Octomom, One Year Later
The news crews that arrived at Nadya Suleman’s parents’ house, where the young mother lived, in January 2009, thought they were reporting on a different kind of story than the one we now know they got. They were prepared to celebrate the minor miracle of only the second set of octuplets ever to have been born alive in the United States. A few days later, Nadya, a.k.a. Octomom, would become the most hated woman in America, largely through the media’s tender ministry. Today, one year later, she’s still in the tabloids and celebrity glossies, although, in the way of these things, Octomom now seems most famous for being in tabloids. By the time her new reality television specials begin airing in the US—filming began in fall 2009, with production managed by the makers of the weight-loss competition The Biggest Loser—she’ll be another celebrity floating free of her original context, like our defunct satellites orbiting Earth.
I think Octomom deserves better, in the midst of our compulsive forgetfulness, as perhaps the only major non–Bernard Madoff, ostensibly nonfinancial story to stir the boiling pitch of the nation’s passions in those historic months, September 2008 to March 2009, when American news outlets tried to cope with the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression, enacting their own greatest moral collapse since the 2003 Iraq War. In those months, not just the red-faced ranters of Fox or MSNBC, but even the purveyors of puffs and gossip at People and Us Weekly, had an obligation, before saying much else, to acknowledge the meltdown of American capitalism—if only because they were addressing audiences who were newly unemployed, foreclosed on, picked clean of retirement funds, and blamed for their poor judgment despite twenty years of sky’s-the-limit blandishments and structural mischief by finance architects. The octuplets were supposed to be a distraction: an oasis in the midst of the day’s gloomy news of AIG perfidy, mortgage defaults, bank closures, toxic assets, and spiking unemployment. Instead, the camera teams that camped on the lawn of the nice one-story house in Whittier, California, in the glitter of LA winter, got a living metaphor for the crisis.
On the 26th of January, the eight babies were born, by cesarean section, ranging in size from one pound, twelve ounces, to two pounds, nine ounces. Seven had been found on ultrasound. The eighth, emerging as a little hand clinging to a doctor’s latex glove, was a surprise.
Who was Nadya Suleman? Not so unreasonable a person: darkhaired, 33 years old, Caucasianesque, with that slightly ethnic, Coppertone cast that’s the norm for new celebs originating in Southern California; well-spoken enough, and not obviously unattractive—a figure, that is, that television could take seriously. She had a college degree, a former life as a medical technician, and credits from graduate work in counseling. She was churchgoing, shampooed—a slightly droopy flower raised in the warm air of Orange County, who had always known her “passion in life” was to be “a mom.”
Who was the dad? Here was trouble. A single mother nowadays is a media madonna: righteous in the face of the absentee father, and promised our support. She becomes a harpy if we learn she pushed the father away. It was tougher for the reporters to explain that in this case, as they quickly learned, there had never been a father, nor any thought of one. The babies had been created in vitro and implanted as embryos. The search turned quickly to a male donor. The sperm had originated somewhere. Perhaps the octuplets’ begetter could be found? (On cable news, odd debates took place on whether an unwitting donor could be made responsible for the children’s upkeep.) The Suleman family said the donor was “David Solomon,” nicely linking Nadya’s brood to a Charles Murray–ish Bell Curve fantasy of the intellectual superiority of Ashkenazi Jews (had she given life to a race of supergeniuses?), until everybody noticed that this patrimony was just a transformation of Nadya’s own last name. No such father could be located among all the David Solomons of Los Angeles. Instead of a father, the octuplets had a doctor, Michael Kamrava—a Beverly Hills fertility clinic director with a controversial IVF practice near Rodeo Drive. Thus the shadow of Hollywood vanity crept over Nadya Suleman’s story. At her request, she said, Dr. Kamrava had implanted six embryos in Suleman’s womb, a number wildly above all professional recommendations. Suleman claimed two had split, adding pairs of twins.
Then it emerged that the house Nadya lived in was being foreclosed on. This made it like everyone else’s house, it seemed, in certain towns, from Stockton to Bakersfield, all over California, where the state couldn’t fund its budget anymore, and would soon be issuing IOUs even to the people who filled its soda machines. Could Octomom also be a victim of the financial crisis? Well, she had no job to have lost. She hadn’t for a while. The Los Angeles Times reported $2,379 a month in federal public assistance and $490 in food stamps, information available in public records. Suleman played down the food stamps. As for the public assistance, it was for her disabled children, three of her first six—her children before the octuplets. It seemed that Dr. Kamrava had performed other multiple-implantation procedures for Nadya in recent years. That half her previous babies arrived with birth defects, physical or mental, was not an entirely unlikely outcome when more than one or two were gestated at a time. A womb provides only limited real estate for the development of bodies and brains. And Nadya, like the more celebrated Sarah Palin, was opposed on principle to “selective reduction,” that is, the abortion of some among multiple developing embryos or fetuses—even embryos or fetuses that are identified in utero as less likely to survive, and more likely to be underdeveloped or disabled at birth—even though to do so would give the others a better chance. This detail was passed over lightly in the press, in recognition of sensitivities about “the unborn.”
