Filmed by Nova Prods., WGBH/Boston, BBC-TV, NDR Intl. Hamburg and Nederlandse Omroepprogramma Stichting. Producer/director/writer, Linda Garmon; associate producer, Joseph McMaster; This is an hour of poignance and tragedy, a “Tarzan” story played out for real in the Southern California of two decades ago. Despite the best intentions, humanity is pushed aside by science, and the loser is an unforgettable little girl named Genie.
Suggested by a marvelous two-part series called “A Silent Childhood” that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago, “Secret of the Wild Child” is, in a word, heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking in the cruelty that gave birth to it, heartbreaking in its resolution and heartbreaking in the way no doubt otherwise decent people established territory over a sadly lost life to stimulate their own pursuits.
The facts of this story, told both through narrative and by on-camera interviews of several of the involved principals, are haunting enough. In the early 1970s, Los Angeles social workers discovered a 13-year-old girl who’d been locked in a room for most of her life, strapped to a potty chair. She had only bare walls to look at and minimal human contact. (Her father committed suicide shortly after authorities took her away.) Physically, emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped — and severely so — she could barely walk and couldn’t talk at all.
Her first months in from the “wild” seemed hopeful. (Ironically, just a week after Genie, as she was called, was found, Truffaut’s movie “The Wild Child” was released in America, and the scientists surrounding her found themselves obsessing about both Genie and the film.) Her eyes brightened as people tended to her; David Rigler, one of her psychologists, took her in as part of his family. She began to speak. Her legs grew stronger. The child inside began to bloom.
The videos and home movies of Genie in her first year after discovery are mesmerizing. Shot by Rigler, they show an engaging personality emerging from what had been an empty shell. Her eyes are lures; they will hook you.
But there was a severe downside. Genie was also turned into a scientific experiment, a flesh-and-blood laboratory in whom linguists, psychologists and other researchers saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A tabula rasa on the edge of puberty, perhaps she could provide answers to questions about language and learning that, without her, could only be theorized. The tragedy is that Genie herself — asfragile and tentative as a human can be — became lost in all the observation. It was almost as if the more she was looked at, the less she was seen. The functions of science and therapy found themselves tangled in an ethical blur: Where do the greater responsibilities lie — to science or to Genie?
The answer isn’t pretty.
When the grant money dried up, so did much of the personal contact she’d come to trust and rely on. The Riglers decided they could no longer care for her full time, so she was removed from the only family she’d ever trusted and put into a system that didn’t know what to do with her.
In her first post-study foster home, she was beaten, and the light inside Genie, as Rigler’s last video of her makes wrenchingly clear, goes dim. Now an adult, Genie lives in an adult foster-care facility, the sixth home she’s been in since the studies surrounding her formally ended.
Linda Garmon’s fine achievement is in simply and clearly telling the story of a lost life that never really had a chance to be lived. Along the way, she raises some powerful questions. Her strength is in letting her audience make its own conclusions.