"Like Something From A Greek Tragedy": Nadya Suleman At HomeS

We want certain things from an Octomom story: chaos, madness, the squirm of discomfort, and plenty of cute kids. A New York Times Magazine profile brings us all this, and more:

The piece is about, not just "the Octomom" but about The Octomom Interacting with the Media - which is sort of meta, but given that Suleman is currently being filmed for a British documentary, and presumably is usually involved in some such enterprise, maybe inevitable. And the piece involves a lot of chaos, and a lot of confusion, because, after all, that's what the Octomom is all about, isn't it? Schadenfreude. We like to gawk at the Duggars and stare in wonder at their preternatural organization. And we want to marvel at the Octomom's squalor. No one wants her kids to suffer, but in some way, the coverage always somehow suggests, her reckless choices must be punished. Such unusual conduct must be borne out by external proof of madness, surely. Indeed, while the profile's carefully impartial, we get the squalor and the hint of the mercenary one expects from any Octomom coverage.

Given the toys, the staff, the overwhelming kidcentricness of it all, the home feels less like a home and more like an event, a day-care center, a film set. And that's exactly what it is much of the time.

And later, describing an attempt at a posed group photo:

By the time Suleman was lying on the ground with her babies, first three and then all eight octuplets were bawling at full tilt. They began to writhe around, clutching the air in their hands, eventually finding their mother's incredibly thick hair and getting stuck there. Suleman tried more than gamely to remain calm and to keep her photo face together, but she began to panic when she realized she couldn't even rise to her feet for fear of dragging her children into the air. She half-rose to look at her disheveled self. "Did my boobs fall out again?" She took a deep breath....The nannies were looking around and sort of shaking their heads. Aidan, the autistic child, came along and pulled his mother's hair. She shouted, "This is ridiculous!" ...It was like something from a Greek tragedy, or at least something horrible, traumatic and if not antiwoman then campily celebratory of femininity gone awry, along the lines of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" or perhaps more aptly, "Aliens."

The piece reinforces this idea of Suleman as tragically deluded heroine by presenting a series of oddly self-justifying sound-bytes.

On allegedly exploiting her kids: "It's a Catch-22...I'm damned if I do what I need to do with the media to support my kids, and I'm damned if I don't. If I don't, I can't take care of them."

On working:

"People are like, ‘Oh, why don't you go to work?'...O.K., think about the reality of that situation: I leave, I go to work, I'm away from them all day, I make - how much? $15,000 a year? O.K., I need that at least every two months. So, how on earth is that going to work? That's absurd. You live in my life one day and you'll see, you'll realize: it's ludicrous."

On why she had all these kids:

"You don't understand...If you have these frozen embryos that are there, and they were writing you letters saying, We are charging you this much, and it's going up and up and up every month that they are stored - you can either use them or destroy them. You're like, O.K., I have six already. What's another? And maybe it won't even work. So, I just decided to take the chance because I didn't want to destroy the embryos. That was the main focus - not like: ‘Oh, gosh! I really want eight!' People were thinking, ‘Oh, she wanted so, so many.' No!"

This - along with her assertion that she hasn't had plastic surgery - is uncomfortable. People's reactions to Suleman have always been either pity or anger or chagrin (or, in Paris Hilton's case, the sublimely simple "she has too many kids") and this piece doesn't challenge that; it's still voyeuristic, and we're all complicit. We can dress it up in terms of Social Allegory and Larger Meaning, but it doesn't mean we're not gawking. Later, we see Suleiman telling her daughters a version of "Cinderella" in which, at the end

"Then they lived together for five years, they went to college together, and then they went to medical school...They learned about each other, they grew together, they fell in love instead of living happily ever after. They decided to get married and continued growing together as an obstetrician and a gynecologist. Nobody lives happily ever after, because that is extremely unrealistic.

It's hard to know if the scene's typical or for the benefit of the cameras and reporters - it does seem funny that the children notice the variations, and object to it (as kids will to any change in routine), which suggests this isn't the standard version - but the impression one gets is that it's an odd time to start being pragmatic. Or maybe, having cast her as a doomed figure, the writer needs to square the circle, let us know that, in the tradition of others who've reached too high, she's not going to have it easy.

Octomom In Production [NY Times Magazine]