Okay, this is an extraordinary book. But it’s also a horrific account of one of the worst cases of child abuse from the 20th century. Arguably the outright worst—by some margin.
The story concerns the feral child medical professionals called Genie (not her real name), born in 1957. She suddenly emerged into the world in Los Angeles, October 1970, at the age of 13.
Russ Rymer’s Genie: A Scientific Tragedy (1993) set out to portray this story sensitively, but with linguistical insights.
As alongside the tragedy, researchers saw an opportunity to understand the nature of communication and its importance in early development.
Genie: A Study of Abuse, Language, and the Failures of State
The details regarding Genie’s abuse are so godawful we didn’t want to type them out. Instead, we’ve taken an excerpt from The Guardian’s 2016 article Genie the feral child who left a mark on researchers.
“She hobbled into a Los Angeles county welfare office in October 1970, a stooped, withered waif with a curious way of holding up her hands, like a rabbit. She looked about six or seven. Her mother, stricken with cataracts, was seeking an office with services for the blind and had entered the wrong room.
But the girl transfixed welfare officers.
At first they assumed autism. Then they discovered she could not talk. She was incontinent and salivated and spat. She had two nearly complete sets of teeth – extra teeth in such cases are known as supernumeraries, a rare dental condition. She could barely chew or swallow, and could not fully focus her eyes or extend her limbs. She weighed just 59lb (26kg). And she was, it turned out, 13 years old.
Her name – the name given to protect her identity – was Genie. Her deranged father had strapped her into a handmade straitjacket and tied her to a chair in a silent room of a suburban house since she was a toddler. He had forbidden her to cry, speak or make noise and had beaten and growled at her, like a dog.”
Psychologist James Kent was one of the first professionals to try and help the young girl. In the early 1990s, he told Russ Rymer the following.
“As far as I’m concerned, Genie was the most profoundly damaged child I’ve ever seen. There has been nothing in other cases to approach it. It was orders of magnitude worse. Even the child I have cared for recently, a hearing child raised on sign language in a satanic cult surrounded with ritual murder and prostitution, all kinds of shit, is normal compared with Genie. Genie’s life was a wasteland.”
Researchers wanted to know the extent of the damage to Genie’s emotional and intellectual state of mind. But she couldn’t speak, making it difficult to judge.
American linguist Susan Curtiss entered the case here, a 26 year old grad student taking on what would immediately become the most important case in her life.
This is Curtiss, along with early ’70s footage of Genie, her “bunny walk”, and seemingly vacant state of mind.
The more medical professionals visited Genie, the more of them described her as “ghostlike”.
But progress was made in the first few months of her rehabilitation. It was clear she wasn’t going to have a “normal” life, but she was functioning mentally and making major progress. Despite some hiccups.
“Jean Butler reported that Genie was euphoric on holidays and weekends, when she got to leave the rehabilitation center on chaperoned trips; that she often said ‘No’ but didn’t mean it; that she called people ‘peepa’; that ‘dert’ meant ‘doctor.’ She had no problem with urine soiling since Christmas. She had been afraid of some boys who one day came past the classroom windows carrying rifles. She was terrified of big dogs and of all men wearing khakis. She thought that singing was exclusively for her benefit. Videotapes were shown of Genie in the rehabilitation center, and Rigler described a party that had been held there to celebrate her fourteenth birthday. It had overwhelmed her, he said, and her anxiety had mounted with each present opened, until at last she had to leave the room and sit in a corner holding Rigler’s hand while she calmed down.”
The “scientific tragedy” of Rymer’s title is about what followed this initial progress.
Rehabilitation was obviously doing Genie the world of good and providing her with the best possible chance for something approaching a normal life.
Unfortunately, this was denied her. Genie’s mother, Irene Wiley, intervened and changed the course of the young lady’s life. Almost beyond belief, Genie was returned to the family home—the same place she’d been held captive for 10 years of her life strapped to a chair.
