Photo of the Day

A portrait of Genie Wiley. Genie is the pseudonym for the most extreme case of Susan Wiley, a  feral child kept in an abusive home. She spent the first thirteen years of her life locked inside a bedroom strapped to a potty chair; a victim of one the most severe cases of social isolation ever documented. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive


Starved, Tortured, Forgotten

This is the story of a young girl who spent her childhood locked in a bedroom

There have been a number of cases of feral children raised in social isolation with little or no human contact. Few have captured public and scientific attention like that of a young girl called Genie. She spent almost her entire childhood locked in a bedroom, isolated, and abused for over a decade. Genie’s case was one of the first to put the critical period theory to the test. Could a child reared in utter deprivation and isolation develop language?

Raised in isolation, “Genie” was a wild child, uncivilised, barely able to walk or talk. The girl reportedly was still wearing diapers when a social worker discovered her. Genie had a strange bunny walk and other almost inhuman characteristics. Genie constantly spat. She sniffed and clawed. She barely spoke or made any noises. The indications are that she was beaten for making noise and consequently, had learned, basically, not to vocalise. And she really didn’t vocalise very much at all. When first met, she was silent most of the time. One of Genie’s most captivating qualities was the intense way she explored her new environment. Oddly, even strangers who knew nothing about her story seemed to sense her need to do so.

Once in a great while, civilised society comes across a wild child, a child who has grown up in severe isolation with virtually no human contact. This is the story of such a case. The story begins in Los Angeles on November 4, 1970. Officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia took custody of a thirteen-year-old girl they say was kept in such isolation by her parents that she never even learned to talk. Her elderly parents were charged with child abuse.

The child was locked in a room and tied to a potty chair for most of her life. Completely restrained, she was forced to sit alone day after day and often through the night. She had little to look at and no one to talk to for more than ten years.

The girl reportedly was uttering infantile noises and still wearing diapers when a social worker discovered the case.

Genie Wiley – Documentary


A feral child is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age and has no (or little) experience of human care and of human language. Some feral children have been confined by people (usually their own parents); in some cases, this child abandonment is due to the parents’ rejection of a child’s severe intellectual or physical impairment. Feral children may have experienced severe child abuse or trauma before being abandoned or running away. Others are alleged to have been brought up by animals; some may have lived in the wild. Over one hundred cases of supposedly feral children are known.

Feral children lack social skills that are learned in the process of enculturation. They may be unable to learn to use a toilet, have trouble learning to walk upright and display a lack of interest in the human activity around them. They seem mentally impaired and have insurmountable trouble learning a human language. The impaired ability to learn language after having been isolated for so many years is often attributed to the existence of a critical period for language learning.

Despite Genie’s shocking progress, she couldn’t fully communicate. When asked to create a question, she would say, ‘What red blue is in?’ Genie may have known how to use everyday words, but she couldn’t arrange them in a grammatical way.

Clark Wiley, 70, and his son John leave a police station after the father was booked for investigation of child abuse in 1970. Photograph: AP

Clark Wiley (Father)

The story begins with Genie’s father, Clark Wiley. Clark Wiley, Genie’s father, was raised in a dysfunctional home. He was teased by bullies for having his mother and not his father’s surname. His mother, Pearl, ran a brothel out of her home and Wiley often saw her with clients. His father died when he was struck by lightning.

He grew up in foster homes in the Pacific north-west and worked as a machinist on aircraft assembly lines in LA during and after the second world war. He married Irene Oglesby, a dust bowl migrant 20 years his junior. A controlling man who hated noise, he did not want children. Yet children came. The first, a baby girl, died after being left in a cold garage. A second died from birth complications. A third, a boy named John, survived, followed five years later by the girl who would become known as Genie.

When a drunk driver killed Wiley’s mother in 1958, he unravelled into anger and paranoia. He brutalised John and locked his 20-month-old daughter alone in a small bedroom, isolated and barely able to move. When not harnessed to a potty seat, she was constrained in a type of straitjacket and wire mesh-covered crib. Wiley imposed silence with his fists and a piece of wood. That is how Genie passed the 1960s.

