Genie, The Feral Child, part 3

This is part 3 of Genie the Feral Child.  Be sure to read parts 1 and 2 first!

Genie was admitted to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in November of 1970 and lived there until June 1971.  In this time, Genie was growing, developing and building relationships with the scientists and hospital staff studying her.

Jean Butler, one of Genie’s teachers at the hospital, asked (and was granted permission) to take Genie to her house for the day several times per month.  On one of these trips, in late June 1971, Butler informed the hospital that she and Genie had been exposed to rubella (German Measles).  She claimed that the two of them would need to stay at her home, away from others, during the contagious period.

There was speculation that Butler fabricated this story to gain more permanent custody of Genie, but, if the statement was true, Butler’s home was a better area to quarantine Genie than the isolation ward at the hospital.  They were concerned that without continued therapy and training, Genie would begin to regress.

Butler was not married and had no children of her own.  She later attempted to become a foster parent to Genie and was awarded temporary custody of her while the matter was being settled in court.  The hospital was adamantly opposed to this arrangement.

While in Butler’s care, Genie began going through puberty.  According to many studies, this time period marks the upper limits of significant language learning in most children.

Butler became interested in Genie’s hoarding behavior, noting that Genie now filled the plastic containers that she liked so much with liquid and stored them in her room.

Butler also addressed Genie’s fear of dogs during this time.  She was given a toy dog and was shown the TV show Lassie.  Genie would learn to accept dogs that were contained (behind a fence), but could not tolerate cats at all.

While living with Butler, Genie stopped self-harming and began to talk out her frustration or destroy objects.  Genie began to learn and use new words more frequently and no longer needed a diaper.  But Butler also began to deny visits to the scientists studying Genie (whom she called the “Genie Team [1]).  James Kent and Susan Curtiss were denied access to Genie altogether.

Susan Curtiss

There was no denying that Genie had progressed well in Butler’s care and most scientists believed that she meant well for Genie, but she was preventing them from doing the work prescribed by the grant they had received.

There were accusations that Butler was difficult to deal with, had issues with authority and some, including Curtiss, claimed that Butler’s main drive was fame.  Curtiss claimed that she heard Butler say that Genie would make her “the next Anne Sullivan [1]” (a reference to the teacher that worked so closely with Helen Keller to teach her to communicate).

In August 1970, Butler’s application to foster Genie was denied.  This could have been, in part, because Butler was an employee of the hospital in which Genie was receiving care.  Hospital policy was clear in saying that hospital staff could not foster patients.  Butler stated that Genie was extremely upset when she was told that she would not be staying with Butler.

It was suggested that Genie could go live with David Rigler and his wife, Marilyn.  David had originally applied for and received the grant to study Genie.  The Riglers had three children already and Marilyn had previous experience working with children.  David was concerned that living with Genie would conflict with his working relationship with her, but the couple agreed that, if no other living arrangements could be made, that Genie could come live with them.  The hospital agreed that this was the best option for Genie at the time.

Genie with David Rigler

The Riglers originally agreed to keep Genie for no more than 3 months.  Marilyn taught Genie while David took over as her therapist.  The research team was able to more closely work with Genie while in the Rigler home than in Butler’s.

Upon Genie’s arrival at the Riglers’, she began to require the use of a diaper again.  The initial observations of the Riglers were in stark contrast to what Butler had reported.  They noted that Genie still regularly self-harmed and was easily triggered to do so.  They noticed that she was much less talkative than Butler reported.  She was hesitant to speak and, when she did, rarely said more than one word.  Unless she was scared, she would often take a long time (several minutes) to respond physically or vocally to a situation.  She still did not respond to extreme temperatures and was still very impulsive.

Marilyn noticed that Genie liked when people told her that she was pretty.  She was able to convince Genie to vocalize her frustration, instead of self-harming, by telling her that she wasn’t as pretty when she left marks on herself.

Genie with Marilyn Rigler

Eventually, Genie was able to control herself enough to attend a public school for the mentally handicapped where she interacted with children her own age.  At home, she learned to iron, sew and make herself food.  Genie learned to share and began to show an understanding of right and wrong.

During the time that Genie lived with Butler, Dorothy had surgery to fix the cataracts in her eyes and was finally able to see.  She came to visit Genie weekly during her stay with the Riglers.  They began to bond, but there was some tension between Dorothy and Marilyn as the women felt they were both trying to occupy the same role in Genie’s life.  Dorothy was skeptical of the scientists working with Genie, while there was underlying resentment of Dorothy from them because she had so badly neglected Genie in the first place.  David, in particular, thought that Dorothy was in denial of the damage she had caused her daughter.

Butler remained in contact with Dorothy during Genie’s stay with the Riglers.  She steadily convinced Dorothy that the team was not looking after Genie’s best interest and caused further friction between Dorothy and the scientists.

