed Genie herself.[A][27][47] Later she told psychologists that, when possible, at around 11 PM she surreptitiously tried to give Genie additional food. This led to Genie developing an unusual sleep pattern, in which she slept from 7 to 11 PM, woke up for a few minutes, and fell back asleep for an additional 6 1/2 hours; the pattern continued for several months even after she was freed.[39] Once, when Genie was suffering from constipation, her father made to drink an entire bottle of castor oil. The ensuing effect on her health was so serious that Genie's father allowed a doctor to examine her, and she ultimately barely survived.[B][48]

Genie's father had an extremely low tolerance for noise, to the point of refusing to have a working television or radio in the house.[7][40] He almost never allowed Genie's mother or brother to speak, and viciously beat them if he heard them talking without permission; any conversations they had were therefore always very quiet and out of Genie's earshot. They were particularly forbidden to speak to or around Genie, preventing her from being exposed to any meaningful amount of language besides her father's occasional swearing.[3][40] Her father almost never permitted anyone else to leave the house, only allowing his son to go to and from school; to ensure complete isolation, even he had to prove his identity through various means before entering. To discourage disobedience, he frequently sat in the living room with a shotgun in his lap.[13][36][40] He did not allow anyone else in the house, and at night would frequently leave the outside lights on to help prevent anyone else from approaching the property; in case someone did come, he always kept his gun nearby.[C][36]

The only sensory stimulation Genie experienced from outside her home came by way of two windows, through which she could hear some traffic noises and see both the side of a neighboring house and a couple inches of sky, and could also occasionally hear birds and airplanes flying over the house.[50][51] At times she could hear a neighboring child practicing the piano, which researchers thought may have accounted for her later preference for classical piano music.[52][53] Even these stimuli were extremely limited, as the windows were almost entirely blacked out and the house was well away from the street and other houses.[21][27][50] The only visual stimuli in the room were the chair and crib, the carpet, two plastic rain jackets hanging on the wall which Genie could look at, and cracks in the otherwise patternless paint.[47][54] On rare occasions her father allowed her to play with plastic food containers, old spools of thread, TV Guides with many of the illustrations cut out, and the raincoats.[50]

Genie's mother was almost completely blind by this time, and was essentially passive by nature to begin with.[27][55][56] Her husband continued to beat her and threatened to kill her if she attempted to contact her parents, close friends who lived nearby, or the police.[D][47] He also forced Genie's brother into silence, giving him instructions on how to keep his father's actions secret and beating him with many of the same implements he used on Genie. As Genie's brother grew older, the beatings he endured increased in both frequency and severity.[13][14] He felt completely powerless to do anything to stop his father, as he knew his mother could not put up any resistance and feared severe retribution for attempting to intervene; on multiple occasions, he tried to run away from the house.[3][13][14] No one in the neighborhood knew of the abuse Genie's father inflicted on his family, or was aware that Genie's parents ever had a child besides their son.[21] Convinced that Genie would die by age 12, her father promised that, if she survived past that age, he would allow his wife to seek outside assistance. When Genie turned 12 he reneged on that promise, and Genie's mother took no action for another year and a half.[36][55]


In late October 1970, Genie's mother and father had a violent argument in which she threatened to leave if she could not call her parents. He eventually relented, and shortly thereafter Genie's mother was able to get herself and Genie away from her husband while he was away from the house; Genie's brother, by then 18, had already run away from home to live with friends. She and Genie went to live with her parents in Monterey Park.[13][21][55] Three weeks later, on November 4, Genie's mother brought Genie along while seeking disability benefits in nearby Temple City, California. On account of her near-blindness, she inadvertently entered the general social services office next door. The social worker who greeted them instantly sensed something was not right when she saw Genie; she was shocked to learn Genie's true age was 13, having estimated from her appearance and demeanor that she was around 6 or 7 and possibly autistic. She notified her supervisor, and after questioning Genie's mother and confirming Genie's age they immediately contacted the police.[13][55][57] Genie's parents were arrested and Genie became a ward of the court, whereupon a court order was immediately issued for Genie to be taken to Children's Hospital Los Angeles.[58] Her physical condition and near-total unsocialized state provided the immediate impetus for her admission, but authorities also noted her complete lack of speech at the time.[8][59]

Upon Genie's admission David Rigler, a therapist and USC psychology professor who was the chief psychologist at Children's Hospital, and Howard Hansen, then the head of the psychiatry division and an early expert on child abuse, took direct control of Genie's care.[60][61] The day after Genie's admission they assigned physician James Kent, another early advocate for child abuse awareness, to examine her. He later stated this examination revealed by far the most severe case of child abuse he would ever encounter, and came away extremely pessimistic about Genie's prognosis.[61] Rigler said the hospital could not procure Genie's developmental history, and largely had to rely on the police investigation to piece together Genie's childhood.[62][8] The officer who arrested Genie's parents questioned them with his partner, and found that Genie's mother would not speak about her family—and particularly not her children—and Genie's father never seemed to acknowledge anything said to him. Genie's brother cooperated with them, and gave detectives important information on his father's abuse.[13][21][63] In the house the family had been living in police discovered detailed notes Genie's father had written, chronicling his mistreatment of his family and his efforts to conceal it.[13][21] Even after the investigation, there were a large number of questions about Genie's childhood left unresolved; writing in mid-1993, Rigler stated that, "There were and there remain deep concerns about the exact nature of her abuse."[8]

News of Genie's rescue reached major media outlets on November 17, 1970, receiving a great deal of local and national media attention. That night, Walter Cronkite included a segment on Genie in the CBS Evening News. The Los Angeles Times ran two consecutive front-page stories on Genie, and continued to run prominent stories on her and her family for over a week.[4][64][65] Authorities only released one picture of Genie, and this picture significantly fueled public interest in her. Children's Hospital staff said large numbers of reporters began coming to the hospital hoping to see her, making it very difficult to maintain her anonymity as Hansen desired.[4][8][64] Acting at least partially on advice from his attorney, despite requests Genie's father refused to speak to the media. Genie's brother also made no public statements.[13][21][63]

After the story reached the media large crowds went to try to see Genie's father, which he reportedly found extremely difficult to handle.[21][66][65] On November 20, on the morning before a scheduled court appearance on charges of child abuse, Genie's father committed suicide by gunshot; his son was standing with a friend outside the house, with no knowledge of his father's intentions.[4][13][67] Upon arriving, police found two suicide notes from Genie's father. One, intended for his son, contained instructions for handling his body and a few of his possessions, and the other was directed at the police. One of the notes contained the declaration, "The world will never understand."[13][67] His suicide further heightened media interest in the other members of Genie's family.[68]

After the initial police investigation and the suicide of Genie's father, law enforcement and hospital staff exclusively focused on Genie and her mother.[E][13] Children's Hospital staff decided they wanted to keep Genie's mother involved in Genie's life because she was Genie's only association with her family and her past. Hansen was an acquaintance of attorney John Miner, who had recently stepped down as the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, and asked him to represent her in court. Miner, who knew about the case from the media and had already taken considerable interest in it, readily agreed to defend her.[69] She told the court that beatings at the hands of her husband and her near-total blindness had left her unable to intervene on behalf of her children.[70][71] Charges against her were subsequently dropped, and over the next several years she received counseling at Children's Hospital; Hansen was her therapist's direct supervisor.[4][70] The following year, with the consent of Genie's mother and her psychologists, Miner was named Genie's legal guardian.[72]

Characteristics and personality[edit]

A slightly grainy color picture of Genie in a plaid-patterned dress and thin sweater outside walking by herself in the Children's Hospital recreation yard, looking extremely pale, emaciated and expressionless. Her limbs are exposed and look extremely thin. Both her knees are very bent, and her arms are bent forward with both hands hanging down as she holds them out in front of her.
Genie in the Children's Hospital yard a few weeks after her admission, displaying her characteristic "bunny walk".

Genie was extremely pale and severely undersized and underweight for her age, standing 4 ft 6 in (1.37 m) and weighing only 59 pounds (27 kg), and upon admission to Children's Hospital had nearly two full sets of teeth in her mouth and a distended abdomen. A series of X-rays taken soon after her admission found she had moderate coxa valga in both hips and an undersized ribcage, and her bone age was determined to be that of an 11 year old.[27][73][74] Her gross motor skills were extremely weak; she could not stand up straight nor fully straighten her limbs. Kent was somewhat surprised to find her fine motor skills were significantly better, determining they were at approximately a two-year-old level; the day after being admitted to the hospital, he noticed she could use only her fingers to flip through pages of a magazine.[75][76][77] Because Genie never ate solid food as a child she was completely unable to chew and exhibited very severe dysphagia, unable to swallow any solid or even soft food and barely able to swallow liquids.[73][78] Because of this she would hold any food which she could not swallow in her mouth until her saliva broke it down, and if this took too long she would spit it out and mash it with her fingers.[46][79]

Despite tests which determined Genie had normal vision in both eyes she could not focus them on anything more than 10 feet (3 m) away, which corresponded to the dimensions of the room she was kept in. Her characteristic "bunny walk", in which she held her hands in front of her like claws, suggested an inability to integrate visual and tactile information; when Victor of Aveyron was first found, he had similar difficulties with sensory processing.[10][60][80] The restraining harness her father used had caused a thick callus and heavy black bruising on her buttocks, which took several weeks to heal.[81] She was also completely incontinent.[4][73][82] Like Victor of Aveyron, she gave no response whatsoever to extreme temperatures; even years later, when she bathed and showered by herself, she invariably used very cold water.[4][10][83] Doctors noticed her extreme fear of cats and dogs from the outset, but initially attributed it to an inability to think rationally; its actual origin, that her father had acted like a growling dog to intimidate her, was not discerned until years later.[45][84]

After moving into Children's Hospital Genie showed interest in many hospital staff members, often approaching complete strangers and walking with them; Kent said that, even at the very beginning of her stay, she made reasonably good eye contact with other people.[4][46] At first, she seemed more eager to interact with hospital staff than anyone else. When eating, she sometimes tried to give her food to the person next to her before grabbing for their food.[85] However, she showed no signs of attachment to anybody in particular, giving no discernible response to anyone coming or going. Kent said she did not seem to distinguish between people, and thought she was more interested in the room itself than the people in it with her.[85][86] At the beginning of her stay, her apathy towards others extended to her family. When her mother and brother came to visit her at the hospital for the first time, Kent and Genie were playing with some puppets she had taken a liking to. When they attempted to greet Genie Kent said she walked over to her mother and gave her a brief, expressionless look before turning back to Kent and resuming her play, in the process never acknowledging her brother.[4][85][87] At first, Genie would not allow anyone to touch her, quickly shying away from any physical contact.[F][73][88]

Doctors attempting to determine Genie's mental age found it extremely difficult to test her, but on two attempts they found Genie scored at the level of a 13 month old.[89] During his first sessions with Genie, Kent made the first attempts to discern her capacity for communication. He was immediately certain that she had memories of her past, but she could not express them. Genie demonstrated some nonverbal ability, but could only communicate a few very basic needs.[90][91][60] She did not make any facial expressions, and her movements usually contained no discernible body language. Because of this, it was often impossible for those around her to determine her emotions.[61][92]

Upon admission to the hospital, linguists later determined that Genie only showed understanding of about 15–20 words, all of which she responded to as if they had been spoken in isolation. Hospital staff concluded that her active vocabulary consisted of just two short phrases, "stop it" and "no more".[27][78][91] Except for negative commmands she showed no understanding of basic grammar, and without nonverbal information could not respond to very simple sentences.[27][91] Doctors found no evidence of any metabolic disorders or skull deformations, a neurologist could not find signs of neurological disorders, her chromosomes were normal, and a preliminary EEG had no indications of any mental disorder. After testing Genie and checking existing medical records, which also uncovered no clear mental disabilities, researchers determined she had not acquired a language and was not simply selectively mute.[27][93]

Although she almost never vocalized, Genie continually sniffed, blew her nose, salivated, spat and clawed, and appeared very interested in exploring environmental stimuli. She seemed especially curious about different sounds, and even when she was first admitted would search for the source of any noises that she heard; when Kent evaluated her, this was one of the very few positive signs he saw.[46][94][95] When upset she would wildly spit, blow her nose into her clothing, frequently urinate, and scratch and strike herself.[4][96][97] These tantrums were usually the only times Genie was at all demonstrative in her behavior. Even then her face stayed completely expressionless, and she never cried or vocalized. Some accounts said she could not cry at all. If she wanted to make noise, she would push chairs or other similar objects.[96][97] Her outbursts initially occurred very often and most of the time had no obvious trigger, and would continue until she either had her attention diverted or had completely physically tired herself out; at that point Genie would again become silent, and gave off no nonverbal signals.[98] Doctors knew her father's abuse had played some role in her silence during these tantrums, but did not find out until much later the extent to which he had forced her to repress outward expressions.[27][96][99] She also had no sense of personal property, frequently pointing to or simply taking something she wanted from someone else.[46] Nonetheless, hospital staff hoped to nurture her closer to normality.[4][100]

Preliminary assessment[edit]

Soon after Genie was found, Jay Shurley, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma and a specialist in extreme social isolation, took an interest in her case. In the year and a half after Genie was rescued, Shurley came on three three-day visits, and got permission to conduct daily observations of Genie and to carry out a sleep study; the first of these visits was in December 1970, and the others were in approximately six month intervals.[4][27][39] From his studies, he hoped to determine whether or not Genie was autistic. He also wanted to determine whether or not she was born mentally retarded, had sustained irreversible brain damage due to her severe malnutrition which left her retarded, or had merely been rendered functionally retarded by her isolation and abuse.[4][77][101] Shurley's daytime observations of Genie led him to believe she was not autistic, with which later researchers concurred. Although he and doctors at the hospital noted that her behavior indicated a high level of emotional disturbance, by the time he first began observing her she showed a great desire to find new sources of stimulation. He also wrote that she did not exhibit behavioral defense mechanisms characteristic of autism.[G][2][27][39]

