A Little Girl Was Locked In A Basement By Her Own Parents For More Than A Decade

On November 4, 1970, Los Angeles child services discovered an unprecedented case of child neglect. At 13, Susan Wiley had the demeanor and appearance of a 6 or 7-year-old girl. When the authorities began investigating parents Irene and Clark Wiley, they found that two of the four Wiley children passed within months of their births. A third child lived with Clark’s mother until her unexpected passing, and the fourth was Susan, also known as “Genie.” Genie, despite her age, was unable to speak, feed herself, or use the toilet. At less than 60 pounds, the girl walked with an unusual gait, the result of years of confinement. 

After child services rescued Genie, child psychologists devoted themselves to the girl’s recovery. Known as a “feral child,” Genie’s isolation from society in her formative years caused her to have stunted cognitive and behavioral abilities. She never developed the ability to communicate with language, although her behavioral and social skills improved with years of positive reinforcement and therapy. Since Genie, other cases of feral children have come to light, such as Danielle Crockett, known as “The Girl in the Window,” and Ukraine’s Oxana Malaya.

The courts arrested Genie’s parents, but Clark took his own life before the trial. The judge subsequently dismissed the charges against Irene. In 1994, Nova - a PBS series - released an Emmy-winning documentary about Genie called Secret of the Wild Child. As of 2016, Genie lives in a Los Angeles facility as a permanent ward of the state. 

  • Her Family Locked Her In A Room And Ignored Her

    Susan Wiley, whom psychologists later referred to as “Genie,” was born April 18, 1957. Doctors determined the infant was healthy except for a hip disorder, which prevented her from walking correctly. Researchers later concluded, based on early medical records, that Genie exhibited no signs of impaired mental development from birth.

    When child services discovered Genie’s abusive home life, psychologists found the 13-year-old unable to talk or chew. Her stunted development resulted from a case of severe neglect and isolation. Her father, Clark Wiley, who reportedly was an abusive man with an insensitivity to sound, forcefully deprived Genie of human contact.

    He confined his daughter to a room and frequently bound her to a potty chair for extended periods of time. Clark also forbade Genie’s mother and older brother from interacting with the child. Genie lived imprisoned from the outside world for over a decade.

  • She Was Physically And Emotionally Abused

    Genie’s father punished her for making any noise or for acting out, especially around feeding time. Clark only allowed Genie’s mother, Irene, a few minutes to feed the girl. When Genie had trouble chewing and swallowing, Clark would shove the food in her face. If Genie attempted to make any sounds, Clark beat her with a wooden board until she was again silent. He used the same board on Genie’s brother, John. 

    When authorities investigated the Wiley home for child abuse, they found Genie living in extreme neglect. The girl, dirty and unbathed, was wearing soiled diapers. She had never learned how to use a toilet. Her father used cloth - fashioned like a straight-jacket - to bind Genie to a potty chair. He also confined her to a crib covered in wire, bound so that she could not attempt to move. 

  • Half Of Her Siblings Passed When They Were Infants

    Clark and Irene Wiley had four children together, although Clark reportedly did not want to be a father. He physically abused Irene and did not allow her to leave the house. On some occasions, her injuries were so severe she had to go to the hospital.

    In 1948, she had their first child, Dorothy Irene. Clark 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 she caught pneumonia and died shortly after

    Their second child, Robert Clark, was born in 1949 and died after two days, possibly from neglect. In 1952, they had one more son, named John. At 4-years-old, John went to live with Clark’s mother, Pearl. Two years later, he witnessed a truck hit and kill her. After the death of his mother, Clark moved his family into Pearl’s home and became both reclusive and more abusive. 

  • She Wasn't Rescued Until She Was 13

    Irene Wiley was legally blind, the result of a childhood accident. At that time, Clark forbade his wife from leaving the house, and John had already run away. In 1970, after a violent argument, Irene took her daughter and left, unbeknownst to Clark. She decided to try to get aid for her physical disability but went to the social services office by mistake. Instantly, a social service worker noticed Genie, who appeared neglected.

    At 13, Genie looked like she was about 6 or 7 years old. The child weighed less than 60 pounds and looked gaunt. Social services contacted the police, who investigated the Wiley home.  

    Irene later told authorities she had attempted to interact with the child when she could, but suffered such severe beatings from Clark that she was not able. She maintained she also attempted to give Genie extra food, but the girl was often unable to eat. The courts later dropped the child abuse charges against Genie’s mother. 

  • She Wasn't Able To Chew, Use A Toilet, Or Even Straighten Her Limbs

    In 1970, by the time she finally got to the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, Genie was malnourished, weak, and filthy. During her evaluation, doctors reported Genie 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. When she was fed, they discovered she could not chew and had trouble swallowing. She was entirely incontinent, as her parents never taught her how to use a toilet. 

    Step two of this assessment was to check her cognitive abilities. Testing her was difficult because she was mute and did not appear to fully understand language - although she did seem to respond to her own name. Her assessment revealed she had the cognitive level of a 1-year-old. Doctors also concluded that Genie was not autistic, nor did she suffer from any kind of mental or physical disease. 

  • Psychologists Tried To Help Her

    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, and behavioral skills. 

    The psychologists allowed her to explore the outdoors under supervision. They also began teaching her how to walk. Initially, she had behavioral problems, like masturbating in public and urinating and defecating in inappropriate places. 

    Genie was able to learn how to dress, potty train, and recognize shapes and objects by name. Over time, she began stringing words together 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. Father make me cry.