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Investigating Discovery+

ID Can Rectify Its Mistakes With Its Natalia Grace Follow-Up Documentary

In The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks, Natalia Barnett will finally tell her story, in her own words.
  • The Curious Case of Natalia Grace has captivated the internet in recent weeks. (Photos: Investigation Discovery/Primetimer graphic)
    The Curious Case of Natalia Grace has captivated the internet in recent weeks. (Photos: Investigation Discovery/Primetimer graphic)

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    No one comes out of Investigation Discovery's The Curious Case of Natalia Grace looking good. Certainly not Michael Barnett, who spends the first half of the docuseries accusing his adopted daughter Natalia of being a homicidal adult masquerading as a child, only to do an about-face and shift blame to his ex-wife, Kristine Barnett. Though Kristine didn't participate in the project, messages show she admitted to physically abusing Natalia and attempted to set her up with an adult man. The legal system fares no better than the Barnetts, who were charged with neglect of a dependent in 2019: The six-part doc suggests the adoptive parents were enabled by an unjust institution, one that allowed them to successfully change Natalia's legal age from 8 to 22; barred any mention of her age from Michael's trial, resulting in a "not guilty" verdict; and dropped all charges against Kristine in March 2023.

    It's obvious that Natalia is the victim in all this, and yet even she emerges from The Curious Case of Natalia Grace sullied. For the first three episodes, Michael throws allegation after allegation at Natalia, whom he and Kristine adopted in 2010. At the time, the Barnetts believed they were taking in a six-year-old from Ukraine with a rare form of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, but Michael explains he and Kristine came to question her age when they saw she had her period and was physically developed. He goes on to recall, in vivid detail, instances in which Natalia threatened to harm his family, claiming that she once stood at the foot of his bed with a knife, poisoned Kristine's coffee, and attempted to push Kristine into an electric fence at a local farm.

    As if to illustrate Michael's point, the docuseries relies on the same grainy, black and white photos of Natalia frowning or staring into the camera and sets them against an ominous score. Cheesy, dimly-lit dramatizations further underscore the danger posed by the girl Michael describes as a "sociopath," while home-movie footage of Kristine and Michael asking Natalia questions that go unanswered reinforces the sense that she's hiding something.

    In the first half of the series, voices emerge to challenge Michael's allegations, though these moments are fleeting compared to his long-winded explanations. Beth Karas, an attorney who has been following the case from afar, points out that investigators have spoken with Natalia's biological mother, Anna Gava, and those conversations confirmed that Natalia was a child when she was adopted, aged up by an Indiana judge, and left to fend for herself in apartments difficult to navigate due to her disabilities. Witnesses to the electric fence incident also cast doubt on Michael's version of events, while Judith Irving, a woman with dwarfism who looked into adopting Natalia before the Barnetts did, dismisses the couple's concerns about their safety, as Natalia wouldn't "have the capability of truly hurting an adult."

    It soon becomes clear that Michael, who sat for separate interviews in 2019 and 2022, is an unreliable narrator. Not only does his story about the electric fence event change from one interview to the next, but he plays director as he reenacts Kristine's alleged beatings of Natalia, giving the camera operator detailed instructions about how best to film him as he pounds his fists into the floor. Later, Michael and his son Jacob are caught on a hot mic discussing what not to tell producers (specifically, an incident of domestic violence). And as the final credits roll, Michael, in his 2019 interview, tears up, before brightening and saying, "You're not getting the crying version. If you want the crying version, I'll bust that one out."

    Michael is also careful to keep the focus of his 2022 interviews on Kristine, only discussing Natalia in the context of his ex-wife's persistent abuse. He claims he was forced to go along with Kristine's mistreatment of their daughter, painting himself as a victim of "sexual abuse" who was afraid to stand up to his wife. Never does he reflect on his role in Natalia's exploitation or his obligation to her as a father: "Natalia was manipulated, brainwashed, engineered into looking as crazy as possible," he says, with no hint of acknowledgement that he did the same in the interview filmed just three years prior.

    As a result of Michael's obvious attempt to absolve himself of responsibility by pinning the blame on Kristine, the damning allegations he makes in those early episodes are left largely unchallenged. While Michael guides the show in whatever direction he chooses, Natalia appears only briefly in pre-trial interviews and depositions. When she insists she didn't want to harm the Barnetts and claims Kristine instructed her to tell people about her "poison attempt," it's the only time Natalia's side of the story is represented in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, save for a 10-second clip from her 2019 interview with Dr. Phil.

    The absence of Natalia's perspective creates a gaping hole at the center of the docuseries, as it's impossible to adequately investigate this case without including testimony from the victim. But ID is already taking steps to rectify the show's biggest problem: On June 1, one day after the finale aired, the network announced a follow-up, The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks. As the subtitle indicates, the sequel (which is set to air later this summer) will serve as Natalia's answer to the bombshell doc that has taken the internet by storm. According to ID, "After years of being cloaked under a gag order due to the subsequent legal proceedings around the 2019 arrest of her adoptive parents, Natalia has been unable to tell her story — until now."

    In a preview of Natalia Speaks released by Entertainment Tonight, Natalia maintains that Kristine and Michael are lying — "I have never done anything that Kristine and Michael have said that I have done" — and admits "it's shocking and it's frustrating" to hear the allegations they've levied against her. "People are believing what Kristine and Michael are saying without even hearing my side," she says. "I never got a chance to say what happened."

    Natalia Speaks will also give Natalia an opportunity to address the overt ableism expressed elsewhere in the series. In one particularly disturbing episode, Natalia's neighbors in her first apartment complex detail her "creepy" behavior, but their complaints — that she wandered into their homes looking for food and wanted to hang out with the nearby children — can be explained by the fact that she was a hungry, bored child with a disability who was forced into an unimaginable situation by her parents. Natalia deserves an opportunity to set the record straight about her experience of living on her own, especially now that she's been demonized by the very people she turned to for help.

    What's more, Natalia's story isn't over yet, even with the Barnetts' trials resolved. Hulu is currently developing a scripted take on the case starring Ellen Pompeo, in her first post-Grey's Anatomy TV role, as Kristine Barnett. With such a popular actor in the role of an alleged abuser, Natalia's testimony becomes even more essential, lest the creative team attempt to redeem the Barnetts or sanitize this story for a wider audience.

    The Curious Case of Natalia Grace is available to stream on Discovery+ and Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, Discovery+, Investigation Discovery, Max, The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks, Kristine Barnett, Michael Barnett, Natalia Barnett, True Crime