May 18, 2014 9:10 PM   Subscribe

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. 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.
"Secret of the Wild Child" - A 1997 NOVA episode.
posted by azarbayejani (45 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I'm confused by the use of pronouns in the Wikipedia article. Is Genie a man or a woman?
posted by orrnyereg at 9:59 PM on May 18, 2014

The male pronouns at the beginning of the Wikipedia page all refer to Genie's father, unless there's something I haven't seen yet.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:03 PM on May 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

(It was confusing to me too.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:05 PM on May 18, 2014

How is it confusing? Genie's a girl.
posted by ReeMonster at 10:26 PM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

A girl child.

I've watched this maybe 5 times. It's worth your attention.
posted by vapidave at 10:31 PM on May 18, 2014

Thanks for the NOVA link. I remember touching on the Genie case in college, and was always curious to know more about her.
posted by Sara C. at 11:06 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Genie's treatment after her 'rescue' was horrifying and infuriating. Whatever chance she had to have some kind of family and heal was thrown away so that a scientist could exploit her for papers and then throw her away when no longer of use to him. What an utter shit David Rigler was.
posted by tavella at 11:43 PM on May 18, 2014 [19 favorites]

I am really angry to hear that after the experiment was over, she was thrown to the wind. I'm having a hard time understanding how the Riglers could abandon her after 4 years. I can't imagine fostering someone and then being "okay, experiment over, off to the torture house you grew up in" . And the "bombshell" talked about in the movie was the lawsuit, not the abusive foster homes. I'm just astonished that these people whom are supposed to be masters of human psychology didn't stop and say "wait a tick, we need to figure out a stable home that won't get bored with her."

I knew about the case in vague terms, but watching the video and learning that she was abandoned (more or less) has given me a real dose of hating humanity.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:44 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

On not-preview, what tavella said. You can smell the rationalization from the screen.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:46 PM on May 18, 2014

And the "bombshell" talked about in the movie was the lawsuit, not the abusive foster homes

Oh god, I was so sure the guy was going to say she was being sexually abused or her mother had her back locked in a closet again or some other genuinely terrible thing. And then he said "lawsuit". Words do not exist for the rage I feel after watching this.
posted by Sara C. at 11:59 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The wiki article is comprehensive and even-handed. It's a long read but well worth it.

I can't believe she was thrown into an abusive foster system. How callous.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:05 AM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

David Rigler, Jean Butler, Jay Shurley - "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."

The video footage of Genie outside is especially poignant. I've never before or since seen a person who I wanted so badly to protect from harm and help feel safe.
posted by vapidave at 1:17 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I saw this a long time ago. It was fucking disgusting what those scientists did to her - not the tests the way the abandoned this child when the money ran out, what a bunch of pricks, all of them.
posted by smoke at 2:15 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is just the saddest story.
posted by dave99 at 3:18 AM on May 19, 2014

When she first moved in, social workers thought it would be an overall suitable home for her. However, they and Curtiss soon observed that the house was an extremely rigid environment, in particular noting that Genie was never allowed to play with the plastic containers she had brought with her.

So the ONE thing she enjoys playing with is plastic containers. Yet in this home, she's not allowed to. Why? All her life from now on is just going to be coping. Even as an adult I do not understand strict adult types who make arbitrary rules with no seeming purpose but to be a dick.
posted by camdan at 3:58 AM on May 19, 2014 [13 favorites]

I highly recommend the book, Genie, A Scientific Tragedy, which is cited at the end of the end of the Wiki article. It goes into more detail about Genie's background, discovery, and subsequent treatment, as well as the scientific curiosity around her language learning.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:10 AM on May 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

The extent of the role that money and class played in the whole tragedy shouldn't be as shocking as it is, but I guess I was still a little more naïve than I gave myself credit for.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:30 AM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

The way they kept referring to her in the past tense led me to expect that she would be dead at the end of the film. But she's in her 50s now.

I, too, was surprised that they hadn't continued to be responsible for her in some way after the funding ran out. But at least the linguistics student explicitly said she wanted to help, in the video. From the Wikipedia article:

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 on her ceased.

I imagined that although they were using scientific research as a way to have the time to help her, they were there because they wanted to care for her, and the funding gave them the means to do so.

The difference between Genie and Victor is that Genie was abused in solitary confinement. Victor, on the other hand, was living a life that he may in some senses have been comfortable with when he was taken to Paris. I wonder if he was given the option to return to that life or if he did prefer the life he had in the city.

It was very frustrating to learn that attempts to integrate both Genie and Victor into society had been abandoned, and not due to a lack of their ability to learn. But it is also uplifting to know that at least they had/have people in their lives who care for them; that in some sense they aren't abandoned.
posted by aniola at 7:34 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is just unbelievably sad. What the hell, humanity.
posted by thelonius at 7:35 AM on May 19, 2014

I was also surprised that given her history, they started with teaching her to talk rather than skipping right to sign language, which I would expect to be less triggering.

