Genie in Pieces


Father is the name for what guards the front door. The world outside is full of noise. A truck, a lawnmower, a dog, and then another. Someone shouts, someone slams a door. Always someone’s anger sneaks in through the cracks. He will not subject his family to this. Not his Genie. Not his backward, broken Genie.

This is what we know: in 1958, when the girl is nearly two years old, her father—believing her to be “slow”, believing he needs to protect her from the world’s harm—shuts her up in the back bedroom. For eleven years, she will not leave this room.

When I first read about Genie in Russ Rymer’s Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, it was the magnitude of my failure to imagine her life that arrested me. Such imagining is a hole I fall into, the hole of the self. I stretch my feelings towards her and find nothing, only the wall of my imagination.

Here is Genie, second bedroom at the back of the house. A child’s toilet to which she is strapped, a crib with a lid that locks, a window with curtains. There is a plastic rain jacket hanging on a nail. There is a gap in the curtains, a window slightly lifted. Sometimes there are a few inches of sky. Sometimes a child’s piano visits her ears.

She can hear Father in the house—he roars, he slams a door, his waste water flows through the pipes in the walls. She sleeps when she cannot hear him. She wakes when his snores cease. She lives on his time. He turns the house into his body, a skin he wraps around himself, and she can only be borne about by him, his whims.

He stands outside her bedroom door and bares his teeth and barks and growls. He grows his nails long into claws that scratch. He calls himself the guard dog. He calls her his burden to bear.

I imagine slicing that house on Golden West Avenue in Temple City, California down the center, opening it up like a doll’s house. Here is the living room—the easy chair where Father sleeps, sometimes holding a shotgun on his lap; the floor where Mother sleeps; the pallet where the brother sleeps. Here is the kitchen. Here is the bedroom where Father’s mother once slept, preserved as a shrine. Here is Genie’s room, tucked so far back that I must duck to see it. I loom over the interior, peering into their cupboards, their bathroom cabinet, under the sofa. I pick up the figures and hold them in my hand. Their limbs do not bend. Their eyes roll shut.

Genie was of interest to scientists because of her unique ability to answer the question of whether a human’s ability to learn language is native, and lifelong, or if it is a door in the mind that, if unopened in time, will lock shut, the mind forever closed to the room inside.

But why is Genie of interest to me? We share nothing specific in common besides being white American girls. My father was not abusive. Where Genie was closed to language, I began reading and writing at age three, according to my parents. We don’t share a region of the country, and she was an adult when I was born. So why do I feel haunted by her?

According to Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it […] or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

When I was seven years old, I tried to absorb the world’s feelings. I would lie in my bed at night and try to stretch my feelings outward, to feel what other people around me were feeling. I would begin with the nearby: my sister asleep in the neighboring bed, my parents watching TV at the far end of the house, then the next-door neighbors, my friends, my teachers, and then outward, to people I had never met in countries I knew only from pictures or words on a globe. I knew at that moment there must be someone laughing in Calcutta, someone crying in China. Could empathy connect us?  I sent out my feelings like roots. A woman pet a dog on a street corner in London. The palms of dancers in Mexico grew slick with sweat. I did not imagine a girl caged inside a crib. I did not imagine a man crouched in the dark beneath the subways in New York. I did not imagine children sewing pajamas in sweatshops in Indonesia. I was a girl alone in a bed in a suburb of Minneapolis, imagining a girl lying on a bed under foreign stars stretching out her feelings to find me, and listening to the incomprehensible breath of my dreaming sister.

My parents’ preferred punishment was grounding—which they would exact for one week, two weeks, once even a month during the summer I was eight years old; grounded inside the house with no television, no friends, no playing outside. This was the worst form of punishment for me, for I have always blanched against restriction. (I can’t even wear turtlenecks or nail polish for the feeling of being choked, closed in.)

Late at night, when Father sleeps, Mother brings her hands into the room. She carries a soft egg, a spoon, a pool of cereal in a plastic child’s dish. She does not use the light. Near blind, she shuffles to Genie bound in her crib. “Hush,” says the mother, and spoons the food to Genie’s waiting mouth. “If he hears you—,” the mother coos. Her hand shakes holding the spoon.

The month-long grounding came as a punishment for lying—using language to turn the world into the version I desired. Using language to hide the truth.