Few commentators, for that matter, explained why Nadya had undertaken the pregnancy leading to octuplets in the first place. This was an odd consequence of the conjunction of Suleman’s pro-life views and her doctor’s unusual implantation methods. Dr. Kamrava supposedly informed her that multiple extra embryos created for her earlier IVF treatments were going to be thawed and disposed of (again, not an uncommon situation). As Suleman explained: “Because they’re frozen, doesn’t mean they’re not alive. And they’re still—they are alive. They’re human lives!” Which meant she ought to help them to a better place. While the Catholic Church opposes IVF because it creates embryos outside of the mother’s womb, most Protestant anti-abortion groups don’t, and may even propose it as a resort for couples who want to attain the ultimate goods of Protestant anti-abortion ideology: babies, and the part Suleman skipped—traditional biparental family. Her church, she said, was the Evangelical megachurch at Calvary Chapel Golden Springs, average attendance 13,000, but no staff member would confirm her as a congregant—the pastors went so far as to deny her in multiple press releases—and she had apparently come away with her own syncretistic consumer theology.
The human uplift story unwound as rapidly as the markets had done six months earlier. Fury emerged even before journalists established that the seed capital for Suleman’s mother-career had come from more than $160,000 in disability payments. Which she had received for a back injury, it turned out, she had endured as a psychiatric medical technician, when a state hospital inmate overturned a wooden desk on Nadya in a riot. (Anyone could see she was now strong enough to carry a bellyful of kids, and swan around for Ann Curry on NBC.) The talk-show hosts went mental once “public assistance” was the red cape flourished before their horns. They might pay $700 billion for welfare to insurers and mismanaged banks, but they drew the line at supporting a houseful of kids. How on earth could an unemployed woman living with her parents pay for Hollywood IVF, with all those multiple trials and implantations? The talking heads, after all, knew what IVF cost, since some of the female anchors, and the male anchors’ wives, likely had used it, or their friends or producers had. Who was going to pay in the future for these fourteen diaper-soiling, unsupervised, potentially handicapped babies? This during the weeks when the famous octuplets still were not being released from care at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Bellflower, California, which was looking to Medi-Cal, the state’s version of Medicare, for more than $100,000 in reimbursement for the Suleman kids’ stay.
To summarize in the language we were all then coming to learn: Nadya had leveraged her disability payments into six babies, collateralized them (as a state liability likely to pay revenues for years to come), and then quite brilliantly leveraged those six babies into eight more. A handmaiden to modern medicine, she had taught herself to maneuver within its contemporary possibilities. For all we knew, she was paying additional costs for obstetrics and assisted reproductive technology (ART) using Visa cards with easy credit lines and usurious rates (but accumulating points toward Maclaren strollers).
When Wall Street had done this—tried to wring profit out of bad risk by climbing deeper into the hole—the taxpayer money doled out to rescue their misbegotten investments was called a much-needed bailout. On Fox News and MSNBC, Nadya Suleman was called assorted names. Judge Judy, not normally notable as an economics commentator, spoke on CNN: “She’s really no different from AIG—only in a little microcosm. Her actions were reckless, irresponsible, and she’s using taxpayer money.”
In these analogies, Nadya was equivalent to the risk engineers who had sapped the economic system and run away with outsize rewards. More often, she simply edged the financiers off the day’s coverage. In the scandal-driven and personality-filled news environment, it was much easier to tail a woman into her lousy subdivision than to try to get an interview with the nameless male executives, traders, and middle managers who had really devastated us—executives who lived in Wilton, Greenwich, Old Saybrook, or Stonington, Connecticut, where the news executives themselves lived—or to explain how intelligent and well-spoken people, behaving legally, could have failed in judgment in ways that immiserated so many strangers across their country.
“Octomom” was a tentacular comic book monster, slithering her baby-oiled limbs into the American moneypot. (Did the American racist imagination hear in her nickname an echo of “octoroon,” just one drop of falseness corrupting a pure bloodline?) Doughy as she was still from pregnancy, soft-spoken, rabbit-eyed, naively mendacious, she was so easy to hate. (Her “Suleman” origins now began to prickle the scalp. The New York Post reported her background as Palestinian. One story, which has made it to Wikipedia, had her father claiming to be an ex-officer in the Iraqi Army. He had returned to Iraq to make his fortune off American rebuilding funds—so that he, too, was somehow an enemy milking us from within.) Nadya, meanwhile, applied to trademark the moniker the tabloids had coined for her. She moved into a new house in La Habra, presumably with money obtained from “exclusives.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop giving interviews. It was as if, many thought, she had done it for the money.
The true lesson, as the official news sources made it out, was that here, before our eyes, in Nadya Suleman, we had the essence of the faceless ones who caused the crisis: the buyer of the 5,000-square-foot home his family couldn’t afford, the taker of the $500,000 mortgage on $50,000 salary with no down payment (and perhaps a variable rate), now gambling with human life. Here was the new expanding lower middle class that didn’t save, but felt “entitled”; who inflated the bubble economy; who had tempted and motivated the financiers who traded those mortgages bundled into CDOs and wrote insurance against their delinquency. It helped that she was a “she,” the evil female consumer. Octomom was the fat spider at the center of a hanging web. Squash her!
