Feral Children – “lost or abandoned human children raised in extreme social isolation” (Carl Linnaeus 1758)
Genie was locked up by her father to keep her away from what he considered to be the dangers of the outside world. Strapped to a seat 24 hours a day from the age of 2 to 13, Genie missed out on imperative early attachments, turning her into a ‘feral’ child. Unable to speak or walk properly, she was for all purposes an infant trapped in the body of a 13 year old girl. (NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child Documentary)
Genie was an extremely interesting case and was considered a ‘natural experiment’. Researchers from all around the country were eager to study her, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Linguistics all used her as a human guinea pig for studies into language development.
If participants do not refuse to be involved in studies, then is it okay for experiments to go ahead? When an ambulance is called out to an emergency, they must ask if the patient would like their help. If for any reason no answer is given then this is taken as consent. If Genie didn’t refuse the researchers, then did this make it acceptable? Because Genie was unable to speak, she could not physically express consent. However, verbal communication wasn’t the most important part of her understanding. The APA standards for consent for a participant stress competency for understanding. (Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct). Because Genie was brought up in a situation where she was not exposed to any human language, she did not have the capacity to understand what the researchers were asking her to do. Therefore, she could not be classified as competent by any standard and subsequently should not have been used in the experiment? It is clear that Genie also suffered from extreme psychological harm after the experiments were conducted, such as refusing to open her mouth after being abused and refusing to show any interest in other people (Susan Curtiss, 1971).
Although experiments conducted on Genie offered detail into an exceptional mind, it is unclear how the research benefited society. With it being such a rare case, it is hardly representative of a wider population. However, at the time Genie’s case had the perceived ability to reveal critical insights into language development and linguistics. In the 1970’s research upon this topic was so uncommon, to find Genie was a phenomenon. Genie was a prize, and it was a competition to see who would get to study her. Being a case study, this research was incredibly interesting and in depth, providing detail like no other. However, it is difficult to generalise from individual cases as each one has unique characteristics.
Ultimately, the interests of science were put before the best interests of a child. Today, this case remains famous for its interesting insights into the horrific account of an isolated child. The psychologists involved took advantage of Genie’s under developed mental state and used her for their own gain. These psychologists were later sued by Genie’s mother for outrageous and excessive testing (Russ Rymer, 1994).
1 – Carl Linnaeus 1758
2 – NOVA: Secret of the Wild Child. (Documentary about Genie), March 4, 1997
3 – American Psychological Association Guidelines, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx
4 – Susan Curtiss, 1977. Researcher of Genie. Psychology AS, The Complete Companion.
5 – Russ Rymer, “Genie, A scientific Tragedy” 1993