May 19, 2008 -- John Wiley was 6 years old when he stood helplessly on a California street, on his way to buy an ice cream, when an out-of-control pickup truck slammed into his grandmother and dragged her mangled body down the street.
The loving woman had taken the boy into her California home when he was only 4, believing that her son — Clark Wiley, a demanding taskmaster of a father — was an unstable parent.
Two of John's older siblings had died mysteriously as infants: a 2-month-old sister died after her cries prompted Clark to wrap her in a receiving blanket and leave her in a bureau drawer in the garage. And a brother died shortly after birth.
John's life was spared by the hit-and-run driver in 1958, but the event condemned him back to the home of abusive parents — a nearly blind, mentally ill mother and tyrannical father, who in 1970 would be charged in one of the most horrific cases of child abuse in modern history. He has spent most of the rest of his life estranged from his family, with little support to heal the scars of his childhood.
"I was left out in left field and no one came to my rescue," Wiley, now 56 and living a modest life as a house painter in Ohio, told ABCNEWS.com in his first-ever interview about a life spent recovering from the tragedy.
"I am a living dead man."
Similar to Austrian Horror
John is the brother of "Genie," a pseudonym for the toddler whom Clark Wiley forced into a handmade straitjacket and strapped her by day to a potty seat and by night in a metal-covered crib. She lived this way, under John's nose, with no exposure to the outside world, for nearly 11 years.
The Wileys' case has striking similarities to the horror unfolding in Austria, where a Nazi-like father locked his daughter in a sunless basement for 24 years, and she bore him seven children through incest, three of whom were forced to live with her in the underground enclosure before being freed late last month.
Like Genie, two of the youngest children emerged physically hunched and grunting in animal noises rather than speaking after years in isolation.
After Genie's release at the age of 13, she was studied by a team of well-financed researchers and captured the world's attention, becoming known as a modern "wild child." Her tragic story and her therapy spawned a litany of press coverage, academic articles, books and documentaries.
But in the swell of publicity about Genie, John, who witnessed his younger sister's abuse and also suffered at the hands of their sadistic father, has never received a minute of treatment or public attention in the nearly 40 years since.
John last saw his sister in 1982, and his mother died in 2003. Since then, he has shunned almost any association or documentation of his past.
Speaking in hushed, often expressionless tones, he detailed a life spent struggling through alcohol abuse, divorce and estrangement from his own daughter. Disconnected from his family, but unable to escape the past.
"I have forgiven, but I can't forget."
Guarding a Hideous Secret
According to Dr. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, boys like John fare worse than girls when deprived of a loving home.
"Boys suffer more than girls and have more mental health problems," Nelson wrote in a 2000 study on orphans. Other studies show that, in cases like the Wileys', "attachment is completely clobbered," he said.
Genie and John, who were five years apart, lived under the violent rule of a paranoid father who kept a gun in his lap as a means of intimidation. While his sister was locked away in the bedroom and hit for crying, her older brother suffered intermittent beatings and was ordered by his father to be the family's sentry guard, to help hide the gruesome secret.
"My house was like a concentration camp," said Wiley, whose confessions were confirmed by numerous interviews with researchers and police. "I never knew what normal was."
Much as Genie's experience hinted at the future awaiting the long-imprisoned Austrian children, John's story is a reminder that abuse has tentacles that reach deep into families and rarely leads to happy endings.
In an evaluation of Genie's case by medical researchers, logs in the Special Collection library at UCLA noted that John had been "written off" early in the child abuse investigation.
"[John] was as much a victim of the family dynamics as the younger sister was," said retired detective Frank Linley, who arrested Clark and Irene Wiley for child abuse in 1970. "But he was so little a part of the direction of the case. Unfortunately, we never really paid attention to him."
"The case comes back to haunt me," said Linley, who now lives in Washington state.
Living in a Shrine, and a Prison
After witnessing his grandmother's death, John and his family moved into her two-bedroom Temple City, Calif., home, and Clark Wiley blamed the boy for his mother's death.