Irene, stricken by fear and poor eyesight, finally fled in 1970. Things happened swiftly after she blundered into the wrong welfare office. Wiley, charged with child abuse, shot himself. “The world will never understand,” said the note.

Shortly after the authorities discovered Genie, her father shot himself. He reportedly wrote ‘The world will never understand’ in a suicide note.

The Wiley Children

In 1944 Wiley married Dorothy “Irene” Oglesby. Wiley was 20 years her senior and he didn’t want children yet Dorothy became pregnant and had four children. Wiley was mentally unstable and Irene was legally blind. The family experienced extreme marital abuse which often put Irene in the hospital. Wiley murdered their first child, a girl named after her mother. When she was 10 weeks old he wrapped the crying infant in a blanket and placed her in a drawer in the garage, where she asphyxiated.

Robert Clark Wiley was born one year after his sister’s death. At 2 weeks old he choked on his own mucous although it was suspected that Wiley also killed this infant. The third child, John Gray Wiley, was born in 1952. At four years old he went to live with his grandmother Pearl after Irene was institutionalised. When John was six years old Pearl was struck in a hit and run accident and died. John was forced to return home where his father blamed him for Pearl’s death. The family moved into Pearl’s house at 6722 North Golden West Avenue, Temple City, Los Angeles. Wiley left his mother’s bedroom untouched as a shrine to her memory.

Genie’s older brother, who also suffered grievously under their father. He lived, in his own words, like a “dead man” and failed his own daughter – Genie’s niece – who in turn failed her daughters.

John the brother of “Genie,” the toddler whom Clark Wiley forced into a handmade straitjacket and strapped her by day to a potty seat and by night in a metal-covered crib. She lived this way, under John’s nose, with no exposure to the outside world, for nearly 11 years.

After Genie’s release, she was studied by a team of well-financed researchers and captured the world’s attention, becoming known as a modern “wild child.” Her tragic story and her therapy spawned a litany of press coverage, academic articles, books and documentaries.

But in the swell of publicity about Genie, John, who witnessed his younger sister’s abuse and also suffered at the hands of their sadistic father, has never received a minute of treatment or public attention in the years since.

John last saw his sister in 1982, and his mother died in 2003. Since then, he has shunned almost any association or documentation of his past.

Speaking in hushed, often expressionless tones, he detailed a life spent struggling through alcohol abuse, divorce and estrangement from his own daughter. Disconnected from his family, but unable to escape the past.

“I have forgiven, but I can’t forget.”

Genie and John, who were five years apart, lived under the violent rule of a paranoid father who kept a gun in his lap as a means of intimidation. While his sister was locked away in the bedroom and hit for crying, her older brother suffered intermittent beatings and was ordered by his father to be the family’s sentry guard, to help hide the gruesome secret.

“My house was like a concentration camp,” said Wiley, whose confessions were confirmed by numerous interviews with researchers and police. “I never knew what normal was.”

“[John] was as much a victim of the family dynamics as the younger sister was,” said retired detective Frank Linley, who arrested Clark and Irene Wiley for child abuse in 1970. “But he was so little a part of the direction of the case. Unfortunately, we never really paid attention to him.”

After witnessing his grandmother’s death, John and his family moved into her two-bedroom Temple City, Calif., home, and Clark Wiley blamed the boy for his mother’s death.

Genie, who was born in 1957, was only 20 months old when Clark, believing she was mentally retarded, confined her to one of the bedrooms. According to John, the other bedroom went unused and was kept as a shrine to his grandmother, a single woman who ran a bordello in the Pacific Northwest.

The rest of the family slept in the living room — Clark in a recliner, his wife in a chair at the dining room table, and John on the floor.

As John reached adolescence, his father punished him for his growing sexuality, tying his legs to a chair and pounding his testicles with the same “one-by-three-foot board” he used to beat Genie each time she made a noise.