But there was still a residual issue, something more than a detail, to think about—the babies. Suleman’s feat pushed anchors and editorialists to mutter something (often without escaping the mazes of their thoughts) about unregulated IVF, or mothers who stock up on kids in their 30s, or excesses of choice—all supposedly evidence of how the most vulnerable citizens had caused America’s troubles, rather than the most privileged. Or as the natural consequence of what disaster ensues, whenever the prerogatives of elites are extended to the poor. And those mutterings pointed to something more extensive and troublesome: some current ambiguity about the creation of babies, when it’s for the rich as well as for the poor. For Octomom’s “crime” was but an aspect of the new biological liberalism: a doctrine combining the political liberalism of choice—in which one has a right to seek personal identity and self-determination through reproductive medicine, indeed any medicine—and the economic neoliberalism of all goods going to whoever can pay the most to buy them, plus the encouragement of a certain competitive ethos, and secrecy of means, in obtaining them. This has little to do with Democrats or Republicans. It is an ideology of progress rich families of all political persuasions have gotten used to, and it does indeed touch—not only as “infection” or illusion—all the classes below.
The great recession of 2008–09 had a dearth of nameable villains. Their absence seemed to reflect a fear of naming villains. Never in any catastrophe in my lifetime has the “public discourse” seemed more cowed, more unwilling to assign responsibility to individuals. Normally I would reject scapegoating. The mainstream press couldn’t even find a kid.
Thinking back, whom can you identify, by name, who fell within the sphere of responsibility at a single one of the blown-up investment banks, whose risky positions spurred the chain reaction, the credit coronary that shuttered businesses large and small and wiped out 401(k)s? Who, for that matter, headed the failed banks in the periods that made them fail? If you can’t answer, it’s not because you’ve just forgotten. Financiers were not held up to the mass public as news figures—with photographs and life histories, interviews with relatives and neighbors—whether as villains, or just as carriers of that dread disease, overconfidence (and its partner, ineptitude). Who was it, by name, whose overleveraging, and chopped-up risk, and faulty mortgage-backed securities, and credit default swaps, froze the credit markets? Who terrified the government with half-truths and threats—until the surviving banks and insurers drained the Treasury of billions, to keep those businesses going, while their executives bathed in the gold coins of their 2007 incomes? For faultily designing and building a skyscraper that collapses and crushes a block of houses below, the architects or builders will be identified in the news, perhaps decertified, perhaps charged—even if their motives were nobler, their intentions better, than the financiers’ motives ever were, and even if they made no additional fortune off the collapse and wreck (as many of the financiers did). It’s a case of personal responsibility. In a financial meltdown, we’ve now learned, no responsibility is personal, even for those who planned and took the destructive actions. Blame is environmental, systemic, determined by the milieu.
If you remember Edward Liddy—the closest we ever came to seeing a visible individual in a position of responsibility on TV for more than one night’s broadcast—testifying to Congress as head of AIG in March 2009, you’ll remember that it was compulsory for the press to identify him as not the chief of the company in its bad old days. He was someone who must not be blamed, even as he argued for the $173 billion in tax revenues sucked out of government to prop up his new employer. The press didn’t follow up this sentence with the logical next one, naming the chief of AIG in the period for which someone should be blamed. Who was the old chief?1 Even in print, the natural next line, “That executive was—,” just went missing; instead, authors adverted to some general principle, or moralizing ambiguity. On TV perhaps it was assumed people could look this information up on the internet.
Is it in very bad taste to point out that the two villains we gained by name in the months of deepening recession, in early 2009, were a woman and a Jew? Suleman and Madoff. That is to say, at the moment when American capitalism tottered under the mistakes, bad bets, lies, overconfidence, cupidity, and evil of its financial firms, the press groped at traditional scapegoats—and it left one blinking, dumbfounded. In the past, when people told me scapegoating works in these vulgar ways, I didn’t believe them. Admittedly the anchors and editors had first stumbled around in a mode of semi-investigation for some months, September to December, seemingly unsure of whom to feature on the broadcasts, whom to wait for outside Wall Street offices (if anyone—I don’t remember this happening much), which bankers to sic investigative teams on (not many, as I recall); then they followed the lineups of congressional hearings from Barney Frank’s Banking and Finance Committee, relying on the same C-Span moments the rest of us were watching, but without the level of analysis mustered in any installment of Monday Night Football—increasingly uncomfortable, it seemed, with anything that might be fomenting “class war.” Luckily Bernard Madoff took over the headlines in December 2008, and this fixation on one Jewish banker could not be anti-Semitism, because his prominent Jewish victims also wanted his head. Indeed, we had the sorry spectacle of Elie Wiesel, conscience of humanity, investor with Madoff, becoming the spokesman for vengefulness. “I would like him to be in a solitary cell,” Wiesel said, “with only a screen, and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, ‘Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,’ nothing else.”
