Feral children stories are rarely happy ones, but few are as sad and horrifying as the tale of Genie Wiley. She was isolated, abused, and never fully learned to speak, and all attempts to help her learn eventually failed. Her case taught us so much about the consequences of child abuse, as well as language learning and child psychology. However, many have questioned how she was treated in her life, and whether there was anything else we could have done to save her.
Few facts about Genie Wiley are cheery ones. Even as an infant, her life was a wasteland of neglect and abuse at the hands of her father. After she was finally rescued in 1970, her life was still a constant struggle of confusion, stress, and eventually further abuse. Her tale as an unusual feral childis a fascinating, but also a deeply disturbing one.
Be aware that some of the content you will read here is graphic and distressing. And, unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending.
The story of this child, born in southern California, is one that will stick with you forever. When Genie, as researchers have called her, was an infant, she was diagnosed with some form of mental delay. After this, she pretty much vanished from public view entirely, for very disturbing reasons.
When her father’s mother died, he snapped. He quit his job, began to hide the family from the world at large, and began to mistreat his children, especially Genie. Because her father felt disdain for her, perhaps because she was frail and a little slow as a baby, he began to isolate her from not only the outside world, but from the family as well. He discouraged his wife and the other children from speaking with her, and eventually locked her in a room with no sunlight. When this was not enough for him, he confined her to the basement. He would only speak with her to bark at her or growl at her, and refused to interact with her in any way. She was rarely fed or given water, and had no interaction with the outside world at all. This was her life for more than a decade.
Isolation was not Genie’s only problem. She was punished for making noise or for acting out, especially around feeding time. If she had trouble chewing or swallowing her food when fed, her father would shove her face into the food, and refuse to feed her any more. If she attempted to make sound to communicate, she was beaten with a large wooden board until she was again silent. At one point, her father even hit her with a baseball bat, all before she was even twelve years old.
Even as she approached her teen years, Genie remained isolated and was treated like an animal. She was often dirty and unbathed, so in order to keep her from making a mess, her father would tie her to a potty chair, so she could relieve her bowels somewhere other than the floor. He would then leave her like this for days and days on end. He kept her from escaping by creating a make-shift straightjacket that she wore at nearly all times. When she was not tied to the chair, she was confined in a sleeping bag or in a crib. Inappropriate sexual behavior later observed by researchers suggests she may have been sexually abused as well.
Unfortunately, Genie was not the only one to suffer this kind of heinous abuse. Genie’s father had never wanted kids, and disliked them immensely. Even with this intense dislike, he had four children with his wife, and began to mistreat all of them little by little. First, he started to beat his wife, and did not allow her to leave the house. These beatings became so severe that she was left partially blind.
When she became pregnant and had their first child, a daughter, he began to show signs of aversion to sound. When the baby cried, he found it disturbing, so he put the baby in the garage, where it caught pneumonia and died shortly after. Their second child, a boy, was born with a birth defect, and died at only two years of age due to severe neglect. They had one more son, named John, who had Rh incompatibility but survived and remained healthy. He was raised partially by his grandparents, but still was forced to be quiet, due to his father’s hatred of sound. Then, Genie was finally born into an already horrifying and abusive home.
She Wasn’t Rescued Until She Was Thirteen
While her mother was hardly the best parent, it was her mother’s actions that eventually did save her. Genie’s mom had attempted to interact with the child when she could, but suffered such severe beatings that she was not able. She also attempted to give Genie extra food, but the girl was often unable to eat. No one was allowed to leave the house, except for Genie’s brother to go to school, but one day, after an argument, Genie’s mother decided to run.
She took Genie and left one day while her husband was out of the house. Because she was blind, Genie’s mother decided to try to get aid for the blind, but accidentally went to the social services office by mistake. Instantly, a social service worker noticed that something was severely wrong with Genie. She looked like she was about six or seven years old, but she was really thirteen. The social service workers contacted the police, and took Genie into custody, where she quickly became a ward of the state.
By the time she finally got to the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Genie was in pretty terrible shape. A team came to inspect her and found her malnourished, weak, and filthy. She weighed just 59 poundsdespite being thirteen years old, and her whole body seemed to move strangely. She walked awkwardly, spat all the time, and couldn’t straighten her limbs all the way. Her muscles were incredibly underdeveloped and she could not feed herself. In fact, when she was fed, she could not chew and had trouble swallowing. She was entirely incontinent, and only responded to her own name and perhaps the word “sorry,” but did not speak at all herself.