Genie, who was born in 1957, was only 20 months old when Clark, believing she was mentally retarded, confined her to one of the bedrooms. According to John, the other bedroom went unused and was kept as a shrine to his grandmother, a single woman who ran a bordello in the Pacific Northwest.
The rest of the family slept in the living room — Clark in a recliner, his wife in a chair at the dining room table, and John on the floor.
As John reached adolescence, his father punished him for his growing sexuality, tying his legs to a chair and pounding his testicles with the same "one-by-three-foot board" he used to beat Genie each time she made a noise.
"I don't think he wanted me to have children, and it's a wonder I did," said John, whose beatings continued throughout his teen years. "He would write me a note excusing me from gym so the kids didn't see my privates in the showers."
Police Find Appalling Conditions
By the time Genie's plight was discovered by police, John, then 18, had run away from home, terrified of a father who was increasingly angry and violent. Irene escaped with Genie to her parents in 1970. One day she brought the 13-year-old to welfare offices, mistakenly seeking assistance for the blind. Authorities tipped off police after observing Genie's odd behavior.
Arriving at the Wiley's home, arresting officer Linley said the conditions he found at the house were appalling.
Genie "slept in a crib formed with chicken wire attached with a latch," he said. "It was a cage for the child. The window was covered with aluminum foil to reflect out the sunlight. The room was a dark as a coal mine at midnight."
Police found meticulous logs, noting each time the paranoid father locked a door or shrouded the windows from nosy neighbors. "He was a total dictator in the house," Linley said of Clark Wiley. "His word was law. Hitler could have taken lessons from him."
The day Clark was scheduled to appear in court, John and a friend stood outside the house when they heard a gunshot. His father had killed himself, leaving his funeral clothes laid out on the bed along with two notes and $400 for John.
"Be a good boy, I love you," he wrote to his son.
John briefly moved in with his maternal grandparents, then stayed with friends and returned briefly to the family home. Soon he ventured on a cross-country trip, working odd jobs at a gas stations and factories, and eventually in construction in the Southwest.
"I had to learn about life when I got on my own, away from my family," he said.
John had brushes with the law, including 10 days in jail for stealing cars. He joined the Navy, but was discharged 182 days later. The young man — with no education and scars from a violent past — eventually settled in a nondescript Ohio farming town, now hit hard by a slowed economy.
He married and had a daughter even though, like his father, he didn't want children. "I was afraid to have kids because of my upbringing," he said.
After his 17-year marriage ended, he said his own daughter turned to crack-cocaine for solace.
In recent years, John, a diabetic without health insurance, also survived a heart attack. His daughter, now 25, lives nearby, but he said she has her own emotional problems, and he doesn't see much of his two young grandchildren.
After a recent arrest for drunken driving — his second — John has lost his driver's license and bicycles to house painting jobs, when the weather and sporadic construction projects permit.
"I've been able to block out my past," he said, sipping a brandy and ginger ale in his cramped but neat townhouse.
"When you are a kid, you try to trust my parents," he said. "I think I trusted the wrong people."
Sister, Brother Take Different Paths
Today, Genie is well looked-after in an private adult home for the mentally disabled in Southern California. She can speak only a few words, but she has remembered the sign language that she was taught during the brief, federally funded research project that was eventually deemed a scientific failure.
John pulled out a stack of family photographs shuffled together in a plastic box — the only remnants from his past. "I tried to put [Genie] out of my mind because of the shame," he said. "But I'm glad she got some help."
Amid his work boots, painter's ladder and tools, the Bible sat on a small bookshelf next to a Boy Scout handbook and "Success for Dummies."
Only once did John's sparkling blue eyes moisten when he reflected on how his parents failed him.
"They didn't give me the tools, the knowledge about accomplishment and setting goals and the Bible and God," he said. "I feel at times God failed me. Maybe I failed him. But it's never too late."
Chris Francescani and Gerard Middleton contributed to this report.