“I don’t think he wanted me to have children, and it’s a wonder I did,” said John, whose beatings continued throughout his teen years. “He would write me a note excusing me from the gym so the kids didn’t see my privates in the showers.”

By the time Genie’s plight was discovered by police, John, then 18, had run away from home, terrified of a father who was increasingly angry and violent. Irene escaped with Genie to her parents in 1970. One day she brought the 13-year-old to welfare offices, mistakenly seeking assistance for the blind. Authorities tipped off police after observing Genie’s odd behaviour.

Arriving at Wiley’s home, arresting officer Linley said the conditions he found at the house were appalling.

Genie “slept in a crib formed with chicken wire attached with a latch,” he said. “It was a cage for the child. The window was covered with aluminium foil to reflect out the sunlight. The room was a dark as a coal mine at midnight.”

Police found meticulous logs, noting each time the paranoid father locked a door or shrouded the windows from nosy neighbours. “He was a total dictator in the house,” Linley said of Clark Wiley. “His word was law. Hitler could have taken lessons from him.”

The day Clark was scheduled to appear in court, John and a friend stood outside the house when they heard a gunshot. His father had killed himself, leaving his funeral clothes laid out on the bed along with two notes and $400 for John.

“Be a good boy, I love you,” he wrote to his son.

Genie had a strange ‘bunny-walk’ and constantly spit and clawed at herself. She didn’t speak or make any noise either. Genie’s parents beat her for making any type of noise.

Genie Wiley with a doctor. Photograph: Nova: Secret of the Wild Child

Genie Wiley with a doctor.

Susan Wiley (Genie)

Genie’s birth was relatively normal. She was born in April 1957, delivered by Caesarian section. Her birth problems included a Rh negative incompatibility for which she was exchange transfused and a hip dislocation. Genie’s development was otherwise initially normal. At birth, she weighed 7 pounds, 7.5 ounces. By three months she had gained 4.5 pounds. According to the paediatrician’s report, at 6 months she was doing well and taking food well. At 11 months she was still within normal limits. At 14 months Genie developed an acute illness and was seen by another pediatrician. The only other medical visit occurred when Genie was just over 3.5 years of age.

According to her father when Susan was 20 months old a doctor stated that she was mildly “retarded” and should be protected from the world. (From the meagre medical records available there, there is no indication of early retardation). Wiley took this to an extreme. He locked Susan in a bedroom in the house. For years Wiley slept on a couch in the living room holding a loaded gun. He forced Irene to sleep at the dining table and his son John to sleep on the floor. Wiley rarely permitted his family to leave and kept the curtains drawn. Susan was fed a diet of pablum and soft words. She never learned to eat solid foods. As a result, Susan suffered from malnutrition.

She hobbled into a Los Angeles county welfare office in October 1970, a stooped, withered waif with a curious way of holding up her hands, like a rabbit. She looked about six or seven. Her mother, stricken with cataracts, was seeking an office with services for the blind and had entered the wrong room.

But the girl transfixed welfare officers.

At first, they assumed autism. Then they discovered she could not talk. She was incontinent and salivated and spat. She had two nearly complete sets of teeth – extra teeth in such cases are known as supernumeraries, a rare dental condition. She could barely chew or swallow, and could not fully focus her eyes or extend her limbs. She weighed just 59lb (26kg). And she was, it turned out, 13 years old.

Her name – the name given to protect her identity – was Genie. Her deranged father had strapped her into a handmade straitjacket and tied her to a chair in a silent room of a suburban house since she was a toddler. He had forbidden her to cry, speak or make noise and had beaten and growled at her, like a dog.

It made news as one of the US’s worst cases of child abuse. How, asked Walter Cronkite, could a quiet residential street, Golden West Avenue, in Temple City, a sleepy Californian town, produce a feral child – a child so bereft of human touch she evoked cases like the wolf child of Hesse in the 14th century, the bear child of Lithuania in 1661 and Victor of Aveyron, a boy reared in the forests of revolutionary France?