For his sleep studies Shurley found Genie cooperative, and although he did not know the cause of her atypical sleep pattern had no significant difficulties gathering data.[H][39] When analyzing the data from his first test, he noted that Genie's almost total lack of language could potentially have impacted his results.[39] Shurley found no signs of brain damage, and ruled it out as a cause of her lack of speech.[27] Some aspects of her sleep were typical for someone her age, and others were initially highly irregular but had almost entirely normalized by Shurley's last session. Throughout his sessions, he also never found any sudden onset of irregularity in her sleep. However, he observed a few persistent abnormalities, including a significantly reduced amount (and much larger than average variance in duration) of REM sleep and an atypically high number of sleep spindles.[39]

In 1972 Shurley wrote that he could not definitely determine the cause of these abnormalities, and considered either functional or congenital retardation possible. Eventually, largely from the latter he concluded Genie had been retarded from birth, as significantly elevated numbers of sleep spindles are a phenomenon typically found in people born with severe retardation.[4][39][102] However, scientists following the case remained divided on this issue. Much later, for example, Susan Curtiss emphatically argued that, though Genie clearly had serious emotional difficulties, she could not have been retarded. Curtiss pointed out that for every calendar year after her rescue, Genie had made a year's developmental progress, which would not be expected if her condition was congenital. They instead believed that Genie was born with at least average intelligence, and that the years of abuse and isolation she endured had left her functionally retarded.[4][103]

Shurley also noted that Genie's was the most severe case of isolation he had ever studied or heard about—which he maintained more than 20 years later—and offered several suggestions about how to work with her.[60][104][105] David Rigler said that, despite their later disagreements, Shurley's recommendations were the only useful advice he ever received on handling Genie and he attempted to follow them as much as possible.[105][106] Shurley thought Genie would make an excellent case study on many fronts because of the unique circumstances of her childhood, and in the early part of his involvement assisted with the research.[79][107] Over subsequent years, from his home in Oklahoma City Shurley remained in contact with many of the people around Genie, and periodically traveled back to California to visit with Genie, her mother, and the other scientists.[11]

Hospital stay[edit]

After Genie's rescue, the doctors at Children's Hospital began attempting to rehabiliate her.[4][108] Their early psychological treatment was initially focused on treating her near-total social isolation, and focused on improving her ability to interact with other people.[78][91] The day after her admission, James Kent was assigned to be Genie's therapist; he thought a steady presence in Genie's life would help her learn to form relationships, so he accompanied her on walks and to all of her appointments.[4][109] When Kent first met with her he tried to discern her emotional and intellectual state, and at first observed no reactions from her, but when he took several objects out of a bag he found that she seemed afraid of a small puppet. When she threw it on the floor Kent looked at Genie, pretending to be very concerned, and said, "We have to get him back", and was startled when she repeated the word "back" and nervously laughed. As they played she repeated "back" several times, and when Kent said, "The puppet will fall" she repeated "fall". Playing with this and similar puppets quickly became her favorite activity, and during the early part of her stay was, apart from her tantrums, one of the few times she expressed any emotions.[27][109] Kent later said that, when he first started working with Genie, her imitation of his speech was one of the only observations which gave him any optimism about her long-term outcome.[110]

Within a few days of arriving at Children's Hospital Genie started learning to dress herself and began voluntarily using the toilet, although incontinence remained an ongoing problem for her even years later, tending to resurface when she felt under duress.[111] She also gradually became more responsive to other people talking, although doctors were unsure whether she was responding more to verbal or nonverbal stimuli.[27] After two weeks, Kent decided to take Genie to play in the yard outside the hospital's rehabilitation center, hoping to give her a sense of freedom. She quickly began growing and putting on weight, and although her walk remained very distinctive she steadily became more confident in her movements.[4][112] After four weeks, she had good hand–eye coordination and her ability to focus on objects with her eyes had noticeably improved.[27] In December Kent decided to move her to the hospital's rehabiliation center, as many more activities and opportunities to socialize were accessible there.[113] Around this time, Kent and the other hospital staff assigned to Genie began to see her as a potential case study, and David Rigler obtained a small grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to do preliminary studies on her.[112]

Genie quickly developed a sense of possession, hoarding objects to which she took a liking.[114] Colorful plastic objects quickly became her favorite things to collect and play with, which doctor speculated was due to the items her father had let her use as a child; she did not seem to care whether they were toys or ordinary containers, although she especially sought out beach pails.[4][55][54] When Genie started to have one of her emotional outbursts, regardless of what had caused it, hospital staff found that during the first few months of her stay they could simply give Genie one of these objects to bring her out of a tantrum.[115] Later during her stay, when Kent started taking her on trips outside the hospital, Genie's favorite places were stores with plastic toys.[116] If someone in a toy store looked interesting to her or was holding something she liked she would walk right up to and attach herself to who or what had caught her attention, requiring adult intervention to separate her.[4][116] By April, almost six months into her stay at Children's Hospital, Genie began to exhibit a sense of possession over items that she thought were hers but was not otherwise partial to; Kent recalled one incident where Genie was angry at another girl wearing a hospital dress Genie had worn, even though Genie had never, to that point, indicated that she cared at all about clothing.[117][118]

All of the doctors noticed how intensely she explored her surroundings, although she still seemed more intrigued by objects than other children. One of the hospital staff who spoke to Jay Shurley noted that, although Genie had been apathetic and, "ghost-like" upon admission, she quickly began seeking new sensory stimulation.[27][119] Doctors saw she enjoyed intentionally dropping or destroying small objects, and most of the hospital staff, especially Kent, tried using this to get her to outwardly express her anger.[120] As Genie did this more often she would tear up from laughing so hard, sometimes nearly falling over.[115] She also showed deep fascination with classical piano music played in front of her; Susan Curtiss said she acted like she was either in a trance or hallucinating when she heard something she enjoyed. If the song being played was anything other than classical music, she would walk up and change the sheet music to a book which she knew had pieces she liked.[121][53]

Approximately a month and a half after her admission, in January 1971, doctors administered a Gesell Developmental Evaluation and found her to be at the developmental level of a 1–3 year old.[27] At that time, Genie's receptive vocabulary had grown to contain some individual names, the verbs walk, go, and don't, and the word no. She started attempting to imitate some speech sounds, and although they were very infrequent doctors thought this was a positive sign.[115] Genie quickly developed remarkable nonverbal communication skills and soon learned to imitate people, make consistent eye contact, vocalize, and use gestures to express herself.[4][122]

Within two months of her rescue, Genie's demeanor and responsiveness to others had considerably changed. The scientists were concerned that she almost never interacted with other children—one psychiatrist wrote in May 1971 that she acted as if other children were, "no different from the walls and furniture in the room"—but after a month she started becoming sociable with familiar adults, first with Kent and soon with other familiar hospital staff.[4][53][123] She would sometimes work very hard to get people to stay with her, and expressed disappointment if she did not succeed. Not long afterwards she began showing happiness when familiar people came to visit, and Kent noticed that, for reasons none of the hospital staff ever determined, her greetings were far more energetic than her relatively mild unhappiness when people left.[124] She got along with both men and women, but they noticed she was afraid of men who wore khaki pants and showed a particular affinity for men with beards; they attributed the latter to her father having been clean-shaven.[123]

Genie started attempting to imitate some speech sounds, and although they were very infrequent doctors thought this was a positive sign. They also saw that she showed a great deal of intrigue when people around her were talking, and intently watched peoples' mouths as they spoke.[115] Her vocabulary began to expand, although at first it was fairly slow; in February 1971 psychologist Jack Block evaluated Genie on the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale with his wife, Jeanne, and placed her vocabulary below the level of a typical two-year old.[125] When Genie did talk, her speech was difficult to understand. She did not clearly articulate sounds, and truncated the pronunciation of many words.[126][127] In addition, her voice was very soft and completely monotonic. It was also extremely high-pitched, far above even the normal range of children who are first learning to speak—a trait which scientists had observed in earlier cases of feral children—and at first it was so high that it did not register on the instruments researchers attempted to use to acoustically analyze her speech.[127][128][129] As Genie had been forced to repress all vocalization from a very early age, doctors ascribed her abnormal voice quality to severe atrophy of the muscles used to produce speech.[126][130]

Genie gradually began to express more of her emotions outwards, and her nonverbal communication skills quickly became exceptional; everyone who met her said she had an indescribable way of capturing and eliciting emotions, and she seemed able to communicate her desires to people without talking. When Curtiss and Kent went to toy stores with Genie, they frequently observed that complete strangers would buy something for her because they sensed she wanted it, and both of them were amazed that these gifts were always the types of objects Genie most enjoyed.[4][131] They especially remembered one man in a butcher shop who connected with Genie without ever saying anything to her; when the man stopped working there, the people with Genie were disappointed and saw that Genie expressed similar feelings.[4][132]

Genie's vocabulary steadily increased, and by four months into her stay at the hospital had expanded to over 100 words. In addition to her vocabulary Genie had also learned a few ritual words to request things and for different functions, such as "Getit" and "Turnon" (both of which she treated as a single word), although she usually needed encouragement to use them. After another month she began spontaneously producing one-word answers, and learned to spontaneously say the word "open".[27][127][133] Soon after she produced her first one-word utterances, she appeared to understand some give-and-take of conversation and could spontaneously provide one-word responses to people. Later during her stay she also used language, as well as other behavior, to get people to do things for her.[134] The words she used indicated a fairly advanced ability to mentally categorize objects and situations, showing that she had undergone some mental development during her childhood.[135] Her acquisition to this point was far more rapid than what the hospital's doctors had anticipated, heightening their expectations of her potential for learning language.[4][136][137]

After charges were dropped against Genie's mother, she began visiting the hospital twice a week. As Genie got better at forming relationships with the hospital staff she grew more comfortable with her mother, and her mother also grew better at interacting with Genie and responding to situations with her as they arose.[138][124] After a few months, doctors saw Genie begin to exude happiness when she knew her mother was coming.[8][138] Although Genie never displayed any emotion when separated from her mother or as her mother left, Kent observed that as her mother kept visiting Genie would have a tantrum after her second visit in the week and never after the first. At first they thought Genie may have been angry at her mother because she served as a reminder of her past, but in a 1972 paper Kent said they had begun to consider the possibility that Genie harbored feelings of abandonment because she knew that her mother was leaving and would not see her again until the following week.[124] At around the same time she started engaging in physical play with adults, eventually beginning to enjoy giving and receiving hugs.[139]

By April and May 1971, Genie's scores on the Leiter International Performance Scale tests had dramatically increased.[126][140] Overall her mental age was at the level of a typical 4 year 9 month old, but on individual components she showed a very high level of scatter.[I][140][141] Around that time, when a minor earthquake struck Los Angeles, she ran frightened into the kitchen and rapidly verbalized to some cooks she had befriended; this was the first time she sought out comfort from another person and the first time she was so profusely verbal.[4][53][142] However, she still had a hard time with large crowds of people, even after months at the hospital; at her birthday party, she became so anxious at all the guests present that she had to go outside to calm down.[138]

Genie continued to exhibit frustration and have tantrums, but the causes became more obvious. Whereas early on doctors could not discern anything which set her off, her later outbursts were in response to situations which would have stirred up similar emotions in most young children. Kent recalled her being very disappointed when she could not go on outings due to a doctor's appointment, and unlike past times where doctors quickly cheered her up by giving her one of her favorite objects she continued to sulk the whole morning.[124] In April 1971 she began to direct some of her anger outwards, but she did not entirely stop harming herself.[139]

Brain testing[edit]

Refer to caption
The Salk Institute, where researchers analyzed the data from the first of several brain exams on Genie.

Beginning in January 1971, scientists conducted a series of neurolinguistic tests on Genie. In early March of that year, neuroscientists Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima came from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies to administer their own series of brain exams, making Genie the first language-deprived child to undergo any detailed study of her brain.[27][126][143] Doctors already suspected Genie was extremely right-hemisphere dominant, but Bellugi and Klima's tests went even further and showed asymmetry at a level which had previously only been documented in patients with either split-brain or who had undergone a hemispherectomy. Multiple tests confirmed Genie was right-handed, and her brain was completely physically intact, but her left hemisphere appeared to have undergone no specialization whatsoever.[143][144][145]

In approximately 95% of right-handed people the left ear, which is more strongly connected to the right hemisphere, better processes environmental and musical sounds, while the right ear is better at picking up language.[126] This preference is usually very subtle, and differences between ears is usually very slight. Genie underwent audiometry tests which confirmed that she had regular hearing in both ears, but on dichotic listening tests researchers found that she identified language sounds with 100% accuracy in her left ear while correctly answering at only a chance level when tested on her right ear.[126][145][143] When given monaural tests she answered with 100% accuracy in both ears, which was normal. On non-language dichotic listening tests she showed a slight preference for her left ear, which was typical of a right-handed person and helped rule out the possibility of her brain's hemispheres only being reversed in dominance.[27][145][146]

Based on the results of these tests, Bellugi and Klima believed that Genie had been developing as a normal right-handed person until the time her father began isolating her.[27] They attributed the imbalance between Genie's left and right hemispheres to the fact that Genie's sensory input as a child was almost exclusively visual and tactile, functions which are predominantly controlled in the right hemisphere. Although this input had been extremely minimal, it was sufficient to cause the lateralization of these functions. They therefore believed that because Genie had no linguistic input to stimulate lateralization in the left hemisphere, her language functions never lateralized to her left hemisphere.[27][7] Since Genie was able to distinguish speech sounds with her right hemisphere, they thought that Genie's language had lateralized there instead.[147]

During their testing Bellugi and Klima also noted that Genie seemed to know far more words than she would spontaneously say, but since she was so responsive to nonverbal stimuli they could not tell what she used to respond to other peoples' speech.[126] They recommended using tests and games to establish her level of comprehension, as these would more accurately pinpoint her linguistic abilities than would observations of her language in everyday interactions. To get the best results, they especially emphasized that non-language cues such as tone of voice and facial expressions had to be entirely eliminated.[126][5] The scientists who went on to examine Genie's language acquisition designed their tests with Bellugi and Klima's advice in mind.[5]

