Feral children are not new concepts and have appeared often throughout history and continue to right up to recent times. There is something deeply fascinating about people who seem to live completely outside the expected norm of society or who survived living in the wild or with wild animals.
Some have wild stories of being raised by animals such was the case with the Ukrainian girl called Oxana Malaya. Some were just abused and neglected during critical stages of their development such as the girl called Genie or for many of the more historical feral children they had real disabilities.
Not surprisingly there are many hoaxes which are perpetuated for many reasons such as hiding child abuse or abandonment. The reality though is if it is not a hoax it is very likely an abuse or health condition. I can't even begin to imagine the various horrors of growing up feral. Never mind having to do it while being abused or unable to express myself in an understandable way.
Genie suffered all that and more.
The people who 'saved' her also exploited and manipulated her for their own gain, then abandoned her when the cash ran dry or the criticism became too harsh. A few precious souls had Genie's best interests at heart, but for all the attention she received she should have had more than ' a few'.
Today we understand that children have critical times in their childhood that allow them to learn a multitude of things but namely language and communication in the early years. The critical period hypothesis was first popularized in the late 1960s. The problem was proving it. They would have to raise a human child under severely abusive conditions for many years – which obviously they could not do. So the debate over learning language raged on.
Susan Wiley was born in April of 1957 to Clark and Irene. From the outside looking in, things must have appeared normal, as no one complained to authorities in the thirteen years she was at the house. Her brother John, and the mother Irene would be seen outside playing with Susan on her lap. There was no sign of the abuse that would blow minds and be headline news in 1970.
Clark had mental problems. Irene was practically blind from cataracts. The entire house was terrified of Clark, who is said to have had mental issues himself in the form of bi-polar or perhaps severe depression. Two of the older children both died young, and for some people, under suspicious circumstances. Long after everything came out into the open neighbours had said that Clark, they assumed, was just a quiet man who never went anywhere with his family and that they stayed home all the time. They never heard cries or screams.
Susan's older brother John was abused but nowhere near the level of his sister - he went to school and had friends, but is noted as saying that it was like living in a Nazi camp at home with his abusive father who often sat with a gun on his lap and it is fair to say that he was ignored, forgotten about and left to his own healing when the story broke.
Her father believed her to be retarded from a very young age and separated her for her own good (so he believed). She had no significant environmental stimulation, windows were covered, no one spoke to her as it angered the head of the household - Clark. She was rarely allowed outside and never attended school. Though friend of the brother John and neighbour Bruce Moore says:
“I've seen her outside. She wasn't kept a prisoner. The girl had been retarded since birth... And she had toys, I've seen her playing with them.”
She spent a large part of her time isolated from the rest of the family. Inside the house she was kept locked up in a back room. At night she would either be tied or strapped to a training potty, sometimes while wearing a straitjacket. She was at other times zipped into sleeping bags and left in an oversized metal crib she called home. She had been beat when she made noises and learned long ago to keep quiet. In fact when she was found, she could only say things like “no more' or “stop it”.
She walked with her hands up and her gait while unsteady or awkward did leave the impression of a bunny. She spat constantly, sniffed the air around her, could not chew solid food and struggled to swallow. She had been fed barely enough to keep her alive. She weighed fifty-nine pounds and stood at fifty-four inches at thirteen years of age when she was 'discovered' that fateful November day in 1970.
Irene had finally left Clark and after a month of living with Irene's mother, Irene went to get benefits. She brought Susan with her - Susan still had to wear a diaper, was unable to speak, had trouble walking normally and her reactions to things around her were considered abnormal or unexpected reactions from a child her age. The social office informed the authorities.
I refer to her as Susan. Not Genie. Genie was a feral child, a wild child, a retard … she was none of those things. She was an abused child from nearly the time of her birth that ultimately affected her life developmental stages that all humans go through. She was not a wild or feral animal or human for study. She was a severely abused girl who needed help.
Her parents were charged November 1970 with felony child abuse for keeping their daughter like a prisoner, Clark shot himself November 20thand in December 1970 a judge dismissed all charges against Irene. Susan's mother claimed that she was a victim herself of her husbands abuse.
Susan who by now was more popularly known as Genie was living at a Childrens Hospital while her brother John went to stay with his grandmother.
The Role of Science
Susan had stayed at a Los Angeles Children Hospital and within days of her arriving there she started to show improvements that lead doctors and scientists alike to ask all kinds of questions: Could Susan still have a learning capacity? Could we teach her to speak? Would an enriched environment make up for all the lost learning time and help her recover completely.? These questions lead to the 'experimentation' on Susan.
