Isn’t she gorgeous? Her name is Genie. She spent the first thirteen years of her life in a small empty room, strapped to a potty chair. Nobody spoke to her. She’d never been coddled or hugged or kissed. When she was nearly fourteen, her mother, legally blind, took her to the welfare office to apply for benefits. In what has to be the only case in the history of the world in which a bureaucrat was actually appropriately vigilant, the case worker noticed the child didn’t speak. When she walked, she had a kind of a weird bunny hop walk. And she appeared to be only six or seven years old, not fourteen. The bureaucrat intervened, and the child was taken from the abusive home. Her father left a suicide note that said, “The world will never understand.” Then he shot himself.
The child entered a weird netherland. She was studied and lived with the people studying her. She lived with one of the researchers for four years, and to the researcher’s amazement, she began to try to speak. She learned a little sign language and she would make barking sounds. She would be able to say things like “Bye” and “doctor”, though she did sound deaf when she spoke. The researchers thought this was terrific news – it was proof that children can learn to speak even later in life. But the funding for the “research” dried up and her researcher/father figure decided she would be better off in a foster home. She lived in six foster homes, including briefly with her birth mother, her condition deteriorating with each move. In the last one, she vomited, and her foster mother was so outraged that she beat the child nearly to death. Genie never opened her mouth again. She was terrified of being beaten, so terrified of opening her jaw to speak that she became weak from hunger and would have to be force fed.
She is fifty-four years old today and lives in a group home in Los Angeles with other disabled adults.
I wonder what she thinks about. I wonder if in the privacy of her bed at night she opens her mouth and tries to speak, maybe quietly so the caretakers can’t hear her. I wonder if she ever wonders about the researchers, or her father, or her mother.
I think about how small the window of life is for her. How little she had. I wonder if she remembers those foster families, especially the researchers, and wonders if it was a dream.