Interest as a case study[edit]

A print of Victor of Aveyron as a teenager from the chest up, with his body facing forward and his face slightly turned to the left.
Victor of Aveyron c. 1800

At the time Genie was discovered, hypotheses proposed by Noam Chomsky and Eric Lenneberg about the innateness and acquisition of language were being widely discussed in both lay and academic circles.[4][148] In the 1950s Chomsky had argued that language was what separated humans from all other animals, and that the ability to learn language was innate to humans. In 1964, Lenneberg proposed that humans have a critical period for language acquisition, defining the end of this period as the onset of puberty. After this time, if a person had not acquired language, they would be incapable of doing so. Despite interest in these hypotheses, there had been no way to test them. Though ancient and medieval texts made several references to language deprivation experiments, modern researchers labeled such ideas "The Forbidden Experiment", impossible to carry out for ethical reasons.[126][149][150] Coincidentally, the François Truffaut film The Wild Child also premiered in the United States only a week after Genie's rescue. The movie, chronicling the life of Victor of Aveyron and the efforts of deaf-mute instructor and then-aspiring medical student Jean Marc Gaspard Itard to teach him language and integrate him into society, heightened public interest in cases of children subjected to extreme abuse or isolation.[4][151][150]

Prompted by this coincidence of timing, a team of Children's Hospital scientists led by David Rigler sought and obtained a three-year grant from the NIMH to study Genie in May 1971. At Butler's suggestion, they screened The Wild Child during their first meeting as an inspiration for ideas; the scientists later said this had a profound impact because they immediately saw the parallels with Genie.[4][152][153] The primary focus of their research was to test Lenneberg's theory that humans have a critical period for language acquisition, and UCLA linguistics professor Victoria Fromkin would head the linguistic evaluation.[4][154][128] The research team also planned to continue periodic evaluations of Genie's psychological development in various aspects of her life.[J][156][128] During the meetings there was unanimous agreement that Genie could not indefinitely live at Children's Hospital, and the hospital authorities began to search for a foster home capable of providing the level of care she required.[8][157] From the time she had been admitted to Children's Hospital researchers had tried to keep her identity concealed, and it was around the time of the grant proposal that they adopted the pseudonym Genie for her. The name referenced parallels researchers saw between Genie's sudden emergence into society from captivity past childhood and a genie's sudden emergence from a bottle without having a human childhood.[4][158][60]

At around the same time, Susan Curtiss began her work on Genie's case as a graduate student in linguistics under Victoria Fromkin; over the coming years, Curtiss would be one of the most influential figures in Genie's life. Curtiss already knew of Genie from news reports, and gladly accepted the opportunity to work with her.[4][159] Together with Fromkin, she tested Genie and tracked her language acquisition, writing numerous papers covering various aspects of Genie's progress.[160][161] For the remainder of Genie's stay at Children's Hospital, Curtiss met with Genie almost every day. When Curtiss first saw Genie she found Genie's behavior bizarre and antisocial, and wrote that she looked extremely dirty and unkempt. Despite this, Curtiss thought Genie somehow still looked very pretty and remembered being immediately drawn to her.[162][163] Very soon after meeting Genie, Curtiss quickly recognized her powerful nonverbal communication abilities.[4] She began observing Genie's speech from the start, and used hospital films and transcripts to piece together her early progress, but quickly realized that Genie's language was not yet at a usefully testable level. Therefore, Curtiss decided to focus more on getting to know Genie and gaining her friendship.[164] For the remaining time that Genie was at Children's Hospital Curtiss began to go along with Genie and Kent on trips into town, and she and Genie very quickly bonded with each other.[4][165][164]

At the same time Susan Curtiss began her work, doctors reevaluated Genie on the Leiter scale and measured on a Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scale; these both put her mental age between a 5 and 8 year old.[27] Child psychologist David Elkind, who was involved in the research team's meetings, evaluated Genie and reported she understood object permanence. Elkind also noticed that after Genie heard a dog she later attempted to mimic its barking, the first time she tried to reenact something after it happened; he and the hospital psychologists saw both events as major cognitive gains.[166] Later that month, when Genie was with Jean Butler, Butler asked a boy holding two balloons how many balloons he had; when the boy said "three", Butler said Genie appeared startled and quickly gave him another balloon. This was seen as a significant step, as it demonstrated that she was listening to other people, she understood significantly more language than she produced, and that she could count to at least some degree.[K][4][141]

In mid-June 1971, when Susan Curtiss started going on trips with Kent and Genie, she noticed Genie often approached the front doors of random houses; Curtiss said Genie seemed to hope someone would see her and invite her in.[168] David Elkind took her on a walk through Griffith Park and said she was fascinated by everything around her, and like Curtiss and Kent noted how intently she explored her surroundings. Her physical health continued to improve, and Curtiss remembered that Genie would tire everyone else out on her walks. On these trips outside the hospital, Curtiss would deliberately act silly to help Genie release some of her pent-up tension.[113][169] Her doctors, at that time, predicted a completely successful rehabilitation could be possible.[4][126]

First foster home[edit]

Genie's teacher at Children's Hospital, Jean Butler, became very close to her; Jay Shurley especially praised Butler's work with Genie. In June 1971, Butler obtained permission to take Genie on day trips to her home in Country Club Park, Los Angeles.[170] After one of these trips near the end of that month, Butler told the hospital that she (Butler) might have contracted rubella, to which Genie would have been exposed.[4][170][171] Although the scientists and hospital staff had been looking to place Genie in a foster home for months, they were reluctant to give foster custody to Butler and were very skeptical of her story, strongly suspecting she had concocted it as part of a bid to take over as Genie's primary caretaker. Nonetheless, Genie was temporarily quarantined in Butler's home as an alternative to placing her in isolation at the hospital.[4][171][172] Butler, who was unmarried and living alone at the time and childless, subsequently petitioned for foster custody of Genie, and despite the hospital's objections the stay was extended while authorities considered the matter.[45][173][171]

Butler's observations[edit]

During Genie's stay in her home, Butler continued observing, writing about, and filming Genie. Butler's journal and films are the only data available on Genie's speech and the primary source of information on her behavior during this time, as the scientists' writings on Genie contain almost nothing from this period.[4][174] One behavior Butler documented was Genie's hoarding, first observed at Children's Hospital; in particular, Genie collected and kept dozens of containers of liquid in her room. The scientists did not know what caused her to do this, although it is a common trait of children from abusive homes.[4] On several occasions Butler went to the beach with Genie, who seemed fascinated with the water and waded in up to her ankles.[4][84] Butler worked on Genie's ongoing incontinence problems, which gradually eased and almost entirely went away by the end of her stay.[48] Although Butler could not discern the reason for Genie's intense fear of cats and dogs, after witnessing it firsthand Butler tried to help her overcome it by watching episodes of the television series Lassie with her and giving her a battery-powered toy dog. Butler wrote that Genie could eventually tolerate fenced dogs, though there was no progress with cats.[4][175]

Butler, the scientists, and the NIMH evaluating committee all noted a marked improvement in Genie's demeanor during her stay with Butler, agreeing that she seemed more relaxed. Butler claimed that she had made additional progress with Genie's behavior; she wrote that she had gotten Genie to stop attacking herself when angry, instead getting her to express anger through words or by hitting objects. She also said that Genie had become noticeably more talkative, and that her vocabulary and grammar had undergone substantial growth; in early August she wrote that Genie's utterances were significantly longer, and demonstrated continued grammar acquisition.[176] Both she and the scientists also noticed that soon after moving in Genie started showing the first signs of reaching puberty. This both marked a dramatic improvement in her overall health and definitively put her past Lenneberg's proposed critical period for language acquisition. David Rigler, however, noted that the onset of menstruation complicated efforts to deal with her incontinence.[8][126][177]


While Genie was living with her, Butler allowed Genie's mother, who had regained much of her eyesight through corrective cataract surgery her therapists arranged for her, to come on weekly visits.[171][178] After having her eyesight restored Genie's mother reportedly changed her opinion of John Miner, her therapists, and several of the scientists. When she saw Genie for the first time she was shocked and concerned at how thin Genie was. Genie's mother got along very well with Butler, and her relationship with Genie continued to improve.[178]

However, Butler began to strenuously resist visits from the researchers, whom she felt overtaxed Genie and to whom she began disparagingly referring in her journal as the "Genie Team", a name which stuck.[4][171][179] Butler particularly seemed to dislike James Kent and Susan Curtiss. She felt Kent was too permissive towards Genie's behavior, accusing him of refusing to intervene when Genie engaged in socially inappropriate behavior; at times Butler said he actively encouraged Genie in some of her habits, which he emphatically denied. Butler also thought Curtiss had insufficient experience working with children and was overzealous in her efforts to elicit speech from Genie, writing that when Curtiss visited Genie would not speak at all.[180] During the latter part of Genie's stay at Butler's house, Butler prevented both of them from visiting.[171][181] She frequently argued with researchers about Genie's handling, especially with Rigler, although he maintained that these disputes were never as heated or personalized as Butler portrayed them.[4][182]

The scientists on the research team found Butler extremely difficult to work with, and thought she was interfering with their efforts to give Genie the level of support they felt she required.[4][183] At least some of them believed that Butler was insufficiently capable of providing the standard of care they sought for Genie. Even those who thought Butler did a good job working with Genie found her lack of willingness to work with the research team aggravating, and criticized her for negatively affecting the case study. The scientists strongly contested Butler's claims of pushing Genie too hard, contending that she enjoyed the tests and was allowed to take breaks at will.[4][8][184] They viewed Butler as personally troubled, noting her longstanding and widely known reputation for combativeness among coworkers and superiors.[172] Several of the scientists, especially Curtiss and Howard Hansen, recalled Butler openly stating that she hoped Genie would make her famous; Curtiss remembered Butler repeatedly proclaiming her intent to be, "the next Anne Sullivan".[4][185] While Genie was living with her she was being compensated by the grant money, and to Rigler's consternation she sought to increase this amount as a part of her bid for foster custody.[186] She also demanded several times to be credited in the scientists' research publications; although Rigler initially acquiesced on this, the scientists eventually decided against it.[4][187]

During Genie's stay Butler had the man she was dating—who was himself a former professor at the University of Southern California and a well-known, respected psychologist—move in with her, as she believed authorities would view her pending foster application more favorably if she offered a two-parent home. Butler wrote he and Genie got along very well, which Shurley later corroborated, and he sometimes attempted to mediate disputes between Butler and the scientists. According to Shurley, he was also very intent on gaining foster custody of Genie.[188] Butler received positive evaluations from both the agency's case handler and the NIMH's evaluating committee, and some of the scientists on the research team believed that Butler would likely be made Genie's foster parent. However, the case handler's superiors were very divided over the adequacy of Butler's home.[189]

In mid-August, California authorities informed Butler they had rejected her application for foster custody.[4][174] The extent, if any, to which Children's Hospital influenced the decision is unclear. Rigler maintained several times that despite the scientists' objections neither the hospital nor any of its staff had intervened, and said the decision surprised him.[8][186] A few days before the decision came down he had written a letter to Butler—copies of which he sent to Kent, Howard Hansen, and the agency's case handler—in which he said that, despite his frustration due to her lack of cooperation with the scientists and her attempts to increase the amount of grant money she received as Genie's caretaker, he thought her home was suitable and her application would likely be accepted.[190] The Nova documentary on Genie, however, states the rejection of Butler came partially on the hospital's recommendation; there is evidence many hospital authorities, including Hansen, felt Butler's ability to care for Genie was inadequate, and hospital policy forbade its staff members from becoming foster parents of its patients. Butler herself believed the hospital had opposed her application so Genie could be moved somewhere more conducive to research, and wrote that Genie, upon being told of the decision, was extremely upset and had said, "No, no, no."[4][8][191] She remained extremely bitter over the decision, and over the next 15 years she made repeated attacks on the scientists working with Genie in numerous forums.[8]

Second foster home[edit]

Despite Genie's behavioral progress with Butler, when she left she was not prepared for a normal family lifestyle. Throughout the summer of 1971, despite the scientists' agreement that they needed to locate a foster home for Genie they had not found anyone else able to take her.[8][192] In early August Hansen suggested to Rigler that he take custody of Genie if authorities rejected Butler, and although he initially balked at the idea decided to talk it over with his wife, Marilyn; Marilyn had graduate training as a social worker and had just completed a graduate degree in human development, and had previously worked in both nursery schools and Head Start Programs. They had three adolescent children of their own, and ultimately decided that, if no one else would, they were willing to temporarily care for Genie until a new foster home became available.[8][192] All of the scientists knew how unusual it would be to make David Rigler Genie's foster parent while still one of her therapists and the head of the research team, but they thought the Riglers' home offered the type of environment they wanted for her.[4][8][192] Jay Shurley said the Riglers also thought their experience with raising three children would give them an advantage over Butler.[193]

After Genie was removed from Jean Butler's house, she was returned to Children's Hospital. The authorities and the research team intensified their search for a new foster home, but remained unable to find one capable of caring for Genie.[4][8][192] The Riglers then decided to take control of Genie's care, and despite the hospital's policy, they, John Miner, and the state consented to making them temporary foster parents. On the same day she went back to the hospital, she was transferred to the Riglers' home in Los Feliz. They initially intended the arrangement to last for a maximum of three months, but Genie ultimately stayed with them for four years.[4][192][194] Shortly after she moved in one of the Riglers' children went away to college, enabling her to have her own room and bathroom in the house.[8][45]

While living with the Riglers Marilyn became Genie's new teacher and Susan Curtiss was allowed to visit almost every day, both to conduct her tests and to go on outings with Genie. The rest of the research team was given far more access to Genie as well, and throughout her stay they planned and carried out a wide array of tests.[4][195][196] In addition to being a foster parent and the lead scientist on the research team David Rigler also decided to make himself Genie's primary therapist, taking over this role from James Kent.[4][195] Much of Genie's development during this time was either tracked in notes or captured on film, and David Rigler said she eventually learned how to operate the cameras herself.[4][21][197]

Behavioral progress[edit]

Upon moving in with the Riglers Genie's incontinence resurfaced, which took months to gain control of. The scientists noticed that Genie's speech was much more halting and hesitant than Butler had described. Genie very rarely spoke and, for the first three months of her stay, when she did it was almost always in one-word utterances. They also did not witness her using several of the pieces of grammar which Butler claimed Genie had begun incorporating into her speech.[198] Both in their house and in public she continued to have a very difficult time controlling herself, frequently engaging in highly anti-social behavior which demonstrated a total lack of situational awareness.[199][200] The Riglers also saw that she was extremely afraid of both cats and dogs, regardless of how she encountered them. They had both a cat and a puppy, and when Genie first moved in she was terrified of both animals.[201] Furthermore, unless she saw something which frightened her, both her speech and behavior exhibited a great deal of latency. Most of the time, her responses were several minutes delayed.[198][201] The Riglers also found Genie frequently took things which belonged to their children and could be very destructive, requiring full-time supervision. She was captivated by books and magazines, especially National Geographic issues—of which the Riglers had a very large collection—and David Rigler especially found it disconcerting that she did not hesitate to tear out a page or a picture she liked.[8][202][203]

A black and white screenshot of Genie enthusiastically smiling. The picture shows her from the chest up, taken while Genie is facing slightly to the right of the camera.
Genie shortly after moving in with the Riglers, during a session working with Marilyn Rigler.

