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.”