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Natalia Speaks Is What The Curious Case of Natalia Grace Should've Been All Along

Investigation Discovery's six-part sequel goes a long way toward righting the wrongs of the original docuseries.
  • Natalia sits for an interview in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks (Photo: Investigation Discovery)
    Natalia sits for an interview in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks (Photo: Investigation Discovery)

    As the title suggests, The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks serves as a continuation of Investigation Discovery's true-crime docuseries, which became one of the network's most-viewed shows of all time when it premiered in late May. Natalia's perspective was notably absent from the original series, but in the six-part sequel, she sits for extensive interviews that shed new light on her journey from a Ukrainian orphanage to the Indiana home of Kristine and Michael Barnett, who adopted Natalia in 2010, when she was six years old.

    For the first time, Natalia, who has a rare form of dwarfism called spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, details her experience with the Barnetts, the alleged abuse she suffered under their care, and their successful effort to have her legally re-aged from 8 to 22, at which point they sent her to live alone in apartments that were difficult to navigate due to her limited mobility.

    While Natalia's testimony finally gives her the opportunity to tell her story in her own words, it also allows her to refute the damning allegations made by Michael in The Curious Case of Natalia Grace and his recent neglect trial. (Michael was acquitted in October 2022; the charges against Kristine were dismissed a few months later.) For years, Michael has painted Natalia as a "sociopath" who lied about her age and attempted to physically harm his family by poisoning Kristine's coffee, standing at the foot of their bed with a knife, and pushing Kristine into an electric fence. He repeated these claims in interviews with producers, but despite including accounts from witnesses and investigators who questioned Michael's story, the docuseries declined to come down on one side or the other, instead choosing to cast Michael and Natalia as equally mysterious figures in a complicated case.

    Part 2 sees Natalia rebut Michael's version of events point-by-point as she explains how the Barnetts manipulated and fabricated "proof" to make it seem like she was an adult with homicidal intentions. She claims Kristine forced her to insert a tampon when she was seven years old, causing her to bleed (which Kristine then used as evidence that Natalia had her period); threatened to pepper spray her if she didn't lie about her age; and "staged" a video that showed Natalia pouring furniture polish into her coffee cup, among other acts of physical and emotional abuse. "All I knew was how to be scared," Natalia says. "That was my normal."

    Natalia Speaks also answers one of the biggest questions posed by the original docuseries — and the one thing that was barred from being mentioned in Michael's trial: How old is Natalia? While Part 1 included interviews with Natalia's biological mother Anna Gava and others who insisted Natalia was a child when she was adopted by the Barnetts, the sequel puts the issue to rest once and for all, should any viewers remain unconvinced. The premiere, "Age, Rage & the Big Lie," introduces medical and dental records that confirm Natalia was eight or nine years old in 2011, and the Barnett family dentist is clear that the X-rays he took at the time, which show her baby teeth had yet to fall out, don't support the idea that "she could be anywhere near 15 years older," as the Barnetts' petition stated.

    Later in the episode, Natalia works with an independent group of genetic scientists who use her blood to determine her "chronological age." The results reveal Natalia is currently "closer to 22," which, despite deviating slightly from her assumed age of nearly 20 (based on her September 2003 birthday), indicates she was very much a child when she was abandoned by her parents.

    With the matter of Natalia's age dispatched, Natalia Speaks is free to move on to the "whys" of the case: Why did the Barnetts adopt Natalia in the first place? Why were they so determined to age her up? And most importantly, why did Michael fail to report Kristine's abuse and enable her horrific treatment of Natalia?

    The sequel doesn't succeed at answering all of these questions; instead, it relies heavily on hypotheses from investigators and New York-based attorney Beth Karas, who also appeared in the first docuseries and has mostly analyzed the case from afar. But the fact that it engages with them at all reflects Natalia Speaks' willingness to go deeper than its predecessor, which was guided by Michael's unreliable narration and his obvious attempt to rewrite history in his favor.

    This time, Michael again attempts to keep the focus on Kristine, whom he refuses to refer to by name, instead calling her "Evil" or "the monster." But whereas producers declined to challenge his claim that he was forced to go along with Kristine's plan — instead, they let Michael talk his way into incriminating himself, as he did when he and his son Jacob were caught on a hot mic discussing which instances of domestic violence to avoid mentioning in interviews — Natalia doesn't let up.

    During their two meetings, the first of which abruptly ends when Michael storms out after he's asked to stop cursing, she disputes Michael's assertion that he and Natalia were "both incredible victims of an otherworldly type of abuse," and she holds his feet to the fire when he attempts to wriggle his way out of taking responsibility for his role in her traumatic childhood. "Yes, you were a victim, but you also [were] the perpetrator. You were an accomplice of it all, too," Natalia tells the camera after their second conversation. "If Kristine was his so-called monster, he could've fought her. I couldn't."

    While Natalia fails to get a real apology out of Michael — at least in the five episodes made available to critics; their conversation continues in the sixth and final episode, which was not provided for review — she remains undeterred in her effort to hold the adults in her life accountable for their sins. In addition to confronting Michael, she forces a former neighbor, Rachel Ambler, to acknowledge the harm she caused by cutting Natalia off from her daughter Gracie, one of Natalia's only friends, at Kristine's insistence. When Rachel attempts to defend her actions by claiming she was "scared" of Kristine "and what she could do," Natalia reminds her that only one of them was a child at the time. "Did you ever think of what she was doing to me?" she asks, full of hurt.

    Natalia's voice is so powerful that the docuseries deflates when it attempts to bring in outside perspectives like Karas, who offers bizarre and unnecessary color commentary during Natalia and Michael's second sit-down. (In case viewers aren't able to see for themselves that Michael is being evasive by refusing to "get into [the] subject" of Natalia's age change, Karas is happy to spell it out.) As she fights to uncover the truth and fearlessly calls out Michael's lies, it becomes clear that this is the version of The Curious Case of Natalia Grace that should've existed all along — one that centers Natalia as a victim and functions as an exercise in accountability, above all else.

    The Curious Case of Natalia Grace: Natalia Speaks premieres across three nights on ID beginning Monday, January 1, airing nightly from 9-11:00 PM ET/PT. Episodes can be streamed as they air on Max and Discovery+. 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: Natalia Speaks, Discovery+, Investigation Discovery, Max, The Curious Case of Natalia Grace, Kristine Barnett, Michael Barnett, Natalia Barnett