In the fall of 1970, when a bone-thin, hauntingly pale child walked into a Los Angeles welfare office with her nearly blind mother, observers pegged the hunched-over figure to be age 6 or 7. The headlines came when it was discovered that the girl was 13, the lifelong victim of a father who had held her prisoner in one barren suburban room. She was not toilet-trained; a diet of baby food had left her unable to chew; she spoke less than 20 words, most notably "stopit" and "nomore."
To the scientific community, Genie was that rare being, a "wild child" who, once observed, might prove or discredit existing linguistic theories. A competition began to claim this prize—and to become, in one scientist's wry words, her "miracle worker." Rymer's riveting account of Genie's progress—and eventual regression—reveals a group of well-meaning people who often allowed their own goals to take precedence over the welfare of their charge. But in investigating these scientific feuds and failings, the author himself proves his own talent for the task: He never once loses sight of the shattered child at Genie's core. (HarperCollins, $20)