The Psychology of The Apple (1998): Abusive Paternalism

II. “The Wild Child” & Developmental Psychology


Fictional narrative aside, interacting with the reality of the situation is undoubtedly important to an analysis of The Apple. In the case of extreme social isolation in children, the study of Developmental Psychology is most pertinent in discussing the inner-workings of such a childhood.

In 1970, a similar case to what appears in The Apple occurred in California. A 13-year-old girl was discovered in a severely abusive living situation where she was confined to a room by her father, who claimed to be protecting her from the “dangers of the outside world” after believing her to be mentally handicapped (Georgetown University).

The girl was given the name Genie, nicknamed by the press as “The Wild Child” (after a Francois Truffaut film depicting a similar circumstance), and was put in the custody of Jeanne Butler, a therapist tasked with acclimating her to the world (Genie was later moved into a new home and her custody has changed multiple times since).

Growing up, Genie was chained in her room and, whenever she tried to make noise, was berated at or barked at by her father (Georgetown University). At the time of her emergence into the world, she knew only 20 words.

Genie’s introduction into the world was a case study in Developmental Psychology as well as Linguistics and questions of language acquisition. Through what has now been framed as exploitation at the hands of Genie’s various caretakers (Georgetown University), Genie now lives in “psychological confinement” and is reportedly without the ability to speak (James).

However, Genie at one time was taught to communicate through a mix of spoken English and sign language.  Her case became a landmark moment in the debate between two theories of language acquisition.

Behavioral Psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed a theory that language is learned through social reinforcement. Communicating in the social world creates natural instances of reinforcement in which speaking leads to a desired result. A child asking a mother for milk results in the child getting milk, and thus the speech action is encouraged through positive reinforcement (Simply Psychology).

Noam Chomsky, however, believed that language was more than simply a social reinforcement. He proposed instead a Universal Grammar. Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar posits that there is an innate grammar in every human, and the child must only learn the vocabulary of their language in order to utilize basic noun-verb sentence structure.

What extends from Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is the concept of a “critical period” for acquiring language. This is to say that after a certain point in a child’s development (five years of age is often cited as the approximate age), learning language becomes more difficult or even impossible.

The case study of Genie is sometimes used as evidence for this “critical period” theory of linguistics. However, there is no conclusive way to link Genie’s difficulty obtaining and maintaining language to this theory, as the tumultuous nature of her upbringing subsequent to isolation is put in question and there is no way to know if she was born with some form of mental disability.

On page three, Abusive Paternalism and sympathizing with the immoral figure

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