The kids in our family were born too early. We had to suffer the Rust Belt Depression of the 1980s without a Reality Television show to bail us out. I’ll admit, when were younger we daydreamed of living in a Brady Bunch-style house, but we knew it was just musing. Maybe if we had been born several years later, things would have been different.
If the Barnes Dozen had their own show, it wouldn’t have been something ridiculous like "Growing Up Gotti" or "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." It would’ve been more refined, especially since my parents were raising eight boys and four girls on my father’s engineer salary. Anything could happen in that old Pittsburgh Victorian house, crammed with 12 kids and led by Born Again Christian parents Harvey and Joanne Barnes…
VOICEOVER: “This week on A Barnes Dozen…”
-Camera angle over shoulders of boys giggling, facing an open window
-Mother Joanne Barnes answering the kitchen phone and speaking with neighbor Naomi Rittenhouse, who says: “Your sons are urinating out the third-floor window again.”
-Joanne clutching a wooden-handled broom, chasing two sons around the dining room, swinging wildly at them and connecting at times.
“Stand still!” she yells.
* * *
Ah, the good old days of sharing two bathrooms with 13 people. We should’ve been stars with a TV show, but unfortunately, Reality TV wasn’t even a greedy notion in a producer’s mind back then. My parents struggled financially because they had so many kids, but that shared hardship and close living also created lots of opportunities for memories that we kids, now long grown, pass on in our own ways.
I bring this up because of the recent bad press on Jon and Kate Goselin, who are inextricably linked forever because of their dubious celebrity. Lately they have consumed themselves with mudslinging, and their kids are no doubt the worse for it. I pity the kids and their parents, who apparently were striving to make a good life for their family and destroyed their marriage in the process. I wonder if it would have been better for them if they had continued to struggle financially, at least somewhat. I doubt it.
One thing that’s clear to me is that the Goselin children shouldn’t have been allowed to be on their own TV show, because they are too young to consent to being on a reality TV show and they aren’t a family of performers like the Osmonds or Jacksons, who, like carnies and circus folk, got their professions by birth.
There should be an age of consent for allowing a child to be on TV or in movies because there is no approximating the damage that early celebrity or unwanted celebrity can have on a person. If you don’t believe me, look no further than Danny Bonaduci or Leif Garret, or more recently, Hulk Hogan’s kids. If the child is not at least, say, 15, perhaps he should not be allowed to consent to appearing in such a show. And maybe nobody else should be able to give that consent, either.
This all seems obvious to me, not simply because I can see that children are being exploited and consequently warped on television, but also because I have a bit of personal experience in this area. In 1983, not long after my father lost his job as a civil engineer for U.S. Steel, our family was on TV. We were on a show that I would now peg as “alternate reality” television—the 700 Club.
Dad had gone through a stretch of unemployment after losing his job. Then after praying, he’d finally gotten some work and was doing pretty well again, at least for the moment. Feeling buoyant, as was part of his spirit, Dad answered the 700 Club’s call to tell them how prayer had changed his life.
When he told us kids we’d be on the show, some of us remarked, “Well at least it’s not the PTL Club.” We affectionately referred to that show as the Pass The Loot Club.
Then all of a sudden, a camera crew was on our doorstep. They filmed Dad giving his story, and they filmed all of us in our Dad-led early morning Devotions, which was a routine my father had instituted around that time.
The 700 Club story on us was a short, upbeat piece, with not too much footage. I remember seeing us kids all looking tired and sitting on the couch, Bibles in laps. I know that after seeing the story, I, and some of the other kids, felt used.
The story didn’t seem to be the truth to me at the time, and still doesn’t. I remember being skeptical about the relationship between prayer and Dad getting some work, which hadn’t exactly changed our lifestyle. The tenuousness of our situation hadn’t changed, and this fact I knew in my gut at the time. Harve was in his fifties and nobody wanted to hire him on for good because of his age, experience and salary level.
Though I know Harve didn't intend it, the 700 Club story on my family made me feel like I was part of a lie. But the worst part was that the fiction was not my creation, and I resented it. Soon, the Goselin kids will feel the same way.
Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.