Genie Wiley: The Feral Child

Genie in the Children's Hospital yard a few weeks after her admission, displaying her characteristic
Genie in the Children's Hospital yard a few weeks after her admission, displaying her characteristic "bunny walk" in 1970 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Genie Wiley was the name given to a thirteen-year-old girl who had been a victim of severe abuse, neglect, and isolation since her birth. Her father, Clark Wiley, hated children and quickly tired of hearing baby Genie’s cries. As a result, at an early age, he threw her in the basement with nothing but a wire cage and a potty chair with a homemade strapping device. He believed Genie was mentally handicapped, and he used that excuse to keep Genie from both her family and from the outside world. He kept Genie either strapped to her potty chair or in a crib with her arms and legs immobilized. This left Genie severely malnourished. Her isolation made it impossible for her to acquire language during her childhood.1 Genie’s mother, Irene Wiley, who was almost blind from cataracts, and her older brother John Wiley, also suffered from the father’s abuse and lived in fear of him for years. But one day, Irene grew the courage to run off and tell a social worker about her husband’s dark secret. When the social worker found Genie, she was still wearing diapers and was unable to speak. Unable to face the truth of the damage he inflicted upon his family, Clark shot and killed himself. After thirteen years and seven months of unimaginable torture at the hands of her father, Genie was finally given the chance to learn how to live as an average human being. 2

The first publicly released picture of Genie, taken in 1970, just after authorities took control of her care at the age of thirteen | Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the first years after Genie’s liberation, psychologists, linguists, and other scientists became interested in Genie, seeing in her near-total isolation a unique chance to study many aspects of human development. The case was so scientifically important that the government funded a team of scientists to help answer the many questions that her conditions posed. James Kent, a child psychologist, and Susan Curtiss, a linguist, were the two scientists who became extremely close to Genie. Neither one of them had ever encountered a case as extreme as Genie’s. The scientists took advantage of the unheard of opportunity that Genie’s unique conditions provided them. Yet they also used Genie to address specific questions about “critical period theory” and the human mind. While many scientists researched Genie’s conditions, Susan Curtiss and James Kent had Genie stay with them in their own homes.3

The “critical period” theory states that there is a certain window of time when an adolescent can learn a language. The first few years of life is crucial for individuals to acquire their first language.4 If the learning of language occurs after this period of time, then the individual will never acquire the full command of a language. The evidence that supported the “critical period” theory was slim, which is why Genie was so important for proving or disproving the theory. According to the theory, Genie, who was now a teenager, had missed her time to learn words and grammatically put them into sentences. But the scientists wanted to try and see what repetitive teaching could accomplish. Susan Curtiss spent hours per week working with Genie to help her learn how to express herself in language.5

The Salk Institute, where researchers analyzed the data from the first of several brain exams on Genie | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Susan Curtiss, a scientist from UCLA, worked with Genie in an attempt to improve her language skills. Genie seemed to have little to no control over any speech organs, and she showed defects in the muscles she used for chewing and swallowing. Susan Curtiss thought that if Genie was able to understand the English language spoken to her, then there was a good chance this would reflect some linguistic knowledge of the language, even though physical and psychological impediments prevented her from using this knowledge to produce speech. Unfortunately, Genie was unable to understand and respond to any form of commands, which meant that a controlled comprehension test would have to wait. Even though Genie scored at the level of a 1-year-old at her initial assessment, she quickly began adding new words to her vocabulary. Genie started by learning single words like “dog” and “run,” and then she began putting two words together, like “a dog house,” which is something young children can do.6 Curtiss began to feel that Genie would be fully capable of acquiring language. She had found that while Genie could use words, she could not produce grammar or even put together sentences. She could not arrange these words in a meaningful way. It started looking as though the “critical period” theory of language development might indeed be correct.7

James Kent, a child psychologist, stated that his first impression of Genie was incredibly surprising. Hers was the worst case of child abuse he had ever encountered, and he became extremely pessimistic about Genie’s prognosis. The restraints that Genie’s father used caused Genie’s wrists to develop extreme bruising, and her bones were unable to grow while she had been forced to sleep inside a crib. Kent found it extremely difficult to test Genie’s mental age, but the two times he did showed that Genie had the same mental ability as a thirteen-month old child.8 Despite tests confirming that she had normal vision in both eyes, she could not focus them on anything more than ten feet away. This was caused by being locked up inside a small room for thirteen years.9

Genie working with Marilyn Rigler at her home in Country Club Park, Los Angeles in June 1971 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jay Shurly, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma and a specialist in social isolation, took interest in Genie’s case. He started visiting Genie three days a week to conduct a sleep study to see if Genie was autistic, mentally challenged, or if she had sustained any bring damage during the time she was isolated. Shurly’s study concluded that Genie Wiley was not autistic but had high levels of emotional disturbance. Jay Shurly’s sleep study also showed a significantly reduced amount of REM sleep and a large number of sleep spindles. Shurly soon concluded that, based on the unusual amount of sleep spindles, Genie had been mentally retarded since birth. Some of the other scientists were not 100% sure if this information was true due to the substantial progress Genie was making in expressing herself. Much later, for example, Susan Curtiss argued that, even though Genie obviously had serious emotional issues, she could not have been retarded. She pointed out that Genie made a year’s developmental progress for every calendar year after her rescue, which would not be expected if her condition was congenital, and that some aspects of language that Genie acquired were uncharacteristic of mentally retarded individuals.10

