Environment Matters – The Story of Genie

By | September 11, 2016

Perhaps you’ve heard of Genie before? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but the story fascinates me and resonates with a lot of beliefs I have about how life works on this planet. Though the name “Genie” is not her real name – it was merely used as a pseudonym to protect her identity – Genie the person is, in fact, a real live human being. Her life became an unfortunate case study in human development that has been documented in news articles, books, and documentaries throughout the years. The term “Genie” is now used generally to refer to any case of a feral child.

Genie was born on April 18, 1957 (and actually is still alive, residing in an undisclosed location in Los Angeles). When she was a baby, her dad was of the opinion that she was mentally handicapped. His disappointment in her sadly led to a severely abusive situation as he withheld care and nutrition and kept her as socially isolated as possible, perhaps to a larger extent than any known case on modern record. She was kept locked in her room, almost always strapped down to her crib or a toilet seat, until the age of thirteen when Los Angeles child welfare authorities were notified of the situation in November of 1970.

Once she was removed from her home, she was placed in the hands of scientists, doctors, and other experts who studied her behavior and attempted to catch up her development. She eventually became somewhat accomplished in nonverbal communication and learned a series of words and their associations, but she never truly developed a spoken language. She made some strides in what they would consider basic social skills, but very basic indeed.

In 1975 she wound up back in her old home again with her mother (her father had committed suicide shortly before he was to stand trial for child abuse). After a few months, however, her mom decided she could not adequately care for her. At this point Genie started to transfer through a series of different institutions for disabled adults, cutting her off from almost anyone she knew.

The goal of the institutions this time around seemed to be more heavily weighted towards study and experiment rather than development, and any small progress she had gained was soon lost. In January of 1978, just a few months from her twenty-first birthday, her mother suddenly demanded that all scientific testing and research come to an end, and little is known of her life thereafter.

Clearly this was an extreme case of a poor developmental environment, and it showed in the following ways after she was initially rescued from her home:

  • She was only 4’6″ and 59 pounds upon rescue from her father’s abusive home
  • Despite tests confirming she had normal vision in both eyes, she couldn’t focus on anything more than ten feet away (corresponding to the dimensions of the room she was confined to)
  • She was unable to stand up straight or even fully extend any of her limbs
  • She was unable to chew and barely able to swallow, liquids included
  • She was unable to speak and rarely even responded to others’ words or interaction

This was all despite numerous tests done to rule out any neurological, genetic, mental, or other disorders. Despite her father’s early belief that she was mentally disabled, scientists and doctors seemingly couldn’t find much substantial evidence of that claim. There was an expert or two who disagreed, but it seemed the overall opinion of those who worked with Genie was that her developmental and functional issues were almost entirely due to her extreme environment as a child.

What Can Be Learned From Such a Case?

Sometimes it takes extreme examples to bring a concept to light brightly enough for us to see and begin to pay attention. As humans we like to believe we are in control, that we are all powerful. In fact, humans truly are the first organisms on earth that evolved to the point of being able to change their environment in any meaningful way. With great power, though, comes great responsibility. Our environmental manipulations can wind up being to our benefit or our detriment. Which result occurs isn’t always immediately noticeable.

control thine own environment

Whether we believe it or not, our environment influences us biologically. Actually, we are entirely products of our environment. What would happen, after all, if the sun disappeared tomorrow? Do you think any of us would be around twenty-four hours later? The sun is our source of energy, sometimes indirectly (via the food we eat) but also directly as we absorb its energy through our skin and use its light signals for the internal clocks within our cells.

On the other side of the coin, the “fake light” that we’ve produced has different effects from the sun. We’ve isolated very specific frequencies from sunlight (predominantly blue light in our tech devices) and applied them in much different (higher) doses than nature does. There is no way this won’t have an effect, whether we “feel” it or not, or whether we believe it or not.

