LINGUIST List 3.369

Tue 28 Apr 1992

Disc: Genie

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. "Bruce E. Nevin", questions about Genie article
  2. Carol Eastman, Re: 3.361 Genie
  3. "Michael Kac", Re: 3.361 Genie

Message 1: questions about Genie article

Date: Mon, 27 Apr 92 09:37:35 EDquestions about Genie article
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
Subject: questions about Genie article

I have some observations and a couple of questions about the Genie
article in the NYer.

Vicki Fromkin says (3.344 4/17/92):

>5) The article does not mention that the personal history had been
>published in many newspapers and presented at conferences (e.g.
>the American Psychological Association meeting in Hawaii) prior to
>the publication of S Curtiss's book. The article makes it appear as
>if Curtiss broke confidentiality constraints which is totally wrong.

The allegation as I recall was that the book depended on information
provided by Genie's mother to physicians and therapists. The sense I
got was not so much that the book violated physician-patient and
therapist-client confidentiality as that the boundaries between
information-for-therapy and information-for-research were blurred in the
pre-existing research environment out of which the dissertation came,
and then the book--the tumultuous nexus of hospital, academia,
government agency, and sensational publicity.

A big part of the reason for the impression that the book violated
confidentiality is the account of Genie's mother's reactions to it. It
seems likely that she was in denial (understandably) when she read the
story in the book. She probably had not seen or heard the early
newspaper accounts, and almost certainly was not exposed to any of the
academic presentations (right?). Whereby hangs another issue: what
seems appropriate for a restricted audience of specialists has to be
re-thought for the mass market.

And taking that issue in a more general sense, look at the rhetorical
burden of the writer. Most writers about science work hard at
maintaining membership with their audience, at the expense of membership
in the community of science about which they are writing. Look at some
of the peculiar metaphors in the article about the Russian brothers,
mathematicians who built a supercomputer out of mail-order parts in
their NY apartment. The article was in a shortly prior issue of the
NYer. In the Genie article, it seems to me that the linguistic research
came up smelling like a rose, all told, relative to the situation of the
research. The character assassination, if it was that, was of the
Riglers and their friend Miner. The portrayal of Butler/Ruch as
empowering the mother (in her disempowered, guerrilla warfare way)
hinged on the issue of class conflict, and Rymer follows up on neither
theme. Be thankful Dickens wasn't around to write the story! He would
have dealt only with sympathies, and any mention of linguistics would
have been limited to transient caricatures. Conversely, an article only
about the linguistics and lacking the "human interest" would not be read
by the intended audience. The Oliver Twist plot carries the linguistics
as freight. Was the Dickensian part of the story true? I think the
reader's (true) perception is that no matter whose version you told,
some of the agonists would disagree. But that doesn't mean your
rebuttal shouldn't be heard. It should.

Some other questions. What was her left hemisphere doing? Just because
it wasn't doing language (or non-semantic, "grammatical" aspects of
language) doesn't mean it was doing nothing. The presumption in the
article is that neural matter ordinarily specialized for language in the
left hemisphere lay fallow, as though Genie had had a hemispherectomy.
Did tests indicate no activity, no higher cortical functions, under a
wide range of circumstances? Or is it possible that the neural matter
of the left hemisphere was already pre-empted for other purposes?

Generalizing, has anyone demonstrated that language is the *only* thing
done by the neural structures in Wernicke's area, Broca's area, etc?

How well have the parallels stood up between Genie's use of language and
that of kids with hemispherectomies and deaf kids learning ASL after
lateralization/puberty, as suggested in the article?

Do such kids also have Genie's extraordinary ability at nonverbal
communication? What do we understand about how they do that?

An observation: many "normal" people with a preference for
(stereotypically) right-hemispheric process could identify closely with
Genie's predicament, and her distress at not being able to get something
across. It is a commonplace of the "artistic temperament." "I gotta use
words when I talk to you" (T.S. Elliot, Burnt Norton I think).

Stimulating material, that is prompting me to want to find out more.
That's what an article like that is for.

	Bruce Nevin
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Message 2: Re: 3.361 Genie

Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1992 10:58:35 Re: 3.361 Genie
From: Carol Eastman <>
Subject: Re: 3.361 Genie

Now that I've read part II, I do think that a response about what
linguistics has to say in cases like this and what was inaccurate here
does need to be made. But, it does seem that it is pretty clear that the
linguistic work was the only solid research to have happened. To my mind,
the problem to a great extent has to do with a confusion of speech
production with the idea of having language - the kind of confusion
straightened out in introductory courses - so, a letter to the New Yorker
might suffice.
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Message 3: Re: 3.361 Genie

Date: Mon, 27 Apr 92 17:59:18 -0Re: 3.361 Genie
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Re: 3.361 Genie

I recently read the New Yorker article on Genie, subsequent to seeing
Vicki Fromkin's posting to LINGUIST. Not being close to the case in the
way that Vicki and Susie Curtiss were I'm in no position to assess the
accuracy of things attributed to them. I did think, however, that the
article, Part II included, gave a clear impression that they were the
only ones who worked with Genie who produced anything of scientific value.

The thrust of the article, on my reading, had mostly to do with the
dilemmas inherent in seeking simultaneously to engage in scientific
study and to undo the damage brought about by horrendous abuse of a
child. To me the article clearly implies that Genie is much worse off
now than she ever was when Susie Curtiss was working with her, and if
there is any implication that Susie and Vicki were exploiting here, it
seems to me very slight.

This does NOT mean that there are no inaccuracies in the factual account,
and those should be corrected by those in a position to do so. My guess
is that the vast majority of the readership of the article will neither
follow nor be especially interested in the discussion of scientific issues
such as the critical period hypothesis and will, after the fact, remember
it primarily as a human interest piece in which questions pertaining to
language were involved somehow.

Michael Kac
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