Besides dealing with these problems, Marilyn also found the need to teach Genie unconventional lessons. Genie continued to have frequent tantrums, and despite what Butler had said about stopping Genie's self-harming Marilyn observed Genie still acted out her anger on herself. Certain situations in particular, such as spilling liquids, set Genie off, which doctors attributed to having been beaten for these actions as a child.[204][4][205] To counter this, Marilyn first taught Genie to direct her frustrations outward by jumping, slamming doors, hitting objects, stomping her feet, and generally "having a fit."[4][206] Marilyn soon noticed Genie wanted to be complimented on her appearance, and to further discourage her from attacking herself Marilyn began painting Genie's fingernails and telling her she did not look good when she scratched and cut her face, a tactic which proved very effective.[206] When situations came up which especially upset Genie, Marilyn would also try to explain that simple mistakes were not a problem and to calm down when they happened.[207]

As Marilyn worked with Genie, she began to gain more control over her responses. In early 1972, after having a tantrum for inadvertently spilling a cup of water, when the same situation arose around a week later she kept her emotions under control for the first time.[207] Later, when Marilyn could see Genie getting upset, Marilyn would say to her, "You are upset. You are having a rough time." Genie gradually began verbally communicating her frustration by responding, "rough time" when Marilyn said this, eventually only needing to hear, "You are upset" before saying, "rough time".[L][4][206] Eventually, Genie could indicate her level of anger; depending on whether she was very angry or merely frustrated, she either vigorously shook one finger or loosely waved her hand.[4][206]

Marilyn also saw that Genie still had a great deal of difficulty with chewing, and over the first four months of her stay worked with her by giving her progressively tougher foods and physically raising and lowering her jaw. After noticing Genie's complete indifference to temperature, Marilyn worked to help Genie become more attuned to her body's sensations.[4][205] In late 1973 she began to show some degree of sensitivity to temperature for the first time, although it was still much less than normal.[208] The scientists still did not know the reason for Genie's continued fear of cats and dogs, but both David and Marilyn worked to reduce it, using their puppy to gradually acclimate her over the first several days after she moved in.[209] She eventually grew comfortable with the Riglers' cat and dog, and learned to walk the dog and feed it by herself, but remained extremely afraid of unfamiliar cats and dogs.[45][209]

After a few months, as Genie grew more settled into living with the Riglers, her incontinence mostly disappeared and her demeanor improved.[4][210] Although Genie was very lazy in both Curtiss' and the Riglers' estimation, which sometimes masked the extent of her progress, she quickly made many noticeable gains.[M][211] Although she never developed fully normal social skills, she became somewhat more sociable in her interactions with the members of her foster family and other people. Her responses to most stimuli became more rapid, but even by the end of her stay she sometimes took a few minutes before acknowledging something or someone.[212] She also became somewhat more responsive to what other people said, regardless of whether it was a question, statement, or an attempt to call her, although she still frequently did not show any obvious signs that she had heard the other person.[213]

Gradually, Genie began to outwardly exhibit more of her emotions, both positive and negative. A major breakthrough Curtiss observed was when, upon going to the Riglers' house one morning, she found Genie in tears because she was feeling sick and had just found out she needed to see a doctor.[210] Over the course of several more months, her behavior improved to the point that she started going to first a nursery school and then a public school for mentally retarded children. David Rigler wrote that eventually she rode the school bus with other people her age, and attended social functions at her school.[4][8][214] Although it was very difficult for Genie to manage some of her urges, by the end of her stay she had made substantial progress with controlling herself in public.[215]

In February 1973 Genie gave Curtiss some rings she had gotten, which was the first time Genie ever gave or shared something with Curtiss. Around the same time, David Rigler and Curtiss both remembered Genie developing a crush on her bus driver, which scientists saw as a sign she was maturing.[8][216] By May 1975 she began initiating games with other people for the first time, and at least once she started a role-playing game with Curtiss in which she had to speak.[207][126] Genie also learned how to do some simple work around the house, such as ironing and operating a sewing machine. By the end of her stay, she had learned to make simple meals for herself. To teach her how to use money and to encourage her participation in these activities the Riglers began to pay her for doing chores, and to help her improve her ability to count they usually gave her pennies which she had to sequentially count before receiving.[217][218][219]

Continued brain exams[edit]

The findings of Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima had raised a large number of questions about how Genie's brain would process and acquire language. Some right-hemisphere language acquisition had previously been observed in split-brain and hemispherectomy patients, and the scientists monitored her acquisition compared to them. They also wanted to observe her brain's development as she was exposed to more verbal and nonverbal stimuli, as they wanted to see whether Genie would remain so extremely right-hemisphere dominant and, if she did, determine what parts of her brain she was using for language acquisition.[145][220] They speculated it could be possible that as Genie acquired more language she would start to use her left hemisphere, either for all the tasks the left hemisphere typically performs or exclusively for language. In the fall of 1971 they began a series of brain exams under the direction of Curtiss, Victoria Fromkin, and Stephen Krashen—who was then also one of Fromkin's graduate students—at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA.[145][221]

Dichotic listening tests[edit]

The scientists continued both the verbal and nonverbal dichotic listening tests, which were administered throughout 1972 and 1973. These tests corroborated Bellugi and Klima's original findings.[144][145][220] They found Genie remained extremely left-ear dominant for language sounds, and maintained her left-ear preference within normal range for non-language sounds. Her monaural tests also continued to come back with a 100% accuracy rate.[222] This definitively ruled out the possibility that Genie's lateralization was only reversed, and helped the scientists develop the hypothesis that she was acquiring language in her right hemisphere.[126][145][220]

The hypothesis put forth by psychologist Doreen Kimura to explain dichotic listening results stated that their underlying cause was that the contralateral pathways overrode ipsilateral pathways, and that split-brain and hemispherectomy patients were so asymmetrical because the non-language hemisphere could not interfere with these pathways.[223] As the scientists could not find evidence of physiological problems with her left hemisphere which could have caused its disuse to such an extreme degree, their explanation for the underlying cause of Genie's extreme left-ear language preference was that abnormal neurological activity in her left hemisphere—which they speculated was due to her atrophied language center—was blocking all language reception in her right ear.[7][220][222] Because she could distinguish non-language sounds with some degree of accuracy in the ear which would normally be non-dominant for them, they thought that it was only language sounds which her left hemisphere obstructed.[224][222] The fact that Genie's left hemisphere had not lateralized while her right hemisphere had also supported a hypothesis, put forth in 1972, that the right hemisphere lateralized first because its functions are more directly involved with picking up on environmental stimuli.[27]

Additional tests[edit]

Besides continuing the dichotic listening tests, Curtiss, Fromkin, and Krashen gave Genie several tachistoscopic tests. During 1974 and 1975 they also gave her a series of evoked response tests, which consisted of a language test and a face recognition test.[145][225][220] They had difficulty administering some of these tests, and Curtiss especially thought that the design of some of the tachistoscopic tests was less than ideal and made some of their findings inconclusive. Nonetheless, they were able to gain considerable insight into Genie's neurological functions.[221][226]

The scientists' tests showed a higher right-hemisphere level of involvement in all of the non-language cortical tasks on which they tested Genie, and found she performed most functions primarily using her right hemisphere, such as perspective, recalling unrelated objects, gestalt perception, and number perception, at a much higher level than those typically performed by the left hemisphere, such as sequential order tests.[227] For instance, in May 1975 the scientists administered a Mooney Face Test, considered the best gestalt perception test. This test contains a set of 50 real and 20 false faces in black and white, and the subject has to determine which ones are real and false. Genie correctly identified all of the real faces and only missed 6 false ones, the highest in medical literature at that time.[N][227][221]

Genie's ability to piece together objects from solely tactile information, another right hemisphere task, was also extremely good. On one test, the tester showed Genie three different sized circles before hiding them from view, and Genie was then given different arcs and asked to determine which circle they fit into; the arcs were never shown, but Genie could feel both the arc and the circles at any time during the test. She finished the test in far less time than most people and got 38 out of 45 correct on this test, which was an extremely high score. Of the mistakes, 6 were on the most difficult components and one was on the second most difficult.[228] Similarly, in 1977 her capacity for stereognosis was at approximately the level of a typical 10 year old, significantly higher than her estimated mental age.[229]

By contrast, Genie had a great deal of difficulty with learning basic tasks such as tying her shoes because they require performing a series of actions in a particular order, a predominantly left-hemisphere task.[144][230] When attempting to perform these tasks her movements were remarkably slow, although it was impossible to tell whether the cause the nature of the task or the general latency her actions typically exhibited. In particular, Genie had a great deal of difficulty learning to count in sequential order. She did not start to do so at all until late 1972 and by 1975 could only count up to seven, which even then remained very difficult for her.[230]

Genie's improvement on right hemisphere functions was also extraordinarily rapid, and far outstripped her ability to learn left hemisphere tasks; for instance, in January 1972, about a year and three months after being rescued, her scores on Raven's Progressive Matrices were in the 50th percentile for an 8 1/2–9 year old.[27] Some abilities, such as her spatial awareness, were at or higher than the level of typical adults, indicating that her brain had lateralized and that her right hemisphere underwent specialization. On spatial awareness tests, her scores were reportedly the highest ever recorded to that point.[O][231][223][220] Conversely, when the scientists administered Knox Cubes tests in 1973 and 1975 Genie improved from the level of a 6 year old to a 7 1/2 year old. Although this was more rapid than her progress with language, it was significantly slower than her advances with right hemisphere tasks.[232][126][223]

There were a few primarily right hemisphere tasks Genie did not perform well on; she had difficulty with certain facial recognition tests and certain tests on remembering designs. In October 1975 Genie scored at a "borderline" level on the latter, although she did not make the mistakes typical of brain-damaged patients.[P] In addition, on a Benton Visual Retention Test and an associated facial recognition test Genie's scores were well below average; they were far lower than any average scores for people without brain damage, at the very low end of average for people with lesions on their left hemispheres, and in the low average range for people with lesions on their right hemispheres.[Q][234][7][144] Although this sharply contrasted with Genie's facial recognition in multiple everyday situations, in which she had immediately recognized and put a name to faces she had not seen in years, researchers wrote that they had anticipated this result on this test.[7][230]

Curtiss' explanation for this discrepancy was that these tasks require use of both hemispheres. For instance, the memory for design test requires the person both to remember the shape and to reconstruct it through a series of complicated motor actions in a specific order. Previous results from these tests showed that people with any abnormal brain function, in either the left or the right hemisphere, consistently scored much lower than people without any kind of brain damage.[7] Since Genie exclusively used her right hemisphere, these would therefore be very difficult for her.[7][230]

When the scientists administered tests specifically geared at determining where Genie was processing language, they found more evidence that she was using her right hemisphere for language functions. On one evoked response test Genie had no difficulty with giving the correct meaning of sentences using familiar homophones, for instance the sentences "I sock Bobo" and "The sock is red". This demonstrated that her receptive language comprehension was significantly better than her expressive comprehension, which was similar to the results of split-brain and hemispherectomy patients.[221][235] The scientists monitored her responses on this test with an EEG, and picked up more activity from the two electrodes over the right hemisphere of her brain than they did from the electrodes placed over the normal locations of the Broca's area and Wernicke's area in the left hemisphere. In particular, they found a high level of involvement from her right anterior cerebral cortex in these tests. Throughout the time they conducted these tests, their results did not change.[7][236][221] Taken with Genie's results on the dichotic listening tests, Genie's tachistoscopic and evoked response tests lent further support to the researchers' belief that Genie was using her right hemisphere for language. The lack of improvement on both left hemisphere tasks and right-ear language identification bolstered their conclusions.[221][7]

Relationship with her mother[edit]

While Genie was living with the Riglers her mother continued visiting her, usually meeting once a week at a park or restaurant. The bond between her and Genie continued to grow stronger, and David Rigler said they encouraged Genie to go on increasingly frequent overnight visits to her mother's house. Genie reportedly formed a good relationship with her maternal grandparents as well.[8][237] However, though the Riglers wanted to keep Genie's mother involved in Genie's life and never expressed any antipathy towards her, while Genie was living with them her mother only visited their house three times. Genie's mother lived several miles away and could not drive, and using public transportation to get to and from the Riglers house required an entire day. Years later Marilyn also said she was uncomfortable with acting as a mother to Genie in her house in front of Genie's real mother, and thought a more neutral location would help diminish the awkwardness for both of them. The Riglers went to great lengths to be polite to Genie's mother, but their efforts inadvertently came off to her as condescension.[238]