Researchers recently identified what they believe to be the 23 oldest words in human language, dating back 15,000 years. These include thou and I, we and give, man and mother, hand and spit. The self and the other and the two together, joined by a hand that gives. A woman is automatically a mother, but a man stands apart. The list also includes black, fire, ashes, and pull—the dark side of things, what takes us away from each other and from life, and bark (as in from trees) and worm: what covers, what crawls out of sight.

These are the words Genie understands: red, blue, green, brown, mother, walk, go, door, jewelry box, bunny. These are the words Genie can speak: stopit and nomore, words she hears often enough that she can echo them back. At first I thought they were words of emphatic self-protection. Then I learned she could only aim them at herself, not at others.

To speak is different than to write. To speak bridges the gap between the physical body and the world. That is also one of the oldest words. Words serve to point, to name, to identify. I stood up from my high chair and, pointing, uttered my first word—itty—pointing at a cat named Snake.

How did our first entry into language shape us?  We name that which we encounter, that which we desire. We name the shape of our world, its limits.

Susan Curtiss, the linguist who originally worked with Genie when she was freed from the room, noted that “Unable to vocalize, Genie would use objects and parts of her body to make noise and help express her frenzy: a chair scratching against the floor, her fingers scratching against a balloon, furniture falling, objects thrown or slammed against other objects, her feet shuffling. These were Genie’s noises during her sobless, silent tantrum.”

When I was three years old I followed my mother around the house, echoing sickandtired, sickandtired.

This is what we know: when Genie is “liberated” in November, 1970, she is 13 years old, 54” tall, and weighs 59 pounds. She cannot chew solid food, cannot focus her eyes beyond 12 feet, cannot cry. She has nearly two complete sets of teeth. She spits constantly.

Genie is thirteen, but her bones say eleven. Her tongue says one, her face says nothing. This is what she remembers: a spider descends on a single thread, spinning over her crib. How the air, stirred by the opening door, makes the plastic rain jacket dance on its hook. Her shadow crawling up the bedroom wall. Someone laughs under the window. Someone laughs inside her throat. His bark. The sound of her skin when he hits. Once while he turned her body into his, the spider came all the way down. The spider crawled into her mouth. And it spun out a thread she could crawl away on.

Dimly the body remembers its long dream inside the mother. These limbs, these lungs, are made of her body. In each of Genie’s cells, Mother’s mitochondria. Genie, gene, general and singular, basic unit of heredity, a segment of instruction. She carries the form of her escape inside her.

When I was thirteen, I was grounded after my mother read my diary and learned of how I snuck out of my house each night to wander around my town, sometimes with my friends, often alone.

In Russ Rymer’s account of Genie’s early days in the hospital, he notes that “When she was very angry, she would scratch her face, blow her nose violently into her clothes, and urinate. But she would not make a sound, and she would not turn her anger outward, toward another person. It was not until later that her caretakers discovered how forcefully she had been coerced into suppressing all expression.”

Self-amputation is a successful, if costly, defense. A captured gecko will shed its tail to flee. Detached, the tail wiggles and writhes, distracting the predator.

The first arrives as a clump of shed hair. From out of the far corner of the room it scuttles across the floor. A roll, a tumble, a quiver of hair, up to the foot of Genie where she sits tied to her toilet. It nuzzles. It nudges. Bending down she catches it up, this friend of her body, her own nest of hair. In her palm it purrs, its secrets tangled in its interior dark, web of her unmaking. She lifts it to her mouth and makes a sound, her own. An open-mouthed sound for offering, a gift of air that stirs the hairnest like a laugh.

The second presents as a shed tooth. It dances out of her mouth when Mother’s hand talks. “Stop it,” says mother’s hand to her cheek. On the floor, in a shaft of light from the open door, the tooth winks up at Genie.

This is the opposite of birthing. Inside Mother stitched her together, cell by cell, gill into lung, tail into spine, ten fingers sprouting from a bulb of hand, a heart appearing out of nothing, like a rabbit from a hat, a scarf from a pocket that pulses out fist over fist into a scarlet heap. Now Genie takes herself apart, piece by piece, aided by Mother, by Father, but animated all by herself. She blows on a scab and it skitters into life. She blows into a puff of hair and it pulses in her palm.

