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"Secret of the Wild Child"

PBS Airdate: March 4, 1997

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA, the Emmy Award-winning story of a girl who spent her childhood locked in a bedroom.

WALTER CRONKITE: The girl reportedly was still wearing diapers when a social worker discovered the case two weeks ago.

ANNOUNCER: Raised in isolation, "Genie" was a wild child, uncivilized, barely able to walk or talk.

SUSAN CURTISS: The indications are that she was beaten for making noise.

ANNOUNCER: With footage never before seen on television, NOVA follows the controversial efforts to unlock the "Secret of the Wild Child."

NOVA is funded by Prudential.

Prudential. Insurance, health care, real estate, and financial services. For more than a century, bringing strength and stability to America's families.

And by Merck. Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease and improving health. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And viewers like you.

STACY KEACH: Once in a great while, civilized society comes across a wild child, a child who has grown up in severe isolation with virtually no human contact. This is the story of such a case. The story begins in Los Angeles on November 4, 1970.

WALTER CRONKITE: Officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia have taken custody of a thirteen-year-old girl they say was kept in such isolation by her parents that she never even learned to talk. Her elderly parents have been charged with child abuse.

STACY KEACH: This is the scene of the crime. The child was locked in a room and tied to a potty chair for most of her life. Completely restrained, she was forced to sit alone day after day and often through the night. She had little to look at and no one to talk to for more than ten years.

WALTER CRONKITE: The girl reportedly was uttering infantile noises and still wearing diapers when a social worker discovered the case two weeks ago, but the authorities are hoping she still may have a normal learning capacity.

STACY KEACH: Here was a thirteen-year-old who seemed like an infant, a girl who'd be known as "Genie." Genie was taken to Children's Hospital in Los Angeles where she immediately won the hearts of doctors and scientists.

SUSAN CURTISS: She was fragile and beautiful, almost haunting, and so I was pulled, I was very drawn to her, even though I was nervous and had no idea, in many respects, what to expect.

STACY KEACH: Genie was about to test an idea important to science and society: that a nurturing environment could make up for even the most nightmarish of pasts.

SUSAN CURTISS: If you make up a sentence in your head, or you write it down, and it has, say, ten, twelve words in it, chances are you can listen for the rest of your life for someone else to say the sentence. You can go to the library, and look for that sentence.

STACY KEACH: Here at UCLA, Susan Curtiss teaches students about a crucial human trait, the ability to learn language.

SUSAN CURTISS: And chances are, you will never come across that sentence.

STACY KEACH: The students begin their study through a famous case.

SUSAN CURTISS: The case name is Genie. This is not the person's real name, but when we think about what a genie is, a genie is a creature that comes out of a bottle or whatever, but emerges into human society past childhood. We assume that it really isn't a creature that had a human childhood.

STACY KEACH: Susan Curtiss has a special connection to the story she's telling. Twenty years ago, she was asked to join a team working to rehabilitate Genie.

SUSAN CURTISS: I was literally at the right place at the right time. I was a new graduate student interested in language acquisition, unencumbered by family ties or responsibilities, and they asked me if I would be interested.

STACY KEACH: When Curtiss first joined the case, Genie had a strange bunny walk and other almost inhuman characteristics. Genie constantly spat. She sniffed and clawed. She barely spoke or made any noises.

SUSAN CURTISS: The indications are that she was beaten for making noise and consequently, had learned, basically, not to vocalize. And she really didn't vocalize very much at all. When I first met her, she was silent most of the time.

STACY KEACH: Genie also received daily visits at Children's Hospital from James Kent, her psychologist. Kent recalls first meeting his new patient.

JAMES KENT: I was captivated by her. I was not the last person to become captivated by her. The story, as we began to learn about it, was sort of one of the things, of course, that would reach out and grab you anyway. But she had a personal quality that seemed to elicit rescue fantasies, and this in a group of people who were interested in taking care of kids and who specialized in early childhood, who were going to be sort of powered by rescue fantasies anyway. She reached out and grabbed lots of us.

STACY KEACH: One of Genie's most captivating qualities was the intense way she explored her new environment. Oddly, even strangers who knew nothing about her story seemed to sense her need to do so.

SUSAN CURTISS: One particularly striking memory of those early months was an absolutely wonderful man who was a butcher, and he never asked her name, he never asked anything about her. They just connected and communicated somehow. And every time we came in—and I know this was so with others, as well—He would slide open the little window and hand her something that wasn't wrapped, a bone of some sort, some meat, fish, whatever. And he would allow her to do her thing with it, and to do her thing, what her thing was, basically, was to explore it tactilely, to put it up against her lips and feel it with her lips and touch it, almost as if she were blind.