This didn’t work out as her mother was unable to cope with a teenager in need of such special treatment. After several weeks, the government took control and Genie was moved into state care.
Susan Curtiss attempted to intervene, but was shut down by Irene Wiley with a lawsuit.
This is all the recounted by Rymer in the style of a scientific detective story, observed from a distance of a situation already 20 years past its saving point when written.
Genie: A Scientific Tragedy was published when Genie was into her mid-30s. By that stage, she was lost in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest style state of institutionalisation.
Rymer’s work is superb and worthy of great praise. It’s just about a topic so appalling many people may not want to read about it.
Ultimately, Genie’s promising progress in rehabilitation was wasted. With no proper support, she regressed and fell back into her ghostlike presence.
There are no further photographs or videos of her. She abruptly cuts out from history as the teenager from the early ’70s; lost to time.
Clark Wiley: Genie’s Abusive Father
You’ll no doubt be wondering how this situation came to be. It was all down to Genie’s physically and verbally abusive father.
That was Clark Wiley (1901-1970).
Rymer’s research on Wiley’s life revealed an academically intelligent man capable of holding a career in the aircraft industry; he had a love for mathematics. He was relatively comfortably off, but had major anger management issues, delusions, and a quite horrendous tyrannical streak.
Clearly mentally ill, he was extremely abusive to his wife and children, contributing to the death of his wife’s first child through his anger and negligence.
After Clark Wiley’s mother died in a drink driving accident, with the teenage perpetrator receiving a light sentence, he descended into a dark well of fury.
This he took out on his daughter. He decided Genie was mentally disabled and useless to society and strapped her into a chair, expecting her death to come quickly.
There’s actually footage of Wiley being questioned by journalists outside of a court at the tail end of 1970. He doesn’t speak, but his attorney delivers a curt, “No comment.”
On the morning of November 20th, 1970, Clark Wiley committed suicide by gunshot to the head. He left two suicide notes, one of which was addressed to his son.
“Don’t take that shirt back. It’s for my funeral. You know where my blue shirt is. Underwear in hall closet. I love you. Goodbye and be good. Dad”
The second was aimed at the press and public, regarding the mass media circus already surrounding the Genie case.
“The world will never understand.”
Genie is out there. Right now. She’s 65, but not leading any sort of normal life.
The reality is, few people fully know where she is. She’s classed by the US as an incapacitated adult (“a ward of the state”) and is in California at an unknown location in LA.
Some reports suggest she leads a simple, but happy, life in a private facility. She can speak a few words, but otherwise relies on basic sign language.
Her mother died at the age of 87 in 2003. Her brother died in 2011, having not seen his sister since 1982. He was interviewed in 2008 about his life experiences.
Susan Curtiss still attempts to get in touch with Genie, but what’s clear is she’s out of bounds. To everyone except a select few in a highest level medical institution. She told Rymer the following.
“Genie is the most powerful, most inspiring person I’ve ever met. I’d give up my job, I’d change careers, to see her again. I worked with her, and I knew her as a friend. And, of the two, the important thing was getting to know her. I would give up the rest to know her again.”
In his afterword, Rymer makes sense of the whole ordeal.
It’s difficult to find any positives from such an appalling story. How the actions of one lunatic destroyed this girl’s life. But there is something in there, a hint of sanity to restore some sense of humanity.
“Readers write to ask me more about Genie, and some to ask if there’s anything they can do. But many others write to tell me about themselves. This, too, has surprised me. A few relate sagas of child abuse or language handicap, but others with no personal history of neglect or novel deprivation nevertheless express an intense identification with Genie’s story. I know what they recognize, in her singular and extreme misfortune, some universal condition. No one of us has suffered what Genie suffered, certainly. But who among us has not felt isolated in our past, imprisoned in our fate, helpless in finding the words to express what it is that has happened to us? Because of that, Genie calls each of us by name.”