She is known only as “Genie” — an alias to protect what privacy she had — because since she was just a toddler her entire life had been suppressed by the terror she endured all alone in a single, dark room.
Her case was one of the most cruel instances of social isolation in American history. In 1997, Walter Cronkite narrated a PBS documentary informing the public about her heartbreaking story.
What you’ll read below highlights this account.
Genie was born in 1957, and only 20 months old when her father Clark Wiley who, thinking she was mentally retarded, locked her up in one of the family’s bedrooms. The room was located at the back of the house. The windows were covered with aluminum foil to keep the sunlight and nosy neighbors out, and the only furnishings consisted of a cage with a chicken-wire lid and a child’s potty chair.
For nearly 11 years, she suffered at the hands of her sadistic father, locked to that chair with a homemade strapping device and hit with a “one-by-three-foot board” each time she made a noise. She was a feral child.
Under her paranoid father’s vicious rule, he also kept a gun in his lap at all times as a means of intimidation.
It wasn’t until Genie was 13-years-old that her abuse was discovered. On November 4, 1970, her mother, who was nearly blind, sought public assistance in Temple City, California, after leaving her husband. When a social worker met with the family, Genie’s appearance and condition gave away the sinister secrets. She wore diapers, couldn’t speak (she had the language and motor skills of a baby) and crawled along the floor like an animal. The social worker believed Genie was only six-years-old and autistic, but when her real age was discovered, she immediately contacted her supervisor, who subsequently alerted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
When the family’s home, which was described by Genie’s brother as a “concentration camp,” was searched, what they found was shocking. Aside from just finding the room where Genie had been kept her entire life, the home was completely dark and all the blinds were drawn.
Upon investigation, law enforcement officials established that Genie had the physical development of an eight-year-old, and weighed only 59 pounds.
Jay Shurley, an expert in solitary confinement, described Genie’s case as the most distressing he had ever seen. “Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And try to expand this to ten years boggles one’s mind,” he said.
Both of Genie’s parents were arrested and charged with child abuse, but just before her father was scheduled to appear before a judge, he shot and killed himself. Allegedly, the suicide note he left behind read, “the world will never understand.” He was buried with countless secrets about the horrors he committed in that household — never getting to tell his version of what really happened.
Her mother’s criminal case was eventually dropped after evidence established that she had been trying to escape her abusive husband, but was not given custody of her feral child. She was sent off to be cared for by a team of therapists and doctors.
“When we think about a genie, we think about a creature who emerges out of a bottle, or whatever, into society past childhood,” said Susan Curtiss, a linguistics graduate student from UCLA. She is the person who gave her the name “Genie.”
In the early 1970’s, she was used as a case study — “Developmental Consequence of Extreme Social Isolation” — under the supervision of Dr. David Rigler. She celebrated her fourteenth birthday at the children’s hospital in Los Angeles, and eventually she learned how to read and use sign language.
But despite a series of breakthroughs, there were also major setbacks.
The government agency funding all the research believed the project being conducted was a failure, and in the fall of 1974, the money stopped pouring in.
Although researchers had the best of intentions, she was inevitably exploited and abused by a series of caregivers and foster parents. After being sent to live at a foster care home for special needs children, and one that was extremely religious, she retreated.
In 1977, she was able to communicate at a children’s hospital that her foster parents had physically punished her for vomiting. Since that moment, Genie’s speech never recovered. Once turning 18, the worst thing of all happened: she moved back in with her mother into her childhood home of horrors. Of course, that situation didn’t work out, either, and she was eventually returned to the system.
Nobody knows what really happened to that little girl who spent nearly eleven years locked up in a dark room all alone.
Her last known whereabouts was a private institution in Southern California for the mentally undeveloped, but that location remains unknown.
Curtiss said she spent 20 years searching for Genie without ever getting any leads.