Madoff had run a Ponzi scheme, which was at least easy to explain: a little money from later investors is paid to early investors to mimic great returns, the rest goes to the swindler himself, and nothing need really be “invested.” This felt as if it helped make sense of the meltdown. The problem was that it had nothing to do with the meltdown. Neither metaphorically nor literally, unless you consider out-and-out fraud a useful metaphor for legal forms of self-interested recklessness. Bernard Madoff couldn’t affect the market because he wasn’t really investing to make his returns. The portfolio was fictitious. The downturn led to Madoff’s exposure as a curious side effect; as the real loss of value for investors elsewhere led them to try to withdraw cash from the fake fund, they found out their money wasn’t there anymore. Yet Madoff was on my front page every day and my news broadcast at night.
Then, following Madoff, we had Octomom.
The benefits to be had from a national media that would report financial news with names and interviews, regardless of the privacy of power, would be great. We could ask why the people who sacrificed the financial system should ever be allowed to work in finance again; why the state has no stake in qualifying and disqualifying them, as it does lawyers and doctors. We could ask those who remain at companies now backstopped by the federal government why they needn’t share the simple fate of their fellow Americans who have lost their jobs—when those unemployed Americans didn’t even work for companies that screwed up on this grand scale, nor did they have the same colossal safety net of previous years of over-earnings. But it’s also simply important to ask, with the media we do have, why those responsible couldn’t be named; why they were accorded a protective treatment usually given to rape victims.
It was not hard to figure out who in America you could actually name, and even complain to. It sure wasn’t bankers. Nadya’s volunteer PR person, Joann Killeen, claimed to have recorded 88,000 emails, including some death threats.
Emails and voicemail messages. People would call our office and just scream profanities into the phone. “F-you! F-you!” Or they would just say, “I’ll get on a plane and come to California and I hope you die!” . . .
Generally, [the emails] say the same thing. People are really angry. They are mad about the economy. They are mad their homes aren’t worth what their mortgages are. They’re mad they lost their 401(k).
They’re really disappointed in government because they pay their taxes and they’ve been a good citizen.
They’ve controlled the number of children they can afford to have and they feel that, based on their perceptions of reading everything, they’ve jumped to shame and blame and judgment kind of comments about Nadya and that she has, according to them, milked the system—figured out a way to leverage the system so she can stay home and overpopulate the world.
AIG financiers in Connecticut hired private security forces and warned of danger to their families because of “populist rage” supposedly stoked by the press. But when the New York Times called the police departments of the towns where the anonymous financiers lived, spokespersons reported no knowledge of any threats. “We haven’t heard of it,” Sergeant Carol Ogrinc of the New Canaan police told the Times. “There have been no complaints made to our department.”2
On April Fools’ Day, a group of people snatched a child seat from Nadya Suleman’s porch and smashed it through the back window of her Toyota minivan. “Obviously, this is quite a unique situation,” said Lieutenant Fred Wiste of the La Habra police. “As a matter of course we have increased patrol checks around her home.”
I don’t mean to suggest that Nadya Suleman isn’t a loon, or a wrongdoer. She clearly belongs to the tradition of the great American wrecks. Sweet, self-serving, at once devious and oblivious, she seems an inheritor of Joan Didion’s California “dreamers of the golden dream,” who can remake reality by sheer force of their denial of contradictions, practicalities, and other people’s eventual suffering. But the press followed sun-kissed Nadya into its own inner California—a land of editorials that write themselves and immoral behavior everyone can hate—without squinting to see what lay beyond. What was opened, thanks to Nadya, was a doorway to one corridor of American thought whose threshold the press didn’t know how to cross—where the money economy meets a class-stratified baby economy, and painful biological and sociological facts can be contemplated through the wanderings of celebrity gossip.
The pornographers were more ready. Of course, porn producers stand alert any time a woman rockets into public prominence today. Vivid Entertainment, known for its swift-footedness in releasing celebrity sex tapes (Kim Kardashian, Pamela Anderson), offered $1 million to Octomom to star in a new production. Sarah Palin had received similar treatment from Larry Flynt, without offers of remuneration, when he cast impersonators in the election-time release Who’s Nailin’ Paylin [sic]. (Straight sexism: I know of no W.’s Wang or Ballin’ Bush in which W. got drilled for oil.) But one felt Flynt and Hustler Inc. put money into a hardcore film representing Palin because they correctly sensed the American male—red and blue—not only wanted to tear the woman down, but wanted to guess what she’d be like in bed. It mixed hate with, say, erotic curiosity.
Vivid’s Octomom offer reflected not erotic, but biological curiosity. Or anatomical—as in a frog dissection. One could only imagine Nadya supine, pullulating. Perhaps America wanted to look into that womb that had housed so many, in search of a visual confirmation of the prime mover. Yet if we’d looked in, we would have seen only another of those clichés in detective shows (“Taggart, look at this!”) where the two cops enter the suspect’s lair and, on one crazy-quilt wall, find clipped photographs from tabloids and magazines depicting the twisted ideal the madwoman has all along been stalking. In this instance, Angelina Jolie.
For who was Nadya, progenitor of so many multiples, herself trying to mimic and double? It wasn’t a resemblance we were all looking at, when—I remember it as just about a week into the debacle—side-by-side photos ran on the cover of Life and Style, with a questioning headline, and Nadya was asked about it on Dateline NBC. It was more like a physical impersonation: eyes shaped this way, nose turned that way, lips surgically swollen and wide. She was plainly Angelina, stretched and inflated.
