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

Updated September 3, 2019 4.3m views11 items

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. 

  • 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.

  • Researchers May Have Done More Harm Than Good

    Research on Genie has long raised questions of morality, based on how scientists treated the case. Some in the medical community question whether the constant tests and push to learn language interfered with her therapeutic recovery

    One particular researcher, named Jean Butler, sometimes allowed Genie to stay in her home. When there was an outbreak of measles, Butler quarantined Genie and continued to keep her away from the other scientists. Other members of the team noted that she seemed fixated on Genie and had expressed a desire for colleagues to recognize her as akin to Helen Keller’s renowned teacher, Anne Sullivan. Butler later applied for foster custody, which the courts denied.

    Without conclusive results, the case study lost funding and the state placed Genie in foster care. In 1975, Genie briefly went to live with her mother until Irene pushed for Genie’s return to foster care. Genie’s unstable environments hindered any further developmental progress. 

  • She Never Fully Learned To Communicate

    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    As she bounced from foster care facility to foster care facility, Genie’s progress deteriorated. Without constant and careful stimulation, she began losing her language skills. Where she had once learned to string three or four words together, she now dwindled to one, and then, rarely spoke at all. 

    However, research on her was enough to draw several conclusions about language. Genie was not able to grasp grammar or express abstract concepts. She had missed developmental milestones and would never be able to effectively use language.