The tragic story of Genie the feral child
At the time, this was a unique case of child abuse in the United States. A young girl underwent a truly horrific ordeal that destroyed her entire life and still afflicts her as an adult today.
In 1957, Genie — the protective pseudonym of Susan Wiley — was born in Arcadia, California. From the age of two, her mentally ill father Clark Wiley kept his young daughter in isolation by locking her in a darkened room and forcing her to wear a straitjacket. Chained to a potty stool during the day, Genie was tied down in a crib at night. Clark believed he was protecting his daughter from the evils of the outside world after his own mother was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident.
His wife, Genie's mother, was also beset with psychological problems. After an accident in her childhood, her sight grew increasingly worse and she could do nothing to improve her daughter's situation. Genie's brother was too young to intervene. Under pressure from Clark, both her mother and her brother didn't dare to talk to Genie or form any sort of relationship with her. Everyone had to be quiet: if Genie made a sound, her father would hit her and yell at her until he was blue in the face — this was the only human interaction the tortured child would ever have while in captivity. The consequences for the young girl's development were devastating.
The lack of stimulation during her confinement had a hugely detrimental effect on Genie's physical and mental growth. Many parts of Genie's brain such as Wernicke's speech area failed to develop, leaving her unable to walk or talk; she didn't react to hot or cold temperatures either. At the age of 13, she looked like a seven-year-old.
It was at this age in October 1970 that Genie was discovered. After a fight with her husband, Genie's mother, now practically blind, fled from the house and managed to take her daughter with her. Once they were at the social security office, staff noticed that Genie's physical appearance didn't match her actual age; she was also critically malnourished. When the case went public, Clark shot himself.
After being handed over to a children's hospital, the young girl was examined by various specialists, including psychologists and linguists. Researchers were particularly interested in finding out whether Genie could still learn a language at such a late stage in her childhood. At the time, she was only able to say a few words such as "blue," "orange," "mother," and "go" without any context.
Her social behavior was also underdeveloped. When stressed, Genie began to urinate or soil herself. She had no personal belongings, masturbated in public, and spat all of the time. She was completely passive and showed no empathy.
Though she made progress in expanding her vocabulary and interacting with other people, she remained a long way from being able to get by alone. It was particularly shocking that Genie was still unable to form any sentences that made sense after five years of training. The areas of the brain that need to be trained at an early stage so that language learning is possible had been permanently damaged by her captivity — there was no way back. In 1975, research funds were cut because her case was no longer of scientific interest. This is when Genie's life took another tragic turn.
After her mother was granted custody, Genie returned to the house where she had undergone so much suffering to live with her. It came as little surprise that her mother wasn't able to cope with the situation. After moving from foster family to foster family, Genie ended up at a care home in Los Angeles where she still lives today. Only a select few know what the now 60-year-old Genie is doing these days because there is a legal ban on contacting her.
Watch the following video to find out more about this shocking case of mistreatment:
Children that have grown up isolated from human contact or have spent their early years in such terrible conditions are known as "feral children." Having undergone unthinkable levels of mental torture, Genie's case is unprecedented and makes her childhood suffering such a horrific tale. We can only hope that she has since found some comfort in life.