And who is Angelina Jolie? Angelina, age 34, actress, celebrity, humanitarian, fills many roles, but chief among them is that of America’s most famous baby-getter.
She hasn’t turned in a notable film performance since Girl, Interrupted at 24. Yet Jolie now stands atop the celebrity journalism pyramid. She is an unusual covergirl, twice over. First, the culture doesn’t seem to like her. Second, while the press calmly awaits her downfall, Angelina, like one of the ancient gods, is able to violate all laws, then fascinate us with her selective reintroduction of them. She takes what she wants. She is the virago who acquired Brad Pitt, sexiest and emptiest of male stars, and filled his blond vacancy with her life force, stealing him away from simpering Jennifer Aniston. Her swollen lips are not so much physically engorged with blood as metaphorically covered in it. But she does love children.
After filming Tomb Raider on location in Cambodia (where it seems her performance as a stony-faced video game character didn’t engross her whole attention), she became interested in humanitarian crises. Contacting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she took on the role of UN Goodwill Ambassador. Deciding one day that she wanted a child refugee of her own, she acquired “Maddox,” replacing his Cambodian name, Rath Vibol. She decreed for him the considerable fortune of an actress’s legally adopted child, planted him on her hip, and, once his silky infant hair was long enough to style, gave him a Mohawk like a London conceptual artist’s.
Three years later she took home a baby from Ethiopia, the daughter of a young woman who had been raped and become pregnant, then had been shamed and assaulted by her community. “I think [she] is a very fortunate human being to be adopted by a world-famous lady,” said the birth mother, reportedly, of her rescued offspring. Subsequently, Jolie had three biological children with Pitt. She then adopted a boy from Vietnam.
Here is a woman who will do what we Americans won’t: redistribute wealth to the poor, as directly as one can, by adopting them and making them her heirs, ending their poverty forever. She takes responsibility. It’s as if she added babies from her own womb just to show that she isn’t taking babies because she can’t make them; she can. Nor does she specialize in some one ethnicity that her adoptions will repurify; she picks up the kids when the spirit moves her.
Of course, there’s one thing odd about this. She’s also, in her way, buying the kids. An alternative might have been to help the Ethiopian Muslim woman who was raped. If Jolie is America’s conscience, she is also a bearer of one of our less beautiful traits: the will to buy whatever we want.
A news report said someone had tracked down Angelina and asked her about news of Octomom’s feat and the uncanny resemblance between the two of them. Jolie was said to be “totally creeped out.”
About the comparative strength of “trends” in mass media, one should always be circumspect. Baby-interest, however, seems to have accelerated lately. Some celebrity babies fascinate because they represent the recombination of pairs of beautiful people (Brangelina’s, or TomKat’s). Some because they seem so suspicious (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s again, what with the undying rumors of his homosexuality, their Scientology, and her look of a kidnap victim). Some because people “too young” choose to keep them, with tabloids following as they do (Jamie Lynn Spears, Bristol Palin). Some because their philanthropic celebrity adoptions seem so frivolous (Madonna’s adoption of a Malawian infant in violation of Malawi law; when she finally had him brought over to the UK on British Airways, failing to go to Malawi herself to pick him up, she was accused of visiting with the new baby for only three hours before departing for Pilates class). Some because of the mystery of fertility treatment (Jon & Kate Plus 8’s sextuplets and twins; Octomom’s octuplets).
Americans have many reasons these days to develop renewed trouble with the old question, Where do babies come from? This is what spills onto the magazine covers. But there are two central factors that touch a number of these celebrity births, and reach beyond them—two supercauses of interest, I’d say. On the one hand, babies have become an ever more valuable commodity as couples suffer more trouble in producing them. Under conditions of sex equality, the upper and middle classes procreate later, whenever women are led by education and careers to delay childbearing—to the age of 34, or 36, or 40.
On the other hand, babies’ classic status as liabilities for the poor, in the eyes of many of the rich, has been complicated recently by the increasingly radicalized politics of abortion. Babies have long stood as the prime resource-devouring symbol of the ill-controlled profligacy of the irresponsible lower classes. (Remember the song they sing at the party in The Great Gatsby, with its rewritten verse from “Ain’t We Got Fun”: “One thing’s sure nothing’s surer / The rich get richer and the poor get—children.”) Nowadays, children are even a liability for the middle classes, because, had too early, they keep you from your now necessary bachelor’s degree and, in an “information economy,” stunt your income growth.
Yet to choose to have a baby rather than abort is suddenly to be a certain kind of moral hero, at least for anti-abortionists and the increasingly wide swath of popular media they pull in their train. The old Malthusian politics of elites (like that of George H. W. Bush, once a staunch advocate of international family planning) has been born again (like his son, W.) in a politics of conservative Christian fecundity. The endless focus on the holy fetus itself, the saved (and salvational) baby who can be rescued from nonexistence—wholly unmindful of its parents’ resources, the family into which it will be born, and its own likely life—has made babies qua babies additionally valuable and interesting, even when born to teenagers and the poor.