I thought it was neat that they were able to teach her to communicate or throw a tantrum rather than to self-harm. I hope that's a skill she has kept.
posted by aniola at 7:38 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

The failure is in the State government, which should have provided life-long rehabilitative expertise and care. Tossing her into abusive foster homes is a sign of sickness.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:03 AM on May 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds like she's living in a comfortable situation now, which is a relief. But it hurts to think of how much better she might have done.

And I hope her brother is able to find some peace, as well.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:51 AM on May 19, 2014

The extent of the role that money and class played in the whole tragedy

I'm curious what you mean by this, aside from the fact that the Riglers didn't keep Genie after the funding ran out. Which is a money thing, but not really a class thing. It's not as if they weren't interested in helping her because she was from the wrong side of the tracks. It is actually kind of a lot for unrelated people to take on the full-time care of a severely disabled adult, for life.

After reading the Wikipedia article, my first thought was where the hell was the rest of her family after she couldn't stay with the Riglers anymore? The film mentions her mother tried and failed to care for her, but the Wikipedia article mentions an older brother and an extended family on her mother's side. Where the fuck were they?
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 AM on May 19, 2014

While I watched I kept thinking that too many cooks were spoiling the broth, and that their tests seemed scattered and disorganized. She needed one person to attach to, someone without agenda. Hearing about the lawsuit was a relief.

It's also creepy to listen to the psychologists talk - they clearly explain themselves in ways that most people would be embarrassed to admit ("savior fantasies") and yet remain detached from Genie. Are they all like that? It's unnerving.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:13 AM on May 19, 2014

-The extent of the role that money and class played in the whole tragedy

--I'm curious what you mean by this, aside from the fact that the Riglers didn't keep Genie after the funding ran out. Which is a money thing, but not really a class thing.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article:
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. Genie's mother was also beginning to experience 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.
Even before I read that, I had had this vague niggling doubt in the back of my head - which I freely admit could be influenced by my own class instincts - at how objective a bunch of privileged, college-educated folks could really be about the daughter of a Dust Bowl Okie and a prostitute's son. Leaving aside Genie's mother, would they ever really see Genie herself as an equal? Especially when she stopped being little and cute?

the Wikipedia article mentions an older brother and an extended family on her mother's side. Where the fuck were they?

The same Wikipedia article mentions her brother being so damaged from his own eighteen years of torture that he battled alcohol abuse and had become estranged from his own ex-wife and children.
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".
So, where the fuck he was, was fighting to overcome his own wounds, and probably more in need of care himself than in a position to give it. Genie's mother lived with her parents when she left her husband, but given that she was back in her late husband's house by the time Genie was released from foster care, I assume that they were no longer in the picture. Maybe they were deceased, or maybe disabled or elderly. Whatever the cause, it seems clear that Genie and what little family she had left lacked private means.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2014

This is another of the 'read any single sentence' social-science disaster stories. Really. Read any single sentence; and the headshaking wtf sensation is just; bleh. I hope to never understand how dozens, if not hundreds of people; have 1st person experiences with people or individuals like this and do nothing other than shuffle them off to the next lackey. Shameful.
posted by buzzman at 11:21 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

So many issues raised by the way things went down for Genie.

Genie really needed an objective advocate who was focused solely on her rehabilitation. But what she got was Butler, the Riglers, her mother, and the california foster care system. By all standards it sounds like the Riglers provided the kind of support she needed the most - but it is a huge commitment to provide the kind of constant care Genie needed, and was likely to continue to need. So, they won't win any humanitarian awards for not continuing to care for her, but I think it is at least understandable. But the Riglers definitely shouldn't have been both therapist and care-taker.

I am really surprised her mother was able to secure custody of Genie, and also that government research agencies as well as social services agencies couldn't see the benefit of providing long-term (whole-life) care and rehabilitation for Genie. Was it just that after the Riglers stopped caring for her no one else was willing to step up to the plate for her?
posted by ianhattwick at 11:31 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think that's why I get so angry about the family stuff. It's not really these researchers' job to take in someone like Genie. You hope they will, because she needs somebody, but I don't know, I feel like if some cousin of mine came out of the woodwork with this level of issues, I'd pitch in to help out or take her out on weekends or do something aside from "yeah adult foster care sounds fine I guess whatever".

