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
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
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