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Painted Brain | Sociological Perspective: What I’ve Learned From The Genie Case
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • November 23, 2015

Sociological Perspective: What I’ve Learned From the Genie Case

The case came to light on November 4, 1970, after a concerned mother phoned social services to report the possible neglect of her daughter. Doing their job like any other person, social workers knocked on the door of a home, but did not expect to discover what they found: a young girl, confined to a small room, tied to a potty chair. She was given the name Genie in a heartfelt attempt to protect her identity and privacy. When asked why this specific name was given to her, the answer was simple, yet complex. “A genie is a creature that comes out of a bottle or whatever, but emerges into human society past childhood.”

Genie was 13 when she was found, and, due to her inability to communicate as a girl her age should, and was labeled a “feral child.” She underwent intensive speech and psychological therapy, and some progress was made. Unfortunately, due to the extreme level of trauma she experienced and her lack of communication skills, Genie found herself institutionalized, where she remains today. Nowadays, little notice is taken of this fascinating person.

Why revisit a case so full of despair and tragedy, you may ask? Where can this story possibly be going? Please allow me to clear up any confusion.

I’ve struggled with my own mental anomalies and instability for many years, and while I don’t see or hear things, I find myself feeling constantly paranoid and detached from my surroundings, whether at social events or engaged in simple conversation. I usually stay at home, drinking decaf, or watching a soap opera. The whole world is simply going on around me, as I am typically in my own universe. The clatter of voices and laughter makes me squeal, and the thought of anyone walking behind me makes me want to scream. This is not considered healthy, but it is me.

I came across Genie’s story one day while reading a doctor’s autobiography. As I read about what this child went through, both psychically and mentally, I was in awe. Genie didn’t know anything about the outside world. She didn’t know the difference between kindness and cruelty, nurture and neglect. She didn’t know how to explain herself properly. She saw the way that she was living as natural.

The difference between nature and nurture is one that many find difficult to explain. A variety of people would say that nature are the things that come naturally, while nurture comes from family and the people closest to us. But is it really that simple?

When I think about nature and nurture, the thought of an intelligent child immediately comes to my mind. A child could become intelligent in two ways. On the natural side, a child might come from a family with high IQs, thus giving the child the genetic predisposition for intelligence. On the other hand (and easier to believe), a child can become intelligent with encouragement and a good education. Voila, nurture.

Throughout my life, I have been cared for and nurtured while also learning from nature. I’ve learned that being the youngest child (which is nature) can be sociologically difficult at times (because I was nurtured differently by my family). I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that Genie was abused and mistreated while receiving no form of nurture at all. This is a hard way for one to live, as we all need some type of nurture in order to grow into emotional, feeling human beings.

I’ve learned from Genie’s case that nature vs nurture is something that varies from person to another, based on upbringing, ethnicity, religion, etc., and that we’re all individuals whose life lessons differ from one another’s. I believe you have to nurture your conscience, and that while genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Chancellor is a mental health supporter who has experienced mental illness firsthand. She uses her writing to spread knowledge about the human mind, and firmly believes that sociology plays a huge role in mental health development.

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