Many other scientists on the research team did not welcome the presence of Genie's mother, citing a strong dislike for her passivity during Genie's early life. Genie's mother got along considerably better with Jay Shurley, who came from a Texas ranch family similar to hers during her childhood before she moved to California. He already doubted the quality and intent of the work other scientists were doing with Genie, and their interactions with Genie's mother gave him additional concerns. Although he acknowledged the amount of help many of the hospital staff—especially Kent and Howard Hansen—had given her, Shurley found it troubling that, in his mind, they did not treat her as an equal. She was constantly worried about her appearance, concerned that the scientists judged her by the way she dressed. Genie's mother was also experiencing significant financial difficulties, which she periodically discussed with Shurley. To him, this was a sign that she was acutely aware of and felt very self-conscious due to the wide class difference between herself and the researchers.[R][239]

The scientists, in turn, later speculated Genie's mother gave them a mostly cool reception because they were a reminder of her inaction during Genie's childhood. They further thought she was in denial over both Genie's condition and the hand that she had in causing it. David Rigler distinctly remembered one day when Genie's mother saw Genie walking shortly after her eye surgery, and after a little while he said she abruptly asked him, "What have you done to her that she walks this way?"[240] Rigler said he regarded both as positive steps for Genie's mother, as it meant the therapy she was receiving was helping her come to terms with what had happened to her and her children.[240] Curtiss said that Genie's mother often gave conflicting statements about her life before and during Genie's captivity, seemingly telling them what she thought they wanted to hear. At times, they believed she feared either reprobation or ostracism for telling the truth. Therefore, they only relied on her statements when no other potential source of information existed or when there was corroborating evidence.[241]

Jean Butler—who had married shortly after Genie was removed from her house and was now using her married name, Ruch—stayed in touch with Genie's mother. Although Genie's mother later recalled that most of their conversations were shallow in nature, they continued to get along very well with each other.[242] While Genie was living with the Riglers, Ruch persistently attempted to convince the NIMH's evaluating committee that the scientists were deliberately forcing Genie's mother out of Genie's life. She also criticized the manner in which the research team used the available grant money, in particular accusing them of refusing to give Genie's mother necessary financial support.[8][242] Genie's mother steadily began listening more to Ruch, and gradually came to see the scientists and their work in an increasingly negative light. During the latter part of Genie's stay there, her mother increasingly felt the scientists were marginalizing her. None of the scientists besides Shurley recognized how she felt about them, and they did not know how much Ruch influenced her. They believed they had been unable to see this because, at the time, they were solely focused on the benefits Genie and her mother received from their work and did not account for the perception Genie's mother had of them.[242]


When Genie first moved in with the Riglers, she did not usually listen to anyone unless she was being directly addressed or Curtiss was playing classical music on the piano. Although she would sit if someone specifically asked, she would not be especially engaged with other people and rarely paid attention to what was occurring around her.[126][243][244] After two months, in mid-October 1971, Curtiss was reading Genie a story when she saw Genie was clearly listening to her; after that point, she began paying attention to people even when they were not speaking directly to or about her. Sometimes, she would even spontaneously contribute to an ongoing conversation.[126][243][245]

After Genie settled down in her new surroundings her speech, which although much like her general behavior still frequently exhibited considerable latency, began steadily improving.[246] Her voice remained extremely high-pitched and soft at first, but over time it somewhat lowered and became moderately louder.[133][247] Her pronunciation also dramatically improved, although it remained better in imitation than in her spontaneous speech. She frequently deleted and substituted sounds, which followed certain patterns despite often being applied seemingly at random.[126][133][248] By at least mid-1973, when Curtiss specifically tested her knowledge of phonology, she could pronounce all of the individual phonemes found in Standard American English.[126][133][249] She eventually gained enough control over her voice to modify pitch and volume, and during the latter part of her stay with the Riglers began incorporating these abilities into her speech. Even by mid-1975, though her ability to use her voice had substantially advanced, it remained very difficult for her.[250][251]

Thorough testing of Genie's linguistic abilities began in October 1971, when Curtiss and Fromkin decided her linguistic abilities would yield usable results.[27][126][252] Curtiss conducted most of the tests herself, once a week almost every week, and recorded many of her sessions with Genie on film. The scientists also continued to observe Genie's use of language outside the test settings, and the Riglers and a few others who knew them reported any developments they had witnessed when Curtiss was not present.[144][5] To supplement Genie's language acquisition, once Genie started to combine words the scientists worked to teach Genie some ritual speech for common everyday situations.[126][253][254] Between these, the tests conducted on her brain functions, and other evaluations of her social and psychological progress, the scientists speculated she may have been more tested than any other child.[126] The scientists considered her acquisition of language to be a substantial part of their larger goal of helping her to integrate herself into society, so although they wanted to observe what vocabulary and grammar Genie could acquire on her own, out of a sense of obligation they assisted her whenever possible.[27][126]

As with her behavior in other aspects of her life, on most tests Genie seemed only to do the absolute least amount required. Curtiss later attributed this to Genie simply being lazy.[211][255] As Curtiss continued her testing Genie grew to largely enjoy being tested and became much more cooperative, and would sometimes indicate that she wanted to take the tests.[126][211][255] Curtiss and David Rigler both saw that Genie wanted to make the scientists happy, which inspired her to do well. Upon finishing a session Genie was always pleased with herself, and they said that her successes gave her a significant boost of self-confidence.[8][256]

On broader levels Genie's language development followed some normal patterns of young children when they are learning a first language, but researchers noted many marked differences with her language acquisition.[1][5][29] The size of Genie's vocabulary and the speed with which she expanded it continued to outstrip all anticipations, and she learned many words which were not typical of children in similar phases of language acquisition.[1][4] By the end of her stay with the Riglers, she could accurately name most objects she encountered.[7][257][258] However, she had far more difficulty with learning basic grammar and syntax, resulting in her vocabulary being much more advanced and sophisticated than most people in equivalent phases of grammar acquisition. Although she clearly learned and could utilize certain principles of grammar, the rate at which she acquired these properties of language was far slower than normal.[5][1][259] Genie's comprehension was clearly ahead of her production, it was only slightly ahead. As testing continued the gap between them grew, but by 1975 the scientists wrote that her progress with speech production was well behind her comprehension but both were improving at a parallel rate.[27][260]

Although Genie's utterances grew progressively longer, she still almost always spoke in very short sentences.[1][4][257] On a few occasions she delivered monologues of considerable length, but even these consisted of a series of short utterances which she said together.[261] By the end of her stay with the Riglers she still spoke significantly less than most people in a similar phase of acquiring a first language, and she continued to speak in utterances shorter than she was capable of producing.[161][229][257] Their efforts to teach her ritual speech met with some success, but at times she could not repeat what would have been a simple sentence for someone in the same phase of language acquisition.[126][253][254]

Analysis of Genie's language acquisition helped scientists determine information about many of her cognitive abilities. After finding that Genie processed language through her right hemisphere, the scientists compared her language acquisition with split-brain and hemispherectomy patients who also used their right hemispheres.[27][7] Genie's acquisition of vocabulary, and her ability to use it, was congruous with these patients. Although there were a few marked differences her grammatical deficits were generally similar to this population, as were many of the aspects of grammar that she did learn. These observations helped refine existing hypotheses on the capacity for right-hemisphere language acquisition.[7][262]

In many cases, Genie's language development was used to help gauge her overall psychological state. For instance, her beginning to form imperative sentences using the vocative suggested not only progress in her language comprehension but an increasing level of self-confidence and self-concept.[126][263] However, researchers noted she only began using them in 1973, much later in the language acquisition process than most. Even after learning to use them, they remained very rare in her speech; although she responded if called, she would almost never call someone to her.[126][263][264] In addition, when Curtiss and the Riglers tried to help her tell a boy at her school to stop pinching her, Genie clearly demonstrated that she knew what words to use but could not bring herself to say it to the boy.[126][254][265] Although the scientists believed her emotional problems were a factor, they also thought it was because imperatives require the speaker to feel a right to place demands; a person with insufficient self-concept would not feel able to do this.[126][263] Similarly, by December 1972 Genie understood and used the pronoun I but interchangeably used you and me. Curtiss thought this was a manifestation of Genie's inability to distinguish who she was from who someone else was.[266]

In some instances, learning a new aspect of language played a direct role in helping to further her psychological and mental development. At the time Genie learned to use the ritual phrase "May I have [example]" she was also learning how to use money. This phrase gave her the ability to ask for payment, and helped fuel her desire to make money. This, in turn, led to her taking a more active role in performing activities which would lead to a reward. At least once, when Marilyn began setting the table—an activity for which Genie was often paid—Genie stood up from Curtiss playing the piano and actively interrupted Marilyn so she could be rewarded. This came as a complete surprise to Curtiss, as this was the first time Genie had ever walked away from someone playing a piece of piano music she liked.[217] Genie also began gradually using language to describe fictional events, attempting on at least two occasions in the last two years of her stay with the Riglers to lie to Marilyn and to Curtiss. Soon after the first lie she told, in early 1974, she began to describe some of her fantasies to the scientists in language; Curtiss remembered a conversation Genie had with Marilyn in which Genie expressed a desire to be with her bus driver, during which Genie described what she wanted to do with him. The scientists considered these to be substantial gains, both for her language and cognitive development.[267][268]

In addition to testing Genie's knowledge of language, the scientists also observed her use of it in daily interactions. Genie could generally stay on topic in a discussion, but she frequently did not acknowledge common pieces of conversation such as statements or requests. If she did respond, it was frequently a repetition of something which had been said earlier.[269][254] Although she did not speak often she was generally more willing to discuss topics which interested her, although she would sometimes talk about other subjects.[270] If she found herself unable to say something semantically related to the topic, she sometimes tried to join in or contribute by using other means. Besides showing Genie was interested in conversation, this indicated she was willing to use language in creative ways.[229][243] In conversations she was sometimes able to respond to some pieces of grammar which she did not produce and which she showed no comprehension of in test settings. For instance, in everyday interactions Genie clearly understood and appropriately acted on most questions using interrogative words by February 1972, but could not ask such a question and was entirely unable to either form or respond to one during one of Curtiss' tests.[126][271][272] Her comprehension of other complex sentences besides questions remained inconsistent, although starting in late 1973 the scientists noticed a slow but steady improvement.[126][144]

Despite Genie's desire to socialize, she never learned to use any automatic speech.[273][254] If someone else used automatic speech she did not acknowledge it unless repeatedly asked to, and even then her response was very forced.[273] In addition, she never learned any profanity nor ever used other substitute swear words. These two aspects of speech are typically either bilateral or originate in the right hemisphere, and split-brain and hemispherectomy patients normally learn to use them without any difficulty, but this did not affect the scientists' assessment of Genie as an extremely right-hemisphere dominant thinker.[273][274] Curtiss attributed Genie's inability to learn these speech functions to the fact that Genie's childhood environment gave her no opportunity to observe conversation, which would have impeded her ability to learn conversational operators later.[273]

While speaking, Genie inconsistently applied what grammar and syntax she did know. Typically, her speech contained extreme haplologies; she frequently deleted a large number of sounds from her speech. Sometimes it was clear the missing phonemes were deliberately left out, as she had invented grammar rules allowing for the deletion and modification of certain sounds.[275][133] At other times, though, it was not obvious whether the omissions were intentional. This led to some difficulty in evaluating her speech, as her pronunciation often masked her true abilities.[7][275][133] The pieces of grammar she left out were sometimes clear in context, but often these deletions made her speech ambiguous.[275] Because of this, people unfamiliar with her manner of speaking often found it extremely difficult to understand her.[133] In addition to individual sounds, Genie sometimes deleted whole words from her sentences. At times she compressed entire sentences into single syllables, which she had to be actively discouraged from doing.[275] Curtiss attributed these haplologies to Genie trying to say as little as possible and still be understood, and noted that Genie could speak more clearly if firmly, explicitly requested to. Eventually Curtiss and Marilyn convinced Genie to stop her most extreme efforts at truncating her speech, but she would continue to delete sounds when possible; due to this, linguists following the case began referring to Genie as the Great Abbreviator.[275][245]

Recalling past events[edit]

A few months into Genie's stay with the Riglers, in December 1971, Genie demonstrated the ability to use language to describe events which had occurred in the fairly recent past.[276][277] Several months later, sometime during early to mid-1972, the Riglers overheard Genie saying, "Father hit big stick. Father is angry." to herself, demonstrating she could even talk about her life before learning language; this gave researchers new insights into her early life and disproved the theory of 18th century philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac that humans require language to form memories.[144][278][277] During the rest of her stay with the Riglers, she would constantly repeat "Father hit" to herself.[279] Eventually, Genie could provide longer and more detailed memories of her time in captivity. She did not speak about her past very often, but gave researchers valuable insights when she did.[280][277] The Riglers tried to get her to talk about her childhood as much as possible, and Marilyn would sometimes coach Genie by role-playing as Genie's real mother.[4][144][277] Before the Riglers worked with Genie to understand the concept of death she often asked where her father was, afraid that he would come to get her. She gradually began to speak about her father, and could talk about his treatment of her.[4][126][277]

"Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry...Not spit. Father. Hit face – spit. Father hit big stick. Father is angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Father make me cry. Father is dead."[278]


In contrast to her language, Genie's ability to utilize nonverbal communication continued to excel.[126][122][281] Even while speaking, Genie continued to use supplementary nonverbal gestures to improve her intelligibility. She invented some gestures designed to indicate specific phonemes, which she used regardless of context. Until 1974, she would not invent gestures based on anything besides similar sounding phonemes.[122] With some words, she would pantomime them as she spoke; for instance, the scientists noted she would crouch into a seated position when she said the words "sit" or "sick". Although this is normal to some degree among children learning a first language, she seemed to use them as an integral part of her vocabulary.[126][122] She also invented some of her own gestures, and frequently used these as she spoke. When Curtiss saw how well Genie could gesture and act out her sentences, to encourage Genie to talk she devised a game to utilize these abilities. She and Genie would make simple sentences together, such as "Genie is silly", and then read them and act them out together.[282]