Genie’s mother, a nearly blind elderly woman, claimed to be a victim herself. She blamed Genie’s father for much of the abuse. When Genie was a baby, her father decided she was ‘retarded’ and kept her in isolation.

A social worker discovered the 13-year old girl after her mother sought out services. The social worker soon discovered that the girl had been confined to a small room and an investigation by authorities quickly revealed that the child had spent most of her life in this room, often tied to a potty chair. The girl was given the name Genie in her case files to protect her identity and privacy. “The case name is Genie. This is not the person’s real name, but when we think about what a genie is, a genie is a creature that comes out of a bottle or whatever, but emerges into human society past childhood.

We assume that it really isn’t a creature that had a human childhood,” explained Susan Curtiss in a 1997 Nova documentary titled Secrets of the Wild Child. Both parents were charged with abuse, but Genie’s father committed suicide the day before he was due to appear in court, leaving behind a note stating that “the world will never understand.” Genie’s life prior to her discovery was one of utter deprivation. She spent most of her days tied naked to her potty chair only able to move her hands and feet. When she made noise, her father would beat her. Her father, mother, and older brother rarely spoke to her.

The rare times her father did interact with her, it was to bark or growl. The story of her case soon spread, drawing attention from both the public and the scientific community. The case was important, said psycholinguist and author Harlan Lee, because “our morality doesn’t allow us to conduct deprivation experiments with human beings, these unfortunate people are all we have to go on.” With so much interest in her case, the question became what should be done with her. A team of psychologists and language experts began the process of rehabilitating Genie.

Susan Curtiss, a linguistics graduate student at UCLA, gave her the name ‘Genie.’ ‘When we think about a genie, we think about a creature who emerges out of a bottle, or whatever, into society past childhood,’ she said.

Teaching Genie

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provided funding for scientific research on Genie’s case. “I think everybody who came in contact with her was attracted to her. She had a quality of somehow connecting with people, which developed more and more, but was present, really, from the start. She had a way of reaching out without saying anything, but just somehow by the kind of look in her eyes, and people wanted to do things for her,” said psychologist David Rigler, part of the “Genie team.” Her rehabilitation team also included graduate student Susan Curtiss and psychologist James Kent.

Upon her initial arrival at UCLA, the team was met with a girl who weighed just 59 pounds and moved with a strange “bunny walk.” She often spat and was unable to straighten her arms and legs. Silent, incontinent, and unable to chew, she initially seemed only able to recognise her own name and the word “sorry.” After conducting an assessment of Genie’s emotional and cognitive abilities, Kent described her as “the most profoundly damaged child I’ve ever seen… Genie’s life is a wasteland.”

Her silence and inability to use language made it difficult to assess her mental abilities, but on tests, she scored at about the level of a one-year-old. She soon began to make rapid progression in specific areas, quickly learning how to use the toilet and dress herself. Over the next few months, she began to experience more developmental progress but remained poor in areas such as language. She enjoyed going out on day trips outside of the hospital and explored her new environment with an intensity that amazed her caregivers and strangers alike. Curtiss suggested that Genie had a strong ability to communicate nonverbally, often receiving gifts from total strangers who seemed to understand the young girl’s powerful need to explore the world around her.

Genie’s first, real breakthrough came during a session with language teacher Jean Butler. Jean said to Genie, ‘You (tie your shoe) and then we can tell Doctor Kent what you can do.’ Although difficult to understand, Genie repeated the word ‘doctor.’ She knew more than 100 words by that Spring. The question became: Could Genie fully recover?

Critical Period and Language Acquisition

Part of the reason why Genie’s case fascinated psychologists and linguists so deeply was that it presented a unique opportunity to study a hotly contested debate about language development. Nativists believe that the capacity for language is innate, while empiricists suggest that it is environmental variables that play a key role. Essentially, it boils down to the age-old nature versus nurture debate. Do genetics or environment play a greater role in the development of language? Nativist Noam Chomsky suggested that the acquisition of language could not be fully explained by learning alone. Instead, he proposed that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD), an innate ability to understand the principles of language. Once exposed to language, the LAD allows children to learn the language at a remarkable pace.