STACY KEACH: Word of the "wild child" spread, attracting scientists from all around the country. One of them was Oklahoma psychiatrist Jay Shurley.

JAY SHURLEY: When introduced, I extended my hand. She reached out with her fingers and delicately touched my hand, and then, in a sense, that was it. She had made my acquaintance. She was satisfied, for herself, about me. But my reaction was, I had a thousand questions, immediately. Who? What? How? How does this come about? Why is this? Why do I see what I'm seeing?

STACY KEACH: Shurley was an expert in social isolation. Genie was the most extreme case he'd ever seen.

JAY SHURLEY: Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And try to expand this to ten years boggles one's mind.

STACY KEACH: Shurley wanted to assess how well Genie had survived her long years of isolation. He directed the team to gather information on her brain waves. For four nights running, they wired Genie to instruments that measured the electrical activity in her brain while she slept. What they found was an unusually high number of so-called sleep spindles, the dense bunching patterns that look like spindles on a spinning machine. This was an abnormal brain wave pattern. The sleep studies raised a question that would puzzle the Genie team for years. Was Genie brain damaged from her years of abuse, or had she been retarded from birth? When Genie was a baby, her father apparently decided she was retarded. He insisted on keeping her isolated because of that. Authorities pieced together these few facts in the early weeks. Genie's strange family circumstances made it hard to learn more. Genie's mother, weak and nearly blind, claimed that she, too, had been a victim of her domineering husband. Genie's father, shortly after authorities discovered Genie, shot and killed himself. The suicide only added to the interest in Genie's case. She was a prize patient, and in the months to come, the number of visiting scientists increased. Genie's new celebrity status marked the beginning of a debate that would intensify over time: How should her case be handled? James Kent's plan was the first to be adopted. He believed Genie could get better if she were allowed to form relationships, and he was encouraged when she started to do so.

JAMES KENT: Up until one particular day, Genie didn't seem to respond in any special way to my coming or going, at the end of our sessions. Then one day, when I'd left, her expression changed from happy to sad to indicate that there was some sadness in the separation for her. And it was the first indication that I had that we were beginning to form this relationship. I thought as long as she had the capacity to form attachments, she had the capacity to learn, she had the capacity to get better.

STACY KEACH: By the end of May, something had happened to add to the hopes for Genie's future. It was a breakthrough that everyone had waited for. It was captured on videotape by Jean Butler, Genie's special education teacher. Here, in a classroom at Children's Hospital, Butler is teaching Genie to tie her own shoes. Butler is about to tell Genie, "You do it, and we can tell Dr. Kent what you can do." Listen to Genie's reaction.

JEAN BUTLER: Then we can go tell Dr. Kent what you did today.

GENIE: Doctor.

JEAN BUTLER: Dr. Kent, uh-huh.

STACY KEACH: Genie said the word "doctor."

JEAN BUTLER: Right there it says that, doesn't it?

GENIE: Doctor.

JEAN BUTLER: Dr. Kent, huh?

STACY KEACH: It was one of more than a hundred words she knew by that spring. Listen to another.

JEAN BUTLER: Did you tie it?

GENIE: Tie.

JEAN BUTLER: Tie, yes.

STACY KEACH: She was difficult to understand, but Genie was repeating words. Genie was beginning to talk.

SUSAN CURTISS: I could tell, as all others could, just looking at her, that there was a lot to Genie, and that what we had to do was to make sure we gave her opportunities to express, find a way to take what was latent and express it, or somehow then, you know, acquire it, because the potential just seemed so great.

STACY KEACH: For the first time in her life, Genie seemed to be thriving. Her mental and physical growth since coming to Children's Hospital was obvious. Genie's progress gave birth to a daring hope. She might fully recover, and science might learn how. Her doctors even publically predicted success. Their confidence was an eerie echo of a moment from the past, an echo of another case like Genie's that preceded hers by nearly two hundred years. The case began in 1800, when citizens of this region in southern France discovered a remarkable creature who had crept out of the nearby forest. He was animal in behavior, human in form, mute, and naked. He was a wild child. He would be known as Victor, and this statue would be erected to mark his entry into civilization. Citizens in the village where Victor was discovered guessed he was twelve years old. His food preferences, his lack of speech, and the scars on his body indicated he had been in the wild for most of his life. Victor's story intrigued historian and psychologist Harlan Lane. Around the time doctors in Los Angeles were following Genie's case, Lane was in France, tracking Victor's story.

HARLAN LANE: Shortly after the boy was captured, a biology professor took a very careful look at him, name of Bonaterre. Bonaterre tells a story of tremendous indifference to cold that Victor had. One day, he took him and took off all his clothes, and the boy was thrilled to have his clothes taken off, and he started leading him into the outdoors, and it was surrounded by snow at that time. And Victor, far from protesting, was filled with joy. He gave out cries of joy and pulled Bonaterre out the doors and wanted to get out into the snow. On other occasions, he was actually out in the snow bare naked, leaping about, throwing the snow in the air, eating snow. Bonaterre concludes—and I think we have to conclude—that our sensitivity to temperature is very much influenced by our life experiences.