Curtiss said Genie would also act out events, especially if she could not use language to communicate something. If she was not understood right away, she would persist until she got her message across.[4][122][266] The scientists made multiple efforts to teach Genie to read, which were unsuccessful for several years. It was not until mid-1975 that Genie started to read at all, and by the time Curtiss completed and published her dissertation Genie could read around five to ten names and words. She also learned to write individual letters in print, although if she wanted to write a word she usually needed someone to give her the correct letters.[27][208][283]

When Genie was first removed from confinement she would only draw pictures if asked to, but during her stay with the Riglers she began to use drawings if she could not express herself in words.[122][144][284] Her sophisticated sense of perspective rapidly became evident in many of her drawings; by November 1971, she could depict silhouettes and figures in profile, both of which require a relatively high degree of cognitive ability.[144][285] In addition to her own drawings, Genie would frequently use pictures from magazines to relate to daily experiences.[266] She especially collected pictures of things that frightened her, a behavior for which the scientists never found an explanation; Curtiss recalled one incident when a helmeted diver scared Genie, after which she would not relax until she showed Curtiss a picture she had found of a similar looking diver in a magazine.[284] Several months into Genie's stay with the Riglers, she found a picture of a wolf in a magazine which sent her into a terror. When the Riglers saw her reaction, they asked Genie's mother if she knew what might have caused it; this was when she told them for the first time about how her husband had acted like a dog to intimidate Genie, making the underlying reason for her fear apparent to them.[45][286]

Throughout Genie's stay, the Riglers and Curtiss saw how frequently and effectively she used her nonverbal skills.[281] She still seemed to be able to communicate with complete strangers without speaking; David Rigler vividly remembered an occasion when he and Genie passed a father and a young boy carrying a toy firetruck without speaking to each other, and said the boy suddenly turned around and gave the firetruck to Genie. Although the scientists tried to get her to talk as much as possible, they knew that historians and scientists studying Jean Marc Gaspard Itard's work with Victor of Aveyron thought one of the major flaws with his work was his insistence that Victor learn one method of communication—in his case writing—to the exclusion of others.[4][287] They wanted to take full advantage of her ability to use gestures, so in 1974 the Riglers arranged for her to learn sign language.[288][289] Even while learning sign language, Genie continued to use gestures she had already invented. She continued to create her own gestures, but began creating them based on semantic instead of phonetic value. The scientists did not track her progress with sign language to the same degree as her verbal language, but did record a few of her advances with it.[290]

Loss of funding and research interest[edit]

Despite Genie's progress, after three years the National Institute of Mental Health, which had been funding the research, grew concerned about the lack of scientific data being generated and the disorganized state of project records. Outside of evaluating Genie's language, which Fromkin and Curtiss continued to lead, David Rigler did not define parameters for the scope of the research team's work. A huge amount of information was being collected, but apart from the linguistics data—the quality of which the NIMH never questioned—much of it was of very limited use. Many of the tests Rigler and the other scientists carried out had no clear purpose, and did not produce useful information.[4][291] Even for those which did, the enormous volume of non-linguistics data proved to be a hindrance to research as there was far more data than could have realistically been used. Eventually, it became impossible for researchers to determine the importance of much of this information.[291] The scientific team was also storing its information in suboptimal condition, filed with no discernible categorization system.[4][291]

In 1973 Rigler asked for and received a one year extension on the grant, but the NIMH said it wanted more hard data and coherent organization of the researchers' work. Rigler said he and the other scientists tried to comply, but found the case was not conducive to producing quantitative statistics. He argued the NIMH did not understand the nature of Genie's case, saying much of it necessarily relied on unquantifiable observations, and pointed out that in the most congruous case, that of Victor of Aveyron, the scientists working with him reported similar difficulties.[292] While acknowledging that it was less than ideal, he said that he and the rest of the research team were doing the best they could.[4][292]

When the year-long extension neared its end and the scientists were preparing to request another extension, Jean Butler Ruch began vociferously arguing against it. She obtained David Rigler's proposal for an additional three-year extension—which, due to a processing mistake, she managed to do before he presented it to the NIMH—and began lobbying for its rejection, disputing the progress Genie had made.[293] When the NIMH's grants committee met to consider Rigler's proposal, they acknowledged that the research was considerably and demonstrably beneficial to Genie and would not cause her active harm. Nonetheless, they did not feel the research team had adequately addressed their concerns about the direction and organization of the project. They utlimately concluded that there had been minimal overall progress and, "the research goals projected probably will not be realized".[294] In a unanimous decision from the committee they denied the extension request, cutting off funding for the study.[4][105][295]

Now 18, Genie had made noticeable gains in many aspects of her psychological development. David Rigler wrote in June 1975 that Genie continued to make significant strides in every field which the scientists were testing.[161][296] However, Curtiss wrote that despite the marked improvements in Genie's ability to interact with other people, much of her behavior remained characteristic of an unsocialized person.[296] Furthermore, although Genie's knowledge of and ability to use language had greatly expanded and papers from the time indicated she was continuing to learn new aspects of language, she still only spoke in phrases such as "Ball belong hospital." Her comprehension was clearly well ahead of her speech, but her progress with both remained considerably slower than initially expected.[126][161][297] This lead Curtiss to later question how much grammar Genie had really learned and for how long Genie had truly been acquiring it.[1][4][161]

Early adulthood[edit]

Despite the NIMH grant ending, Curtiss continued to spend time with Genie, meeting with her once a week. In addition to Curtiss' ongoing testing, Curtiss and Genie continued to go on outings together.[7][161][294] In 1975, the Riglers—who had been compensated by the grant money while caring for Genie and indicated in the extension request that they needed continued compensation to sustain their guardianship—decided to end their foster parenting. David Rigler said that, from the time Genie was first admitted to Children's Hospital, their ultimate goal was to return Genie to her mother's custody, and when Genie turned 18 her mother wished to care for her.[8][298] The Riglers and John Miner agreed to let Genie move back in with her mother at her childhood home.[4][298][299]

When Genie left the Riglers offered to assist her mother in any way they could, as they anticipated that Genie's mother would not be able to take care of Genie by herself and knew that she did not have the financial means to seek additional outside assistance. To prepare both Genie and her mother, during the last six months of her stay with the Riglers Genie spent every weekend at her mother's house. When she left the Riglers signed Genie up for a summer school program, but when it ended she expressed a desire to stay at home with her mother instead of going to a summer day camp, to which they and her mother acquiesced.[8][298] Curtiss also continued her weekly visits. When Genie began to live with her mother full time, she found some of Genie's behavior patterns greatly distressing. Genie still lacked a great deal of self-control, and often did not respond to statements or commands from her mother.[4][300] After a few months, despite the Riglers offers for continued assistance Genie's mother found that taking care of Genie was both physically and financially too difficult for her to manage. Without notifying Miner or any of the scientists, she contacted the California Department of Health to find care for Genie. Genie was then transferred to the first of a succession of foster homes, where she ended up staying for a year and a half.[8][301][302]

In this new foster home, Genie was living with two other mentally retarded girls approximately her age.[8][303] Both Curtiss and the social workers assigned to Genie soon observed that the house was an extremely rigid environment, and saw that Genie had far less access to many other objects and activities which she had enjoyed with the Riglers. Curtiss was concerned that Genie would have a difficult time adjusting to living without these.[303] Not long after Genie moved in, she was deeply traumatized by some of her treatment; she began experiencing issues with both incontinence and constipation, and quickly returned to her coping mechanism of silence.[4][105][304] The incident with the most severe impact occurred when she was severely beaten for vomiting and told that if she did it again she would never be allowed to see her mother, which rapidly accelerated the pace of her regression by making her extremely frightened of opening her mouth for fear of vomiting and facing more punishment.[4][302][305] Even when she was hungry she could barely eat, only opening her mouth just long enough to put food in.[305] Her fear also made her afraid to speak, rendering her almost completely silent; however, she still wanted to communicate with people she knew, so she began almost exclusively using the sign language she had learned while with the Riglers.[4][305] Her mother, whom she desperately missed, was almost never permitted to visit, causing Genie to become extremely withdrawn.[301] At one point while living there, she refused to talk for five months.[S][4][161][301]

"I want live back Marilyn house."

—Genie speaking to Susan Curtiss, November 1975

Except for Curtiss, all of the scientists were completely cut off from Genie during her stay in this foster home. Curtiss continued to meet with Genie once a week to continue her research and saw her rapid behavioral regression. She witnessed some of Genie's treatment in her new foster home, and Genie was able to describe what had happened to her. On several occasions, she told Curtiss she wanted to see her mother and to return to the Riglers.[4][305] Curtiss quickly started petitioning to have Genie removed, but she said that because she was still only a graduate student it took a long time to get authorities to take her seriously. She also told the Riglers what was happening, but according to her they took no immediate action.[21][305]

Eventually Curtiss was able to get social services involved, at which point both they and Curtiss had a very difficult time contacting John Miner. She recalled that they only succeeded after repeated attempts over several months. Once they got his attention they convinced him to attend a party with Genie, and when he saw how badly she had regressed he worked with David Rigler to get her taken out of the home.[306] Upon leaving in April 1977, because of her previous treatment she required a two-week stay at Children's Hospital. She saw her mother and the Riglers during this time and both her physical and mental condition moderately improved, although she continued to use sign language for most communication.[4][307] At around the same time, Curtiss and Fromkin obtained year-long grants from the National Science Foundation to continue their work with Genie.[7][161][294]

After her hospital stay Genie was moved to another foster home until December of that year, when the arrangement collapsed. Through the end of that month into early January Genie was placed in a temporary arrangement, and subsequently moved into another foster home.[161] In some of these homes she was further physically abused and harassed to extreme degrees, and her development continued to regress.[4][105][302] She was often forbidden from seeing her mother for long periods of time in these homes, and except for Curtiss was completely cut off from most of the scientists throughout 1977.[4] In early January 1978 Curtiss wrote to John Miner that Genie experienced a great deal of stress whenever she had to move, and that the frequency of these moves further traumatized her.[161]


In 1976, Curtiss finished her dissertation, Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day "Wild Child". The following year, Academic Press published it as a hardcover. Upon publication, it received reviews from several prominent scientists. Its speech analysis covered Genie's utterances from admission to Children's Hospital until the early summer of 1975, and contained some excerpts of Curtiss' non-language observations from the same time frame.[144][5]

When Genie's mother saw a copy of Curtiss' dissertation after its publication, despite having thought of Curtiss and Genie as friends she was reportedly very offended at the title and some of the contents.[256] Privately she disputed some specific details, primarily regarding her husband's treatment of herself and Genie and the family's situation during Genie's captivity; however, her official complaint did not. Instead, she argued that Curtiss could only have obtained these details from her therapists or their supervisors, which would have been a breach of patient confidentiality.[308] Genie's mother decided to sue Children's Hospital, her therapists, their supervisors, and several of the researchers both over the book and over allegations of excessive and outrageous testing, claiming the researchers gave testing priority over Genie's welfare, invaded Genie's privacy by constantly filming her, and pushed Genie far beyond the limits of her endurance, sometimes testing her between 60 and 70 hours per week.[4][309][310]

The regional media immediately picked up the lawsuit, and the Los Angeles Times ran several prominent articles on it. Members of the research team, many of whom had not heard about Genie in years, were shocked when they found out they were being sued.[4][183] David Rigler initially thought the focus of the suit would be Shurley's sleep-studies, as these were the most invasive tests conducted, but quickly found out Shurley had offered to testify against several of the other scientists.[311] All of the researchers named in the lawsuit maintained their earlier contentions that although the tests challenged Genie, she mostly found them enjoyable and was always triumphant upon finishing. They especially emphasized that the tests were always in private and one on one, and that both she and the people testing her viewed these times as bonding experiences. Both Curtiss and David Rigler said that when a session ended, Genie was always rewarded in an emotional or material way.[4][311][312]

All of the scientists were adamant that they never coerced Genie, pointing out that this would have invalidated their results, and said Genie's mother and her lawyers grossly exaggerated the amount of time they tested Genie. Curtiss emphatically stated she never conducted testing sessions for more than 45 minutes, that Genie could take a break whenever she wanted, and that sometimes Genie herself would initiate the tests. After finishing, Curtiss said they would spend the rest of their time together, "just being friends."[4][8][184] Rigler argued that if researchers had not done as much testing as they did, they would not have been satisfying the purpose of the grant.[8][184]

The scientists responded, in addition to the allegations of overworking Genie, to concerns Genie's mother expressed about Genie's privacy and her own. Rigler maintained several times that Genie never showed signs of not wanting to be filmed, and said if she had they would have immediately stopped.[8][311] Both Curtiss and Fromkin categorically denied any breach of confidentiality, asserting that the details on Genie's family were already publicly available and that other scientists on the research team had previously referenced them without incident. Curtiss pointed out that she and all of the other scientists had tried to maintain the privacy of Genie and her family, and in all their publications went to considerable lengths to keep their identities concealed.[4][5][313] When the pending legal proceedings reached the news, Curtiss said she and all of the other scientists were extremely upset that several stories used Genie's real name and that of her mother.[T][315]

At the outset, the lawyers for Genie's mother agreed there were serious problems with the scientists' testing, indicating they thought it would be possible to win a substantial judgment against them.[316] They said that although the scientists' work with Genie almost certainly started out of goodwill, they thought publicity surrounding the case caused the scientists to lose sight of their stated goal of rehabilitating her. They pointed to the NIMH's rationale in rejecting the grant extension, arguing this should have been a sign of flaws in the scientists' research methods. In addition, they argued that many of the tests were given so often that they only indicated Genie's familiarity with them, negating any scientific value they might have had.[4][316]

