Disability, Devastation and “Teen Mom”

I have been following the MTV reality show Teen Mom 2 for a number of weeks now, as Amazon Prime instant video offers it, and almost every episode is captioned. Teen Mom 2 documents the lives of several young women who originally appeared on the MTV show 16 and Pregnant, which premiered in 2009. Some of the teens from that original airing went on to become reality TV stars of Teen Mom, Teen Mom 2 and Teen Mom 3. The popularity of the show has been evidenced by almost constant tabloid magazine cover articles and internet sites devoted to coverage of Chelsea, Leah, Kailynn and Jenelle, the stars of the five seasons of Teen Mom 2, which ended in 2014. The stars of Teen Mom 3 are another cast of women.

ATEENMOM2                  ATEENMOM3Leah Messer, now age 22, became pregnant at age 16 with her high school sweetheart, Corey Simms. Leah and Corey are both from West Virginia. Corey is a typical country boy who drives a pick up truck and wears a distressed camo baseball cap; and Leah, with her mane of platinum blonde hair and big blue eyes looks like she could be a country singer. The couple became the parents of twin daughters Aliannah (Ali for short) and Aleeah, now five years old. In 2011, Leah became concerned because Ali was showing signs of developmental problems. At the time, Leah and Corey were sharing a modular home, and Leah stayed at home with the twins. The overwhelming distress Leah clearly began to feel when it became evident that Ali, after a few trips to the doctor, had very low muscle tone and might also lose her vision as a result of a mysterious neurological condition, is difficult to watch. Doctors initially did not know what to diagnose Ali with, but she was not developing at the same rate as her twin sister. The stress of being a stay at home mother to twin babies was already causing Leah to reach the point of extreme anxiety, and the rural isolation in which she lived could not have helped. Ali was fitted with glasses, and the doctor’s visits continued. There is a scene at the hospital where baby Ali is undergoing MRI testing, and Leah dissolves into tears while waiting in the hospital hallway with Corey, who seems completely out of his element. Both young parents seem terrified. For much of this season, Leah cannot stop crying.

Leah Messer and Corey Simms, high school sweethearts from West Virginia.

Leah Messer and Corey Simms, high school sweethearts from West Virginia.

I think that if the doctors at the hospital had treated Leah and Corey differently, and Ali’s condition was not presented so gravely, they would have acted less terrified and devastated. The young parents understandably were confused and frightened by the medical terminology used, and Leah even had to Google a term after a doctor’s visit while on the phone with her mother, because she had so little information and understanding of what was going on. Leah and Corey are not the type of people who are going to go into a medical or scientific field, and they were both just teenagers during the time of these first tests. Leah tries very hard to learn as much as she can about her daughter’s health, but Corey seems overwhelmed. He also cries during these episodes.

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I noticed that around this portion of the show, Leah treats the twins differently. She and Corey were planning their wedding and in the events leading up to that day, Leah did not seem as interested in Ali, her disabled baby, as she was in Aleeah. On the day of the wedding, Leah routinely, in almost every scene, either hands Ali off to Corey or another relative and poses for pictures holding Aleeah. It could just be the way the show is edited, but I noticed it happening over and over. Leah would happily greet and reach for Aleeah first, pick her up, and leave Ali to be dealt with by someone else in many episodes. The babies are so young, maybe about a year old at this time, but seeing little Ali’s face during these moments was hard for me, because she didn’t seem as happy as Aleeah. At first I thought Leah was just being a jerk, but I think there are other, more complex reasons for her behavior. At the doctor’s offices and hospitals, Ali is treated kindly, but it is unknown by anyone how well she is going to fare. It is possible that Leah was trying to detach emotionally from her baby to save herself from becoming completely untethered. It is also possible that when other people are around, Leah prefers them to hold Ali, because she is constantly having to hold and care for Ali more than Aleeah when at home by herself, and wants some extra time with Aleeah. It is also possible that Ali’s health and disability issues are so emotionally devastating for Leah, as evidenced by her emotional reactions throughout the show, that it is hard for her to be around the child because she does not know how to act. Doctors were certainly were not giving her guidance in that area. Or, it could be plain, old-fashioned ableism. That last thing I want to do is make Leah Messer cry any more than she already has been through this difficult time, but it is good to examine ableist biases, and also the foundations of feelings of devastation. Because Ali is a happy baby. She isn’t in pain and she’s not suffering.

Leah Messer and Corey Simms' wedding.  2010.

Leah Messer and Corey Simms’ wedding. 2010.