Surprisingly, missing from the list of oldest words: sun, words for place or food, animals other than worms, emotions or states of being. The first use of language was to draw boundaries around the self, and the bridges between selves, but not to reveal ourselves. Not to give ourselves away.

Flow is also among the 23 earliest words: of fluids, to stream, to run, a continual change of place. Of the fluids of the body: to circulate. As opposed to stand.

Father has a recurring dream. There is a room filling up with sand. A white mountain of it, wrinkled as though it were a sheet. From where he is standing he can look through a doorless entryway to a second room, a third, a fourth, all filling with sand. Light spills through openings in the rafters, and the sand glows. Graffiti mauls the walls. Indentations in the sand may be footprints. As he stands there he can feel the sand pulling at his ankles. The white sheet of sand is shifting, rising and falling as though it were breathing, and there is something underneath it. He knows.

David A. Freedman, a professor of psychiatry who worked with Genie, noted that she showed no interest in other children: “it seemed to me that it was as though for her they were no different from the walls and furniture in the room…The question becomes how to go about inducing in this child the ability to be aware of both herself and others and feel an interest in and need for others.” 

Does empathy then also become a learned skill?  Does it come through the body, the ability to touch and be touched?  Or does it come through language—those early words: I, thou, we?

In The World I Live In, Helen Keller wrote, “When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.”

For Genie, you and me became interchangeable. There is no clear border between her self and the world.

To write is to bridge the gap between mind and mind. There is nothing physical to address. The world is neither here, nor now. Words identify an inner place. They map an interior geography, an interior body that has no known shape. The voice inside my head, the one I hear when I write, or read, has no equivalent in the exterior world. When I voice a word, it changes with the resonance of my teeth, my skull, the limitation of my larynx, the volume of my lungs.

When we speak of flow in writing, we mean transitions, the clear markers that let a reader follow the path of our thoughts, how we link idea to idea, word to word. How we bridge the gap between minds.

Soon the room is full of these friends of her body. Genie collects them under the mattress: hairnest and shed tooth and fingernail and scab. When she’s alone she takes them out to fondle. Here is her tooth, sharp and hard. Here is a clump of hair. Genie sticks the tooth into her mouth, but it no longer fits, rattles against her fixed teeth like a candy, like a warning. Genie sticks her finger into the hairnest. The finger bends and wags to Genie, semaphores a message she cannot read. The skin of her finger is pale, milkblue. Is this really her body? The finger bows to her. Genie slips her treasures back under the mattress. At night, she dreams of a few inches of sky, a finger in the clouds waving goodbye.

There is something profoundly gendered about Genie’s experience. Entrapment by a man inside the house, or inside one’s own body, and silenced. It is the foundation of many fairy tales—Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater’s wife. It is the foundation of many stories—Bertha in Jane Eyre, the wife in The Yellow Wallpaper. It is the condition of life for many women around the world right now.

At 21, deep in depression, I isolated myself from the world. Days passed when I did not speak to anyone and holed up alone inside my tiny studio apartment. The bathroom door had a faulty lock, and I do not know now why I even closed the door, much less locked it. It may have been another way of locking myself away, though it may also have been due to the circumstances of my building: most of my neighbors’ apartments were subsidized for mental disability. One of my neighbors used to steal my mail and use the return of it as a pretext to enter my apartment, often bringing with him a carp he kept in a five-gallon bucket which he would propose we should eat, although we never did. The winter of my depression, a homeless man took up residence on the landing outside my apartment door. One night, the lock on the bathroom door jammed. For the half hour or so that it took me to jimmy the lock, I understood that I had become so isolated from the world that I could die in there and it would be days, at least, until someone noticed enough to come looking for me.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, flow also means “Of a solid: to suffer a permanent (i.e. non-elastic) change in shape under stress without fracturing or rupturing.”

There is a myth that the body replaces all its cells every seven years, that every seven years we become entirely new. I imagine emerging from that old self like a snake shedding its skin. I imagine these pieces of Genie exiting the room, imagine her reassembling herself elsewhere, a new girl arising out of the ash and scar of the old.