Despite extensive neoliberal deregulation of other markets since 1980, under US law you are still not allowed to sell spare babies. And domestic Caucasian babies remain a scarce and valuable commodity for people of any political persuasion who are infertile, gay, or simply having trouble because of delayed efforts at childbearing, following education and a career. The major options for those with the money to spend involve finding legal ways to adopt a child from a poorer country, getting lucky or getting ahead in a local adoption queue, paying a surrogate to gestate an embryo (your own gametes, or those purchased half or in toto), or pursuing IVF or intrauterine insemination (IUI) with your own carefully monitored womb. Most of these endeavors cost quite a bit. Getting a baby of your own through IVF can cost a ton, even if you’re using your own eggs, sperm, and womb. Though competitively advertised at $10,000 to $15,000 per trial, four trials before success is considered normal; any particular case may require more.
The contemporary economy of babies derives first from women’s liberation a generation ago. Straightforward capitalist labor pressure on both sexes is also involved. College, prerequisite to the white-collar job, pushes childbearing back past age 22 at a minimum. The postgraduate education now necessary for a range of women’s careers (as doctors, lawyers, managers, but also for the traditionally feminized vocations of nurses, librarians, teachers) pushes motherhood into the mid-20s at least. And the educational investment required for professions, not to mention the satisfaction and useful income of careers, make it more likely that women will then actually practice the jobs they’ve trained for for some period of time, before they take on the extra responsibility of kids.
In the affluent West today, babies are cheap when you don’t want them, expensive when you do. This is a paradox of timing. The present timing paradox differs importantly from the biological clock. The “biological clock” of the 1980s and 1990s clamped down on the vilified “women who want it all.” The notion was inextricable from a certain antifeminist vengefulness and glee, though many liberated and professional women had to adopt it as a way of thinking through the biological limits to fertility. Those limits are no longer so strict, thanks to advances in ART. The timing paradox, then, unnamed, has seemed to become an element indigenous to the thinking of the educated professional classes. Baby-having has been transformed by medicine and the recent upward redistribution of America’s wealth from something biologically prohibited, after a certain age, to something economized. I don’t mean simply that one has to scrimp on babies, not having too many. Rather, Americans have been brought into a system in which they make trade-offs among earning power, individual life-chances, present fertility, biomedicine, and cash, in a way that mirrors “investment” thinking, whether they are rich or poor.
A generation of “postfeminists” is unthinkable without IVF. Earlier generations of feminist women often had to choose deliberately between children and the struggle for political recognition and achievement in careers dominated by non-child-rearing men. IVF allows you to accept the long apprenticeship for career success, without pathos—a huge gain. It brings childlessness into the world of medically fixable conditions. It also expands the reach of what the successful person “must have,” however, until baby-having has come to seem a human right, too—to be demanded by this generation, my own, as previously sexual expression was. And it adds a capital-intensiveness to baby-having, too, which was always, formerly, free. (Even if childrearing, which is more of an installment-plan process, has always been pricey over the long term.)
The relative triumph of IVF, surrogacy, and adoption from overseas countries with poorer populations, providing children to affluent straight and gay couples, has now woven some consumer reassurance into the old scary narrative—but also a kind of lottery mentality. You might still get everything you want. Your chances improve, though, the more tickets you can afford to buy, and there is no coherent feminist or social-minded vision here of what you should want—or why you deserve to get it—to backstop the somewhat guilty scramble to become a parent. Even the Sex and the City vision of the omnipossibility of consumer choice is still anxious about children, and I think subtly haunted by a problem of what’s fair and unfair in distribution. Is Carrie going to manage to have a kid with Big in Sex and the City 2, in theaters this summer? Doesn’t she deserve one, from her perspective? Does she “deserve” one, from ours?
Between demographic change of age at child-bearing, private unregulated IVF, public social security, and the vexing politics of abortion, you get some weird paradoxical effects. The animus of the anti-abortion conservative right sometimes seems, subtextually, in part a revenge on “new class” elites who are too well contracepted and too well planned and self-controlled to regularly need abortions themselves—even as the anti-abortion campaigns are funded and publicized by comparable political and economic elites on the right. This contributes the stage-managed quality of such populism, using poorer pregnant women as subjects of a proxy war (strategized largely, of course, by men). The right-wing revenge still has to consist, though, in inducing the young and poor, whenever possible, to bring to term babies who may require state aid to eat and be housed—services which in its other efforts the right makes haste to cut. By promoting the fertility of the poor, the right suggests that it, and not the pro-abortion left, is the true ally of the poor. Just don’t expect a free lunch, kiddo, once you’re here.
The confidence of the liberal defense of abortion, meanwhile, a defense that is admirable and necessary, has sometimes seemed, of late, to be softened by the rhetoric of late babies—of “our” collective entitlement to, and difficulty in having, babies. I don’t know how to confirm or disconfirm this, and I’m hesitant to suggest it; so call it a personal fear, or feeling, about a discourse in which I, in my mid-30s, am increasingly a participant, with biomedical hopes on which I will likely rely as I age. If you’re a “successful” woman or man who needed but didn’t necessarily even use abortion rights in your early 20s, can you muster the same passion for their defense when you’re desperately trying to conceive at 40? The battleground now ought to be that of funding abortion through the proposed national health care program, a fight on which Democrats have mostly caved (while their health care plans are being sapped anyway by the centrists they placate).3 But eventual battlegrounds will also be insurance reimbursement for IVF benefits, or interventions of corrective medicine for “infertility,” which are not currently covered in most states; a different ethos, and a contrary though not unreasonable topic for NOW.
