Written by Dave Page
On November the 4th, 1970, a legally blind woman and her daughter would walk into the offices of child welfare authorities in Los Angeles County. As it transpired, the mother was actually attempting to establish a claim for benefits but had inadvertently selected the wrong building due to her poor eyesight. While a receptionist provided the lady with the correct directions to the benefits office, one of the social workers noticed a number of strange things about the little girl who accompanied her. She seemed to be incapable of fully straightening her limbs and moved with what would later be described as a “bunny hop”, with her hands held out in front of her as if for extra balance. In addition, she appeared to be incredibly malnourished and, although the social worker initially believed her to be a six or seven-year-old suffering from severe autism, brief questioning of the mother would reveal that she was in fact nearly 14 years old, completely incapable of speech, and was completely dependent on nappies due to the fact that she had never undergone toilet training. Her name was Susan Wiley, and her story is, without question, one of the most truly horrific examples of prolonged human abuse and neglect that have ever been documented.
Born in 1901, Pearl Wiley spent much of his early life in various orphanages across the Pacific North-West. Very little is known about Pearl’s father, save for the fact that he was killed by a lightning strike when Pearl was still just a baby. Pearl’s mother ran a brothel and had very little contact with him during the early years. This, coupled with her giving him a particularly feminine name, would lead to him developing extreme feelings of resentment towards her, and some psychologists who would later study the case have suggested that this may have been the root of his extreme anger issues later in life.
As soon as Pearl turned 18, he would change his name to Clark. Clark would go on to find employment as a machinist on an aircraft production line both during and after the Second World War. After the war, he would meet and subsequently marry Irene Oglesby, a legally blind dustbowl refugee who was 20 years his junior. Although, to everybody who knew the couple, the relationship seemed to be a good one, in reality things were different. Shortly after the marriage, Clark began to isolate his wife from the outside world. He would prevent her from contacting friends or relatives and would frequently beat her should she attempt to do so without his knowledge.
Clark was always clear from the outset that he never wanted children. Being so averse to any noise that he banned radio, and later television, from the house, it is indeed obvious that he was far from a prime candidate for fatherhood. Therefore, it is most unfortunate that the couple would go on to have four children.
Sadly, only one of these children would survive to adulthood.
Born 5 years into the marriage, Dorothy Wiley was the first of the four ill-fated children to be born to Clark and Irene. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that Clark regularly beat his wife throughout the later stages of her pregnancy, baby Dorothy was born completely healthy and, after leaving the hospital, travelled home to begin what should’ve been a long and happy life. However, Clark had other ideas. From the very first day, he would hit the child every time she cried, starting an unending cycle of abuse which would continue throughout the brief passage of this poor child’s life. Baby Dorothy would eventually freeze to death two months later when Clark, unable to stand the sound of his daughter screaming, wrapped her in a blanket and locked her in a dresser drawer in the garage.
One year after the death of her first child, Irene gave birth to the couple’s second child, Robert Wiley. Unfortunately, Robert would pass away after only two days due to medical complications.
Born three years after the death of his brother, John Wiley also started life as a healthy child and for some reason, possibly the fact that he was a boy, he was not subjected to quite the same level of abuse as his late sister. Sadly though, John was still neglected. And this led to late development in talking, walking and toilet training. When John was about four years old, Clark’s mother removed him from the care of his parents. believing that Clark was mentally unstable, and that John would be considerably safer with her. If this had been the end of John’s story then he may well have gone on to lead a happy, healthy and stable life. Unfortunately, this was not to be. At some point during John’s fifth year, he was walking down the street with his grandmother to buy some ice cream when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver. John was forced to return home to live with his parents and, upon doing so, he discovered a surprise in the form of a new baby sister.
Susan Wiley, later referred to as Genie
Born in 1957, Susan Wiley was the fourth and final child born to Clark and Irene. Although suffering from some minor health difficulties, it appears that she too had the potential to grow up as a healthy, happy child. But once again, Clark would be on hand to prevent any such thing. At approximately three months old, it was discovered that Susan had a congenital hip dislocation, and this would result in her having to wear a splint for the next nine months. Understandably, this led to delays when it came to her learning to walk, but Clark, whose mental health had deteriorated rapidly since the death of his mother, decided that she was “mentally retarded” and set about trying to isolate her entirely from the outside world.
By this point in the story, Clark and his family have moved into his late mother’s house. With Clark deciding to leave his mother’s bedroom as an untouched shrine to her memory, Clark himself would sleep in a recliner in the living room with Irene sleeping in a dining chair at the table and John left with the floor. Clark then had one remaining bedroom that he could devote fervently to the single goal of isolating his youngest daughter. This room was entirely devoid of any visual stimulation, with only a 3-inch gap at the top of the windows left uncovered to let in a little light. Additionally, the furnishings consisted only of a toddler’s potty chair and a cot with a reinforced, lockable mesh lid. It was in this barren and chilling room that Susan would be imprisoned for the next 12 and a half years of her life.
Once everything had been prepared, poor Susan’s ordeal truly began. Clark would keep her naked and strapped to the potty chair for up to 18 hours a day, she would only be released so that she could be restrained in a home-made straitjacket and strapped down into her cot at night.
In addition to this she was absolutely forbidden to make any sound at all, and if she did, Clark would beat her severely with a plank of wood. Perhaps the most informative and heartrending description of her treatment is one that came from Susan herself when, several years after she was rescued, she was asked to describe one of the memories that she had from time spent with her father. Over the course of about 10 minutes, she provided the following words:
“Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry… Not spit. Father. Hit face — spit. Father hit big stick. Father is angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Father make me cry.”
I think anybody would agree that these 35 words provide more insight into the horrific treatment of this poor, defenceless little child than any description written by an outsider.