As the lawsuit went forward, however, the lawyers for Genie's mother increasingly felt their case was extremely tenuous at best. When they found out that Curtiss had already set up a trust fund in Genie's name and that her intention from the start had been to give all the royalties from her dissertation to Genie, they advised Genie's mother to take this money—a little over eight thousand dollars—and drop the suit. However, Jean Butler Ruch convinced her to persist and both of her lawyers withdrew, leaving her to represent herself in court.[316] According to ABC News and Russ Rymer, the suit was settled in 1984.[3][317] However, in a 1993 letter to The New York Times responding to a review of Rymer's book, David Rigler wrote, "[T]he case never came to trial. It was dismissed by the Superior Court of the State of California 'with prejudice,' meaning that because it was without substance it can never again be refiled."[8]


After the conclusion of the legal proceedings, despite several requests from David Rigler Genie's mother refused to allow him or other members of the research team to see her. Susan Curtiss said that in late December 1977 she had been asked if she could be Genie's legal guardian, but that a week later, after a meeting with Genie in early January 1978, Genie's mother suddenly prevented Curtiss from seeing Genie.[3][21][318] She never contacted Curtiss again, and Curtiss never had a chance to talk to Genie to explain why she could no longer meet with her.[21][318] The scientists wrote one additional paper on Genie's brain lateralization which was published in 1978, and Genie's post-1975 utterances and analysis of them first appeared in papers Curtiss wrote and co-wrote in 1979.[7][161] After this Curtiss continued to publish papers which discussed Genie's language acquisition throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Despite the lack of new data, Curtiss and others who had worked on Genie's case continued to analyze Genie's utterances.[161][319][229]

With the exception of Jay Shurley, Genie's mother also decided to break off all contact with all of the scientists. She moved in 1987 without leaving a forwarding address, although she stayed in the Los Angeles area.[318] It is not known exactly when Kent, Hansen, or the Riglers saw Genie last, but on March 30, 1978, guardianship of Genie was officially turned over to her mother and none of them saw her after that time.[161] Genie's mother began taking Genie with her on her visits to Ruch's house, but despite being allowed to see Genie Ruch continued spreading negative rumors about Genie's condition, hoping to convince people that the scientists' work with Genie was so flawed that the results of their tests were completely useless. Although she continued attacking many of the scientists she especially targeted Curtiss, who had become a linguistics professor at UCLA, arguing that Curtiss' dissertation was largely based on fabrications. Throughout the early 1980s Ruch repeatedly called Curtiss at her house, and frequently attended Curtiss' lectures to ask hostile questions.[U][320]

While the lawsuit filed by Ruch had convinced Shurley, who had remained friendly with Genie's mother and Ruch, to work with her on a book detailing how the scientists had handled Genie; Shurley was self-described as, "bent on revelation".[321] In 1984 they received some encouragement from at least one other scientist who had some firsthand knowledge of the case, and Shurley co-wrote one paper with Ruch the following year. After they delivered it at a conference together he decided to back out, saying he was shocked at how vicious and personal her attacks on the Genie team were. Despite their agreement on the flaws in the scientists' work, he thought Ruch was so malicious as to be sadistic.[322] His decision earned the enmity of Ruch, who continued her campaign against the scientists until 1986, when a stroke left her with aphasia. She died in 1988 following another stroke.[4][8][323] In the late 1980s, Genie's mother declined an offer of several thousand dollars from an unidentified major news network to tell her and Genie's story.[324]

From January 1978 until 1993, Genie moved through at least four additional foster homes. During this time, Shurley was the only person involved in Genie's case besides Ruch who saw her.[V][161][193] He visited her at least twice during this time, at her 27th birthday party in 1984 and again about two years later, and he said she had continued to regress. In an interview, he said on both of his visits she appeared very depressed and looked almost demented.[W][193] In 1992, Curtiss said that since she last saw Genie she had only heard two updates on Genie's condition, both of which indicated she barely spoke and was depressed and withdrawn.[325] When Russ Rymer published his magazine articles on Genie in April 1992, he wrote she was living in a large state institution for mentally retarded adults and only saw her mother one weekend every month.[326][327][328] In the afterword of the 1994 edition of his book, he detailed conversations he had with Genie's mother both just before and after the publication of his magazine articles. At that time, Genie had recently moved into a new foster home which was much more supportive and permitted Genie to visit her on a far more regular basis. According to her mother Genie was happy and, although her speech was hard to understand, was reportedly more verbal.[329]

By mid-1993, the Riglers had reestablished contact with Genie's mother and had seen Genie for the first time in 15 years. David Rigler wrote in July 1993 that, "my wife and I have resumed our (now infrequent) visits with Genie and her mother."[8] In response to a review of Rymer's book, which repeated what Rymer had originally said about Genie's living arrangements and had further alleged Genie was being inadequately cared for and isolated, Rigler wrote that Genie was living in a small, private board and care facility where she was doing well and that her mother regularly visited; he did not say how long Genie had been there.[8][330] When the Riglers visited her there for the first time, David Rigler said she seemed to be happier and had immediately recognized and greeted him and Marilyn by name, but did not comment further on her mental state.[8][331]


Genie is a ward of the state of California, and is living in an undisclosed location in the Los Angeles area.[3][21] In May 2008 ABC News reported that in 2000, someone who talked to them under condition of anonymity had hired a private investigator who located Genie. She was reportedly living a relatively simple lifestyle in a small private facility for mentally underdeveloped adults, and appeared to be happy. Although she only spoke a few words, she could still communicate fairly well in sign language.[3] In 2003, Genie's mother died of unspecified natural causes at the age of 87.[13]

In 2002 Susan Curtiss said that she still wanted to see Genie again, primarily to meet with her as a friend but also expressing interest in assessing her language abilities.[21] As of May 2008, despite badly missing Genie and repeatedly attempting to find her, Curtiss and James Kent had still not seen her since January 1978.[3] In a related interview later that month, Genie's brother told reporters he had not seen Genie since 1982 and said he wished he had been more involved in her life. By his own account he had refused to watch or read any accounts of Genie's case until just before he was interviewed, and had only recently heard any updates on her. He was glad she had gotten so much attention, and said he was happy to hear that she was reportedly doing well where she was living.[13][14]


Genie's is one of the best-known cases of language acquisition in a child with delayed development.[4][11][2] Since Curtiss published her findings many linguistic books have used Genie's case study as an example to illustrate principles of language acquisition, frequently citing it as proof of Chomsky's theory of innate language and a modified version of Lenneberg's critical period hypothesis.[332][333][334] She wrote that despite the innate ability of humans to acquire language, Genie demonstrated the necessity of early language stimulation in the left hemisphere of the brain to start.[229][335] Genie was able to learn some principles of language using her right hemisphere, including vocabulary and some basic grammar, aiding linguists in determining the capacity for right-hemisphere language acquisition in people after the critical period.[229][6]

The disparity between Genie's linguistic abilities and her competence in other aspects of human development also suggested there was a separation of cognition and language rules, a new concept at the time.[5][229][336] Genie's nonverbal skills were exceptionally good, which demonstrated that even nonverbal communication was fundamentally different from actual language.[1][337] Curtiss's arguments have become widely accepted in the field of linguistics, and were the impetus for several additional studies.[332][338] In addition, Curtiss' post-1977 analyses of Genie were markedly more negative in their assessment of her language acquisition than all of her works up to and including her dissertation. This discrepancy has sparked a considerable debate regarding how much language Genie learned and whether or not she had truly reached the limit of what grammar and syntax she could acquire.[161][339][319]

Ethical dispute[edit]

The manner in which doctors and scientists handled Genie has become the source of debate among the people involved in the case. Years after the case study ended a few of the scientists who had participated to various degrees, including Shurley and David Elkind, expressed the view that the scientists heading the case study had put their research ahead of Genie's best interests. Both of them were among those who said that incessant fighting plagued the research team, which contributed to what they saw as the relative lack of concern about Genie's well-being.[340][53] During the initial grant meetings in May 1971, Elkind voiced concern about focusing on Genie's linguistic development on the grounds that it could cause love and attention to be contingent on her language. He said that the meetings grew increasingly tense and bitter, and did not feel the other researchers adequately addressed his concerns. After May 1971, despite his longstanding personal friendship with both the Riglers he declined further involvement. When asked about his decision years later he cited a desire not to be involved in a case which, in his view, gave priority to the scientists' experiments over Genie's care.[341]

Shurley started his work with Genie highly optimistic about the potential for research, but said the atmosphere he witnessed at the grant meetings made him increasingly leery of Genie's handling. In addition to sharing the concerns of Elkind, he especially noted that many of the people who had worked most closely with Genie at the hospital, including Butler and several of the cooks, were excluded from the later grant meetings.[342] Because of this, he decided to minimize his involvement in the study. While willing to acknowledge that the scientists at the center of the case had been in a completely unprecedented situation, his observations of the other researchers left him very cynical about many aspects of Genie's handling.[343][344] By the time the case study had ended he felt that all of the scientists, including himself, had been guilty to varying degrees of using Genie as an object and putting themselves and their goals ahead of her and her mother's best interests.[345][53] Shurley pointed out that the study of Victor of Aveyron was fraught with this dilemma, and ended in a somewhat similar way; after several years of working with Itard, Victor's progress stopped and Itard ceased to work with him. Victor subsequently lived out the last several years of his life in a poor woman's house in Paris, where he reverted to many of his earlier behavior patterns.[4][346]

Kent, the Riglers, and Curtiss all unequivocally stated that this was never the case, and that Genie's welfare was always their first priority. Although they acknowledged their failure to successfully rehabilitate Genie, all of them said that they did the best they could.[8][347] They all said their love and attention for Genie was entirely unconditional, never contingent on her developmental progress. Both of the Riglers said they gave Genie as much support as possible and always did what they thought was best for her, arguing that their willingness to take her in for four years demonstrated how committed they were to her well-being. They and Curtiss separately said that they always rewarded Genie for her participation in testing, regardless of her performance.[4][8][348]

Rigler and Howard Hansen also readily acknowledged researchers at the original grant meeting had numerous views on how to conduct research, but both said the disagreements were completely typical of scientific discourse and never involved animosity. Instead, they said the difficulty with directing the study was simply due to the exceptional nature of the case. Both also said that their primary objective was always to successfully rehabilitate Genie, and that no one on the research team ever lost sight of this.[4][8][349] They and Curtiss further stated that everyone involved in Genie's life, with the exception of Jean Butler Ruch, worked together as best they could and never fought with each other.[8][350] David Rigler agreed there were many unusual actions taken during the study, but said this was because the case had no good precedent.[8] The topic has since become a significant debate within the larger scientific community.[1][4][351]

The lack of distinction between Genie's caretakers and therapists has also come under scrutiny. Russ Rymer contended that the two roles became blurred very early on and progressively got less clear, and that the scientists at the center of the case were never able to recognize it because of their personal friendships. He cited the decision in 1971 to make John Miner Genie's legal guardian the point at which this began, as Hansen was both Miner's acquaintance and directly involved in providing therapy for Genie's mother.[352] In Rymer's analysis, although the scientists did not intend to become involved in a dual relationship with Genie and her mother, they all gradually became involved in relationships of this nature to varying degrees. By early 1975, he argued there were no discernible lines between the two roles. This, in turn, prevented the scientists from taking an objective view of their work and impeded the scientists' ability to provide the best possible care for Genie.[352][351]

In particular, the decision to make David Rigler a foster parent and Genie's primary therapist while simultaneously managing the case study has proven highly controversial. Shurley thought that that Butler/Ruch had been the person who showed Genie the most love, although he acknowledged how difficult she had been for everyone else around Genie to work with, and expressed the view that the best long-term outcome for Genie would have been to live with her. His perception of the Riglers was that, although they gave Genie a sufficient level of care, they viewed Genie as a test subject first and never showed her an adequate level of affection.[340][53][353] Rymer and others, including historian Harlan Lane, have argued that the arrangement accelerated the breakdown of roles for those involved in Genie's life. Lane, who had been studying Victor of Aveyron at the time of Genie's case and has extensively written on the subject of feral children, emphasized this as one of the biggest flaws in the case.[4][354]

The Riglers agreed that the arrangement was extremely atypical, but on several occasions maintained that this was done out of an urgent need to place Genie in a stable environment capable of meeting her needs. The research team knew that Genie had to be provided a level of care well above that of a typical foster care arrangement, and both they and the agency responsible for Genie's care had not found anyone else able and willing to provide a home for Genie after her removal from Butler's house; because of this, they argued their home had been the best available option for Genie.[4][8][352] They both said that they genuinely loved Genie, and made sure to provide her with a home where she could always feel love and compassion. When David Rigler gave his account of Genie's case, he pointed out that both his and Marilyn's perception was that she had made substantial progress with them and appeared to be happy. He further wrote that several independent evaluations of Genie's condition throughout her stay concurred with their assessment.[4][8] While representing the Riglers in court in 1977 and 1978, Miner went out of his way to give them credit for acting as foster parents to Genie for four years. Similarly, in an interview with Rymer Curtiss praised their work with Genie and their willingness to raise her in their home, although she also felt that David Rigler had not done enough when she brought Genie's abuse in foster care to his attention.[355]

In the 1994 Nova documentary on Genie, Harlan Lane suggested that the scientists found it difficult for the scientists to attain the ideal balance between research and rehabilitation; if they wanted to conduct tests on Genie they would by necessity put the goals of their experiments first, whereas if they focused on her welfare they would not be able to learn nearly as much from her.[4][356][353] His and other analyses of Genie's case also argued that the instability regarding her living arrangements affected her emotional state, which in turn led to her plateauing and subsequently regressing in her behavior and language.[357][356] Like Shurley, Lane also pointed out the similarities between the way the cases of Genie and Victor of Aveyron ended.[4] Lane and several authors after him stated that the results of Genie's case and the manner in which the scientists went about conducting their research, especially given the parallels with Victor's case, would be important for future scientists working on similar cases to study.[4][354][353]