STACY KEACH: Word of the wild child traveled north to Paris, where the first anthropological society had just formed. It was the end of the Age of Enlightenment, a time of enormous discovery and debate.

HARLAN LANE: Victor walked into the middle of a raging debate. His timing was incredible. The question was, what makes us human? What separates man from the beasts? Is it human appearance? Well, anthropological expeditions were returning with a wide variety of races, and Parisians were not so clear on human appearance. Is it walking upright? But orangutans walked upright. Is it language? First reports were that Victor had no language. Then again, perhaps he could learn some. In any case, philosophers, anatomists, and their ilk were convinced that careful study of Victor could finally answer the question, what is it that makes us human?

STACY KEACH: With Victor, Parisians had a chance to see human nature stripped of society and culture. This was a situation no one would set out to create on purpose. It was, therefore, referred to as "the forbidden experiment." The scientists in Paris quickly summoned Victor from the south of France. Although Victor could hear, they brought him to this school, the National Institute for the Deaf.

HARLAN LANE: OK. We're at the National Institute for the Deaf, and it happened right here. The gardener from Rodez brings the wild boy right through here into the courtyard, and I guess they were expected. And the director, the Abbe Sicard, comes out, and, come on, they would meet about here. Sicard comes out, and what does he see? Not a nice little bourgeois deaf kid in the school uniform, his new pupil, but a raging, spitting, snarling, filthy savage, defecating where he is, urinating where he is, biting, covered with scars, long hair, wadded, yellow teeth, long fingernails, a savage. Sicard had never seen anything like that in his life. So, he backs off. What's he going to do? Idea. He's just hired a young physician from the military hospital up the street, a fellow by the name of Jean-Marc Itard. So he calls, "Itard! Itard!"

STACY KEACH: Jean-Marc Itard was a twenty-six-year-old medical student who was ready to make his mark. He saw the wild boy as an opportunity.

HARLAN LANE: Oh, Itard was an interesting man, wasn't he? How was he going to make a name for himself, a place for himself, in medicine and in the intellectual excitement of the time? Because he was a brilliant fellow, and he read philosophy astutely, he studied medicine. Well, the answer was that here was a chance that would make or break him. If he could actually civilize a wild child, the first person in history to do so, why, he would be a figure down through history. Even in the 20th century, people might be discussing him.

STACY KEACH: Itard's ambitions would pay off. Not only would people in the 20th century still be discussing him, but the famous French director, Francois Truffaut, would play Itard in a movie about the case. The movie illustrates the risk Itard took. More experienced doctors concluded Victor was profoundly retarded from birth and unable to learn. Itard, though, believed that Victor had become retarded because of his years of living in the wild. He believed he could civilize Victor. Itard's diary of his work with Victor makes this one of the most documented cases of wild children throughout history. In fact, the diary served as the basis for Truffaut's movie, called The Wild Child. In Los Angeles, Truffaut's movie premiered at the Los Feliz theater in Hollywood. One of the strangest chapters of this story is the timing of the premiere, for Truffaut's movie about history's most famous wild child opened exactly one week after Genie was discovered. In true Hollywood fashion, the Genie team took advantage of this coincidence. They arranged their own private screening. In charge of the event was hospital chief of psychiatry Howard Hansen.

HOWARD HANSEN: Well, that afternoon at 4:30, we left Children's Hospital and we paraded up the street. We had an entourage up the street to the Los Feliz theater. It was awe-inspiring to us, because here was the first case that had been documented in any scientific way, and here we were having an opportunity to see a film portrayal of that.

STACY KEACH: Here was history's stamp of approval for daring to rehabilitate a wild child. Itard inspired everyone at the screening.

JAY SHURLEY: Afterwards, everybody was shocked and stunned. They just sat in silence for a bit, because the film was so powerful in itself, and then the analogy with Genie began to hit. It was like, here history was repeating itself, and everybody there thought, 'Here is an opportunity to learn something.'

STACY KEACH: The screening was part of a special conference for which the Genie team invited consultants from all over the country. A government agency, the National Institute of Mental Health, had agreed to fund a scientific project on Genie. Now, it was time to focus the direction of research. It soon became clear, though, that participants were unlikely to agree on one course of action.

HOWARD HANSEN: Oh, we were off in a million directions. I mean, each expert, each person in their own discipline, thought, 'Oh, wow! I can do this!' 'I can do this!' 'I can do that!' We were flooded, flooded with our own associations and with the pursuits that each of us might have thought, 'Wow! Look what we can do! Look what we might learn from this, a girl who has appeared out of nowhere.'