Food is a very popular topic of discussion these days, partly because it’s worthy of such talk, but also, I believe, because it’s more tangible and easy to wrap our heads around. To that end, our isolation of sugar has been researched to death, gathering attention and warning of the adverse consequences of consuming too much sugar, added sugar beyond what nature organically gave us for a dose within its foods. You’ve heard the talk…excessive sugar = weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc. And I agree, overconsumption of sugar is an issue that needs to be addressed, but…

Here’s an analogy that may resonate: isolating blue light from nature and using it exclusively for our tech devices is like isolating sugar from food for our consumption. Staring into your phone, computer, or TV screen, biologically speaking, is akin to spoon-feeding yourself sugar out of the jar.

blue light equals sugar

Perhaps you can understand the recent studies showing why blue light in the evening is destroying our sleep? Are children not impossible to put to bed when they’ve gobbled up a bunch of sugar late in the evening? Blue light naturally reaches its peak when the sun does, but even at high noon, blue light is not nearly as high a percentage of total visible light as our tech devices use today. You don’t feel heat from computer light (because there isn’t as much infrared), and you don’t get a sunburn (because there isn’t any UV), but your cells feel the blue signal. And they’re very confused by it all.

Our Environment Also Impacts Our Mobility…

Don’t think sitting at desks all day and/or sitting on couches all night affects you? Sure, we may all concede that not exercising can lead to weight gain, but is that the end of the story? Consider Genie’s case. She could barely stand up. She couldn’t straighten her limbs. She couldn’t even chew or swallow food. Why? Because her environment never demanded it from her, so her body never adapted to it. What do we think sitting all day long is doing for us? We’re losing our functionality just as Genie did, not to that extreme, but somewhere in between.

And Our Eyesight…

Genie was unable to focus on objects more than ten feet away since she never left her room. We spend a large number of hours focussing on a computer just a foot or two away from our face. Again, not as extreme, but there’s no way that doesn’t have an impact on our eye function, and it likely contributes to the number of people needing glasses or other medical interventions. It’s not a sole cause, but a very likely contributor.

And Our Digestive System…

Genie was never fed solid food during her development and thus was unable to chew or even digest foods that her saliva couldn’t entirely break down first. Do we not think that our diets influence the functionality of our digestive tracts? What we eat can change our gut biomes and our ability to extract nutrients from food. It’s just another thing that matters, and we can choose what to consume.

Accepting the Power of Our Environment

Life is all about choices and consequences. Far be it from me, or anyone else, to make choices for other people, but I think awareness is important. We don’t always feel or understand what our environmental choices are doing for us, especially in the near term, but everything we do, everything we touch, smell, see, feel, and generally come in contact with alters us in some way, good or bad. And we have the power to choose.

Nature works. It’s been working for billions of years. We as humans have been the first to completely break into a new paradigm of environmental change. What we need to do now is learn the ways in which we can do it without harming ourselves or the environment that created us. But we have to gather the information. We certainly have changed our environment for the better in a lot of ways, manufacturing insulin for diabetes patients, building shelter to protect us from extreme weather threats, and preventing fatal infections from many viruses and parasites. Still, we have to tread cautiously as we continue to influence change in our environment.

Smoking used to be quite common and accepted until we learned the cancer and lung disease connection. People used to work daily with lead and mercury before they realized that it drove them mad. We are starting to better understand the impacts of too much sitting, and not enough moving (beyond just the issues of weight gain). Waiting to be fully understood and fleshed out are more recent discoveries of the impacts of light (and other parts of the electro-magnetic force).

Right-hand dominant people commonly lose function and strength in their left hand. Chronic sitters get weak hamstrings and core musculature. Astronauts lose bone density and muscle strength due to lack of gravity in space. Guys who skip leg day look like this. Working too much at a computer can make you look like this:

computer posture

I believe we can change cellular signals, Wi-Fi, screen lighting, and other things to use frequencies that are neutral, or perhaps beneficial, for our biology. In fact, some folks are working on that, but you don’t hear much about it yet. Some of it is ignorance (and perhaps suppression of data…if you’re a cynical, conspiracy theorist). But we have to keep getting smarter about this and keep evolving in a positive way. Until then, I would encourage us all to take charge of our environment to enhance our quality of life today.

How can we do that? Get some sun. Have a walking meeting at work instead of the old-school sit-downs. Get away from tech now and again (especially at night), and move around enough to keep your functionality. If we aren’t actively growing, we’re degrading.

There is no black and white line of demarkation between a “normal” human development situation and one like Genie’s. Everything is on a spectrum, and we all lie somewhere in between. There is no line between healthy and sick. There is no line between star athlete and being “out of shape.” There is no line between strong and weak. There is no line between happy and depressed. There is no line between feeling great and feeling crappy. There are only shades of grey in between, and we can push ourselves along any spectrum depending upon how much we want it…and how much attention we pay to our environment.


Primary Sources of Information about Genie:

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