Over two hundred years ago a 'wild child' known in history books as Victor, was also studied by science in a case known as the Forbidden Experiment – severely isolated on purpose. It was not well received and those involved were viewed as monsters. Human study and experimentation that did not end in the subjects best interests was frowned on, heavily.
Apparently the answer twenty years down the road … is no. Either Susan's importance to science wins out, or her need for proper care and nurturing would. Caring for Susan in the manner needed, would have affected the scientific outcomes.
Susan was the equivalent of the missing link to not just linguists and speech scientists – she was, at that time, the only living person who could be a test subject for the critical period theory, a scientist or researchers career would be set in stone with a breakthrough like this – but also to psychologists, social scientists, doctors working with the brain and even regular doctors. The in-house and political games started and the in fighting about which experiments to perform and how started as soon as she arrived.
By now Susan had her own team of doctors and scientists collectively called 'The Genie Team'. One rearcher, James Kent believed giving her a more nurturing environment was in her best interest and needed for improvement. He connected emotionally with her, filled missing family roles by being there when she awoke, had big events to attend or when she was off to bed. Others just tried to be nice and friendly with her, a genuine interest in her well-being such as Jean Butler. Yet others wanted more focus on the research, such as with Susan Curtiss and David Rigler.
Within months she was up to a hundred word or more vocabulary, but still was unable to string sentences together. She would say “have no toy”. In normal development this language grows into more detailed sentences such as “I have no toy”, 'I do not have a toy” “I don't have the toy”. Susan seemed stuck on level one. This opened the door to more arguing.
Not long after this progress, it was decided Susan needed a stable foster home. A scientist, Jean Butler, was finally chosen to provide the home, though some sources say she lied about exposing her to rubella and took her home. She quickly grew concerned with Genie Team and their demands for constant testing. She started to deny other scientists from seeing Susan and this inflamed other researchers who claimed she made the exposure to disease thing up to get exclusive access to Susan. Jean's adoption application was denied and due to a hospital policy regarding patients and employees, Susan was moved to another home that was 'much more appropriate to Susan's needs'
She went to live with the head doctor on the Genie Team (so much for hospital policy), who with a wife and kids of his own could provide a better environment for her. As far as Jean Butler was concerned this just proved that they wanted her in a more research friendly environment and that they did not care for her overall well-being.
She stayed with the Rigler family till the National Institutes of Mental Health stopped funding the research, due to conflicts with therapy, studies and the highly personal nature of their relationship. Susan had to leave the Rigler family. And from this point on her life became a succession of setbacks, breakthroughs and manipulations at the hands of those who were suppose to protect and care for her, including caregivers, researchers and foster homes.
The depth that Jean had turned Irene against them became clearly known when eventually Irene forbid any scientists or doctors or researchers from studying Susan, indeed she banned them from even talking to her.
Irene took Susan and ran off into hiding with her. For many people who had played roles in Susan's life, they never seen her again nor received any updates to how she was doing.
In the late 1980s someone hired a private eye to find her and they did, she was living at a home for mentally challenged adults and is apparently doing well, still does not speak though unless it is in sign language.
Jay Shurley an expert in solitary confinement says:
“The case of Genie was the most disturbing case I had ever seen. Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour and most certainly within a few days. To try to expand this to ten years boggles ones mind”
I have worked with developmentally stunted or challenged kids and honestly anyone who has worked with or lived with, find them to be quite creative in finding ways to express themselves when given the chance to do so.
In my experience, I know of one boy in particular has very little speech ability but has no less than 10 ways of getting you to understand him, if you are so inclined to give him the time to do so. He is not mute, he is highly social, incredibly 'talkative' and emotionally expressive - only his way of communication is not the norm and has been labelled non communicative.
I honestly believe that had the doctors, researchers, scientists and therapists had just let her 'grow' on her own time and not narrow her possibilities to what was being studied at the time, they would have gained so much information about the complexity of the human brain and body.
It's hard to judge the actions of the people involved – it would be very easy to blame David Rigler and his wife for dropping her like a hot potato after the money ran dry for her regression and lack of progress after. Even easier to feel that those who were more concerned with scientific progress than her well-being as being heartless monsters. And it's quite easy to question Irene as a maternal figure.
James Kent, the original researcher who tried to connect emotionally with Susan, and succeeded, admitted years later
“We fumbled the ball, we had the opportunity to allow more of her potential. It was as much out of ignorance as disagreements”
No matter what was done, or not done with Susan, it was a situation highly charged with emotion and in some cases, egos. Those involved were ultimately crucified for their roles, but they likely would have been crucified no matter what they did (or didn't do).
But hey, because of the Genie Study by D. Rigler we know that when children are isolated from 'linguistic stimulation' grammatical development is lost as the window of learning closes and the ability to speak in sentences is lost.
Nobel prize-winning science right there.