STACY KEACH: To bring all the proposed plans for Genie into focus, there was another player on the team, David Rigler, a psychologist at Children's Hospital. Rigler, too, was hooked on Genie's case.

DAVID RIGLER: I think everybody who came in contact with her was attracted to her. She had a quality of somehow connecting with people, which developed more and more, but was present, really, from the start. She had a way of reaching out without saying anything, but just somehow by the kind of look in her eyes, and people wanted to do things for her.

STACY KEACH: Rigler decided how to focus the research around the time of Genie's first birthday at Children's Hospital. Genie was now fourteen years old. The timing was fitting, because Rigler wanted to know, could the clock be turned back for Genie? In particular, could a teenager still learn to talk? This had already been the subject of much debate by the time Genie was discovered. It all began with Noam Chomsky, a young linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky declared that we acquire language not just because we are taught it, but because we are born with the principles of language. They're in our genes. We have language, Chomsky said, because of nature, not just nurture. Then, along came a neuropsychologist to add his own twist to the theory. Eric Lenneberg agreed we're born with the principles of language, but acclaimed there is a deadline for applying them. If a first language isn't acquired by puberty, he said, it may be too late. Chomsky and Lenneberg rocked the field. They were hot. Linguistics was in. It was the perfect time to test the new ideas, recalls linguist Elissa Newport.

ELISSA NEWPORT: What Lenneberg proposed is what's called the "critical period hypothesis," and what he suggested is that there's a particular period in the life of humans when they're ripe for learning languages. What this hypothesis was looking for was some more direct evidence. But of course, you don't do these experiments. One never wishes to deprive somebody of language during the critical period to see what happens. It happened that, at that time, when that would have been the right thing for Lenneberg's hypothesis, Genie was discovered.

STACY KEACH: This is why Susan Curtiss joined the Genie team. She was a graduate student in linguistics. She would put the critical period hypothesis to its first real test. This is one of the first videotapes of Curtiss's work with Genie.

SUSAN CURTISS: She wanted, it seemed to me, almost desperately, to re-code her world with verbal labels. And sometimes, we would just stand at a window and she would take my hand and point out the window at a panorama before us, and I wouldn't really know exactly what it was she wanted to know the word for, but she would persist until she at least got a new word.

STACY KEACH: While Curtiss tracked Genie's speech, James Kent continued work on her emotional development. Kent was concerned that with the growing number of people involved in her case, Genie wouldn't be able to form single, dependable relationships. So, he set out to be her surrogate parent.

JAMES KENT: I wanted to part of her sort of ordinary life, so I would frequently be there in the morning when she had breakfast and be there in the evening when she went to bed, read her a story, kiss her good night, turn off the lights, go, and then do things during the day. When she became—When she had sort of the important things that she had to go through, like physical exams or things like that, I would come along with her, as though she were my child. She was very special to me.

INTERVIEW: Did you feel you loved her?

JAMES KENT: Well, doctors aren't supposed to love their patients, but if you could find a word that meant the same thing, yes. Yeah, I was very attached to her. The first time she saw a helium balloon, she couldn't believe them, the fact that she could let them go up and pull them back down again. She had, you know, the kind of laugh that some people have, and it's just a full-out chuckle; it's so contagious, everybody around them starts to laugh. Well, they made her laugh like that.

SUSAN CURTISS: One of my memories was that we would go to a place, say, Woolworth's, where there would be a stand of spools of thread, and spools where each color thread would incrementally change from the spools next to it, and she wanted a word for every different hue. And, I didn't know. I mean, I had a box of 64 Crayola crayons as a child, and I remembered, you know, burnt sienna and all these colors that I tried to extract from my memory, but I don't—English doesn't have words for all of these different hues. And she was very frustrated when I would say, "Very dark blue," and "Very, very dark blue."

STACY KEACH: For Genie, every new object, every field trip, was a visit to a magic kingdom. The previous fall, the world had discovered Genie. Now, Genie could discover the world.

DAVID RIGLER: There was a time that she passed a father and a little boy who were coming out of a shop, and the little boy was carrying a toy fire engine. And they just passed, and then they turned around and came back, and the boy, without a word, handed the fire engine to Genie. She never asked for it. She never said a word. She did this kind of thing, somehow, to people.

JAMES KENT: Could I imagine what that was like? Could I see things through her eyes? I don't believe so. I don't believe I really could. Sometimes, I could understand and guess pretty well what she was going to do, but that was familiarity, and not an ability, I think, to empathize with, understand, the way she saw the world.

STACY KEACH: The summer after her discovery was a time of firsts for Genie.