Linguist Eric Lenneberg suggests that like many other human behaviours, the ability to acquire language is subject to what are known as critical periods. A critical period is a limited span of time during which an organism is sensitive to external stimuli and capable of acquiring certain skills. According to Lenneberg, the critical period for language acquisition lasts until around age 12. After the onset of puberty, he argued, the organisation of the brain becomes set and no longer able to learn and utilise language in a fully functional manner. Genie’s case presented researchers with a unique opportunity. If given an enriched learning environment, could she overcome her deprived childhood and learn language even though she had missed the critical period? If she could, it would suggest that the critical period hypothesis of language development was wrong. If she could not, it would indicate that Lenneberg’s theory was correct.

The scientists took Genie out and about and taught her new things. Genie began to recover; she smiled, ran, and played. After several months under these scientists’ care, Genie was able to acquire over one hundred words that she understood, but remained silent and continued to make high-pitched squeaks. Over the next several years, Genie showed impressive learning skills such as scoring the highest recorded score ever on tests that measure a person’s ability to make sense out of chaos and to see patterns. However, she was still unable to speak with syntax, let alone make meaningful sentences. In a test conducted on her, scientists found out Genie was particularly quick and confident at tasks that involved more of the right side of the brain. She was extremely slow at tasks that needed coordination of both sides of the brain. And failed with tasks that involved more of the left brain, such as language.

This shows that language is something that is acquired during our first few years, or the first decade. Genie was robbed of that. She was locked in a room alone for ten years. She did not receive any ‘parentese,’ but was beaten if made any sound. Children also have an innate language acquisition device that allows them to learn language if exposed to enough sampling of it. Genie was exposed to none. Does the left side of the brain develop only during the first critical years?

Genie was the most disturbing case Jay Shurley, an expert in solitary confinement, had ever seen. ‘Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And try to expand this to 10 years boggles one’s mind,’ he said.

Initially, Genie didn’t respond to his efforts. Then, one day, Genie frowned and pulled Kent’s arm when he tried to leave. She didn’t want him to go.

Genie’s Language Progress

Despite scoring at the level of a one-year-old upon her initial assessment, Genie quickly began adding new words to her vocabulary. She started by learning single words and eventually began putting two words together much the way young children do. Curtiss began to feel that Genie would be fully capable of acquiring language. After a year of treatment, she even started putting three words together occasionally. In children going through normal language development, this stage is followed by what is known as a language explosion. Children rapidly acquire new words and begin putting them together in novel ways. Unfortunately, this never happened for Genie.

Her language abilities remained stuck at this stage and she appeared unable to apply grammatical rules and use language in a meaningful way. At this point, her progress levelled off and her acquisition of new language halted. While Genie was able to learn some language after puberty, her inability to use grammar (which Chomsky suggests is what separates human language from animal communication) offers evidence for the critical period hypothesis. Of course, Genie’s case is not so simple. Not only did she miss the critical period for learning language, she was also horrifically abused. She was malnourished and deprived of cognitive stimulation for most of her childhood. Researchers were also never able to fully determine if Genie suffered from pre-existing cognitive deficits. As an infant, a paediatrician had identified her as having some type of mental delay. So researchers were left to wonder whether Genie had suffered from cognitive deficits caused by her years of abuse or if she had been born with some degree of mental retardation.

James Kent, another researcher on Genie’s team, thought her condition would improve if she could form meaningful relationships with people. He began feeding her breakfast in the morning and tucking her in at night with a story and a kiss. But ‘doctors aren’t supposed to love their patients,’ he said.

Arguments Over Genie’s Care

Psychiatrist Jay Shurley helped assess Genie after she was first discovered, and he noted that since situations like hers were so rare, she quickly became the centre of a battle between the researchers involved in her case.