>On account of many people fighting over Genie to do their research, Genie was forced to move back in with her biological mother in 1975. Genie’s mother attempted to sue the children hospital and many other scientists for treating her daughter more like a test dummy than a human being. All scientists were shut off from Genie. This caused Genie’s conditions to get worse and her mother found her too difficult to take care of and sent her back into a foster home, where Genie was subject to further abuse. After scientists were no longer allowed to use Genie as a test subject, more questions arose.11 Did research interfere with Genie’s therapeutic treatment? Unfortunately, after leaving Genie alone in foster care, her progress was compromised and she was afraid to open her mouth, which led her back to silence.12

  1. Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Disabilities and Other Exceptional Individuals, 2013, s.v. “Kasper Hauser Syndrome,” by Cecil R. Reynolds, Kimberly J. Vannest, and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen.
  2. Kendra Cherry, “Overview of feral child Genie Wiley,” Very well Mind, November 25, 2018, https://www.verywellmind.com/genie-the-story-of-the-wild-child-2795241.
  3. Loretta Kasper, “The Civilizing of Genie,” In Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology, October 8, 2002, http://kccesl.tripod.com/genie.html.
  4. Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 2008, s.v. “Critical period,” by David Crystal; Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Critical Period Hypothesis,” by Janine Ungvarsky.
  5. Loretta Kasper, “The Civilizing of Genie,” In Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology, October 8, 2002, http://kccesl.tripod.com/genie.html.
  6. Dictionary of Sociolinguistics, 2004, s.v. “Zone of proximal development (ZPD),” by Joan Swann, Ana Deumert, Theresa Lillis.
  7. Loretta Kasper, “The Civilizing of Genie,” In Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology, October 8, 2002, http://kccesl.tripod.com/genie.html.
  8. Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Disabilities and Other Exceptional Individuals, 2013, s.v. “Genie,” by Cecil R. Reynolds, Kimberly J. Vannest, and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen.
  9. Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Disabilities and Other Exceptional Individuals, 2013, s.v. “Kasper Hauser Syndrome,” by Cecil R. Reynolds, Kimberly J. Vannest, and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen.
  10. Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980), 216-218; Kendra Cherry, “Overview of feral child Genie Wiley,” Very well Mind, November 25, 2018, https://www.verywellmind.com/genie-the-story-of-the-wild-child-2795241.
  11. Kendra Cherry, “Overview of feral child Genie Wiley,” Very well Mind, November 25, 2018, https://www.verywellmind.com/genie-the-story-of-the-wild-child-2795241.
  12. Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Disabilities and Other Exceptional Individuals, 2013, s.v. “Feral Children,” by Cecil R. Reynolds, Kimberly J. Vannest, and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen.

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This Post Has 99 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Alexander Johnson

    First of all, the author did an incredible job writing the article. The article was both fascinating and expertly crafted, a pleasure to read. The story is very sad, particularly because it seems she never got the help she needed as she was sent off to foster care. It seemed as if she was making progress with her language skills, perhaps even able to learn one past her formative years, but we will never know as she tragically was taken back to her mother. I read elsewhere that Susan tried to adopt her, but the mom put a stop to it and tried to sue the scientists. Mostly though, its just tragic how horrible a life this woman has had to live and it should make us all feel both grateful and motivated to make things better for future generations.

  2. Avatar
    Edith Cardona

    This is such a devastating story but it raises some very important things people must notice, such as the critical period theory, I believe it’s a bit real but obviously, as seen with Genie, over time after this period, people can still begin to learn language, probably not grammar structure though.

  3. Avatar
    Mariana Mata

    Reading this article made me realize how important language exposure is for a child’s development. Genie’s story is truly horrifying and no child should ever go through that. Although some may argue that using Genie as an “experiment” was not moral, such tests helped her develop at some point, but unfortunately, everything went downhill as soon as her mother took her out of the facility. I wish her story can reach a larger audience to bring awareness to such horrifying abuse.

  4. Malleigh Ebel
    Malleigh Ebel

    This article opened my eyes to how important being exposed to language early in life is for children to develop grammar and language as a whole. While Genie seemed to make quite a bit of progress, it seems she may never get a handle on grammar, especially since they pulled her out of the study. It must be hard for her to cope with all the trauma she’s facing without language to communicate those experiences effectively as well as not being able to get advice on how to control your thoughts or accept your feelings properly. I wonder how much progress they could have made if the scientists had focused more on her recovering rather than treating her like a project.

  5. Avatar
    Micheala Whitfield

    This is a good story to tell. I would like to say it was a little tough to read, I believe due to the structure, but I enjoyed reading about Genie. That poor child is what comes to my mind when I hear her story. Trauma affects the human body and mind tremendously, yet, humans have the ability to progress from their certain status. The mother was absolutely right for defending her daughter, the scientist were focused on research instead of approaching the child as a child. They truly let a life suffer for the remaining of it’s living purpose and had no regrets and let it happen. Sometimes research isn’t worth it.

  6. Avatar
    Samantha Zamorano

    This article was a lot, to say the least. Genie endured such terrible conditions. I think it’s pretty well understood and known now that if there is limited socialization, one can’t possibly know how to speak or understand what is being said to them. What I did not know however, was about the critical period theory. I’m glad they were able to do experiments to explore this idea more, but it really sucks that it was all at the expense of this child. As for your question, I think research definitely interfered with Genie’s therapeutic treatment. Instead of focusing on recovering from the past trauma that has been her entire life, she now had strangers running countless of tests on her. However, had it not been Genie, then who would they have explored this theory on? Do the ends justify the means?

  7. Christopher McClinton
    Christopher McClinton

    This article clearly sends a clear message of a cause to action. We must ensure that all efforts to make sure that children are protected and that no harm comes to children. This young lady is scared for life. We must continue to push to make sure there are laws in place to protect these innocent children.

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