What I see in pop culture, including material for younger audiences, is further paradox. Beginning in 2005, the MTV documentary division scored a hit with a reality series called My Super Sweet 16. An ultrarich teen plans a lavish party for her 16th birthday at which, usually, someone will cry because Daddy has paid for the totally wrong star entertainer (Usher rather than Ludacris, or vice versa) or has dressed up in a humiliating outfit or scheduled the limousine too late. All is forgiven with the presentation of a Mercedes, which the 16-year-old is as yet too young to drive alone, being still on a learner’s permit. In the curious way of MTV docs, the producers play this straight. You don’t know whether to envy or revile the protagonists. It is another ambiguous artifact of the 21st-century culture of excess. Then, just last year, MTV added a series called 16 and Pregnant. What was not clear until you had watched a few episodes was that this was an exact counterpart to their show about the rich. The girls were in much different circumstances, to be sure, who had chosen to carry their accidental pregnancies to term, and they were filmed in other parts of the country than the coasts. The congruence was that the baby seemed, in its way, as much a luxury at the start of each episode as had the incredibly expensive fête and German-engineered automobile for the other 16-year-olds. This is what these girls in Iowa, Michigan, and Tennessee were able to have, despite their parents’ pleas that they think again. Telling the kids at school matched the invitation-giving; visits with obstetricians and party planners were the same; then came “the big day.” The two shows’ structure was the same. At 16, pregnancy entailed a special power, and glamour, and if one had courage and low expectations enough to persist in it, it was great fun to go shopping for baby clothes. It justified being followed by an MTV crew. It was what other people couldn’t have. It was an odd reward for not being rich and upwardly mobile—an alternative, new source of media fascination. Of course, teen pregnancy didn’t lead to car keys; quite the opposite, as when we saw new mother Farrah unable to get her mom to help her lease a Ford Focus so she could get out of the house sometimes on her own. Early pregnancy was declassing: even this unusually wealthy-ish cheerleader had to surrender plans for college, eliminate her social life, and spend her time caring for the kid. Her telemarketing after-school job, shown in the first minutes of the program, at the end seemed like a lifetime fate.
Or, the teen could hand the baby over to a nice wealthy couple in their mid- to late 30s, as Catelynn did on the season finale. I don’t know if either tale was cautionary. It all seems grim; yet the pregnancy series, as much as the party series, is unavoidably, unbelievably watchable, not in the manner of PBS-style vitamin-rich sociological documentary, but Technicolored with cartoon intertitles and fluffy first-person narration as a realization of a different kind of social fantasy.
The adult bourgeois version of this fantasy, one that unites the class extremes, was the overdiscussed Juno (2007). That movie briefly generated an opinion-page debate: some thought it was anti-abortion (because its teen protagonist decided to carry her pregnancy to term). Some thought it encouraged teenage pregnancy. The real upshot of the plot seemed to be the natural solidarity between still poorish, too young girls, who are superfecund, and richish too old professional women, who can no longer easily conceive. Juno finally hands off her baby to the wife in the rich 30- or 40-something couple that pleaded to adopt her child. The husband, played by Jason Bateman, turns out to be a jerk, unready for fatherhood—illustration of the eternal juvenility of wealthy men, since they can conceive with younger paramours until they die (of a Viagra overdose). If the American Dream of mobility succeeds, the poor young girl will eventually turn into the rich middle-aged professional. Cosmic justice would then require some new teen, as yet unknown, to hand Juno a new accidental baby, once Juno has finished law school and completed her climb to the top.
Nadya Suleman infuriated everyone because she attained the egocentric maximum at each pole. She did not mediate. She did not solve. Blithe as a 16-year-old, living (literally) with her beleaguered parents, battling before the cameras with her mom, Angela, who counseled restraint (“I was really upset at the doctor. He promised not to do this again”), while Nadya made gag-me-with-a-spoon faces of adolescent disdain, she was TV’s most ne’er-do-well underage mom. Yet she was as devoted to her children as any mature mother. No one ever doubted she was genuinely loving, gentle, and good with the kids; you could tell as much just from short bits of footage. Most important, she had all the gravity and purpose—and legal and professional capital—of a 33-year-old from a rising middle class, calm and comfortable in the presence of authority (whether paparazzi or Child Protective Services), unintimidated by police (they exist to protect her from criminals), knowing how, very politely, to stand on her rights. Like the rest of us.
Octomom just timed it badly. She raised fears that babies have become a rare commodity, a status item, property. At a moment when property itself was being allocated to the wrong people. There was, indeed, something unsavory but not unfamiliar in Nadya’s defensiveness whenever she thought (often incorrectly) that someone was implying others should adopt from her fourteen. This in addition to the hysteria and 911 calls when, as will happen with fourteen kids, she misplaced one.
