Dissecting the Legacy — What Really Happened to Genie Wiley?

Jamie Lerner - Author

Dec. 7 2023, Published 9:17 a.m. ET

Genie Wiley wearing a bead necklace
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • Genie Wiley is considered the most abused child in history.
  • Discovered at 13 years old, Genie became a subject of language and cognitive development studies. Despite progress, she struggled with communication and faced challenges after the study.
  • Post-experiment, Genie's life took a tragic turn in foster care. Experiencing further abuse, she regressed into silence, and her current whereabouts are unknown.
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Some scientific cases might ring a bell to the average citizen — Pavlov’s dog (bell-ringing pun intended), Schrodinger’s cat, and the Stanford prison experiment are just a few of those mainstream experiments. But the story of Genie Wiley was also circulated for decades as she provided a unique opportunity for scientists.

Genie, a fake name given to protect her identity, is often considered the most abused child in history. Because of this, when she was discovered, she could barely walk, chew, or use the toilet. Most importantly, she couldn’t communicate at all. Scientists used her to study language and cognitive development, but the story doesn’t have such a happy ending. So, what happened to Genie Wiley?

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Genie Wiley was extremely abused in her childhood.

Genie was born in April 1957 in Los Angeles, Calif. to an abusive father and a mother who couldn’t defend her. Genie’s mother, Irene, suffered from cataracts, which caused near-blindness and led her to fearfully depend on her husband, Clark. He was considered an abusive psychopath. His mother died when he was younger in a hit-and-run, after which he displayed psychopathic tendencies.

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Of the four children Irene and Clark had, one died due to birth complications, one died as an infant locked in a cold garage, and the other two were Genie and her older brother, John. John was essentially Genie’s only caretaker. He fed her baby food, cereal, and milk at the instruction of his father, whom he also greatly feared. John wasn't allowed to speak to Genie.

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During the day, Clark harnessed Genie naked to a toilet seat. If she made any sounds, he would beat her with wood. He only barked and growled at her, so Genie rarely heard anyone speak. At night, Genie was straitjacketed inside of a wire-mesh “crib” — essentially a cage.

Genie’s existence was discovered when Irene took her outside when Clark ran out for groceries. Irene was seeking a cure for her blindness and thought she walked into a blindness disability benefits office, but she instead went to social services. The social workers immediately noticed Genie’s strange behavior — her gait mimicked that of a rabbit, she drooled, was incontinent, and looked to be about 7 years old when she was actually 13.

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Genie Wiley was “saved” by the social workers, but her whereabouts now are unknown.

At that point, Irene and Clark were arrested for child abuse, although Irene was released on account of being a victim as well. Clark took his own life at 70 years old just before he was due in court. His suicide note just said, “The world will never understand.” No, we won’t!

Genie was raised by doctors, psychologists, therapists, and more, from 1970 to 1975. She was admitted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which applied for a grant to study her. Because withholding a proper childhood would be unethical, Genie’s case was a rare opportunity to study the possibilities of learning linguistics after early childhood.

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She quickly learned basic skills, like going to the toilet and dressing herself, but she was never able to excel beyond stringing two to three words together at a time. And she never grasped grammatical concepts, despite linguists’ hard work to teach her. She was fostered by researcher and psychologist David Rigler and his wife, Marilyn, until 1975. At this point, Genie was about 18 years old and the grant had been revoked.

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Genie was forced to move back in with her mother, who wasn't able to care for her, so she went into the foster care system. This led to more abuse and Genie regressed and didn't speak, although she was still able to communicate nonverbally. Now, however, it’s unknown where Genie is and if she’s still alive.

On her 27th and 29th birthdays, psychiatrist Jay Shurley said that Genie was “largely silent, depressed, and chronically institutionalized,” according to Very Well Mind. In 2000, a private investigator found that Genie was reportedly living in an adult care facility and was “happy.” Now, there’s no record of where she is, but if she’s still alive, she would be 66 years old.

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