The XX Factor

Reality TV May Not Have Saved Amber Portwood’s Life

Amber Portwood, from Teen Mom, MTV.
Amber Portwood, from Teen Mom, MTV.

Photograph © 2011 MTV Networks, © and ™ MTV Networks. All Rights Reserved.

Yesterday, Teen Mom star Amber Portwood was sentenced to five years in jail. Portwood’s legal troubles began with the airing of a Teen Mom episode in which she slapped and pushed her daughter’s father. After an investigation, she was arrested and then enrolled in a drug rehabilitation program. But after violating the terms of the program, she headed back to court, where she told the judge that she was a “bad girl” and asked to be incarcerated again.

On Jezebel, Tracie Egan Morrissey argues that Teen Mom may have saved Portwood’s life. Had the abuse not been broadcast, Morrissey says, Portwood’s self-destruction would have likely continued unabated. “[I]f her behavior wasn’t captured by cameras, she very well could never receive help at all.”

I’ve watched enough hours of Teen Mom to qualify for a Ph.D. I agree with Morrissey in part: Teen Mom didn’t cause Portwood’s problems—it did not take a mentally healthy girl and turn her into a criminal. But being one of the most loathed people on reality TV likely exacerbated her problems. And it seems premature to say that her life has now been “saved.”

As Morrissey says, Portwood was troubled long before reality TV stardom became her day job. Her addiction reportedly began when she was just 13 years old. Even in her debut, the first season of 16 and Pregnant, she told her then-boyfriend during an argument that if he weren’t holding their baby, she would hit him.

Portwood probably wouldn’t have been arrested for assaulting her ex if it hadn’t been caught by the MTV cameras, true, but Teen Mom still may have shielded her from law enforcement’s reach. For a high-school dropout addict, she sure made a lot of money. (And it apparently didn’t go toward housing: In February, TMZ reported that she had been enrolled in a low-income housing program in her home state of Indiana, having claimed to earn just $10,000 yearly. In reality, says TMZ, her income was $280,000 a year. She was evicted.) Without her Teen Mom gig, Portman may have gone from prescription pills to an illegal street drug like heroin or methamphetamine. Whatever her poison, she may have had to turn to stealing, prostitution, or other means to pay for her habit, making it more likely that she would have been arrested earlier in her spiral. (Of course, I don’t know how she got her prescription pills—she may have had one or several enabling doctors, may have bought them on the street, or may have bought them online.)

Far from solving Portwood’s issues, Teen Mom likely reinforced them. Portwood has said that she faced considerable harassment on the streets of her home town. On the last season of Teen Mom, in one of the few times when the show alluded to the fact that its characters are famous, she complained that people were being so cruel that she was reluctant to leave her house. It may have just been an addict’s excuse to stay in and get high. But certainly few people could withstand the level of vitriol directed Portwood’s way. Scrolling through posts on any gossip blog, you’ll see incredibly cruel comments that go beyond criticizing her abuse of her boyfriend. Her weight, in particular, is a favorite topic of her critics. Between seasons 1 and 2 of Teen Mom, she shed a reported 65 pounds. “Krav maga,” she explained. But I think it’s safe to assume that drugs played some role in her weight loss, whether she turned to them as a coping mechanism to deal with the criticism or as a weight-loss aid.

Finally, isn’t it naive to think that she will recover just because of a jail sentence? Even if inmates don’t have access to drugs, many relapse upon release. You need only look at the stepfather of one of the other Teen Moms, Catelynn*, to see how an addict can bounce in and out of jail, in and out of sobriety.

Correction, June 7, 2012: This post originally misspelled the first name of Teen Mom star Catelynn Lowell.