HBO’s Short Media Fable
This show about an adopted Ukrainian girl pulls back the curtain from the world of spin and the dark arts of media.
The second season of The Curious Case of Natalia Grace—subtitled Natalia Speaks—streamed last week on HBO’s Max platform, and it is as compulsively watchable and disturbingly exploitative as the first. The docuseries explores the now notorious case of Natalia, a girl with dwarfism adopted by an American family, the Barnetts, only to be abandoned after they claimed that she was both much older than they were led to believe, and, worse, a sociopathic menace.
The Barnett family of Indiana—Michael, Kristine, and their three sons, including autistic genius Jacob—adopted Natalia in 2010. At the time, according to her birth certificate and other documentation, Natalia was 6 years old, having been abandoned by her biological mother to a Ukrainian orphanage soon after being born. Before the Barnetts became her parents, Natalia had been adopted by another family, who then gaver her up for re-adoption for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. (Whether the Barnetts had met and exchanged information with the previous adoptive parents is one of the many disputed mysteries surrounding the case, but it needn’t detain us.)
Things went wrong the very first night, when Kristine gave their adoptive daughter a bath and noticed that Natalia had pubic hair. Soon, the supposed 6-year-old started to have periods. As unsettling as these developments were, the Barnetts tried to make the best of the situation and to raise her lovingly, shelling out money for the surgeries she needed to improve her walking ability and even giving her a big bedroom with a walk-in closet, all decorated in girly pink.
That is, until Natalia began to reveal a murderous streak. She openly talked about killing the Barnetts’ biological boys, and even made drawings of her deadly schemes. She poured dishwashing liquid into Kristine’s coffee. She stole the boys’ favorite toys, throwing them into the street in an apparent attempt to have them chase after the toys and thus get run over by passing cars. One night, she stood at the foot of the Barnetts’ marital bed while holding a knife. In another instance, she tried to drag Kristine toward an electric fence while the family was on an outing to a farm.
A doctor diagnosed Natalia as a sociopath. After the electric-fence incident, the Barnetts had her committed to a state mental institution. While she was so confined, they turned to a local probate court to re-age her to 22 years old, up from 8, the age specified by her Ukrainian documentation. Thereupon she was transferred to the adult wing of the mental hospital, where, the staff complained, she tried to seduce the male patients, forcing the institution to evict her.
At that point, the Barnetts moved Natalia to an apartment complex in Westfield, Indiana, where the residents soon raised alarm about her erratic behavior, including breaking into their homes to steal food and inappropriately touching a young boy during playtime. When the complex declined to renew Natalia’s lease, the Barnetts transferred her to a second-floor unit in a rough part of Lafayette, Indiana—and decamped for Canada, where then-14-year-old Jacob was to study for a master’s degree in physics. Watching her struggle to live on her own, a local couple took in Natalia, though there are hints that her new “parents” sought to take control of her disability benefits.
The first season of the show recounts all this from the point of view of the Barnetts, complete with scary musical cues and blurry reenactments — which, many critics have charged, make it difficult for the viewer to examine the family’s claims. More skeptical notes, however, are injected legal experts, law enforcers, disability advocates, and health professionals offering a very different perspective: namely, that the Barnetts decided that raising Natalia was more than they had bargained for, created a horror-movie narrative around her to justify first re-aging her and then unceremoniously dumping her.
This line of argument is taken up in the new season, which provides Natalia’s point of view, and more or less debunks the Barnetts’. Early endocrinological examinations, to which the Barnetts had access all along, had established Natalia’s age as somewhere between 6 and 9. Dental X-rays had likewise revealed that Natalia still had baby teeth when she was under the Barnetts’ care, consistent with her Ukrainian birth certificate. Recent DNA testing also identified Natalia as a child when she was first adopted by the Barnetts.
The electric-fence-murder claim is revealed as the ridiculous canard that it always was: How could a child with an extreme form of dwarfism, and the weak limbs that go with it, drag or push a nondisabled adult woman? As for the dishwasher or cleaning liquid in Kristine’s coffee, Natalia insists that Kristine forced her to do that and then filmed it, in order to frame her adoptive daughter as a lunatic menace. A repentant Michael, having dutifully echoed the murderous-orphan narrative in a set of 2019 interviews, now backtracks and lends credence to Natalia, over and against Kristine, who he now says personifies “evil.”
We also learn about a pattern of abusive discipline allegedly meted out to Natalia by Kristine, including prolonged belt spankings, the use of pepper spray, having the other children urinate in her bed as punishment for her inability to control her bladder, and hours and hours of corner time, during which Natalia would repeatedly soil her pants.
By 2019, the Barnetts’ dumping of Natalia in the Lafayette apartment led to criminal charges of neglect of a disabled person, though not child abandonment, since prosecutors couldn’t overcome the probate court’s earlier determination that Natalia was 22 when it happened. A jury found Michael Barnett not guilty in 2022, and the identical charges against Kristine were eventually dropped. The couple, however, stand convicted in the court of public opinion, and not unjustly.
Kristine appears especially monstrous, since it was she who hatched most of the schemes—with a clear motive. The author of a book on raising a genius child that garnered a high-six-digit advance, Kristine, it seems, adopted Natalia as “material” for a follow-up. Could she make another prodigy out of a child with severe physical disabilities? The early signs were promising. Natalia was unusually articulate for her age—hence why some professionals fell for the Barnetts’ claims about her being an adult—but she wasn’t a genius. In first grade, her teacher reported, her reading level was about that of a…first-grader. Yet, Natalia alleges, Kristine would force her to solve physics problems, and then mete out her signature whipping-and-pepper-spray treatment when she inevitably failed.
By the end of the second season, Natalia extracts an apology from Michael (Kristine never participated in the documentary and continues to maintain that her adoptive daughter is a sociopath). Eventually, the Mans family, which took in Natalia when she was abandoned in Lafayette, formally adopts her. The neighbors in Westfield continue to insist that she was an adult, and that she was a menace. And—cue the horror theme—the season ends with the Manses calling the producers of the show to complain that Natalia is “tweaking,” that she has “emotions for no one but herself,” and that she has betrayed them in the worst way imaginable. “We’re done with her.”
In declining to privilege any one claim to truth, and sleazily dramatizing every claim and counter-claim, the show’s producers achieve a sort of inadvertent postmodernist genius: How many of the claims we encounter in the news—about issues of much greater import—are similarly plastic and manipulable by propagandists? One shudders to think, for example, how the Washington establishment’s claims about Natalia’s orphan homeland might be the product of similar media wizardry.