Later episodes convinced me that Leah really is a loving, kind mother to both girls, and that Ali is a happy, well cared for baby, and Leah seemed to get over handing her off to other people. In fact, she is often seen carrying both girls at once and clearly is a strong woman in many ways. Leah’s marriage to Corey begins to crumble shortly after the wedding and Corey files for divorce due to Leah’s infidelity (one time, a week before they were married). Things continue to be completely heartbreaking for Leah, and she does not want the divorce. She feels as if her girls won’t have their father around enough, blames herself entirely for everything, and continues to struggle with raising her two children, and the doctor and therapy visits for Ali. Corey is troubled by his decision, too, but is so angry and hurt that he continues to move forward with the divorce. His confidant during this time is his father, whom he talks to about everything. Corey’s dad is a concerned father who cares very much about Leah and the kids, but can understand his son’s pain. ( I love when he says, “well danggone it, son.”)

After divorcing from Corey, Leah later meets Jeremy Calvert and the two end up marrying despite Leah’s struggle to get over Corey, whom she still loves.  Jeremy becomes the girls’ stepfather and involved with Ali’s appointments and medical care. He and Jeremy get along very well. Jeremy accompanies Leah, Corey and their respective parents to Ali’s many hospital visits, including her muscle biopsy, done when Ali is three years old. Doctors and this point in the show still do not know what is “wrong” with Ali, and scenes show Leah and her mother trying to get the little girl to walk. “She can be lazy,” Leah’s mother says of Ali when the little girl continually fails at walking. This is a pretty typical, ableist thing to say about the disabled. Ali is not lazy, and she is very quick to get around on her own by scooting on her bottom.

Leah's second husband, Jeremy Calvert, and the twin's father, Corey, at the hospital after Ali's muscle biopsy

Leah’s second husband, Jeremy Calvert, and the twin’s father, Corey, at the hospital after Ali’s muscle biopsy.  

After the biopsy is over, Leah, Corey, Jeremy, Leah’s mother and Jeremy’s father are out to lunch with little Ali in tow. Corey’s father, in his folksy wisdom kind of way, manages to get Leah thinking when he says about Ali, “She gets around, just in her way. She’s sharp as a tack and pretty as a little girl can be. You can’t really ask for much more in a child.” You can see Leah’s face change when he says this. It seems like this resonates with her, but she has to consider it. As the season progresses, Corey, like his father, begins to feel that all the medical stuff Ali is going through is not what defines her. “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with her,” he begins to say to Leah, “I think she’s just fine.” Leah refutes this with histrionic emotion that the stoic southern men in her life clearly do not know how to handle, emotion which overshadows Corey’s opinion. Corey’s dreams for Ali evidently included that she play softball, and he even says at this point in the series that Ali will be able to do whatever she wants, including play softball if she wants to, just in “her way”. Corey no longer sees the need to be devastated, and in fact thinks it’s ridiculous to feel that way. It has become clear to him that Ali is not suffering, is very smart, has a loving and adorable relationship with her twin sister (who never seems to notice that Ali is “different”), and happy. I have to wonder if MTV neglected to film Corey Googling “disability rights”, or how he came to have this opinion. Was it based on his own feeling and observation, or did he finally receive some positive feedback about Ali from someone other than his father?

Ali was finally diagnosed in 2014 with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, and the “Teen Mom” crew is there to film the little girl’s first time trying out her new power chair. I’m just going to be honest, I cried (ok, I cry a lot when watching “Teen Mom”, but this scene….waterworks). Ali was SO happy. Aleeah was with her and Ali was able to chase her twin sister, who is always running, in her power chair. The look on the little girl’s face is so powerful. She’s just ecstatic. The therapist and Leah are also both very excited and happy. Corey had to work, unfortunately, and missed the experience, and Jeremy at this time is filing for divorce from Leah.

ali-simms

I haven’t finished the series yet, as I’m watching it on Amazon Prime, not MTV. However, “Teen Mom” is returning for another season this year, although this time it will be the women of “Teen Mom 3”. Meanwhile, Leah Messer, the twins, Jeremy Calvert and Corey Simms are still the constant, almost daily subjects of online news stories. The girls even have a Facebook fan page.

ATEENLEAHWHELCH

https://www.facebook.com/CoreyAleeahAliSimmsFanPage

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2543674/Teen-Mom-2-star-Leah-Messer-reveals-daughter-Aliannah-muscular-dystrophy-confined-wheelchair.html

Episode guide:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_Mom_2

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