Genie

genie

Genie is the pseudonym for Susan M. Wiley, a feral child who spent nearly all of the first thirteen years of her life locked inside a bedroom strapped to a potty chair. She was a victim of one of the most severe cases of social isolation in American history. Genie was discovered by Los Angeles authorities in 1970.

Genie’s discovery was compared extensively with that of Victor of Aveyron, about whom a film was made, ‘The Wild Child.’ Psychologists, linguists and other scientists exhibited great interest in the case due to its perceived ability to reveal insights into the development of language and linguistic critical periods.

Genie spent her youth locked in her bedroom. During the day, she was tied to a child’s potty chair in diapers; some nights, when she hadn’t been completely forgotten, she was bound in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed crib with a cover made of metal screening. Indications are that Genie’s father beat her with a large stick if she vocalized, and he barked and growled at her like a dog in order to keep her quiet. He also rarely allowed his wife and son to leave the house or even to speak, and he expressly forbade them to speak to Genie. By the age of 13, Genie was almost entirely mute, commanding a vocabulary of about 20 words and a few short phrases (nearly all negative, such as ‘stop it’ and ‘no more’).

Genie developed a characteristic bunny walk,’ in which she held her hands up in front, like paws. Although she was almost entirely silent, she constantly sniffed, spat, and clawed. Genie became the focus of an investigation to provide evidence supporting the theory that humans have a critical age threshold for language acquisition. Within a few months of therapy, she had advanced to one-word answers and had learned to dress herself.

Though initially nearly silent, Genie later learned to vocalize and express herself through signs. While under captivity she was provided with few toys or objects to stimulate her, the majority of her time was spent in a dark room staring at a yellow plastic raincoat. After her rescue, attempts were made to help her speak and socialize. Her demeanor changed considerably, and she became sociable with adults she was familiar with. She demonstrated a deep fascination with classical music played on the piano (one of the neighboring children practiced piano regularly, and this was speculated to be the source of her fascination as it was one of very few sensations available to her).

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