Also, sorry, but the mother is sort of a terrible person, period, class issues or not. You don't have to be an "Okie" to be scorned for being complicit in abuse that severe. It doesn't really surprise me that the research team would be judgmental of her or condescend. I'm also fascinated by the fact that the mother established the closest rapport with the only researcher who remained convinced that Genie was mentally disabled from birth. There just seems to be a whole lot of rationalization happening there.
posted by Sara C. at 11:35 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

There was at least one person, who was not a researcher, who wanted to adopt her. Instead, they sent her to be a lab animal, and then like most lab animals she was discarded when her research value declined and the funding ran out. What she needed was an active, loving parent and a family environment. What she got was exploited and abandoned.
posted by tavella at 11:43 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't have to be an "Okie" to be scorned for being complicit in abuse that severe.

I say this as a person who took a long time to repair my own relationship with my mother for not standing up for me more, but I think it's worth mentioning that at the time of the abuse, the mother was also disabled and completely dependent on the abuser.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:54 AM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

And in regards to her family -- apart from the fact that her brother was himself deeply damaged by their abusive family environment, you are talking about a mother and maternal grandparents who apparently could not recognize _even after the mother had left the abusive husband_ that the starved, non-verbal child needed help.

I don't want to entirely dismiss the mother, because I recognize that she was suffering her own damage, and she did at least take Genie with her when leaving her husband which within her limited capacity was probably heroic, and she did at least try to care for Genie after she was discarded by the researchers, but when her child needed her she let her down for a decade and yes I think she should have been stripped of parental rights. I wouldn't have charged her with any crime, but children deserve parents that will defend them rather than standing by as they are horrendously abused.
posted by tavella at 11:56 AM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised so many people are angry at the scientists for 'abandoning' Genie to the foster care system, instead of angry at the foster care system for being so awful that it constitutes abandonment.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:57 AM on May 19, 2014 [14 favorites]

...I've never before or since seen a person who I wanted so badly to protect from harm and help feel safe.

I remember this when this NOVA first ran and was struck that Genie had this effect on everyone who met her. She had this enormous power, this bottomless well of need, this profound gaze, that drew in everyone who met her. Researchers fought over her, each wanting so much to be her champion, each thinking that he or she was the only person who could protect Genie. And each one abandoned her in the end. It was tragedy compounded upon tragedy.
posted by y2karl at 12:13 PM on May 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Underpants Monster, that's something I would be much more sympathetic to if the deal was that, like, Genie was beaten a lot by her dad. But this is like once in two hundred years level awful.

Then again, I don't know, people had really different ideas about disabled children* in the 60s. Maybe this seemed like some level of normal, somehow? In fact I think the main problem with Genie's continued care in her adult life is that things aren't much better in the disabled adult foster care system.

*If the family really did believe that Genie was disabled from birth?
posted by Sara C. at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2014

I'm surprised so many people are angry at the scientists for 'abandoning' Genie to the foster care system, instead of angry at the foster care system for being so awful that it constitutes abandonment.

Oh, I got plenty of that, too. It's probably just that her case is so unique it's hard to absorb the whole thing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:42 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just reading the comments here is enough to tell me not to click on any of the links.

And it's one of the few occasions where I wished there was a hell, because that's where her parents should be.

The horror upon horror upon tragedy here is beyond my comprehension.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:51 PM on May 19, 2014

Mitrovarr, the problem was that Genie was still young enough to be adopted, and there was at least one qualified person who wanted to do so. Instead, the researchers prevented that so she could become a lab animal for David Rigler. She still might have ended up in institutional care in the long run, of course, but having a competent and loving parent can make all the difference even there in terms of being in a good group home rather than whatever mental institution is convenient.

Also, to be blunt, you are talking about the kind of people who kicked her out once the research grants ran out. They didn't think of her as their child, but an experimental subject. They probably weren't actively cruel -- abusing lab animals outside of experiments leads to bad results, after all -- but being deprived of love for the remaining years of her childhood could have only compounded the damage.
posted by tavella at 12:57 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Who's the person who wanted to adopt her? That didn't come up in the NOVA episode or in any part of the Wikipedia article I read.

It was mentioned that her teacher at LA Children's Hospital wanted to act as her foster parent, but the state of California overruled that, and from what I can tell she doesn't come off any better than any of the researchers (in fact per Wikipedia she may have had a hand in getting the funding cut in the first place). There's also no reason to think that Genie wouldn't have had the same fate if she was fostered by Person A as opposed to Person B.
posted by Sara C. at 1:04 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

tavella: Also, to be blunt, you are talking about the kind of people who kicked her out once the research grants ran out.

What else could they have done? They didn't necessarily have the resources individually to take care of her, their institutions probably wouldn't have put up the money, and in any case they almost certainly didn't have the legal authority to keep her around after the official study was over.