After the Fritzl case came to the public's attention in late April 2008, ABC News ran two stories, almost two weeks apart in early May of that year, comparing the Fritzl case to Genie's.[3][13] Their stories noted many of the similarities between Genie's father's abuse of his family and Josef Fritzl's imprisonment of his daughter and three of his grandchildren, and compared the physical and mental problems of the grandchildren Fritzl held captive to those which Genie displayed when she was first found.[3][13] Their first story featured interviews with James Kent and Curtiss, as well as an interview with a British special education graduate student who was doing her dissertation on Genie's case and had established a rapport with most of the people central to it. Reporters noted they were unable to contact David Rigler, who was 87 years old, as he was reportedly in declining health.[3][358] The second story contained an interview with the police officer who arrested Genie's parents, who said he still vividly remembered the case and described some of the conditions he found inside their house.[13]

Genie's brother, who was 56 at the time, was also interviewed for both stories, which was the first time he discussed his or Genie's life with anyone besides his ex-wife and former in-laws.[3][13][14] In addition to discussing his and Genie's childhood, he talked about his adult life; he said he spent several years drifting around the country and combating alcohol abuse, eventually becoming a house painter in Ohio. At the time of the interview, he had been divorced for several years and had a daughter and two grandchildren who lived nearby but with whom he rarely spoke.[13] Finally, he indicated he was still struggling to cope with the trauma of his and Genie's upbringing, describing himself to reporters as, "a living dead man". He said that he tried to keep it out of his memory as much as possible, though he kept and shared pieces of a small collection of family photographs from his early childhood and a few letters and pictures his mother sent him in the 1980s.[13][14]


Russ Rymer[edit]

Author Russ Rymer wrote a two-part magazine article in The New Yorker entitled Genie: A Silent Childhood which ran in mid-April 1992, and the next year published a book—his first—called Genie: A Scientific Tragedy.[X][326][327] The works cover Genie's life up until the time of publication, as well as the scientific team who studied her. In addition, the book summarizes the life of Victor of Aveyron and Jean Marc Gaspard Itard's work with him, discussing the movie The Wild Child and its effect on the public's view of both Victor's case and of feral children in general at length, and compares Victor and Genie and their respective handling by researchers. In his works Rymer posited that the scientists pursued the study chiefly for the advancement of their own careers and egos, constantly fighting for control over the direction of the study and credit for the work and research being done.[11][326][327]

For his works Rymer interviewed many of the scientists central to the case study and others who were more peripherally involved. He also spoke to John Miner and, at the suggestion of David Rigler, the lawyers who had represented Genie's mother when she attempted to sue the scientists. He had initially been unsuccessful in his efforts to speak with Genie's mother, but was able to meet with her shortly before the publication of his magazine articles. Although Rymer documented the case almost entirely from the scientists' perspectives, Genie's mother provided him with many of the documents and correspondence he used.[11][326][327] He considered, but decided against, trying to meet Genie. Rymer wrote that when first started attempting to write about the case he experienced far more difficulty than anticipated, and largely to distance himself from his work spent a year in Paris; when he found himself constantly focused on Genie, he decided to interview several historians about Victor of Aveyron and visited the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, where Victor had lived while working with Itard.[11]

Rymer's initial intention was only to write one New Yorker magazine article, but found the project far larger than he initially anticipated. By the time he finished the two-part article, he already had plans to expand it to a full book.[359] Rymer wrote many of the scientists refused to discuss the case, and that those who spoke about it only very reluctantly did so. He also noted that the scientists' accounts of the case were vastly different from each other. At the time he talked to them, he said they had mostly lost contact with one another.[360] In November 1993, Rymer added an afterword for the 1994 edition of his book in which he said there had been a rift between many of the scientists. He said his interviews had caused some of the scientists to start speaking to each other again, including reopening communication between the Riglers and Genie's mother.[8][359] Rymer also indicated that, due to his book's attempts to reconcile the frequently disparate accounts, prior to its publication he had anticipated at least some of the scientists would have a strong negative reaction to it.[361] In a 2008 interview Rymer said he was still scarred from covering the case, and said the divisions to which he had previously alluded made the book extremely difficult to write.[3]


Rymer's New Yorker magazine articles were met with good reviews.[330][362] The book was one of five finalists for the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Awards, in the category of general non-fiction, and was one of ten winners of the 1995 Whiting Writers' Award.[363][364] Upon its publication, it received several prominent reviews.[365][366] Among them were an overall positive reception in the Los Angeles Times from author Nancy Mairs and in the New York Times from scientific reporter Natalie Angier; Angier, whose review was published in late April 1993, wrote she had previously read both of the magazine articles, and took an extremely negative view of the scientists.[330][367] Angier's review garnered very harsh criticism from Susan Curtiss and James Kent, who strongly disagreed with both the review and the book, and prompted David Rigler to make his first public statement on Genie's case.[3][8] In a letter to the New York Times published in mid-June 1993, Rigler wrote that Angier's review was unfairly critical of the scientists, and pointed to several parts which he said contained major omissions and factual inaccuracies regarding both the book and the entire case. His letter contained his own account of both his and Marilyn's work with Genie and her mother, and revealed that they had recently renewed contact with Genie and her mother.[Y][8][330]

Other books[edit]

Several books about feral and/or abused children contain chapters on Genie.[368][369] Many books on linguistics and psychology also speak about Genie's case.[370][336][339] Linguist Steven Pinker discussed Genie's case in his 1994 book The Language Instinct, using it to argue for Chomsky's theory on the innateness of language.[337] In 1997 linguist Geoffrey Sampson broadly criticized Chomsky's theory and directly responded to Pinker's analysis of Genie in his book Educating Eve: The 'Language Instinct' Debate, arguing it was highly implausible that Genie was sufficiently emotionally intact to provide solid evidence for innate acquisition in humans.[371] In the 2005 version, The 'Language Instinct' Debate: Revised Edition, Sampson acknowledged and briefly laid out certain aspects of Genie's case that Educating Eve had not covered, but wrote that these had no significant impact on his conclusions and did not revisit them further.[371][372]

Film and television[edit]

In 1994, Nova made a documentary on Genie titled Secret of the Wild Child. It was aired by PBS in the United States and by the BBC in the United Kingdom. Narrated by Stacy Keach, the documentary covered Genie's life up until the time the lawsuit was starting to be filed, mentioning Genie's then-current living arrangements at the end. The credits state that Rymer's book provided the basis for the documentary, and like that work it features segments on and comparisons to Victor of Aveyron.[4] The archived film Nova used from the UCLA library had significantly deteriorated, and required restoration for use in the documentary.[161] Upon broadcast, the episode received positive reviews.[373][374] The documentary won multiple Emmy Awards for news and documentary programming, in the category of informational or cultural programming, in both 1994 and 1995.[375][376]

In 2002, an episode of the television series Body Shock on feral children entitled Wild Child included a segment on Genie.[Z][21] The episode was aired by Channel 4 in the UK and on TLC in the United States. It discussed Genie's life until the time that Curtiss lost contact with her, and at the end briefly mentioned Genie was still a ward of the state in California and that Susan Curtiss was still searching for her.[21] The episode received a positive review in The Guardian.[377]

The independent film Mockingbird Don't Sing, released in 2001, is based on Genie's case. Written by Daryl Haney and directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, it followed Genie's life until sometime just before her mother filed the lawsuit, at which point the film ends and messages flash across the screen informing viewers of what happened after the film's timeline. The film is primarily from the perspective of Susan Curtiss, the only person who worked with Genie to be involved in its making.[378] Bromley Davenport said he was very sentimental about the movie and researched Genie's case for two years for it, in the process recording around 40 hours of interviews with Curtiss.[3] For legal reasons, all of the names in the movie were changed.[378] Upon its release, it met with mixed reviews.[379][380] The movie tied for first place as the best screenplay at the 2001 Rhode Island International Film Festival.[381]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ She also said that in the beginning, during other parts of the day she could spend a small amount of time per day with Genie. However, as she lost more of her vision he stopped permitting even this.
  2. ^ This incident, which occurred when Genie was around three and a half years old, was the only time during Genie's captivity that her father allowed her to see a doctor.[7]
  3. ^ In 1976 Susan Curtiss alluded to knowledge of additional details regarding Genie's father's abuse, which she did not discuss.[49]
  4. ^ Genie's mother would later deny that this was the case, writing in 1977 that she had only been beaten twice, both times during the last year of Genie's captivity. She also wrote that although she and her husband had disagreements, he never made death threats against her.[38]
  5. ^ The police and Children's Hospital staff almost immediately decided to leave Genie's brother on his own, and after briefly staying with their mother he said she began dedicating all of her love and attention to Genie. At that point, he decided to leave the area. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he and his mother sporadically communicated. In a 2008 interview, the police officer who arrested Genie's parents said that their inaction on his behalf had been a major error on their part.[13][14]
  6. ^ Although Genie would sit on her mother's lap when requested, she would remain very tense and got up as quickly as possible. At least once, upon getting away she immediately burst into a silent tantrum. Hospital staff noted Genie's mother seemed entirely oblivious to the tone of Genie's reactions; on at least one occasion, her mother commented on how happy she thought Genie had been.[87]
  7. ^ Psychologist and autism specialist Mitzi Waltz noted that, although psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas was conducting autism research at UCLA during this time, no one associated with Genie ever attempted to involve him in the case or sought his opinion on whether she was autistic. Years after the case study on Genie ended, Susan Curtiss said she and the other scientists felt Lovaas' methods of aversion therapy would have unduly limited Genie's freedom and prevented access to a nurturing environment.
  8. ^ These 11 PM awakenings were less frequent during the second session, and during his last sleep study in January 1972, when Genie no longer lived at Children's Hospital, she did not wake up during his tests. Genie's mother only told him about her late-night attempts to feed Genie later during 1972, after the conclusion of his sleep studies.
  9. ^ For instance, Genie could bathe herself at the level of a typical 9 year old, but remained unable to chew food better than a 2–3 year old.
  10. ^ The scientists later said there were many ideas regarding the scope of the study, and pinning its direction down was very difficult. Shurley later recalled being surprised Rigler chose to focus on language acquisition—Shurley had pushed for greater focus on her social and emotional development, and he was only marginally aware of Fromkin's work prior to Rigler's decision—but did not object to it.[155]
  11. ^ By this time Genie was exceptionally good at recognizing the exact number of objects up to the number seven, despite only starting to count in sequential order in late 1972. Therefore, the scientists thought that she was using her exceptional gestalt perception to determine numbers up to the number seven.[167]
  12. ^ Near the end of Genie's stay with the Riglers, in February 1975, Curtiss was also eventually able to get Genie to listen when she was upset; Curtiss remembered being very surprised the first time she talked Genie down from a near tantrum, saying it was a very positive sign for Genie's development.[204]
  13. ^ Curtiss specifically noted that even after Genie learned to chew, whenever possible she tried to pick foods which did not require her to.
  14. ^ Curtiss thought her score had the potential to have been even higher because all of Genie's incorrect answers were either masks or caricatures of faces, leading her to think Genie may not have understood that she was only supposed to select the realistic looking faces.
  15. ^ Curtiss wrote that Genie's spatial awareness tests gave indications of left-hemisphere dominance for these functions, but found more activity in her right hemisphere for this as well.
  16. ^ However, Curtiss remembered one instance when they tested Genie's memory for design by forming a shape with colored sticks and having Genie replicate it from memory; they were surprised when Genie not only reconstructed the design but exactly copied the colors as well, even though they had only asked Genie to recreate the shape.[233]
  17. ^ These tests, especially the memory for design test, are extremely adept at picking up brain damage; that her errors were not typical of people with brain damage helped to further rule out the possibility of brain damage.
  18. ^ Shurley also contended that this class difference played a substantial role in increasing tension on both sides, but several other scientists denied this. They pointed out that both of the Riglers and Curtiss had come from lower and lower-middle-class backgrounds and that Jean Butler came from and had always lived a very upper-middle-class lifestyle.
  19. ^ In an interview Curtiss alluded to knowledge of additional abuse that occurred in this foster home, which she did not discuss.
  20. ^ Given Genie's mother's otherwise passive nature, the scientists being sued strongly suspected from the beginning that Genie's mother was not the driving force behind the lawsuit. While David Rigler was giving his deposition, he discovered that Jean Butler Ruch had goaded Genie's mother into suing.[314] He later wrote that although Genie's mother filed the suit, Ruch had hired and paid for her lawyers.[8] The lawyers confirmed that Ruch had convinced Genie's mother that Curtiss' dissertation invaded her privacy and agreed with the scientists that, without Ruch, Genie's mother almost certainly would never have attempted to sue. They further acknowledged that throughout the legal proceedings Ruch was constantly trying to influence her, and that it was clear when they had been talking; one of them later said that Ruch "was a sort of Svengali for [Genie's mother]."[314]
  21. ^ Ruch's husband died of bone cancer in 1982; no one who later spoke about Genie's case said he was involved in Ruch's attempts to discredit the scientists.
  22. ^ Genie's brother also visited his sister and mother once during this time, in 1982, and maintained sporadic communication with their mother throughout the 1980s. He has not publicly discussed the visit in any detail, although he shared one photograph of them from 1989 which his mother sent him.[13][14]
  23. ^ When Russ Rymer interviewed Shurley for his book on Genie, Shurley showed him two photographs from these visits; Rymer wrote that it took him several seconds to realize the pictures were of Genie, and only recognized her at all because of the familiar patterns on her dresses. He described Genie in both of the pictures as having, "a facial expression of cowlike incomprehension", and saw Shurley wrote on the back of one that Genie was very stooped over and made very little eye contact during the visit.
  24. ^ Also published as Genie: An Abused Child's Flight From Silence and Genie: Escape From A Silent Childhood.
  25. ^ Rigler made a few short comments on the book itself as well; besides responding to Rymer's assertion that the lawsuit had been settled out of court, he also wrote that the book, unlike Angier's review, had accurately documented the reasons for and series of events leading up to Genie's initial admission to Children's Hospital.
  26. ^ Broadcast as Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children in the United States.


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Sources and further reading[edit]