'Stopit!' She Said. 'Nomore!'
By Natalie Angier;
Published: April 25, 1993
GENIE An Abused Child's Flight From Silence. By Russ Rymer. 221 pp. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
THE story of the girl known by the pseudonym Genie, who spent the first 13 years of her life locked in a bedroom alone, alternately strapped down to a child's potty chair or straitjacketed into a sleeping bag, fed on baby food and beaten with a wooden paddle when she so much as whimpered, is really three stories woven together.
The first strand in "Genie: An Abused Child's Flight From Silence," by Russ Rymer, is an account of an atrocity carried out by a vacuous, unreflective and self-pitying tyrant, Genie's father, who denied his daughter the smallest mote of humane treatment through some sort of paranoid fantasy that he was protecting her. He serves as yet another reminder of how banal the most malevolent people can be.
The second is the story of scientists' attempts to make the best of an unfathomable tragedy by studying the girl for clues to the origin and unfolding of language. When Genie first showed up at a Los Angeles County welfare office in the fall of 1970, accompanied by her nearly blind and completely helpless mother, the girl was practically mute.
Raised in an almost silent setting, too segregated from the rest of the family to hear what little conversation her father, Clark, would permit, Genie had reached adolescence without having learned to talk. She could understand fewer than 20 words -- among them "Mother," "red," "blue," "bunny," and "jewelry box" -- and she could spit out a couple of self-protective phrases like "Stopit!" and "Nomore!" But she couldn't string words together into sentences, she didn't know grammar, and she clearly could not manage that central and most magical achievement of language, using familiar words to say things she had never heard anyone say -- to usher the self forward and to share it with the world.
As the subject of an inadvertent and barbaric experiment in child development, Genie thus looked like somebody who could help solve some of the more rousing questions in linguistics, particularly the degree to which the skill of language acquisition is innate, and the extent to which children must wrest it from their surroundings. Could Genie, at an age when so many of the brain's circuits are thought to be etched for life, take on the task of a 2-year-old and begin learning a mother tongue?
The third thread of Mr. Rymer's book follows the bitter and often pathetic fighting that erupted among the linguists, behavioral psychologists, social workers and others who claimed to have Genie's best interests in mind, whether that meant they hoped to teach her, to civilize her or to heal her mutilated psyche. And many of those who encountered the girl did struggle to help her, at least initially. But Genie was a challenge beyond pat solutions, at her worst a "true grotesque," a grown child who defecated in the wastebasket, moved in short, jerky motions with her hands before her in her characteristic "bunny walk," and often seemed as oblivious to the presence of people as she was to the furniture around her.
Yet as time progressed, her would-be white knights proved themselves to be scarcely better behaved than their charge. They sued and countersued one another, they publicly excoriated one another, they wrote scathing accusations of malfeasance, neglect and exploitation. Together they are a sorry lot, and it is largely through their combined ineptness that Genie ends up not living happily ever after, adopted by a sane and supportive family, but consigned to another sort of prison, a state institution for retarded adults.
Up to a point, Mr. Rymer, a contributing writer for Health magazine, handles all three narratives with extraordinary grace, thoughtfulness and sweep. His brief text is a rarity among popular science books, a lusciously written page-turner. It is gripping not only because the reader is driven to learn what happens next to the abused girl, whom we quickly come to care about, but because Mr. Rymer asks how the brain masters language. He deftly lays out how the brain constructs the framework that will be both cage and key to consciousness -- for language both imprisons us and is our only means of complex communication.