Wild Child Speechless After Tortured Life

Straitjacketed for 13 years, adult "Genie" still lives a shuttered life.

ByABC News
May 7, 2008, 11:26 AM

May 7, 2008 — -- They called her "Genie" -- a pseudonym to protect her privacy -- because since infancy her life had been bottled up in the horrors she experienced in one dimly lit room.

Alternately tethered to a potty seat or tied up in a sleeping bag in a mesh-sided crib under a metal cover, Genie had contact only with her abusive father during nearly 12 years of confinement.

After her emergence from that torture in 1970, the waiflike child became a cause celebre among researchers and do-gooders who wanted both to learn from her and save her. For doctors, her case is like that of the three children recently released from years of isolation in an Austrian cellar.

The world read with revulsion last week the details of Austrian Josef Fritzl's 24-year imprisonment and abuse of his daughter and three of the seven children he fathered with her.

The twists of Genie's life since her release -- a succession of breakthroughs, setbacks and manipulations at the hands of caregivers, researchers and foster homes -- offer some perspective on the path ahead for the severely stunted Austrian children, who communicate mostly in simple grunts and gestures, much like Genie did after her rescue.

During the four years she was under the intense care of specialists at Children's Hospital at UCLA, Genie progressed, but only briefly.

Though she eventually learned to speak, the team of credentialed doctors with millions of dollars in federal funding could not rescue Genie from a fate of abuse and exploitation.

Doctors argued over her care and affections. Finger-pointing, hateful allegations and a lawsuit followed. Even storytellers and filmmakers took sides, and ultimately, Genie regressed.

Today Genie is 51. She is again in psychological confinement as a ward of the state -- her sixth foster home. And again, she is speechless.

"We fumbled the ball," James Kent, a consulting psychologist for the Victims of Crime program in California and Genie's psychologist told ABCNEWS.com. "We had the opportunity to allow more of her potential. It was as much out of ignorance as disagreements."

Genie's story began 20 months after her birth in 1957. Believing she was mentally retarded, Clark Wiley locked his daughter away, separating her from her nearly blind mother and 6-year-old brother, under the guise of protecting her.

Wiley spoon-fed her only Pablum and milk, and spoke to her mostly in barks and growls. He beat her with a wooden paddle every time she uttered a sound.

In 1970, Genie's 50-year-old mother, Irene, escaped with Genie, then 13. Her brother, John, then 18, was left behind, and told ABCNEWS.com that he, too, had been abused at the hands of his father -- a man who was raised by a "bar girl" in a bordello and didn't "pamper or baby."

Mother and child turned up at welfare offices in Los Angeles, seeking financial support. Caseworkers noticed the odd child, who spat and clawed and moved in a jerky "bunny walk," with her hands held out front.

The Wileys were charged with child abuse, but the day they were to appear in court, Clark Wiley shot himself to death after reportedly leaving a note that read: "The world will never understand."

John Wiley, now 56 and a housepainter in Ohio, admitted he had often been in the room where Genie was tortured. "Whether I liked what I seen or not, it wasn't like I was in a position to tell my mom. I was a captive audience and could do nothing about it."

When she entered Children's Hospital at the age of 14 -- still in diapers -- Genie was the size of an 8-year-old with the language and motor skills of a baby, speaking only a few words -- including "stopit" and "nomore."

Her discovery coincided with the premiere of Francois Truffaut's film "The Wild Child," about an 18th century French "wolf boy" and the doctor who adopted and tried to civilize him.

Riveted during a private showing of the film, the staff assigned to Genie's care applied for a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study Genie's rehabilitation.

The hottest academic issue of the day was the 1967 Lenneberg theory that maintained that children cannot learn language after puberty. In some ways, Genie disproved this, but she had passed the "critical period" and was never able to master grammatical structure.