Rights in advanced societies have a tendency to turn into rights-to-biology once both democracy and the minimum necessities of life have been assured. The matters on our rights agenda in 2010 are not freedom of speech at all (what would you like to say, citizen, that you can’t already legally say?), but rights to the use of your body, rights to babies, rights to sex, rights to health; or battles over the correct boundaries of these things, as in the right to life, the status of fetuses, the line where therapy becomes enhancement. The space of the womb—location of “reproductive privacy,” against the intrusions of the state—becomes precisely the space into which one invites medical interventions: abortions if preserving the right to choose, implantations if improving fertility. Health does not mean being left alone. It means having health produced for us, by prevention and treatment. The things we want to take inside us are gathered outside: liquefied and spreading over wide sweeps of life (as labor and care), or concretized in harvested organs, fertilized embryos, cultured cell lines, and—now nearly lifelong and universally—“maintenance” pharmaceuticals. These have to be paid for.
The more expansive our biological needs become, the more they enter neoliberal economy. We scramble for access to the treatments that we do not believe any collective state or social body will assure us. And even as that scramble comes to occupy the center of our consciousness, the most abstract reaches of financial economy come to overlap with another area of biological need. In people’s howls of pain in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, one could hear that capital, in the hands of financiers, had also become a repository of future life. Finance capital in the advanced countries is gradually biologized for a very simple reason: jobholding citizens can’t stay separate from the sorts of markets that were devastated by the recent crisis, because citizens now simply live too long. You can’t divert a portion of your income for retirement to a savings bank, where it will erode against the rising cost of living, incapable of earning enough interest on principal to fund twenty or thirty years of post-jobholding life. Rather, your pension, your 401(k), or your piggybank must be “invested.” To have enough money to eat in your retirement—its own new category of life from the 20th century—and have shelter, and get medical care through your unprecedentedly long 21st-century dying, you will be committed, by the way people fund retirement, to financial economy.
And so even though the huge meltdown of value at the start of the Great Recession was one of our periodic financial shocks, it felt somewhat more like a life crisis. Even if Nadya Suleman was a scapegoat for those who had truly done us harm, she and the financiers were also different maximizations of a complex whose separate parts are growing together. The popular print and broadcast press chose which one, of two parts, we would have steady access to and ready judgments of: the easy one, the feminine, the lower-middle-class, the thoughtless. Not the male, the upper-class, and (as the financial instruments were routinely described) the “sophisticated” and “innovative.” That choice was a moral failure and an act of cowardice. Yet the hatred and the rage that followed—the commentators’ rage, the popular rage—was not entirely untrue or unrevealing. Nadya Suleman had multiplied as if by magic a class of biological assets other people had to work for, compete for. She played a version of the drama of our time in the marionette theater of her womb. The financiers multiplied treasures, the means of life, too. But we were hostage then to the financiers. We still are.
He was Martin J. Sullivan. He led AIG for three fatal years, 2005 to 2008, after the company’s notorious previous chief, Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg, left under a cloud of accusations of misstatement of earnings. Martin J. Sullivan was last known to live in Chappaqua, New York, in Westchester, if any news organizations cared to sit on his lawn. Greenberg, now CEO of the AIG-linked insurer C. V. Starr & Co. (Starr founded AIG), and currently very active in lobbying Congress to adopt more favorable policies toward AIG (in which his firm still has a large financial stake), lives near Central Park. ↩
This was during the period when AIG was under fire for $168 million in “retention bonuses,” paid by the newly bailed-out company, to executives of its Financial Products division, the division that caused the disaster. The press broke the story of this use of taxpayer funds in March 2009, without identification of names, leading to congressional interest and an unusually high level of public complaint against the financiers. New York State attorney general Andrew Cuomo subpoenaed lists of the bonus recipients and threatened to make their names public. AIG top executives Edward Liddy (since retired) and Gerry Pasciucco announced that naming names would endanger the executives’ families (hence the show of bodyguards) and, anyway, the recipients promised voluntarily to give the bonuses back; thus AIG didn’t need legal intervention into its salary contracts, nor the replacement of the employees in question. Cuomo held back the names, and the main print and broadcast outlets stopped following the story. Nine months later, in January 2010, almost in passing, an outside contributor to the New York Times—Steven Brill, in a Sunday magazine profile of the government pay czar Kenneth Feinberg—noted that he’d learned during his research on Feinberg that the AIG executives who promised to return the bonuses had lied. “All but two have since reneged,” Brill reported. ↩
In truth, the most urgent thing to fund at this moment is probably the improvement of so-called “medical” abortion—affordable medicines (like RU-486) women can take themselves to end a pregnancy, in a clinic or at home, without expert help from an abortion doctor, of which there are too few nationwide. The race to improve these medicines proceeds alongside the steady improvement of intensive care standards which, originally developed to aid the survival of fully developed, premature babies, will increasingly be capable of providing life support to drastically premature, undeveloped fetuses, thus allowing anti-abortionists to claim earlier and earlier stages of development as viable life, removed from the control of the mother. ↩