I was searching my bookshelf this morning and came across one of my favorite books Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer. I first read this book as a reading assignment in a Linguistic Anthropology class in university. The intent was to examine whether language is innate or learned.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Genie's story she was a feral child, a 13 year-old girl discovered living in a cage, severely abused and neglected by her parents. She didn't speak, walk properly and wasn't potty trained. When she was first found she was the size of a 7 year-old. Genie became a project and a pawn. Her doctors were more interested in exploiting her than in helping her. They saw her as an opportunity to test their theories about language. Could they teach this child who had no verbal skills, who's family had never spoken to her, to speak and communicate. Passed between foster families (where abuse continued in some cases) and doctors, Genie was lost again.
The book itself is written by one of those doctors, yet it manages to capture the pure horror of her situation and the sense of frustration in the system that let Genie down. Imagine David Pelzer's A Child Called It mixed in with textbook research. It raises a number of good points, about the rights of parents, the condition of the foster care system, the objectivity of doctors, and the origins of language. Still the question remains is language innate or is it learned. Researchers had the opportunity to learn from Genie, to see if they could teach her, but they were too caught up in the possible glory of their discovery they forgot that she was not an animal there for them to study. She was a child lost.
Ten years ago Genie inspired me to write my one and only poem.
They had no understanding
Of what they had found.
A mystery or Simple Simon
Or was it just a science?
From a barren room to Disneyland,
They tested her repeatedly.
They tried to teach her everything
As she began again.
Just a little bunny,
She cowered in the corner
Until they pulled her out
And tried to make her dance
To decide, just who was right.
She gave herself to them
Complete and utter trust.
They poked and prodded
Until she stopped in time.
Not satisfied with what they found,
They turned around,
Shoved her farther back than before
And turned the key behind them.
They didn’t want to see
The people they’d become.
And the Genie disappeared
Leaving her where she’d been found.