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Special Needs

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Gilles Mingasson/Mark Burnett Productions/TLC
Sarah and Todd Palin with their children Track, Piper, Willow, Trig, and Bristol, who is holding her son Trip, outside their house in Wasilla, Alaska, August 2010; from Sarah Palin’s Alaska

The nine-part docu-series Sarah Palin’s Alaska, shown late last year on the cable channel TLC, has the atmosphere of a cold war propaganda film.1 It shows the Palin family during the summer of 2010, making happy trips to one pristine Alaskan wilderness area after another—fishing, hunting, kayaking, dogsledding, rock climbing—and taking repeated little swipes at the left. During a visit with her dad to a store in Anchorage named Chimo Guns, where she is buying a rifle for a camping trip in bear country, Palin remarks:

Out and about in Alaska’s wilds it’s more common than not to see somebody having some kind of weapon on their person, in fact it’s probably as commonplace as if you’re walking down in New York City and you see somebody with a Blackberry on their hip.

New York, of course, is code for all the things that Palin-style populism is against. I don’t have to tell my fellow Commies what these things are.

Not long ago Paul Krugman neatly distinguished between our two political sides. One side, he wrote in the Times,

considers the modern welfare state—a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net—morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side

believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.2

The Palins travel in small planes into the tooth-and-claw wilderness to enact their allegory of unspoiled capitalism. Palin, who is both narrator and star of the series, performs arduous and sometimes even dangerous feats of outdoorsmanship to demonstrate the conservative virtue of self-reliance. In the episode in which she struggles for a foothold on a vertiginously steep glacier at the foot of Mt. McKinley in eerily beautiful and vast Denali National Park, she knows that no government handout is going to help her. She isn’t even sure God will help her, though she cries out to Him and His Son, “Oh God. Help me, Lord!” and “I’m scared…. Holy Jeez!” She is tied by a rope to a guide above her and her husband below, but she can’t seem to make progress on the rock. The guide gives her instructions, but she can’t follow them. “I don’t know what I’m going to hold on to here…. What about my legs? Where do I put ‘em?… This may flippin’ take me all day.”

Forty-five minutes later (as a subtitle tells us) she is still clinging to the rock, helpless to take the next step up. “That’s so much worse than I ever thought it would be,” she groans. Finally, through a great effort of will, she manages to heave herself up to the pinnacle. “I don’t think that I have been that scared or that challenged in a long time,” she says, and we believe her. The episode has a realism not often seen in reality TV, and absent from most of the other episodes in which Palin, among other feats, shoots caribou, cuts down large trees, cuts up bloody fish, and even briefly slings hash in a diner. These segments are marked by the surrealism that is reality television’s signature. Something always seems a little off in reality television. You don’t believe that what you are seeing happened in the way it is shown to have happened, any more than you think that the man in the Magritte was born with an apple attached to his face.

Perhaps the most surreal episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska is the one in which the TV celebrity Kate Gosselin appears and shamelessly upstages Palin. Gosselin has eight children—a pair of twins and sextuplets—who are the raison d’être of the TLC reality series originally called Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and renamed Kate Plus Eight when the pair split up. Palin has invited Gosselin and her children to join her family on a camping trip to a mountain lake in a remote wilderness area that can only be reached by seaplane, and the role she assigns to herself is that of protectress: she will prevent bears from eating her guests. At Chimo Guns, as she selects her purchase, she tells the salesman about the “gal who’s never camped before” who is “going to rely on me to protect her.” But the minute we lay eyes on Gosselin, we know that Palin herself may need protection from this small, pretty, powerfully unsentimental blond.

Beautiful view,” Gosselin says in a deadpan voice, as she and her eight enter the Palins’ lakefront house in Wasilla, and adds, “There’s a bear on the floor. Did anyone notice?” The kids throw themselves on the bear rug and toss about a tongue that has fallen out of its taxidermed head. After telling them to put the tongue back, Gosselin looks into the bear’s glass eyes and says, “Is this really real? Like this was once walking outside?” Todd Palin says, “Yeah, Sarah’s dad shot this a few years ago.” Gosselin stares at the trophy with an expression of pain and disgust.

Palin quickly whisks her upstairs to see the office where she does what she calls her Fox News “hits” in front of a picture window or a stone fireplace; and then bundles her and her teenaged daughter Willow off to a survival school called Learn to Return. “I will die of a heart attack,” Gosselin says as the instructor produces a map showing the large bear population of Alaska. Palin caresses her new firearm and patiently explains:

Even for those who may think maybe on a political level that they are anti-gun, they need to realize, if you are unarmed and you’re out in the wilderness and perhaps you’re with children camping, well you’re putting yourself and your family in danger if you are not armed, if you are not prepared for a predator.