Despite their initial agreement of 3 months, Genie lived with the Riglers for 4 years.  She continued to grow physically and emotionally.  She still lacked many basic social skills, but seemed very happy during this time.

By 1975, despite only understanding approximately 25 words when she first came to the hospital, Genie could now identify most of the objects around her.  She clearly understood what was being said to her, even if she refused to use the word herself.  Sentence construction and grammar were Genie’s biggest hurdle.  She could imitate correct speech, but could not produce sentences with proper structure and mostly spoke in broken sentences.  Scientists were beginning to understand how the brain compartmentalized what words a person knows from their ability to use them in conversation.

One example of Genie’s issues with speech was here confusion between “you” and “me.”  She would say you while pointing at herself.  Scientist attributed some of this to her inability to tell the difference between herself and others.

Genie learned about money and had an intense desire to earn it.  She began responding to activities that would lead to her earning a reward.  Despite all her accomplishments, scientist discovered that people who had not acquired a first language before a certain period, would never fully learn one.

Despite this, they did learn that Genie could talk about the things that happened to her before she learned to talk.  Genie would say things like, “Father hit big stick” and “Father is angry” [1].  It took Genie a while to understand the concept of death and, for a long time, she was afraid that her father would find her.

Genie was able to express the things she could not say with hand movements and by drawing pictures.  She was particularly apt to draw things that scared her.  Towards the end of her stay with the Riglers, Genie began to learn sign language.

Genie turned 18 in 1975.  This would mark a turning point in Genie’s life.  Dorothy decided that she would like to care for Genie herself.  The Riglers agreed and Genie was returned to her mother to live in the home in which she grew up.  At this same time, the grant that funded the research done on Genie ended and was not renewed.

Genie with Dorothy

Genie only lived with Dorothy a few months before she became too much for her mother to handle and was turned over to the California Department of Health.  The Riglers stated that they were unaware of this.  Genie was put in a foster home at the end of 1975.

Genie’s new home did not allow her mother regular visits and was far less accommodating than the Rigler or Butler homes.  While in the care of her new foster parents, Genie was abused physically and emotionally.  She began to require the use of a diaper again.  Genie refused to speak, or even open her mouth, after she was beaten for throwing up.  Curtiss continued to meet with Genie once a week and pushed to have Genie removed from her new foster home after seeing the decline in her language and physical well-being.  Genie remained in the care of these foster parents for almost 2 years.

Genie returned to the Children’s Hospital in 1977.  She rehabilitated there for two weeks before being placed in another new foster home where she remained for less than a year.  Genie was placed in yet another foster home in January of 1978.

Genie was confused by all the moving around and believed that she wasn’t good enough to have a permanent home.  She continued to deteriorate during this time.

In 1976 A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day “Wild Child” was published by Curtiss.  Dorothy took offense to the title and contents of the paper.  Dorothy brought a lawsuit against Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the doctors and scientists that worked with Genie.  She stated that they had breached confidentiality agreements and had prioritized testing over Genie’s general well-being.

Rigler and Dorothy’s lawyers went on to say that Butler had encouraged Dorothy to file the lawsuit.  The case was dismissed.

Curtis met with Genie one last time on January 3, 1978 before Dorothy cut all ties between Genie and Curtiss and halted all research and testing on her daughter.  Butler remained in contact with Dorothy and reported on Genie’s condition until a stroke in 1986.  She died in 1988.

Genie lived in a series of foster homes and hospitals from 1978 until the 1990s.  She experienced severe abuse during this time.  In 1984, when Genie was 27, she had a birthday party.  One of the scientists that worked with Genie was in attendance.  He saw her again two years later.  He reported that both times Genie did not speak and seemed very unhappy.

Genie spent 1992 in a state-run hospital and only saw her mother, who had lost her vision again, once a month.

In 1993, Genie seemed to be in a better situation, in a supportive foster situation with regular visits from her mother.  She began speaking more and seemed much happier.  The Riglers, by then, had begun speaking with Genie and her mother again.  Upon seeing Genie again for the first time, she was happy to see them.

It is assumed that Genie is sill alive and living in Los Angeles in the care of the state of California.  Her last possible sighting was in 2000 by a private investigator hired to check on her current situation.  She was living in a center for mentally handicapped adults and seemed to be doing well.  She did not speak much, but was communicating via sign language.

Genie with Dorothy

Dorothy died at 87.  John Wiley, Genie’s brother, has only ever spoken out about himself and his family one time in 2008.  He said that he had not seen Genie or his mother since 1982 and did not keep up with the media concerning the case.  He said that he had heard that Genie was doing well.  John died in 2011.

Genie’s Brother, John Wiley

A video summary of this story:

Sources/Photo Credits

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