But it is only a myth. New cells regenerate at different speeds, and neuron cells in the brain never regenerate. We cannot escape the life we had. If amputated, the compost worm will grow back its head. Planarian worms will even regenerate their severed memories.

The apartment I locked myself into was also the one from which I began to let myself escape. That January, I took my first poetry workshop, an intensive one-month course that met five days a week. The focus was on serial poems, and each night I knelt on my pink carpet and spun out the next installment in the project, to be shared the next morning with the eleven women who filled out the circle.

Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.”  Gertrude Stein wrote, “I write for myself and strangers.”

In the Gulf of California, the isopod crustacean Cymothoa exigua enters the snapper fish through its gills, eats its tongue, and then attaches itself to the floor of the snapper’s mouth, acting as a replacement for the snapper’s tongue. There is no indication that this harms or inhibits the snapper’s ability to eat or breathe. These isopods had been male while free swimming, but they become female once attached to the snapper. When the snapper opens its mouth, you can see the eyes of the isopod staring back at you.

When Genie opens her mouth, it is my eyes you see.

A friend on Facebook: “I woke up today without language (again); how many people constitute a language?”

In the room that houses the body of Genie there will be sunlight. And wind. Light to show how the earth turns around her. Wind to enter, to stir the dust from under the crib, her shed skin, her shed hair. Wind to show she is connected to the world. It will flow back outside. Someone will breathe her in.

Genie is a microbiome, a civilization embodied, or Genie is a girl trapped in a room, trapped in a body owned and harmed by others. In the room Genie is a girl; when she steps out of the room she is flesh inhabited by language—the language of science, the language of tabloids, the language of story, some of it mine, none of it hers. Genie isn’t even her real name but her scientific alias.

Genie’s discovery was an accident. Her nearly blind mother, leading Genie by one hand, her own aging mother by the other, was trying to find the office of services for the blind. Afterwards there are rumors, apologies, cameramen on the lawn. They call the girl discovered, they call her saved. Call her walk the bunny walk, call her growth stunted, her tongue dumb. There are needles they call tests, a body they call evidence, a He they call criminal, a She they call accomplice. Lights pop and cut like glass. There is so much noise.

This is what we know: when headlines run in the newspaper declaring “GIRL, 13, PRISONER SINCE INFANCY, DEPUTIES CHARGE; PARENTS JAILED,” the article is flanked by details of Charles Manson’s trial and the acquittal of the soldiers from the My Lai massacre.

This isn’t a once or an only. Genie is many who hide or are hidden, who bite or are bitten in the dark and the most private places. And he isn’t a once: he’s sir, he’s your honor, he’s electable, he’s chosen. He’s the voice on the radio, the face in the paper. You have seen him hollering on street corners; you have seen him selecting rope in Home Depot, filling the extra gas can, purchasing lottery tickets. Sometimes he’s a she. Sometimes a committee.

Sometimes, in the recurring dream, Father knows he is standing inside Genie’s mind. He knows what is hiding in the next room, what casts the shadow on the heap of sand, what scrawled that obscenity across her wall.

This is what we know: on November 20, 1970, the morning he was to appear in court on charges of willful abuse, Genie’s father spread a sheet of cellophane across the living room floor and shot himself. In his suicide note, he wrote, “The world will never understand.”

Subjected to drought, the micro-animal known as a water bear will turn itself into glass. It can remain in this state for more than thirty years, waiting for its environment to change, to be once more hospitable.

We encounter the stories of others and they take up residence in us. If I am attempting to free Genie from the room, then it must be that I am attempting to free her equivalent in me. It is not just me slipping into the body of Genie. She has—through language—opened a door in me and slipped inside. She is a body I carry within my own. I imagine slicing through the house of myself, opening up like a doll’s house. It is a brown brick apartment house on Snelling Avenue. Here is a girl kneeling on a bathroom floor, peering through a keyhole. Here is a homeless man building a nest of newspaper on the second-floor landing. Here is my mother mopping an endless floor, repeating sickandtired, sickandtired, and here is a carp swimming an endless circle around and around a plastic pail. Here, in a bedroom at the back of the building, is Genie, gathering the pieces of herself into a story, and here is me, kneeling on a pink carpet, laying out the words one and one and one. I pick each one up in my hands. It is a nest of hair, it is an eye, opening, it is a heart beating in an empty room.