It’s an autumn day in California, and an almost-blind mother arrives at a welfare office with her daughter in tow. Immediately, the staff sense that there is something wrong. Although she appears little older than a toddler, the tiny girl is actually 13 years old. Suspecting neglect, they notify the police, and the strange and tragic tale of Genie Wiley begins to unfold.
Genie first came to authorities’ attention in November 1970, when her mother Irene walked into a social services building in California’s Temple City. Irene had been regularly beaten by Genie’s father, Clark, and was suffering from a degenerative eye condition as well as cataracts, a combination that left her barely able to see.
Having finally had the courage to walk out on Clark, Irene had taken Genie and fled to her parents’ home in Monterey Park, California. From there, she made the trip to Temple City in order to claim disability benefits. However, her poor eyesight led her to enter the wrong facility by mistake.
Having wandered into the office of social services, Irene and Genie were greeted by a worker who instantly spotted that something was wrong. Imagining Genie to be around six years old, she was shocked to discover that the girl was, in fact, a teenager.
After questioning Irene, the staff decided to contact police. Both Irene and Clark were duly arrested, and Genie was moved to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. There, doctors soon realized that they were dealing with one of the most extreme cases of neglect that the United States had ever seen.
According to James Kent, the physician who examined Genie at the hospital, the girl’s prognosis was bleak. Suffering from extreme malnutrition, she weighed less than 60 pounds, and stood at just four and a half feet tall. Moreover, she had developed few gross motor skills, and struggled to walk.
On top of this, Genie found it difficult to focus on objects farther than ten feet from her, and struggled with swallowing food. She would also spit and salivate wherever she went and was totally incontinent. Most intriguingly, however, was the fact that, at 13 years of age, Genie could not speak.
In fact, Genie was soon discovered to be almost totally incapable of making any sound at all. According to some accounts, she couldn’t shed tears, opting instead to move chairs and other objects when she wished to make a noise. But experts concluded that Genie was not physiologically or selectively mute. So just what had happened to this teenage girl?
Genie was born on April 18, 1957, in Arcadia, California. Irene, who was about 20 years Clark’s junior, had arrived in the area after running from the Dust Bowl storms that rendered vast swathes of the prairies inhabitable. The couple married and had four children, two of whom died in infancy.
Five years younger than her brother John, Genie was relatively healthy at birth. However, at three months she was diagnosed with a dislocated hip, a condition that required her to wear a splint. This in turn meant that Genie was late learning to walk, a situation that researchers believe may have led Clark to suspect that his daughter was intellectually disabled.
Apparently in response to this perceived disability, Clark became withdrawn from his daughter, discouraging Irene and John from interacting with her. Then, when Genie was approaching her second birthday, everything changed. After Clark’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident, the already controlling man became overwhelmed by grief.
According to experts, Clark eventually came to believe that his family needed protecting from the wider world. Moving into his mother’s home, he kept Genie completely hidden and isolated in a back bedroom. There, she spent her days strapped to a toilet and her nights tied up within a sleeping bag, confined within a cage.
Known to hate noise, Genie’s father went to shocking extremes in order to keep his daughter quiet. Apparently, he would strike her using a piece of wood if she made any sound. And because Clark also discouraged his wife and son from speaking in the home, Genie quickly became isolated from any form of language.
On top of this, Genie grew up surrounded by extreme sensory deprivation. Blacked out windows kept her bedroom dark, and there was nothing for her to interact with save the occasional household object. In these heartbreaking conditions, Genie would spend more than a decade of her young life.
Irene, meanwhile, was a prisoner in her own home. Almost totally blind, she was regularly beaten by Clark, who warned to murder her if she sought outside help. However, by the time that Genie was around 13, Irene had finally had enough.
Sadly, Genie’s eventual discovery by social services did not have a happy ending. As such an extreme case of isolation, she represented a rare opportunity for researchers looking to study the development of language in the human brain. And with Irene held in prison and Clark now dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, she was at their mercy.
At first, Genie responded well to her new environment. Kent, who had decided to visit the girl regularly to maintain a constant presence in her life, soon noted many improvements. Within days she was dressing herself, and soon her coordination and ability to focus her eyes had improved.
Slowly, over time, Genie began to acquire some language skills. Strangely, although her vocabulary was basic, the words that she used suggested a relatively advanced understanding of the world around her. Eventually, researchers came to a fascinating conclusion.
In 1967 linguist Eric Lenneburg had theorized that human brains lose their ability to fully acquire a language at a certain age. Because Genie had not learned to speak during this critical period, many believed that she never would. But although she proved a valuable subject for researchers and scientists, Genie tragically found little peace in her personal life.
After spending her youth in foster care, Genie returned to live with her mother when she turned 18. However, Irene soon found herself unable to cope, and Genie was placed in a series of homes. After that, her condition appears to have deteriorated, with disagreements over her care resulting in her isolation from those who had been most committed to her treatment. Today, Genie is living in a care facility in Los Angeles and is said to be doing well, although she is apparently still unable to speak more than a few words.