Genie Wiley: The Feral Child

Genie in the Children's Hospital yard a few weeks after her admission, displaying her characteristic

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 86 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I had read a part of Genie’s story in my sociology textbook, so when I came across this article, I knew I had to read it. This article depicts the horrible and tortuous environment that Genie was forced in to since birth. To me, what’s even worse is that she was taken away from the people who were trying to help her grow verbally and develop mentally. As stated in the article, the separation from those who were helping Genie drove her to not speak at all anymore. My heart breaks for her, and I hope she’s making at least a little bit of progress. If there was anything I would suggest to be added to the article, it would be an update to where she is and how she is doing today.

  2. Sabrina Doyon

    This story made me so sad! This poor little girl was never given a childhood and even when she was saved, she was treated like a wild animal. It is so depressing that she was making progress and then she was just thrown away. I can’t believe the terrible treatment this poor little girl had. I sincerely hope that this isn’t the end of her story. This article was so emotional and I honestly almost cried. I hope that treatments and care for neglected children has improved.

  3. Isabella Torres

    This is one of the most gut wrenching and disheartening stories I have read in a while. It is so difficult to even try to comprehend how life would be locked up in the same room for 13 years of your life, not to mention the constant abuse. It’s even crazier to me how Genie ended up being left all alone in the foster care system, back to being abused. It’s hard to believe how she wasn’t found sooner or that her mother waited such a long time to get help. This article makes me wonder if Genie would have eventually reached fluency in english and been able to live out her life if she would have been able to continue therapy. Such a heartbreaking story.

  4. Avatar

    This is such a heart wrenching article. The fact that this child’s own father abused her so horribly she had permanent bruising, wasn’t able to speak, and her bones weren’t able to grow anymore is so cruel. I understand that the mother was very scared of the situation she was in, but I think saving your child should be first priority. I’m glad the mother eventually grew the courage, but if she could have gotten Genie out of the father’s grasp sooner she might have had a better life. Not to mention the fact that the mother tried suing the children hospital Genie was at. She’s right, Genie was probably getting treated as a test subject, however she was still getting better and improving. I think for the mother to try and sue the hospital only to throw her child back into foster care where abuse continued is extremely unfair. Genie was stripped of getting a fair shot at life for being a child. How terrible.

  5. Stephanie Cerda

    The first time I heard about Genie was through an ad that showed up on my feed as I was scrolling. Now, fully reading what happened to her, I feel terrible! I understand that her mother was scared, and that’s why she didn’t speak up sooner. Abuse can really hurt someone’s mental health. However, after Genie was rescued, I do think the mother made a mistake. Instead of just taking Genie from the care of the state, she should’ve allowed her to continue rehabilitation. I understand she didn’t want her child to be treated like an experiment, but it’s not like she could do anything to help her own daughter anyways. Genie returned to the system, and all that progress in rehabilitation was lost.

  6. Avatar

    This story is so heartbreaking; the entire family was so frightened by the father, they didn’t report the abuse for thirteen years. To think that more than half of my life was the time she spent in a tiny room strapped to a potty chair or crib, is unbelievable. The portion of the article describing the conditions she was living in was brutal, but what bothered me the most was that after getting custody of her child, her mom sent her to foster care where she was abused all over again.

  7. Avatar

    This is my second time reading this article and it really just gets more and more heartbreaking as I read it. For someone to do this to their own flesh and blood is absolutely disturbing. She was finally getting the help she needed only to be put back because of her mother.. Maybe one day she’ll be able to grow and prosper.

  8. Avatar

    This is currently a very famous and talked about topic especially after the new series that has emerged from the situation. The act is a wonderful series that talks about the story of Genie Wiley. I somehow cannot comprehend how someone can believe their mother when they think that they’re sick however, that is the one person that you think that you can trust throughout your entire life and for them to cause you harm never crosses your mind. Her mother truly abused her not only physically but mostly emotionally and mentally which can scar a person even more. I think that the murder of her mother was well deserved even though no one deserves to die however she was supposed to go to jail and now Jimi? is I somehow cannot comprehend how someone can believe their mother when they think that they’re sick however, that is the one person that you think that you can trust throughout your entire life and for them to cause you harm never crosses your mind. Her mother truly abused her not only physically but mostly emotionally and mentally which can scar a person even more. I think that the murder of her mother was well deserved even though no one deserves to die however she was supposed to go to jail and now Genie is the one that is stuck there. The story does not seem to have a happy ending however I think that it is important to have written this for the history media page as it is an interesting enough story.

    1. Avatar

      You’ve mixed up stories. Genie and Gypsy are not the same person.

  9. Avatar

    This is a sad story but still it was beautifully written and there was a lot of great research behind it. It must have been horrible living a life of constant isolation and abuse. Genie didn’t deserve to be treated like an animal or some lab rat. I like that the author didn’t shy away from this topic and was able to show the cruel things that happened.

  10. Avatar

    This article broke my heart. Although, I do love that Genie’s story was told and love the way it was written. I think the article has just the right amount of information and emotion. I am glad that the mother found the courage when she did because who knows what could’ve happened to Genie had the mother waited any longer. I also really appreciate how the state found it necessary to help to rehabilitate her. They very easily could’ve nursed her back to average physical health and let her be. Instead, they wanted to know what was going on with her and how to help her; that is very admirable.

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