JAY SHURLEY: When introduced, I extended my hand. She reached out with her fingers and delicately touched my hand, and then, in a sense, that was it. She had made my acquaintance. She was satisfied, for herself, about me. But my reaction was, I had a thousand questions, immediately. Who? What? How? How does this come about? Why is this? Why do I see what I’m seeing?

Shurley was an expert in social isolation. Genie was the most extreme case he’d ever seen.

JAY SHURLEY: Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And try to expand this to ten years boggles one’s mind.

Shurley wanted to assess how well Genie had survived her long years of isolation. He directed the team to gather information on her brain waves. For four nights running, they wired Genie to instruments that measured the electrical activity in her brain while she slept. What they found was an unusually high number of so-called sleep spindles, the dense bunching patterns that look like spindles on a spinning machine. This was an abnormal brain wave pattern.

The sleep studies raised a question that would puzzle the Genie team for years. Was Genie brain damaged from her years of abuse, or had she been retarded from birth? When Genie was a baby, her father apparently decided she was retarded. He insisted on keeping her isolated because of that. Authorities pieced together these few facts in the early weeks. Genie’s strange family circumstances made it hard to learn more. Genie’s mother, weak and nearly blind, claimed that she, too, had been a victim of her domineering husband. Genie’s father, shortly after authorities discovered Genie, shot and killed himself. The suicide only added to the interest in Genie’s case. She was a prize patient, and in the months to come, the number of visiting scientists increased. Genie’s new celebrity status marked the beginning of a debate that would intensify over time: How should her case be handled. James Kent’s plan was the first to be adopted. He believed Genie could get better if she were allowed to form relationships, and he was encouraged when she started to do so.

JAMES KENT: Up until one particular day, Genie didn’t seem to respond in any special way to my coming or going, at the end of our sessions. Then one day, when I’d left, her expression changed from happy to sad to indicate that there was some sadness in the separation for her. And it was the first indication that I had that we were beginning to form this relationship. I thought as long as she had the capacity to form attachments, she had the capacity to learn; she had the capacity to get better.

By the end of May, something had happened to add to the hopes for Genie’s future. It was a breakthrough that everyone had waited for. In a classroom at Children’s Hospital, Butler is teaching Genie to tie her own shoes. Butler is about to tell Genie, “You do it, and we can tell Dr Kent what you can do.”

Genie said the word “doctor.”

For the first time in her life, Genie seemed to be thriving. Her mental and physical growth since coming to Children’s Hospital was obvious. Genie’s progress gave birth to a daring hope. She might fully recover, and science might learn how. Her doctors even publically predicted success.

Unfortunately, the National Institute of Mental Health revoked funding for Genie’s treatment and research in the Fall of 1974. Because of the blurred lines between foster family and research team, no one could produce well-kept records or steadfast findings. Alleging the research damaged Genie’s recovery, her mother even sued the team and hospital for excessive testing.

To bring all the proposed plans for Genie into focus, there was another player on the team, David Rigler, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital. Rigler, too, was hooked on Genie’s case.

DAVID RIGLER: I think everybody who came in contact with her was attracted to her. She had a quality of somehow connecting with people, which developed more and more, but was present, really, from the start. She had a way of reaching out without saying anything, but just somehow by the kind of look in her eyes, and people wanted to do things for her.

Rigler decided how to focus the research around the time of Genie’s first birthday at Children’s Hospital. Genie was now fourteen years old. The timing was fitting, because Rigler wanted to know, could the clock be turned back for Genie? In particular, could a teenager still learn to talk? This had already been the subject of much debate by the time Genie was discovered. It all began with Noam Chomsky, a young linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky declared that we acquire language not just because we are taught it, but because we are born with the principles of language. They’re in our genes. We have language, Chomsky said, because of nature, not just nurture. Then, along came a neuropsychologist to add his own twist to the theory. Eric Lenneberg agreed we’re born with the principles of language, but acclaimed there is a deadline for applying them. If a first language isn’t acquired by puberty, he said, it may be too late. Chomsky and Lenneberg rocked the field. They were hot. Linguistics was in. It was the perfect time to test the new ideas, recalls linguist Elissa Newport.