I wouldn't blame the scientists too much. It could be that they went into it believing they would rehabilitate her enough to function independently, or that they would keep receiving funding indefinitely. It's also not completely clear from the wiki that Butler / Ruch would have been a suitable parent; some of the hospital staff believed her ability to care for Genie would have been inadequate. It's possible that her continual attacks on the science team are responsible for undermining their funding and getting Genie back in the hands of her mother, which is how she ended up in foster care.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:55 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having the funding cut is a positive good in my opinion. That was not funding to help Genie, that was funding to use her for a research project. She never, ever should have been a research project. The state should have moved immediately to have parental rights severed and find an adoptive family. Any and all funding should have been purely for her rehabilitation, not for people to use her to advance their academic careers. The only role of any researcher should have been outside consultation if useful to her parents, teachers and carers.

There was a similar case down in Florida a few years back, and while the state of Florida failed the child horribly (the mother had been reported several times), that part at least they got right. Since even with an terribly abusive or neglectful parent it can take a long time for final severance of rights, they cut a deal that put the child above the undoubtedly satisfying good of putting the mother in jail for the years she deserved. She was adopted, and while she will never be anything close to normal she is living a good life and becoming more functional. And even if she eventually ends up in a group home, she'll have parents and a brother to look out for her.
posted by tavella at 3:32 PM on May 19, 2014

She never, ever should have been a research project.

FWIW there are absolutely invaluable things we now know about human language acquisition that we did not know before Genie.

I'm as uneasy as you are about the idea of one couple acting as her primary caregivers, therapists, and heading up a sort of general catch-all research team qualifying for grants just because hey, interesting research subject, amirite. And it's worth noting that the researcher who worked the closest with her, who did everything by the book in terms of grant applications and research documentation, and who did not attempt to also take on her day to day care, was the linguist. It shows that there were some people involved who were doing it right, and there was a way to learn from Genie without being unethical in terms of her long-term welfare.

All of the above said, I'm not ready to decide that she should never have been the subject of scientific research. To me it seems like the research in and of itself wasn't a problem, it was that she didn't have an advocate who could provide her a stable home. Which was always going to be a problem for someone with the issues Genie has, and who is a product of that kind of parental abuse (leaving her without any obvious caregiver). The timing also really sucked. Basically as soon as they got her a little bit functional, she turned eighteen (so, ineligible for adoption) and they lost the grant all at the same time.

The very fact that made her such an interesting scientific case study (finding her right at the end of the linguistic critical period) also made it really, really unlikely that she would have any kind of a happy future, just because our society does not do very well with severely disabled adults who lack a support system.

The research team failed Genie, don't get me wrong. But I don't think that failure was in deciding to study her at all.
posted by Sara C. at 3:51 PM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, I totally agree that she was failed by the foster care system in a truly horrible way - but, it seems like that system fails a lot of children. The outrage is that we don't have a better foster care system, that social services are underfunded and devalued, that every child doesn't get the benefit of a stable and supportive upbringing.

Genie is a special case, though, and again it seems like the valuable research she would have been able to help with should have given the powers that be an incentive to not only provide her a stable home but also a level of rehabilitation and education above and beyond what we would expect for a child in the foster system. (This is in addition to having the basic human decency to try and give her as good a life as she could have to try and make up for the horrible damage inflicted upon her).

In the information presented in the NOVA film and the wikipedia article, it seems like the period when she was living with the Ritgers was the period when she was happiest and also progressing the most. She even stated, when she was in foster homes, that she wanted to go back to marilyn's. If the funding had been there for a full-time nurse to assist the Ritger's, and if someone had convinced them in the beginning that they needed to not also be her therapist, maybe they could have been a longer-term stable family for her. As it was, they thought it would be 3 months at the most, and it ended up being four years.

But I guess the question does become, where do we find the magical people who who would become the stable, competent, supportive family she needed? My suspicion would have been social services funding.
posted by ianhattwick at 7:57 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

BTW, my point above is that there is not necessarily a conflict between studying Genie and providing for her needs - and even in the extremely problematic conflict of interests which occurred with the Ritgers, Genie still fared relatively well.
posted by ianhattwick at 8:00 PM on May 19, 2014

If you're interested in language acquisition and would like to be further horrified and appalled at irresponsible research methods, watch the documentary Project Nim (it's on HBO, not sure about Netflix et al). It's about a chimpanzee taken from its mother shortly after birth and raised by linguists who tried to teach him sign language (verbal language being impossible for chimps to reproduce). I won't spoil what happens but like Genie's story, it's not a particularly happy ending.
posted by desjardins at 10:02 AM on May 20, 2014

Oh god the primate language studies are all a hot fucking mess. So glad that little research trend is over, having pretty conclusively figured out that other primates don't do language, or at least not in a way that humans are ready to legitimately research.
posted by Sara C. at 10:53 AM on May 20, 2014

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