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Who Weeps for the Wild Child? : GENIE: An Abused Child's Flight from Silence, By Russ Rymer ; (HarperCollins: $20; 221 pp.)

July 04, 1993|Nancy Mairs | Mairs' new book, "Ordinary Time," has just been published by Beacon Press.

As my grown children would doubtless cheerfully attest, at no time in their lives have I taken the prize--nor even an honorable mention--for Perfect Mom. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine how I could drag a 20-month-old child into a bleak and silent back bedroom; confine her there for more than a decade, alternately strapped to a potty chair and stuffed into a sleeping bag in a crib of wire mesh; cram her mouth with cereal or soft-boiled egg and rub her face in whatever, choking, she spat out; bark and growl outside her door or beat her with a large piece of wood if she made the littlest sound. Nor can I picture myself, even if I were timid and virtually blind, abetting my psychopathic husband in these behaviors for 12 minutes, much less as many years.

This deficiency of empathy--or is it self-protective denial?--for the founding situation in "Genie: An Abused Child's Flight From Silence" creates a problem for the reader similar, perhaps, to the one experienced by the scientists depicted in the book. So alien does the product of this appalling mistreatment appear--inarticulate, incontinent, subject to fits of scratching and spitting, unable to dress herself or meet a gaze or even chew her food--that she might be perceived more readily as a research object than as a human child.

And that, as Russ Rymer narrates in absorbing detail, is just how Genie was taken when she hobbled, diminutive and silent, her hands curled up like little paws in front of her, beside her all but blind mother into a Los Angeles welfare office in November 1970. Accused of child abuse, her father shot himself dead and her mother was found not guilty because she had been coerced by her abusive husband. Genie herself was admitted to Childrens Hospital as a ward of the court. Within a couple of months, according to one consultant, "From being a totally neglected waif . . . Genie had become a prize" fiercely sought after by psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers and linguists. And so she would remain, at least until the research funds, most of them from the National Institutes of Mental Health, ran out. Thereafter she was turned over to her mother, returned to the state, placed in a series of inappropriate foster homes and finally removed to a home for mentally retarded adults.

The professionals involved were neither heartless nor venal, Rymer makes plain; however, "(t)he mixture of ambition, charity, and inquisitiveness that Genie attracted . . . turned out to be explosive." Although some emphasized therapy for Genie whereas others stressed the research opportunities she provided, all were sensitive to ethical issues; and many developed affection for her. Despite her unsettling and sometimes disgusting conduct, Genie's capacity for a kind of "preternatural communication" without words could affect others profoundly and permanently. Susan Curtiss, for example, whose doctoral dissertation, "Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day 'Wild Child' " was published in 1977, still yearned for her years later: "I'd give up my job, I'd change careers, to see her again."

This Genie sounds like no mere research object. But was she a human child? Rymer sets the matter in terms of some basic intertwined ideas:

"Language is a logic system so organically tuned to the mechanism of the human brain that it actually triggers the brain's growth. What are human beings? Beings whose brain development is uniquely responsive to and dependent on the receipt at the proper time of even a small sample of language.

"In the light of all this, then, what was Genie?"

The only words Genie could speak when she entered Childrens Hospital were stopit and nomore. Although she acquired more words and learned to string them together "in the abbreviated non-grammar of a telegram," she never mastered syntax. She couldn't ask questions, distinguish you from me , or employ socially interactive speech such as hello or thank you.

Since she was capable of learning cognitive skills other than language, the scientists interviewed by Rymer believed her intelligent. As Curtiss put it, "She was the most disturbed person I'd ever met. But the lights were on. There was somebody home." The problem seems to have been that she had missed the "critical period" for language acquisition, which ends with puberty. Thus, the "flight from silence" of the book's title is misleading. In any meaningful sense, Genie--shown in a photo taken on her 27th birthday "with a facial expression of cow-like incomprehension"--never "flew" anywhere.

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