Unbelievably, this is by no means all the abuse that she suffered. Clark would only ever communicate with her by barking and growling, he would deliberately grow his fingernails so that he could scratch her, and this would lead to a lifetime fear of any clawed animals. Perhaps even more disturbingly, he would force John, her elder brother, to participate in these torture sessions. He would also be forced to beat her if she made any noise and, when it came to feeding her the three bowls of baby food that she was given every day, Clark would force John to rub the remainder of her food in her face if she did not eat quickly enough.
Tragically, although he was treated far better than his sister, John also suffered terribly at the hands of his father as a child. Although allowed to attend school, he would be forced to go through a complicated process to verify his identity before Clark, armed with a loaded shotgun, would open the door and allow him back into the house. In addition, he was only allowed to communicate with his mother by whispering, and even this was only permitted if they were both in a separate room to Clark.
Things would get much, much worse for John when he reached puberty. Adamant that he would not continue the family bloodline, Clark would frequently tie him naked to a chair and, using the same plank of wood that he used to beat his daughter, he would repeatedly bludgeon the boys’ testicles in an attempt to sterilise him. John would go on to leave the house as soon as he turned 18, leaving Clark to focus his abuse entirely upon Susan.
At this point, you may well be wondering: What was the mother doing during all of this? Well, in short, the answer is nothing. During her trial she would alternately claim that, because of her blindness, she had no idea of the full extent of abuse that her children were going through and simultaneously that she was too terrified to leave because she had no other means of supporting herself or her children.
A number of factors call both of these claims into question. Although undoubtedly terrified of Clark, when she did finally escape with Susan while he was out buying groceries, she did not go straight to the police, nor did she attempt to seek any medical help for her daughter. Instead, she elected to stay with relatives for two weeks before making the previously mentioned trip to the benefits office.
Although this trip would ultimately result in both parents being arrested and charged with child abuse, Clark would never stand trial as, 15 minutes before he was scheduled to appear in court, he would take his own life with the very same shotgun which he used to so fiercely guard his home against outsiders. He would leave two suicide notes: one was addressed to John and ended with the words “Be a good boy, I love you” and the other simply read “The world will never understand”. Irene would be cleared of all charges and would continue living in the family home.
Part two: What happened to Susan? Education, scientific interest, and analysis
Just a quick note here: Although from this point onwards, all medical and scientific notes refer to Susan as Genie, we have elected to continue using her original name as we believe that it portrays her as more of a real person and less as an object of scientific study.
On the very same day that she was discovered, Susan was removed from the custody of her parents and immediately transferred to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital and, after she had been examined, the doctors labelled her as “the most profoundly damaged child we have ever seen”. According to information later published by one of Susan’s original doctors:
“Susan could speak a few words, such as ‘blue’, ‘orange’, ‘mother’ and ‘go’, but mostly remained silent and undemonstrative. She shuffled with a sort of bunny hop and urinated and defecated when stressed.”
In addition to this, due to the fact that she had only ever been force fed baby food, she was incapable of chewing and could not swallow properly which caused her to constantly dribble and spit. Interestingly, although she had pretty good eyesight, she was incapable of focusing on anything more than 10 feet away from her. It is believed that, due to the fact that she never saw anything outside the confines of her room, her long-distance vision never developed.
Although doctors and psychologists were naturally appalled by Susan’s condition, they were also fascinated by her. To them, she represented the so-called “forbidden experiment”. There was very little research on the development of children in complete isolation for the obvious reason that there would be no ethical way to carry out the studies. And yet, here was Susan, somebody who had already been subjected to such isolation. Just how much could be learned about childhood development if she were intensively studied?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provided funding for research and a team was assembled whose goal was to rehabilitate and study Genie’s progress. It quickly became apparent that she was highly intelligent. Within a very short space of time, she was able to master life skills such as using the toilet, dressing herself and eating solid food. She became extraordinarily adept at non-verbal communications and would frequently draw pictures in order to explain things that she could not verbalise. She also made astonishing progress when it came to learning individual words, but even after five years she was not able to put more than three words together and was incapable of understanding grammar, pronouns or sentence structure. According to one of the linguists who worked with Susan:
“After beginning to speak in two-word phrases, normal children experience a language “explosion” a few weeks later in which speech develops quickly. Susan never experienced such an explosion. Her speech seemed to plateau at creating two to three-word strings, despite four years of additional work and research with her.”
This led researchers to believe that although it is possible for someone who has been isolated from language to learn words and short phrases later in life, there is a certain point, believed to be about 10 years old, after which the brain is incapable of learning the complex structures of language.
Although Susan would make tremendous progress throughout this five-year study period, spending the time in foster care with two different members of the research team, concerns were raised that she could not receive adequate rehabilitation whilst also being an object of scientific study. After the initial five-year study period ended, funding was not renewed due to inadequate documentation of the findings. Susan would briefly be returned to the care of her mother, the very same woman who escaped prosecution by declaring herself incapable of caring for her.
It soon became apparent that Susan’s care requirements were too much for her mother and she was moved to another foster home. In another heart-breaking turn of events, Susan would suffer further abuse at the hands of her carers. This included being violently beaten for vomiting, and from that point onwards she stopped speaking and would eventually refuse to open her mouth entirely. After this, Susan was transferred to an undisclosed care facility, and nothing is publicly known about her life from this point onwards.
In a 2008 interview, one of Susan’s original carers set the following:
“I’m pretty sure she’s still alive because I’ve asked each time I called and they told me she’s well. They never let me have any contact with her. I’ve become powerless in my attempts to visit her or write to her. I think my last contact was in the early 1980s. I can get as far as the social worker in charge of her case, but I can’t get any farther.”
We can only hope that wherever she is she is finally living a life of peace.