JEAN BUTLER: Water? Can you get a glass of water? You can.

STACY KEACH: The most significant happened here, in the home of Jean Butler, her teacher at Children's Hospital.

JEAN BUTLER: Do you want to get some water and take it to the table?

STACY KEACH: Genie moved in. It was a new step for Genie, her first trial run in a foster home.

JEAN BUTLER: Is that what you want? This is July 11th, Mrs. Butler's house. This is lunchtime. She just took the milk and the chocolate milk into the bedroom.

STACY KEACH: Here, Butler videotaped Genie's passion for hoarding things, especially containers of liquid. Although there is no obvious explanation, this has been reported in other cases of children raised in isolation. Genie began living here after Butler said she had exposed Genie to German measles. It began as a temporary quarantine. Butler wanted to make it permanent. Butler, shown here with Genie and James Kent, wanted to be Genie's official foster parent, and she wanted to see changes in the handling of Genie's case. Butler thought frequent visits by team members Kent and Susan Curtiss were exhausting Genie.

SUSAN CURTISS: That was the summer when we were then both disallowed into Jean Butler's house, so we didn't—We didn't have such a fun summer. It was a summer that included weeks of concern and anxiety and, you know, anger, and all kinds of things, because he and I were kicked out of Jean's house.

INTERVIEWER: Why?

SUSAN CURTISS: Why? Because she was crazy, and she didn't want the other attachments. I mean, she wanted everything. She used to walk around saying, "I am going to be the next Annie Sullivan. This girl is going to make me famous." And we used to sort of joke about it, because she was so overt about it. And we felt, even if she has the desire, why is she so willing to tell the rest of us? But she certainly found a way to—You know, she concocted this story. The whole thing was untrue. She didn't have German measles. She had a rash.

STACY KEACH: The bickering continued for more than a month, according to journals left behind by Jean Butler, who died in 1988. Butler wrote she feared Genie was being experimented with too much.

JEAN BUTLER: Are you going to do that again?

STACY KEACH: Whether this was Butler's true motivation in keeping away other team members cannot be known. But it raised again the issue of how Genie should be treated. Could she be a scientific subject and still be a patient? On the morning of August 13, social workers arrived at Butler's house with a decision on her application to be Genie's foster parent. Partly on advice from Children's Hospital, it was rejected.

HOWARD HANSEN: We were not satisfied with the quality of the care that Genie was able—had at Jean Butler's. So, that had to be interrupted. And again, it was up to management, i.e., us, to interrupt that.

STACY KEACH: Genie returned to Children's Hospital for only a couple of hours. A new foster parent came to take her home. It was David Rigler. Rigler decided to take charge of the case. He decided to take over Kent's role as therapist and also be Genie's foster parent and the principal investigator.

DAVID RIGLER: Ordinarily, mental health people are not involved in these kinds of multiple roles, but I have to stress how desperate we were to find a place that was appropriate, and I remember making the commitment, in my mind, for a three-month period, which obviously got extended much longer.

INTERVIEWER: How long was she—did she stay?

DAVID RIGLER: She was with us approximately four years.

STACY KEACH: Genie's new home was in a neighborhood near Children's Hospital. She lived here with David Rigler, his wife Marilyn, and the Rigler children.

MARILYN RIGLER: We really didn't know what to expect, except that we knew that Genie needed a great deal of help. And on the other hand, it was very exciting to feel that perhaps we could help her, and perhaps she could be rehabilitated.

STACY KEACH: Marilyn, a graduate student in human development, was Genie's new teacher. She soon found herself giving Genie unconventional lessons. Genie would erupt in silent storms of rage, tugging and tearing her own body. To turn Genie's self-destructive anger outward, Marilyn taught her how to have a fit, how to slam doors, and stamp her feet. Eventually, Marilyn encouraged Genie to turn her pain and anger into words.

MARILYN RIGLER: And there came a time when she could say, "Rough time," and sometimes, she could tell you the degree of how upset she was by waving one finger, which meant she was very upset, or kind of waving her hand, which meant she was upset, but it wasn't going to be a big deal. I.

GENIE: I. Jump, jump.

MARILYN RIGLER: Let's see you jump. Good. Can you jump some more?

GENIE: Jump.

STACY KEACH: One of Marilyn's first tasks was to awaken in Genie a sense of her connection to the physical world.

MARILYN RIGLER: March.

GENIE: March.

MARILYN RIGLER: March. Tell me what I'm doing.

STACY KEACH: Like her historic counterpart, Victor, Genie seemed disconnected from certain bodily sensations.

MARILYN RIGLER: I would allow her to run her own bath water or her own shower water, and when I would touch it, I would realize it was icy cold. And I would say, "Oh, this is so cold! You're going to freeze!" And it was as though it didn't make any difference.

