Genie, The Feral Child, part 1

On November 4, 1970, Dorothy Wiley, the nearly blind wife of Clark Wiley, walked into what she thought was the Blind Services Office in Temple City, California.

Temple City, California

She had recently left her abusive husband.  She had, in fact, walked into a general social services office.

Dorothy was accompanied by her daughter, Genie (a pseudonym).

“Genie” Wiley

The social worker assumed that Genie was about 6 years old and noted that she seemed to display some autistic qualities.  She did not speak, she crawled on the floor and was wearing a diaper.  When the social worker interviewed Dorothy for services, she revealed that Genie was actually 13 years old.

Genie weighed only 59 pounds, her eyes did not focus on anyone or anything around her and she had two complete sets of teeth.  The police were notified immediately.

Genie’s story began on April 18, 1957…

She was the fourth child born to Dorothy and Clark Wiley.  Only two of those children survived past infancy.  Genie was born into a pattern of neglect from her father that began with the couple’s first born, but Genie experienced the most prolonged abuse.

Clark, whose birthmother managed a brothel, grew up in orphanages.

Clark Wiley

It was not until he was an adult that he built a relationship with his mother.  Once he had reconciled with her, Clark became obsessed with his mother.  When Genie was almost 2 years old, Clark’s mother was killed while the two were walking together.  She was hit by a car.  Immediately, there was a shift in his behavior.  This is when the abuse intensified for Genie and her isolation began.

Dorothy, whose eyesight had been failing since an accident as a child, married Clark on September 28, 1944 in Los Angeles County.

Dorothy Wiley, with her son, John

Their first child, Dorothy, was born on August 19, 1948.  Clark was particularly sensitive to noise.  He liked the house to be quiet.  Clark was bothered by his new daughter’s crying and left her in the garage to drown out the noise.  They child developed pneumonia and died at just 10 weeks old.

A son, Robert, was born September 15, 1949.  He survived only two days before dying from a genetic birth condition.

John, the couple’s third child, was born March 11, 1952.  Immediately, Clark told Dorothy to keep him quiet.  This would lead to slow language and physical development.  At 4 years old, Dorothy’s mother took John for several months.  John showed a great deal of progress in this time, but was returned to his parents after this stay where he would continue to suffer abuse and neglect.

When Genie was born, she was a tiny, sick baby.  At 3 months, a hip issue was discovered which required her to be in a brace until she was almost a year old.  This caused a delay in Genie learning to walk.  Because she was not developing as quickly as her father believed she should be, he determined that she was mentally handicapped.  He decided, at that point, that he would no longer talk or interact with Genie at all.  He was abusive to his wife and son when they engaged with her as well.

Upon Clark’s mother’s death, when Genie was 20 months old, the family moved into her house.  Dorothy, Clark and John slept in the living room while Genie was confined to a bedroom in the back of the house.

The Wiley’s House

Clark created a harness that held Genie in place and prevented her from moving her arms.  He tied her to a children’s toilet, wearing this harness and only a diaper, for approximately 13 hours a day.  At night, she was secured into a sleeping bag and placed in a crib fitted with a metal cover.

Genie’s Room

During her confinement, Genie did not eat solid food.  When she was turned over to authorities at 13 years old, she could not chew or swallow and constantly drooled and spat.  Genie’s room was always very dark.  It would be determined later that Genie could not focus on objects more than 10 feet away from her.  This would coincide with the size of the room that she was kept in.

During this time, Dorothy was confined to the house as well.  John was only permitted to go to school and he had to prove his identity when returning home to be allowed entry into the house.  Clark often sat near the front door with a shotgun and did not allow anyone on his property.  Neighbors that had seen John and had met Clark would later say that no one knew Genie even existed.  Much of what is known about what was going on in the house came from Clark’s journals during this time.

Dorothy was forbidden from contacting anyone outside of the house, including her parents.  He would physically and mentally abuse her if he believed that she had tried.  John was forced to assist his father in abusing Genie.

Clark told Dorothy that he believed that Genie would not live to be 12 years old and that, if she did, he would allow her mother to take her and seek help.  By the time Dorothy left her husband, Genie would be almost 14 years old.

After the visit with social worker, Dorothy and Clark were both arrested and Genie was taken to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

By November 17, 1970, Genie was national news.

On November 20, 1970 Clark killed himself leaving behind two suicide notes.  One of the notes, for his son, John, said, “Be a good boy, I love you.”  The other, for police, said, “The world will never understand.” [1]

The charges against Dorothy were dropped, as she was considered a victim of Clark’s abuse as well.  Dorothy, then, dedicated herself to Genie.  John moved away from Los Angeles at this time.

Doctors and scientists took over Genie’s care while she was in the hospital.  Her situation, which could never be ethically duplicated, needed to be studied.  A child with so little social interaction and no language skills could be the key to understanding how the brain learns language, forms relationships and answer the question, “How late is too late for learning a new skill?”

Next week, we will examine what happened to Genie after her “rescue” and hospitalization.

A video summary of this story:

Sources/Photo Credits

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