Study case: the civilizing of genie

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STUDY CASE THE CIVILIZING OF GENIE
MAYA PINES

relationship between language and other mental abilities. As a result, new research is now in progress on the surprising language ability of some mentally retarded children. As described in Curtiss’s book, Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day “Wild Child” (Academic Press), Genie is living proof of human resilience. It is surprising thatshe survived at all. Her father apparently hated children and tried to strangle Genie’s mother while she was pregnant with her first child. According to Curtiss’s book, when an earlier baby girl was born, he put the child in the garage because he couldn’t stand her crying: the baby died of pneumonia at two-and-a half months. A second child, a boy, died two days after birth, allegedly from chokingon his own mucus. A third child was rescued and cared for by his grandmother when he was three years old and is still alive. Genie, the fourth child, was denied such help, however, because shortly after she was born, her grandmother was hit by a truck and killed. When Genie arrived in Children’s Hospital in November 1970, she was a pitiful, malformed, incontinent, unsocialized, and severelymalnourished creature. Although she was beginning to show signs of pubescence, she weighed only 59 pounds. She could not straighten her arms or legs. She did not know how to chew. She salivated a great deal and spent much of her time spitting. And she was eerily silent. Various physicians, psychologists, and therapists were brought in to examine her during those first months. Shortly after Genie wasadmitted as a patient, she was given the Vineland Social Maturity Scale and the Preschool Attainment Record, on which she scored as low as normal one-year-olds. At first, she seemed to recognize only her own name and the word sorry. After a while, she began to say two phrases that she used as if they were single words, in a ritualized way: stopit and nomore. Psychologists at the hospital did notreally know how much she understood. Nor did they know how to evaluate whatever language she had: to what degree did it deviate from the standard pattern? They eventually asked Victoria A. Fromkin, a UCLA psycholinguist, to study Genie’s language abilities. Fromkin brought along a graduate student, Susan Curtiss (now an assistant professor of linguistics at UCLA), who became so fascinated by Geniethat she devoted much of the next seven years of her life to researching the girl’s linguistic development. Working with Genie was not an easy task. Although she had learned to walk with a jerky motion and became more or less toilet trained during her first seven months at Children’s Hospital, Genie still had many disconcerting habits. She salivated and spat constantly, so much so that her body andclothing were filled with spit and “reeked of a foul odor,” as Curtiss recounts. Nevertheless, Genie was decidedly human, and her delight at discovering the world—as well as her obvious progress—made the struggle worthwhile. When Curtiss started working with Genie, she began by simply spending time with her or taking her to visit places, in order to establish a relationship. She took Genie to thesupermarket, where Genie walked around the store and examined the meats and the plastic containers with some curiosity. Every house seemed exciting to Genie, who had spent so much of her life cooped up in one room: on walks she would often go up to the front doors of houses, hoping that someone would open the door and let her in. During her first seven months of freedom, Genie had learned torecognize many new words— probably hundreds by the time Curtiss started investigating her knowledge of language systematically in June 1971. And she had begun to speak. On a visit with Curtiss to the home

(from Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology, Loretta F. Kasper, Ed., Whittier, 1997) In 1970, a wild child was found in California. Genie, now 24, has stirred up new questions...
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