STACY KEACH: In their new role as Genie's foster parents, the Riglers were suddenly responsible for a child who needed full-time supervision. They also took responsibility for Genie's therapy, attempts to help her grapple with the horror of her childhood.

MARILYN RIGLER: OK, baby. Open your mouth.

STACY KEACH: In this primitive role-playing exercise, Marilyn pretends to be Genie's mother.

MARILYN RIGLER: Hurry up. Hurry up, because there isn't any time. Father's going to be angry.

STACY KEACH: Marilyn tries to elicit memories of Genie's past.

MARILYN RIGLER: I wonder what you're thinking.

GENIE: Father.

MARILYN RIGLER: You want to see your father? Father is not living?

GENIE: Not living?

MARILYN RIGLER: Do you remember what it was like when you lived at home? What were you sitting on when you ate the cereal?

GENIE: In the pot.

MARILYN RIGLER: In the potty chair.

GENIE: In the potty chair.

MARILYN RIGLER: Where did you stay when you lived at home? Where did you live? Where did you sleep?

GENIE: Potty chair.

MARILYN RIGLER: You slept in the potty chair?

GENIE: Mmm-hmm. Potty chair.

STACY KEACH: While this videotape shows how distressed Genie was by her childhood, it also reveals a developmental breakthrough. Genie was using language to describe past events. Genie was talking about things that happened before words were a part of her world. For a child who barely spoke just a short time ago, Genie was doing remarkably well with language. Susan Curtiss continued to track her progress. Genie could read simple words. Her vocabulary was growing. Here, she is about to say, "I like log."

GENIE: I like log.

SUSAN CURTISS: Let me see. The log?

GENIE: I like log.

SUSAN CURTISS: You found a picture of a log. I didn't even know you knew what a log was.

GENIE: A log.

SUSAN CURTISS: Where do you see a log? I was struck with how different the words that she knew were from the vocabulary words that young children would know when they're acquiring a first language. She had words for emotions—angry, sad, excited, happy. She had words—color words, shape words, square, rectangle.

STACY KEACH: Genie seemed to be pulling off a linguistics coup. She had passed the critical age of puberty, but she seemed to be learning a first language. Curtiss began doubting the notion that there was a deadline for doing so.

SUSAN CURTISS: My early ideas were that the sky might be the limit. I couldn't help thinking that she might, in fact, just be able to show that people really were wrong.

STACY KEACH: Genie was at last settled into her new life. She even went to a nursery school. Hopes grew that, unlike other cases of children isolated from society, Genie's could have a happy ending. At the Paris Institute for the Deaf, Genie's historic counterpart also seemed to flourish when reunited with civilization. As shown in Truffaut's movie, Victor responded successfully to methods used to teach the deaf. Victor's teacher created his own methods, as well. Itard used cut-out letters for lessons that are still used in kindergartens all over the world.

FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT: Put the new letters in the right places.

STACY KEACH: He had a knack for gradually increasing the complexity of Victor's tasks.

FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT: Attention, Victor. Book. Scissors. Frame.

HARLAN LANE: Itard is teaching Victor to read simple phrases like, "To throw a key." So, he writes, "Throw key," in French, and then flings a key, then expects Victor to do the same. Victor is doing well. He's reading the sentences, performing the actions, but Itard doesn't trust it. It could be by sheer memory; he's seen Itard do it. So, he decides to scramble the nouns and verbs and get some weird combinations like "To tear a stone," "To cut a cup," "To eat a broom." He presents "Tear a stone" to Victor, and he shows some ingenuity. He goes off, he gets a hammer, and he smashes the stone. "Cut a cup." He picks up the cup and hurls it on the floor, and it shatters. "Eat a broom." This time, he changes the noun, goes off and gets a piece of bread and devours it. This was Itard, constantly analyzing, upping the ante, pushing the kid toward civilization, toward the skills that we have. And Victor generally rising to the challenge, each time taking the small step. This was the kind of struggle they engaged in together for six years.

STACY KEACH: Indeed, for a while, teacher and pupil were joined in a shared mission of awakening, and this is as far as film director Truffaut takes his version of the story.

HARLAN LANE: Many people have asked me, "Well, what do you think of the Truffaut film, The Wild Child, L'Enfant Sauvage?" And what I think of it was that it was a pretty solid job of following Itard's reports.

FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT: Take him up to rest. Soon we'll resume our lessons.

HARLAN LANE: But I do have one exception, and that is, at the end of the film, the child climbs the stairs and the idea is that he's walking off into a future of endless possibilities in which he may even write his autobiography. And that's simply false.

STACY KEACH: In reality, the history books show that Victor's progress slowed down. Itard reported while Victor knew how to read simple words, he never really learned how to talk. Itard recommended that "the forbidden experiment" be stopped.

