Investigative Documentary’s hit docu-series Natalia Speaks addresses important issues about parents’ legal over-reach and the rights of the disabled. It also raises the question of what we who are disabled deserve from the stories about us.
Note: This review contains spoilers
In the docu-series Natalia Speaks, Michael Barnett speaks to his adult son, Jacob, through a closed door, while a videographer lurks at the bottom of a staircase. Many of us in the autistic community will recognize the name Jacob Barnett; he was the subject of Kristine Barnett’s 2012 book The Spark, an account of a mother learning her autistic child had exceptional aptitude for physics: so exceptional that he enrolled in university at the age of 15.
The book was not without its criticisms, namely that it was “inspiration porn” (objectifying a disabled person mainly to entertain a non-disabled audience). The question remains: Did young Jacob want to be in the spotlight—or did the project reflect Kristine Barnett’s vision of a lucrative dream-child?
Natalia Speaks, the new HBO-Max docu-series, dovetails with The Spark because the parents at the center of the documentary are also Jacob’s parents. They adopted Natalia Grace, a Ukrainian orphan, into their home around the time The Spark was being developed. Natalia, who was six years old then, is diagnosed with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, a form of dwarfism.
In the series, Natalia, as well as investigators and caseworkers, describe how she was brutally abused by Kristina, then severely neglected after the Barnetts made the outlandish claim that she wasn’t a child at all. “The media is painting me to be a child abuser, but there is no child there,” insisted Kristina. The Barnetts even managed to convince the local courts to legally re-age Natalia to 22 years old, despite dental imaging from the previous year indicating she was in fact a child. (Later DNA evidence showed that she was nine years old at the time of her re-aging.)
Since Natalia is disabled, the Barnett family still had legal responsibility for her care. After committing Natalia to a psych ward, from which she was then released, the Barnetts placed nine-year-old Natalia alone in a series of low-rent apartments where she struggled to survive for months until a local reverend and his family (the Mans) took her in.
Although the legal case against the Barnetts continues, so far they have evaded accountability. This lack of accountability has extended to friends and neighbours, who ignored evidence of abuse, as Natalia demonstrates in one scene where she confronts a former neighbour. This and other sections of the series vividly document the pattern of community denial about child abuse, particularly when a child is disabled.
The series is at its strongest when Natalia herself is speaking, but her story gets bogged down by protracted coverage of parents Michael and Kristine. Natalia’s own insights about ableism and adoption are too often cut short, overshadowed by the saga of the Barnetts.
It’s also unclear how much of Natalia’s own experience she can publicly share outside of the series (produced by Investigative Documentary), due to the agreements she has signed with them. Just before the concluding credits, mere moments after Natalia has described a chapter of her journey (this time without words), the filmmakers inserted a sensationalistic teaser for their next project. This move is emblematic of the problem with the streaming docu-series format. There are important stories to be told about the experience of disability, but it takes courage to give them the space—even the silence—that they deserve.