At the Learn to Return gun range, Palin, who never looks happier than when she is shooting, exhibits her powerful marksmanship; her bullet goes “right in the kill zone.” After urging from the instructor, Gosselin picks up the rifle like a vampire agreeing to handle a crucifix, takes gingerly aim, and doesn’t do too badly, either.

The morning of the camping trip arrives and it is a dismal day of pouring rain. As Gosselin disembarks from her seaplane (the Palins had come earlier in another plane), she says, “Are you kidding me? Doesn’t the lodge sound much more exciting to you?”

What follows is like a scene in a dream—or piece of experimental theater—where disconnected things happen all at once, very fast and slow (such is the character of this genre), and anxiety covers everything like a sticky paste. As rain pelts the lake and the forest, Gosselin finds shelter under a small canopy, and begins a mesmerizing aria:

I’m freezing to the bone…. I’ve been bitten about two hundred times already. This is horrible…. It just kills me that people like willingly do this. I can’t get over it. I mean, that is so shocking to me.

Palin, in a yellow oilskin slicker and rain-splattered glasses, gestures toward the mist-shrouded mountains. “Look at how gorgeous this place is…. This is the beauty of Alaska.”

Gosselin, entirely unmoved by the Sublime, continues her bitter lament:

This is cruel and unusual punishment. This is where I’ll be the whole time. Unparalyzed…. I’m standing in not-rain. That’s what I’m doing. I have to admit, I wasn’t terribly opposed to it, camping I mean, but in the rain? No way.

At the shore, the Palins—Sarah, her father, Chuck, Todd, Willow, the youngest daughter, Piper, and a brother of Sarah’s also named Chuck—are working desperately to give the wet and somewhat confused-looking Gosselin kids a good time, teaching them how to fish, showing them natural curiosities like salmon teeth, and encouraging them to add twigs to a sprawling, weakly burning brush fire. Palin wanders about distractedly, saying things like “We’re having a blast” and “Kids’ll always have fun as they’re being productive and helpful and pitching in.” But she can’t get purchase on the scene. It’s as if she were back on the glacier helplessly looking for a foothold. No bears arrive to restore her to her rightful place in the series as its fearless heroine.

In a flash-forward monologue—a convention of reality TV that only adds to its atmosphere of oneiric unreality—a dry, pretty Palin sits under a tree reflecting that “Kate, she never felt more out of her element than there, camping,” and permitting herself a single mean thought: “C’mon! it wasn’t that bad.” But there, camping, Gosselin lets us see just how bad it is:

This is ridiculous. Why would you pretend to be homeless? I don’t get it. I just don’t get the concept. There’s no paper towels. How do you make sandwiches for eight kids on your arm. I don’t see a table. I don’t see utensils. I don’t see hand-cleansing materials. This is not ideal conditions. I am freezing to the bone. I have nineteen layers on. My hands are frigid. I held it together as long as I could and I’m done now. I’m hungry!

Someone brings Gosselin a hot dog, and she regards it suspiciously; when told it is made of moose meat, she takes a tiny bite and makes a face. Turning to her children, Gosselin asks if they want to stay or go and a few say they want to stay (s’mores are being distributed), and she says to them, “Goodbye, you’re now a Palin, you’re not a Gosselin,” adding, “We’re deciding who’s a Palin and who’s a Gosselin.” Of course, when Kate heads down the path toward the seaplane that will take her away from the scene of suffering for no good reason, all eight children are with her. In parting, she says, “Sarah, all hail you, Amazon woman. This is where our likenesses end. Dead stop…. We’re out of here…. We’re going where there’s warmth and dryness.”

Palin looks after her and says, “I suppose if she took me to like New York City and some red-carpet event, I’d be the same way, like ‘get me home.’” She is back in stride. With Kate gone, the series draws an almost audible breath of relief. The family gathers around the fire—now burning brightly, with big logs in it that weren’t there when Gosselin was casting her malign spell over the day—shrieking with laughter and horsing around as families do after difficult guests leave. It is no longer raining. The mountains have emerged from the mist. The Palins crawl into expensive blue tents and call cheerily back and forth to each other, their voices rising into the beautiful white night.

