Genie Wiley: A Story of Abuse, Rescue, and Lingering Questions
Awareness Education

Genie Wiley: A Story of Abuse, Rescue, and Lingering Questions


People who are passionate about the academic discipline of psychology will surely be aware of the multiple controversial experiments that have been conducted throughout its history. Most of these experiments had ethical and moral considerations. Some of the most infamous and unethical experiments that psychologists have ever designed and implemented include the Little Albert Experiment, Milgram’s Prison experiment etc.

Through this article, however, we are delving deep, not into an unethical experiment that was conducted by the pioneers of the discipline, but rather into the intricacies of a case study that turned eyes towards the fate of feral children. Genie Wiley was a feral child who was raised with no human contact and was forced to spend over a decade locked and abused in her bedroom and was later rescued. Hers became the first case to be used to test the critical period theory in developmental psychology. To understand her case, we need to delve deep into the nuances of her life story.

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The Case of Genie Wiley

Genie’s existence before her discovery was one of complete deprivation. She spent the majority of her days strapped naked to a potty chair, only able to move her hands and feet. When she made a noise, her father beat her. Her father’s interactions with her were limited to barking or growling. Genie’s narrative was revealed on November 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, California. A social worker discovered the 13-year-old kid when her mother sought help for her health. The social worker discovered that the girl had been confined to a small room, and an investigation by authorities swiftly revealed that the youngster had spent the majority of her life in this room, often tied to a potty chair. Both of Genie’s parents were charged in court for abuse.

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However, Genie’s father committed suicide the day before his scheduled court appearance, leaving behind a note that said, “The world will never understand.” The tale of Genie’s case quickly spread, gaining attention from both the general public and the scholarly world. Harlan Lane, PhD, who was an author and a renowned psycholinguist later quoted this case to be groundbreaking and highly significant for research in the discipline since “our morality does not allow us to conduct deprivation experiments on humans; these unfortunate people are all we have to go on.”

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Her State After Being Rescued

Her rehabilitation team noted that when Genie first arrived at UCLA, she weighed only 59 pounds and moved with a weird “bunny walk.” She spat frequently and was unable to straighten her arms and legs. She was silent, incontinent, and unable to eat at first, appearing to recognize only her name and the word “sorry.” They described Genie as “the most profoundly damaged child I’ve ever seen,” based on her emotional and cognitive capacities. “Genie’s life is a wasteland.”

Her quietness and inability to communicate made it difficult to judge her mental capacities, but on tests, she performed at the level of a one-year-old. She quickly progressed in certain areas, learning how to use the toilet and dress herself. Over the next three months, she made more developmental gains, but her verbal skills remained weak. She adored going on day outings outside of the hospital and exploring her new surroundings with the zeal that astounded her carers and outsiders alike. The theories of nativism and that of the earlier mentioned critical period come up into question as soon as we discuss Genie’s case. Nativism is a renowned theory in psychology that believes and propagates that language or the ability to handle language present in human beings is innate for every individual.

While various behaviourists, during those days of the discipline development claimed that language is learnt through the various proposed models of learning, nativists like Noam Chomsky, who was also a linguist, argued that acquiring language in human beings is an innate process, i.e., each person is born with a language acquisition device that would aid them completely in acquiring and using the language. Once the child at a young age is exposed to their mother tongue or any other language for that matter, the Language Acquisition Device that they are mentally equipped with would completely take over the process of language.

Linguist Eric Lenneberg contends that, like many other human behaviours, the ability to acquire language is subject to critical periods. A critical period is a limited period during which an organism is sensitive to external stimuli and capable of learning specific skills. According to Lenneberg, the key time for language acquisition lasts until approximately age 12. He argued that once puberty sets in, the brain’s organization becomes fixed, and it is no longer capable of learning and using language fully functionally. Despite scoring at the level of a one-year-old on her initial evaluation, Genie quickly expanded her vocabulary.

She began by memorizing individual words and gradually progressed to combining two words. Following a year of treatment, she began to form three-word sentences on occasion. In children undergoing normal language development, this stage is followed by a language explosion. Unfortunately, this never occurred to Genie. Her language skills were stalled at this point, and she appeared unable to apply grammatical principles or utilize language in a meaningful way. Her progress stalled at this time, and her learning of a new language came to an end. This provides great evidence for the propagation of critical period theory.

The National Institute of Mental Health which had earlier provided the funds to the rehabilitation team to conduct scientific research to comprehend the linguistic and developmental intricacies of Genie’s life, now retrieved the funds once and for all in 1974, given the fact that there were no much scientific findings. Further, it was found that the main researcher under which Genie was left to be “studied”, a renowned linguist Susan Curtiss, had conducted her research in a disorganized and anecdotal manner which was not quite useful in addition to the required scientific findings.

In 1975, Genie went back to live with her birth mother. When her mother found the work too tough, Genie was placed in a series of foster homes, where she was frequently subjected to additional cruelty and neglect. Genie’s circumstances worsened. She returned to Children’s Hospital after being in foster care for a long time. Unfortunately, the progress made during her first stay was greatly hampered by the subsequent treatment she got in foster care. Genie was terrified to speak and had relapsed into silence.

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