This is why Susan Curtiss joined the Genie team. She was a graduate student in linguistics. She would put the critical period hypothesis to its first real test. This is one of the first videotapes of Curtiss’s work with Genie.

SUSAN CURTISS: She wanted, it seemed to me, almost desperately, to re-code her world with verbal labels. And sometimes, we would just stand at a window and she would take my hand and point out the window at a panorama before us, and I wouldn’t really know exactly what it was she wanted to know the word for, but she would persist until she at least got a new word.

While Curtiss tracked Genie’s speech, James Kent continued work on her emotional development. Kent was concerned that with the growing number of people involved in her case, Genie wouldn’t be able to form single, dependable relationships. So, he set out to be her surrogate parent.

JAMES KENT: I wanted to part of her sort of ordinary life, so I would frequently be there in the morning when she had breakfast and be there in the evening when she went to bed, read her a story, kiss her good night, turn off the lights, go, and then do things during the day. When she became—When she had sort of the important things that she had to go through, like physical exams or things like that, I would come along with her, as though she were my child. She was very special to me.

INTERVIEW: Did you feel you loved her?

JAMES KENT: Well, doctors aren’t supposed to love their patients, but if you could find a word that meant the same thing, yes. Yeah, I was very attached to her. The first time she saw a helium balloon, she couldn’t believe them, the fact that she could let them go up and pull them back down again. She had, you know, the kind of laugh that some people have, and it’s just a full-out chuckle; it’s so contagious, everybody around them starts to laugh. Well, they made her laugh like that.

SUSAN CURTISS: One of my memories was that we would go to a place, say, Woolworth’s, where there would be a stand of spools of thread, and spools where each colour thread would incrementally change from the spools next to it, and she wanted a word for every different hue. And, I didn’t know. I mean, I had a box of 64 Crayola crayons as a child, and I remembered, you know, burnt sienna and all these colours that I tried to extract from my memory, but I don’t—English doesn’t have words for all of these different hues. And she was very frustrated when I would say, “Very dark blue,” and “Very, very dark blue.”

Arguments over the research and the course of her treatment soon erupted. Genie occasionally spent the night and the home of Jean Butler, one of her teachers. After an outbreak of measles, Genie was quarantined at her teacher’s home. Butler soon became protective and began restricting access to Genie. Other members of the team felt that Butler’s goal was to become famous from the case, at one point claiming that Butler had called herself the next Anne Sullivan, the teacher famous for helping Helen Keller learn to communicate. Eventually, Genie was removed from Butler’s care and went to live in the home of psychologist David Rigler, where she remained for the next four years. Despite some difficulties, she appeared to do well in the Rigler household. She enjoyed listening to classical music on the piano and loved to draw, often finding it easier to communicate through drawing than through other methods.

Over time, Genie slipped from headlines – Vietnam was burning, the Beatles were in the midst of breaking up – but she retained the attention of scientists, especially linguists. She was a prize specimen for having grown up without language or social training.

Jostling for access, they took brain scans and audio recordings, performed countless tests, compiled reams of data, published papers. And gradually they, too, with a few exceptions, also lost interest.

Genie had her first birthday after being found — her 14th — at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

The Beginning of the End

NIMH withdrew funding in 1974, due to the lack of scientific findings. Linguist Susan Curtiss had found that while Genie could use words, she could not produce grammar. She could not arrange these words in a meaningful way, supporting the idea of a critical period in language development. Rigler’s research was disorganised and largely anecdotal. Without funds to continue the research and care for Genie, she was moved from the Rigler’s care.