HARLAN LANE: You know, while we attributed to Itard this motive of wanting to use Victor to build his own career, and I think that was true. When the point came that he was no longer serving Victor nor serving science, he was no longer serving his career, he abandoned him, he let him go. Itard gave up. He asked Madame Geurin, the housekeeper, to take the boy in, down the street from the deaf school, and there they lived a rather gray, sad, forlorn existence, the two of them. So, the story is not as romantic as Truffaut would have us believe.

STACY KEACH: Victor lived his last days at this very spot in Paris. He died in his forties in 1828. Victor's story did not end well. In Los Angeles, more than a century later, Genie's caregivers were working to ensure that their pupil fared better.

SIGNING TEACHER: When will you see your mama in the house? When?

STACY KEACH: When Genie used gestures a lot to communicate, the Riglers arranged for her to learn sign language.

SIGNING TEACHER: I will see Mama Saturday. Right.

STACY KEACH: Critics fault the teacher in Victor's case for emphasizing spoken speech. The Riglers tried to avoid this mistake.

SIGNING TEACHER: And we're all finished.

STACY KEACH: The weeks turned into months, the months into years, and David Rigler, the man who would be scientist, therapist, and foster parent to Genie, seemed to find a way to juggle all those roles. In reality, the juggling act had started to fall apart. For years, Rigler had trouble managing the research part of the case. Curtiss's language studies proceeded, but Rigler had been getting government money to do more. Indeed, he gathered hundreds of videos, he supervised countless tests, but he never clearly defined his own research.

SUSAN CURTISS: Show me the shoe that's untied.

GENIE: Untied.

SUSAN CURTISS: Untied.

STACY KEACH: To add to the murkiness of the study was an unresolved question which would make it difficult to draw firm, scientific conclusions. Was Genie brain damaged from birth? Team members disagreed.

JAY SHURLEY: My impression was clearly that Genie was mentally retarded from birth, based on, for example, my sleep study, which showed these extreme spindles which are fairly characteristic of severe mental retardation.

SUSAN CURTISS: Genie, although functionally retarded because she had hardly lived and experienced the world around her, was not mentally deficient in any sense in which we typically think of as mentally deficient. For example, on psychological tests that measure mental age, every year after she had been found, her mental age increased one year. This is just not something that happens in a person, with a child or an adult, who's mentally retarded.

STACY KEACH: The government agency that was funding the research project grew uneasy with the scientific ambiguities of Genie's case. The National Institute of Mental Health was looking for payback for the years of money it poured into the study, and it wasn't finding any. After repeated warnings, in the fall of '74, NIMH stopped funding the Genie project, citing a failure to collect data in a scientifically meaningful way.

DAVID RIGLER: Nobody knew exactly how to deal with this. We were doing our best. We got the best kind of counsel, the best kind of advice. We had to sort that out and take that as it came. But we did the very best we knew how, and we believed that nobody knew any better.

STACY KEACH: In the year following the loss of their research grant, the Riglers decided to end their foster care of Genie. Their decision caused concern among their colleagues.

JAMES KENT: It's not that it came as a surprise to us, or shouldn't have. We had a lot of consultants and a lot of people coming in, and one of the questions we were asked often, by more than one person, is what's going to happen here when the hospital goes away? When—You know, if the research grant goes away? If all of the interest in how this youngster is developing, when the researchers fold their tents and go away, who's going to stay behind with Genie?

MARILYN RIGLER: This was something that I was certainly concerned about, the fact that should we not take Genie because we did not plan to have her forever? And that was something that we talked about very actively. And we finally decided that if we could give her a good home with much love and rehabilitation within that home, nurturing, caretaking, and good things, that that would give her the ability to cope at some later time, so that she would have a good foundation and a stable home, and that was our reasoning.

SUSAN CURTISS: What is on the red box?

STACY KEACH: For linguist Susan Curtiss, it was time to sum up her years of work with Genie. A clear picture was emerging in her data, but for Genie, that picture was not promising. Here, when asked to make a question, Genie comes up with, "What red blue is in?"

SUSAN CURTISS: "What red blue is in?" Does that make sense? Is that a silly question?

STACY KEACH: Genie didn't seem to be able to put words together in a normal, grammatical way. This seemed to support the idea of a critical period for acquiring language.

SUSAN CURTISS: In Genie's case, the vocabulary was what she was good at. Conveying messages is what she was good at. But if you look at a sentence that she would utter, it wouldn't be grammatical, so she might say things like, "Spot chew glove," "Applesauce buy store," where the message was clear. You know, the dog named Spot chewed the glove, or we need applesauce, we need to buy applesauce at the store. But, in both of these cases, you can see they're not sentences of English. We wouldn't say, "Applesauce buy store." We would say, "We need to buy applesauce at the store." Or, "Applesauce is what we want from the store," or something that is an actual sentence of English.

