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No. 693:
The Wages of Silence

Today, we try to reshape -- to redesign -- a damaged child. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Silence has to be the most subtly vicious punishment one human ever inflicts on another. The Amish use shunning with telling effect. It's a coward's tool, since the victims of silence characteristically turn their anger inward. That's why it works so well in brainwashing.

Few victims have been as badly wounded by silence as Genie Clark. Genie was the child of parents who didn't like themselves and didn't like her. Her father kept her in a room for 13 years. He never spoke to her. He didn't let her blind mother near her. He tied her to a potty seat by day. He straight-jacketed her by night. She had almost no visual or aural stimulation.

Then authorities found her. They took her to the hospital to repair the damage. Writer Russ Rymer tells how that went.

Genie was underweight and undernourished. She could barely walk. She had a vocabulary of about 15 words. She had no survival skills. She'd never even used a toilet. She was a raw human who had to be rebuilt from the start.

There's a large literature on the "Wild Child." Fifty or so children have been raised by animals or in isolation. But most have been badly documented. Genie was a fine opportunity for scholars. They converged, clipboards and cameras in hand, less to rebuild than to observe.

For a while, she developed well. Her sores healed. Her motor control improved. She began taking delight in a sensory world. Her observers cheered when she finally turned anger on others instead of on herself. When she went into a destructive frenzy, they didn't slap her wrists. They took notes.

Speech was the biggest question. Theorists asked if a teenager could still learn to talk. Genie had a genius for nonverbal communication. But she was slow to learn language. Linguists asked why she couldn't aquire syntactic rules. Was it an emotional block, or was she past the age where language is learnable?

Genie reached the point of framing short telegraphic sentences, but no more. She learned to express her needs, but only randomly and inconsistently. The scholars with clipboards drifted away. Genie drifted back into mental isolation.

She'd been the object of science, not engineering. People talked to her and watched her develop. They told her how to live. But she needed the holistic creative interweaving of other lives. And in that, her needs become a metaphor for good design.

Good design means imparting the soul of the designer. The designer must love what he creates. If he works with detachment, the machine can never be whole. And that was Genie's fate.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Rymer, R., Annals of Science: A Silent Childhood, Parts I and II, The New Yorker, April 13, 1992, pp. 41-81, and April 20, 1992, pp. 43-77.