Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Girls Who Spoke For Themselves : Part 2 : Ginny and Gracie Go to School

At some point, the Kennedys moved to San Diego and, while there, a caseworker at the unemployment office (the family was described as living on "food stamps and welfare") advised the girls' father to put his daughters in speech therapy. And so these two girls who had been named by their parents Virginia and Grace, but who were known to themselves as Cabengo and Poto, soon found themselves at the Children's Hospital of San Diego, working with two speech therapists so that they might learn how to speak "correctly".

What the therapists soon realized was that the girls possessed at least normal intelligence, thereby disproving the belief that they suffered from mental retardation. Furthermore, the twins' odd speech, far from being mere gibberish, was discovered to be in fact its own complex language, an example of idioglossia--that is, an idiosyncratic language spoken by only one or a few people, often by twins (in which case it is also known as "twin speech").

The girls were taught to speak standard English (they apparently already understood it to a large degree, as well as some German, though they only spoke in their own made-up language) and eventually they were enrolled in elementary school (in separate classes). Thus their social, linguistic, and educational "mainstreaming" began.


Grace and Virginia Kennedy became famous for a time in the late 1970s, being written up in newspaper and magazine articles and earning a spot in that popular book of miscellanea, The People's Almanac. They even became the subject of a 1980 documentary film, titled Poto and Cabengo, made by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin.

In a 1988 interview, Gorin offered a glimpse into his thought process as he approached his unusual subject:
The film is about an unstructured discourse—the language of the twins—surrounded by structured discourses—the discourse of the family, the discourse of the media, the discourse of therapy, the discourse of documentary filmmaking. There are as well other structured discourses at work in the film: the discourses of science, capitalism, and education. They are each a method of using words that presumes a type of authority. Clearly the twins’ unstructured discourse challenges discursive authority: it erupts as a subversive act which has not been authorized by any social or ideological establishment. In a sense its special threat is that its “unauthorized” nature relativizes the arbitrary nature of those institutionalized discourses. The singsong of the twins reveals the shaky grounds of institutional power. It relativizes discursive authority from the family to the scientific community in their competitive and ineffectual attempts to “define” the twins who spontaneously flit about the screen exceeding any definition. In a fashion, I wanted the viewers to feel the twins made more “sense” than anybody around them. Or at least to perceive that the twins’ way to handle language offered a marker for the way people around them used language and were used by it, and were spoken through it.
In this somewhat academic-sounding yet meaningful and fertile statement, Gorin outlines some of the complex philosophical issues that lie at the heart of any serious and thoughtful consideration of the Kennedy twins' linguistic accomplishment. There are other philosophical issues involved as well, but here Gorin gives us more than enough to start with.

Before we get into some of those heady discussions, however (which I will try to keep as simple as possible, while also balancing them with thoughts and reflections of a more personal and poetic nature), I will show you a clip from Gorin's film that is an example of the girls "spontaneously [flitting] about the screen", perhaps in a way that serves to illustrate their "wildness"--that is, as Gorin suggests above, their existence outside of normative civilization and its concepts.

There is an interesting exchange in the interview about this scene:
Interviewer: There is the scene, for instance, where you take the twins to the library. They are running around, grabbing books off the shelves at random and you are trying to follow them. There is something very sad and very funny simultaneously, something difficult to express in words.

Gorin: It’s a key scene in the film for me. They are grabbing these books as if they were these talismans. There is an urgency, something both manic and poignantly relevant to their situation in the way they pile these books up in the hope of taking them home with them, as if these things were bound to secure their liberation, their passage into another world beyond the confines of their family.
Here is the scene:

Ginny and Gracie Go to the Library

What Gorin says above seems to me to capture a morally and intellectually complicated dilemma underlying the twins' mainstreaming: On the one hand, the process of integrating the girls into the mainstream of U.S. society and culture (or indeed, of any larger human society outside of themselves) seems inarguably desirable and necessary; on the other hand, while there can be no doubt that much is gained by this process, anyone who appreciates and admires the twins' achievement in creating their own language, while considering everything that language implies in terms of thinking, experiencing, and identity, cannot help but wonder what was lost in this process.

Part 3

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