Genie, the Feral Child, part 2

This is part 2 of Genie the Feral Child.  Be sure to read part 1 first!

When Genie arrived at the hospital, she was examined by Dr. James Kent.  She was 4’6” and weighed only 59 pounds.  She had 2 full sets of teeth.  Her body was damaged by the restraints used to keep her immobile.  Her vision was not impaired but she could not focus on objects more than 10 feet away.  This would equate to the size of the room she had been kept in.

Genie’s Room

She hunched over when she stood and could not extend her arms and legs.  She got tired very easily.  The doctors called her movement a “bunny walk” because she bent her arms and held her hands in front of her chest when she walked. [1]  This indicated to the doctors that she was using her hands to test the area around her as she was unable to connect what she was seeing with what might touch her.

Genie, nurses called this her “bunny walk”

Her fine motor skills were equivalent to those of a 2 year old.  She could not chew or swallow food.  She required the use of a diaper and showed no recognition of very hot or very cold temperatures.

She was very interested in discovering new items.  Early on, she did not seem to be able to tell the difference between people.  This included her mother and brother.  When she heard a new sound, she would search for its source.

The doctors learned that Genie was extremely frightened by dogs and cats.  It would be years before Dorothy would reveal that Clark would bark at Genie when he beat her or when she was making noise in her room.  No one would ever know the reason for this behavior.

She did not like to touch people and did not like to be touched.  Genie continuously drooled, spat, sniffed and blew her nose on anything close.  She would take things from other people if she wanted them.  She was impulsive.


When she was upset, Genie would violently self-harm, but did so silently and with a straight-face.  The only noise she would make during these outbursts were with items around her; scraping a chair across the ground, for example.  These tantrums often seemed to happen without reason or source of her frustration or anger.  They could only be stopped by turning her attention to something else or when she was too tired to continue hurting herself.

Genie’s lack of language is what most intrigued scientists that studied her.  She was 13 years old and only seemed to understand about 25 words.  The majority of these words, they assumed, she had acquired since she had been brought to the hospital.  The language centers of her brain acquired new words so it was determined that she simply had never developed a first language.

Doctors and scientists remain divided on whether or not Genie was mentally disabled.

In the care of the doctors, Genie began to progress.  She gained weight, she could see better and she was growing, but some new characteristics began to emerge.  She began hoarding items that she liked.  If anyone touched these objects, it would agitate her.  The things that she hoarded didn’t tend to be traditional toys.  Genie was drawn to colorful plastic items.  Her favorite thing to collect were buckets, but she would play with any ordinary plastic container.  Early in her stay, she would stop throwing a tantrum if she were given a plastic container.

Genie was responding to verbal and non-verbal communication and had a group of adults that she preferred and socialized with.  She was responding well to communications, but was still almost completely non-verbal.  Once the charges against her mother were dropped, Dorothy began visiting regularly.  The two began to build a relationship.


Genie developed an interesting coping mechanism as her stay in the hospital wore on.  She would destroy things after she played with them.  She also liked to watch others destroy her toys when she was done with them.  These actions seemed to calm her.  She also became fascinated with watching people play the piano.  She was able to identify the books that contained the songs that she liked.  She would trade out the music being played for one that she liked more.

About a month into her stay, Dr. Kent was given a grant to study Genie.  In January 1971, the formal, funded, studies of Genie began.

Dr. Jack Block and his wife, Jeanne, were some of the first to evaluate Genie.  They discovered that she showed normal 12 to 13 year old growth and development in some skills, but only 2 to 3 year old development in others.  At this time, Genie had begun listening to the speech of others and mimicking the sounds that she heard.

Follow up tests done in April and May of 1971 showed a huge growth in Genie.  Her lower scoring skill sets were now at almost a 5 year old level.  Her ability to categorize objects and situations was exceptional and she showed skills above her actual age.


Genie was even able to vocalize fear and seek comfort at this point.  She did so, for the first time, when an earthquake hit and she sought comfort in the hospital kitchen.

Genie did not like crowds and had to miss part of her birthday party because there were too many people in attendance.  When in a smaller group setting, Genie began to give and receive hugs.

Despite the great amount of growth that she exhibited, in April 1971, Genie attacked another young female patient.  She thought the girl was wearing a gown that belonged to her.  It was the first time that doctors had ever seen Genie express frustration physically to harm someone other than herself.

The brain testing done that year, and in subsequent years, would show that depriving Genie of language had severely damaged the development of the left hemisphere of her brain.  That is where her language center was housed.  The right hemisphere of her brain seemed much more developed and dominant.  This side controlled her vision and touch.  Even in her isolation, she was able to develop these skills much more than language.

Testing showed that Genie could hear with both ears, her hearing was much more acute to language with her left ear.   She could identify non-language sounds equally, and well, with both ears.

In May 1971, Susan Curtiss joined the team working with Genie.  Curtiss focused on befriending and getting to know Genie before, she believed, any measurable work could be done.

At this time, about a year and a half after her first test, Genie scored up to 8 years old on skills that, earlier, she had scored at 2 years old.  She was much healthier than when she was discovered and she did not tire as quickly as before.  There was concern that she was not socializing with children her own age and she still lacked basic social skills.

In mid-1971, Genie’s living arrangements would begin to change and she would leave the hospital for a series of foster homes.  We will explore this time in Genie’s life next week in part 3 of Genie the Feral Child.

A video summary of this story:

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