true crime

The haunting true story of Genie Wiley, the 'feral child' raised in secret in the suburbs.

On November 4, 1970, a woman wandered into a social services office in Temple City, California, with a child clutching her hand. Plagued by cataracts, the woman was seeking a disability pension but had mistakenly arrived at the office next door.

As a social worker approached to help, she was struck by something about the young girl slouching at the woman’s side. She looked six, maybe seven, but she didn’t appear to be able to speak. She seemed unsteady on her feet, her limbs jerked, she held her hands in front of her body like a rabbit.

The social worker gently probed the woman about the little girl. With what she was told that day, with what she’d seen, she picked up the phone and dialled police.

This waif-like girl in her office was not six nor seven. She was 13 years and eight months old, and this outing was one of the first she’d made in her entire life.

Genie, the ‘wild child’.

The case of the “wild child” became known to the world as one of the most horrific examples of child abuse and neglect ever uncovered in the United States. The girl had been imprisoned in the second bedroom of her family home by her father, Clark Wiley, for over 12 years after he speculated she was mentally disabled.

According to researchers, he didn’t speak to her, and instructed his wife, Irene, and five-year-old son to do the same. She was tied to a potty chair during the day and locked inside crib with a wire cover overnight. She was never toilet trained, and was fed almost entirely on liquids meaning she never properly learned to chew. He growled and barked at her like a dog, and if she made a noise, he beat her with a wooden stick.

Irene and their boy were reportedly beaten and forbidden from contacting family or having any visitors to the home, ABC News reported. He was reportedly only allowed to leave for school, but was otherwise trapped until fleeing at the age of 18.

Irene escaped with Genie in October, and stayed with her parents until she wandered into that social services office, unmasking the horrors that had happened in her home.

Both parents were charged over their treatment of the girl, but on the day of their trial, Clark took his own life. According to The Guardian he left behind a note that read: “The world will never understand”.

The girl’s story was told in newspapers and TV bulletins around the world, and later sparked an Emmy-winning documentary, Secret of the Wild Child. But it wasn’t just media that swarmed on the story. Here was a child who had never been socialised, who had been raised almost entirely outside of culture. To scientific researchers, she was irresistible.

A ward of the court, they gave her a new name to protect her identity: Genie. A trapped spirit.

From welfare case, to case study.

From 1971 to 1975, a multidisciplinary research team from the Children’s Hospital at UCLA poured over Genie for their study, “Developmental Consequence of Extreme Social Isolation”, led by Dr. David Rigler.

Her lack of language was particularly interesting to them.

As Susan Curtiss, one of the linguistics researchers who worked with Genie, explained to The Guardian, “For many of us, our thoughts are verbally encoded. For Genie, her thoughts were virtually never verbally encoded, but there are many ways to think… She was smart. She could hold a set of pictures so they told a story. She could create all sorts of complex structures from sticks. She had other signs of intelligence. The lights were on”.

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Genie seemed to be the perfect example to test something called the ‘critical period hypothesis’, a linguistic theory developed in 1959, which basically argues the ability to learn language is linked to a specific age – the first few years of life. It suggests that if someone doesn’t acquire language within that window, it will be extremely difficult – perhaps even impossible – for them to do so later on.

With the help of a language teacher, Genie went from uttering fewer than 20 words to hundreds in a matter of months. But she was still unable to form grammatically correct sentences. When asked to create a question, for example, she’d say things like, “What red blue is in?”, PBS reported. The critical period, it seemed, was more about grammar than vocabulary.

But beyond the scientific outcomes, the studies gave Genie crucial results of her own. As Curtiss later wrote in her textbook, Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day Child, she finally had the tools to express the horrors she’d been through. She could even utter broken sentences. “Father hit Genie big stick… Father make me cry”.

When the money ran dry.

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Rigler, and his wife had become Genie’s legal foster parents when the study began. But after four years with criticism about a lack of concrete results, funding for his research was withdrawn.

Around the same time, Genie, then 18, was returned to the care of her mother, Irene, who successfully persuaded a court to drop abuse charges against her, arguing she too was a victim of Clark Wiley. But Irene was unable to manage her daughter’s needs, and Genie was placed back into foster care.

According to ABC, she was bounced from home to home, and in some placements suffered harassment and abuse at the hands of her carers. In one incident, she was severely punished for vomiting – enough that she stopped speaking again and became afraid to open her mouth altogether. Curtiss continued to visit her during this time, and noticed a significant regression in her newly learned language skills.

In the midst of it all, Irene filed a lawsuit against the hospital and the research team, including Curtiss, in which she alleged excessive and outrageous testing. The suit was ultimately dismissed by a Californian court, according to an op-ed Rigler wrote years later, but the damage was already done. Their access to Genie had been severed, and they lost contact as she disappeared deeper into the foster system.

Where is Genie Wiley now?

It’s not publicly known where Genie is now. The Guardian reported in 2016 that she is was living in a state care facility. She would now be in her early 60s.

As Ray Shurley, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural science who encountered Genie in her 20s, said according to The Guardian, “She was this isolated person, incarcerated for all those years, and she emerged and lived in a more reasonable world for a while, and responded to this world, and then the door was shut and she withdrew again and her soul was sick”.

A spirit trapped again, forced back into its bottle.

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