In 1975, Genie returned to live with her birth mother. When her mother found the task too difficult, Genie was moved through a series of foster homes, where she was often subjected to further abuse and neglect. Genie’s birth mother then sued the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the research team, charging them with excessive testing. While the lawsuit was eventually settled, it raised important questions about the treatment and care of Genie. Did the research interfere with the girl’s therapeutic treatment? Genie’s situation continued to worsen. After spending a significant amount of time in foster homes, she returned to Children’s Hospital. Unfortunately, the progress that had occurred during her first stay had been severely compromised by the subsequent treatment she received in foster care. Genie was afraid to open her mouth and had regressed back into silence.

With Genie approaching her 60th birthday, her fate remains an enigma. Photograph: Screengrab

Where is Genie Today?

By the late 1970s, Genie had vanished back into obscurity. As she was a ward of California, authorities housed her in state-run institutions, her location secret. Four decades later, she apparently remains in state care.

“I’m pretty sure she’s still alive because I’ve asked each time I called and they told me she’s well,” said Susan Curtiss, a UCLA linguistics professor who studied and befriended Genie. “They never let me have any contact with her. I’ve become powerless in my attempts to visit her or write to her. I think my last contact was in the early 1980s.”

Today, Genie lives in an adult foster care home somewhere in southern California. Little is known about her present condition, although an anonymous individual hired a private investigator to track her down in 2000 and described her as happy. This contrasts with the account of psychiatrist Jay Shurley who visited her on her 27th and 29th birthdays and characterised her as largely silent, depressed, and chronically institutionalised.

Genie returned to live with her mother, acquitted of all charges. But her mother soon found taking care of Genie too difficult. Genie made the rounds to foster home after foster home where she experienced abuse and harassment.

Today, it’s not clear what happened to Genie. One person, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he hired a private investigator to locate Genie. She’s in a private facility somewhere for mentally underdeveloped adults. ‘It was a little pathetic, but she was happy,’ he said.

The legacy of Clark Wiley’s abuse never released Genie’s brother, John. After the beatings, and witnessing his sister’s suffering, he said in 2008: “I feel at times God failed me. Maybe I failed him.” He saw Genie for the last time in 1982 and lost touch with their mother, who died in 2003. “I tried to put [Genie] out of my mind because of the shame. But I’m glad she got some help.”

After brushes with the law, John settled in Ohio and worked as a housepainter. He married and had a daughter, Pamela. But the marriage crumbled and his daughter – Genie’s niece – turned to drugs.

In 2010, police found Pamela intoxicated and charged her with endangering her two daughters, Genie’s grandnieces. There would be no miracle turnaround, no happy ending. John, who had diabetes, died in 2011. Pamela, who apparently never met her aunt Genie, died in 2012.

In Arab folklore, a genie is a spirit imprisoned in a bottle or oil lamp who, when freed, can grant wishes. The waif who shuffled into the world in 1970 enchanted many people in that brief, heady period after her liberation.

But granting wishes, like so much else, proved beyond her, perhaps because she never truly escaped.

Genie Wiley – TLC Documentary (2003) – YouTube

Starved, tortured, forgotten: Genie, the feral child who left a mark on …

Genie Wiley: Psychology’s Feral Child – Verywell

Wild Child Speechless After Tortured Life – ABC News

Susan “Genie” Wiley | Captive Humans

“Genie” The Story of the Wild Child – Clio

Susan “Genie” Wiley | Captive Humans

Jean Butler | History/Herstory

The Horrific Story of ‘Genie’: the Feral Child Who Suffered at the Hands …

Case Study of a Feral Child – Genie Wiley – International …

Genie – Crime Museum

The Heartbreaking Story Of Genie, A Feral Child … – Business Insider


Psych ∙ Ms. Wiley ∙ Case Study Approach—Genie Study, D___ Name …

Genie Wiley – TLC Documentary (2003) | Degreed

Case of Genie Wiley – BrainMass

NOVA | Transcripts | Secret of the Wild Child | PBS

General Psychology: Genie, the Feral Child

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