There is another passage in Sarah Palin’s Alaska that stands out from the rest—this time not for weirdness, but for its emotional truth. It takes place in a native village called Eluk, where Todd Palin’s Eskimo cousin Ina has set up a summer “fish camp” to which Palin, Willow, Piper, and Todd’s sister Christina have flown. In Ina’s kitchen, Sarah and Ina cut up fish and have an intimate women’s talk. Both gave birth to Down syndrome children—Ina’s child, Matthew, is twelve and Trig Palin is two—and they compare their experiences. Palin asks Ina, a small, sympathetic woman who speaks with an accent, if she “knew” before the birth, and Ina says that she didn’t. Palin says she herself did know and “had months to prepare—but still it was hard,” though “a blessing.” Ina says that her son “teaches our whole family about patience and love that is so deep.”

In the next scene we see Matthew, a severely impaired child, who has climbed into the small plane that the Palins arrived in and is being approached with kindly curiosity by ten-year-old Piper. Then comes the unexpected moment. Palin sits on a hillside and burbles, “Well, getting to meet our little cousin there, Matthew, Ina’s son, you know, kind of gives me maybe a look at ten years from now, Trig, and he’s a beautiful child—“ But what we see on her face belies her bright words. She is devastated by the look into the future that the impaired little cousin gives her. We see her breaking down and beginning to cry, and we cry with her. At this moment, she is not Sarah Palin the wicked witch of the right. She is a woman one pities and sympathizes with and, yes, even admires.

In her book Going Rogue, Palin writes of her initial refusal to believe that the baby she had conceived at the age of forty-three might have Down syndrome. When an early sonogram reveals a possible fetal abnormality, “a whisper of fear tugged at my heart, but I brushed it away with a thought: God would never give me anything I can’t handle. And I don’t think I could handle that.” She adds, “Unless He knows me better than I know myself…. God won’t give me a special needs child.” (The term “special needs” came into currency a few years ago—at about the time when everyone became “challenged” by something—and surely is an improvement over the callous “Mongolian Idiot” and “retarded” and “feebleminded” labels that used to be applied to children with Down syndrome, autism, and other genetic abnormalities, though it takes a little getting used to.)

After amniocentesis gives Palin proof of God’s pesky unpredictability, she declines the option of abortion that 90 percent of women in her shoes take, but interestingly does not lord it over them with right-to-life rhetoric. Instead, she recalls the “fleeting thought” (of abortion) that came to her in 2007 in a New Orleans hotel room when she learned of her unplanned and seriously inconvenient pregnancy: “I’m out of town. No one knows I’m pregnant. No one would ever have to know.” Now, in far greater distress (“How could God have done this? Obviously He knew Heather [Palin’s sister] had a special needs child. Didn’t He think that was enough challenge for one family?”), Palin feels “that fleeting thought descend[ing] on me again, not a consideration so much as a sudden understanding of why people would grasp at a quick ‘solution,’ a way to make the ‘problem’ just go away.”

Palin cannot be faulted for choosing to bring the child to term—pro-choice means just that, after all—and, indeed, when he appears two years later in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, we can only agree with Lee Siegel that “the entire staff of The New York Review of Books could not but melt when Todd picks up their son Trig, who has Down’s syndrome, and the child laughs that self-devouring, self- delighted laugh of little boys as his father carries him into the house.”3 In Going Rogue, Palin quotes an arresting passage from a speech she gave during the 2008 presidential campaign whose purpose was “to present our policy on special needs issues”:

Every child is beautiful before God and dear to Him for their own sake. And the truest measure of any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable.

The reader is arrested by the echo of left-wing rhetoric. How many times have we heard liberal politicians speak of the vulnerability—the special needs, you could say—of people living in poverty, and society’s obligation to help them? Conservative politicians rarely even mention poor people—and then only to tell them to pull up their socks. The right seems to be sinking deeper into its fantasy of poverty as the result of character flaws and of the governmental safety net as an agent of spoiling. Palin writes of the “dependent lifestyle” that “state and federal intrusion” brought to Alaska’s Native communities as the coddled young “abandoned the strong work ethic of their elders.” Was the filming of Kate Gosselin’s meltdown some sort of screwball homage to the right’s vision of the whining and complaining underclass that refuses to warm itself at the fire of capitalism and perversely clings to its place on the margins? In which case: Kate, all hail you, world-class kvetch and rising comic star.

  1. 1

    A three-DVD set of the series has just been released by TLC ($29.95). 

  2. 2

    A Tale of Two Moralities,” The New York Times, January 13, 2011. 

  3. 3

    Dancing with the Scars,” The New York Observer, November 30, 2010. 

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