STACY KEACH: Much of the language research on Genie was completed by 1975, a pivotal year for her. That summer, she returned here, to her childhood home, to live with her mother. Genie's mother had been acquitted of child abuse charges. She wanted to resume care of her daughter. But she soon found it too difficult. Thus began another sad chapter in Genie's life, a series of placements in foster homes.

HOWARD HANSEN: Genie was subjected to abuse, to punishment, to harassment, to the extreme in some of these homes. Then, she would be moved again to another home. And another home. And meanwhile, we knew nothing about it until the bombshell hit. The bombshell. A lawsuit. A lawsuit against Hansen, Rigler, Kent, Curtiss, and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.

STACY KEACH: Like Victor's, Genie's case had not ended well, and now there was a modern American twist to her story: a lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed by Genie's mother, charged the Genie team with excessive and outrageous testing.

SUSAN CURTISS: We're going to be finished soon. As soon as you put all those cards in boxes, we're going to be all finished.

STACY KEACH: The lawsuit claimed the researchers gave testing priority over Genie's welfare, pushing her beyond the limits of her endurance.

SUSAN CURTISS: Look carefully.

GENIE: It's dark.

SUSAN CURTISS: It's dark, yes.

GENIE: It's dark. Dark.

SUSAN CURTISS: Come one. Which box does that belong in?

STACY KEACH: The lawyers suing Children's Hospital were Louise Monaco and Samuel Paz.

LOUISE MONACO: They should have had clues that they were going at things wrongly, because they were getting visits from NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health, telling them, "Well, gee, yeah, you've got all these videos, but they're not indexed, they're not catalogued, they're all thrown in a drawer. You're doing tests that have no scientific purpose. You're doing tests that you made up."

SAMUEL PAZ: And they were doing tests repetitively, which lose their validity with the repetitiveness.

LOUISE MONACO: Yeah. I mean, there are certain tests, if you administer them within a year, you can't tell whether you're measuring anything or not. You're just measuring how familiar the subject is with the test.

SUSAN CURTISS: OK. We'll try it again. Here, you do it. Put them in the boxes. I want you to work fast. Come on. Let's work fast.

DAVID RIGLER: It was our job to measure her progress, to determine what changes were taking place. Indeed, if we had not done as much as we did, we would have really not fulfilled the purposes of our grant. But, in addition to that, the testing that she underwent was, by and large, fun experiences for her.

STACY KEACH: Depositions were taken. Experts were summoned. And while the suit was eventually settled, it raised an important question. Did the team go as far as it could go in treating Genie, or did the research get in the way?

SUSAN CURTISS: We did everything we could not to exploit the case in a way that would impinge on her privacy or impact on her psychologically or emotionally. And that wasn't difficult, because of the feelings we had for her.

LOUISE MONACO: I don't think they started out with a notion of "Let's exploit her for all the money we can get." I think maybe everybody started out with the notion, one, they wanted to help her, but two, this was like the biggest thing that had hit town in quite a number of years. It was right on the heels of Truffaut's movie, The Wild Child, hence the name that was given to her. I mean, when they had seminars at Children's Hospital, they showed the movie as part of the seminar. And so, I mean, this was like a worldwide attraction, so I think it was really easy to get sidetracked.

STACY KEACH: Despite all she'd been through, Genie's troubles were not over. In her first foster home, Genie was severely punished for vomiting. The experience was so traumatizing, Genie ended up back in Children's Hospital, where the Riglers offered assistance.

MARILYN RIGLER: You couldn't help it. So, now you're keeping your mouth closed so you won't vomit.

STACY KEACH: Genie was afraid to open her mouth. She regressed to the only way she knew how to be under siege, completely silent. This would be one of the last times the Riglers videotaped Genie. Genie now lives in an adult foster care home in southern California. It's at least the sixth home she has lived in since the research project ended.

HARLAN LANE: What do we take away from this really sad story? Look, there's an ethical dilemma in this kind of research. If you want to do rigorous science, then Genie's interests are going to come second some of the time. If you only care about helping Genie, then you wouldn't do a lot of the scientific research. So, what are you going to do? To make matters worse, the two roles, scientist and therapist, were combined in one person, in her case. So, I think future generations are going to study Genie's case, as we've been studying Victor's, not only for what it can teach us about human development, but also for what it can teach us about the rewards and the risks of conducting "the forbidden experiment."

Educators can order this show for $19.95, plus shipping and handling, by calling 1-800-949-8670. And, to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos. NOVA is proud to have received an Emmy Award for "Secret of the Wild Child."

NOVA is a production of WGBH, Boston. NOVA is funded by Merck.

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