Step two of this assessment was to check her cognitive abilities. Testing her was difficult because she could not speak or respond, but when they did manage to assess her, the doctor who examined her said that she was “the most profoundly damaged child I’ve ever seen.” Her assessment revealed she had the cognitive level of a one year old.
Psychologists Tried To Help Her
As you might expect, Genie’s case attracted a lot of attention from the scientific community. There had been few cases of truly feral children to study, and Genie presented a unique opportunity. Researchers and psychologists set out to see if they could teach Genie language, motor skills, and to behave like a normal child of her age. This would help them settle the long-waged argument about whether language and learning was a matter of nature or nurture.
They began trying to teach her words, allowed her to explore the outdoors under supervision, and began teaching her how to walk, move and behave in public. She initially had major problems, like masturbating in public, as well as urinating and defecating, and had trouble picking up words. But she embraced exploring, and quickly began to learn how to dress, potty train herself, and recognize shapes and objects by name. She began stringing words together, and even began to express thoughts. When asked what happened to her in her previous home, Genie spoke in a halting manner:
Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry … Not spit. Father. Hit face — spit … Father hit big stick. Father angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Me cry.
It seemed like a major improvement, but, sadly, this was as far as Genie’s language development seemed to progress.
Researchers May Have Done More Harm Than Good
Research on Genie has long raised questions of morality, based on how scientists treated things. They were not abusive to her by any means, but it has been questioned whether her therapeutic recovery was interfered with by constant testing and pushing to learn language. On top of that, many of the scientists seemed to get to close to her, and they may have even used her as means to an end.
The researchers constantly argued over how her care should go, and how she should be tested. One particular researcher, named Jean Butler, sometimes allowed Genie to stay in her home. When there was an outbreak of measles, the little girl was quarantined there, and Butler soon began to restrict access to her. Other members of the team noted that she seemed to be obsessed with Genie, and said that she wanted be the next Anne Sullivan. They suspected she wanted to use Genie to make herself famous. Butler applied for foster custody, which was subsequently denied.
Eventually, interest in the case dwindled, and funding dried up. Without any real results, Genie was left in foster care, and was eventually placed back with her mother, and the scientists lost contact with her.
She Never Fully Learned To Communicate
Unfortunately, this was where Genie’s hopeful story of recovery came to an end. As she bounced from foster care facility to foster care facility, her condition began to reverse itself. It seems that, without constant and careful stimulation, and with some amount of neglect wherever she went, she began losing her language. Where she had once learned to string three or four words together, she now dwindled to one, and then rarely spoke at all. When she was placed back with her mother, her mother found it too difficult to care for her, but still restricted researchers from seeing her, and even went so far as to sue them.
However, research on her was enough to draw several conclusions about language. Genie had never been able to get a grasp on grammar, and had never been able to express abstract concepts. She never got past the early stages of development, and never had the language boom that babies have. Because she’d missed so many developmental milestones, there was simply nothing anyone could do. She’d missed her shot at a normal life.
She Redefined Child Psychology
Although Genie’s story is an incredibly sad one, it did change psychology as we know it today. Her case taught us that there is, in fact, a certain window of time in which we must reach various developmental milestones, especially involving language. Once missed, it becomes nearly impossible to go back and meet these various milestones. The brain simple cannot change after a certain point, so it’s literally use it or lose it. However, language comprehension was something Genie could manage, meaning that this part of us may still be able to be improved well after developmental milestone periods have passed. This meant that we had been looking at language all wrong.
This has also given us a look at the impact of extreme abuse on the developing mind. Genie may have had a developmental disability before her abuse began, but she was severely deprived of stimuli. Without it, and with the constant abuse, Genie became a person incapable of growth beyond that of a child.
Her Parents Are Both Dead
You may be curious as to what became of her parents, particularly her abusive father. As far as her father, he and his wife were ready to be brought to trial on charges of child abuse for their horrible treatment of Genie, but it never got that far. Instead, on the day of the trial, he shot himself in the head, and his body was discovered a short time later. He’d left a note, which read, “The world will never understand.” Given what we have learned about his horrifying mistreatment of his family, that statement may be correct.
Her mother claimed that she did not know of the abuse and the extent of it, given her blindness and constant abuse. Charges against her were dropped, and she eventually regained custody of Genie. She found that she was unable to take care of the girl, however, and Genie was put back into foster care. Her mother died in 2003.