It seems so long ago now, but for just a day or two last month Nadya Suleman was known as Miracle Mom, the amazing woman who did what had never been done before: gave birth to the longest-surviving set of octuplets.
But in short order the public learned that Miracle Mom was also Single Mom, Unemployed Mom and Welfare Mom. And as fast as you could Twitter "I hate Nadya Suleman," scores of websites were dedicated to denouncing the so-called Octomom, others to making fun of her, a rap music video lampooned her ("pops 'em out like a toaster/needs a pacifier holster") and angry citizens threatened to kill her publicists.
Quit after death threats
"In terms of reaction to her, I would say not in my experience have I ever seen anything like it. And I would add that I was involved in public relations for Three Mile Island after the accident," said publicist Mike Furtney, who quit representing Suleman after receiving death threats. (Lest anyone forget, the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 involved the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor that for a time threatened to prompt the evacuation of a wide swath of Pennsylvania.)
Not that Suleman is the first person to go radioactive overnight. Don't forget OJ Simpson.
But as pop culture historian Leo Braudy points out, Suleman has never been accused of killing anybody. "This is not something that is usually considered a crime," Braudy, who teaches at University of Southern California, said of giving birth to children. "It's something that in the past was celebrated. People would say congratulations."
"Suleman Should be Sterilised"
Of the nearly 50 Suleman discussion groups found on Facebook.com this week, however, not one was headlined "Congratulations, Nadya!" Instead there were titles like, "Nadya Suleman Should Be Sterilised," "Nadya Suleman Disgusts Me," and "Stop Idiot Moms Like Nadya Suleman." (And those were the printable ones.)
To be fair, there were also a handful of pro-Suleman groups, although the "Leave Nadya Suleman Alone" one had only 61 members on Monday compared with the 3 478 people who had joined the "What Nadya Suleman Did Was Totally Wrong" group.
Parents criticise decision
Although never venerated as a candidate for mother of the year, Suleman was, for about two days after the January 26 birth of her octuplets, more the subject of curiosity than of ridicule and scorn. That began to change as it became known she was a single mother with 14 children who was living on a combination of government food aid, student loans and disability claims while her elderly mother, who was caring for Suleman's six older children, couldn't make her mortgage payments.
It didn't help, either, that Suleman's own parents have publicly criticised her decision to have so many kids, or that Suleman bears a striking resemblance (some speculate a plastic-surgery-enhanced one) to that other famous mother, Angelina Jolie, and that she's been said to be looking for book, TV and movie deals.
That prompted Los Angeles Times blogger Elizabeth Snead to joke that Suleman, like Jolie, might someday become a UN goodwill ambassador. "Probably not," Snead quickly concluded. "I don't think there's a paycheque involved."
"Fear Factor: Octuplets Edition"
Elsewhere on the Web, Jodie Rivera, a popular YouTube parody singer known as VenetianPrincess, put up a video of herself looking eerily like Suleman. As she sang, a doctor in scrubs (also Rivera) used a baseball glove to catch flying newborns. "It was all in good fun, to bring a laugh to a situation people are taking very seriously," said Rivera who herself acknowledges she doubts Suleman is capable of caring for 14 children and perhaps should give some up for adoption.
The site momlogic.com, which provides both light-hearted and serious reports on motherhood, also got into the act, offering eight suggestions for reality shows Suleman might do. One example: "Fear Factor: Octuplets Edition," in which contestants are lowered by harness into the Suleman home. "Whoever can demonstrate the guts and determination to endure one round of octuplet diaper changes wins the grand prize - a lifetime supply of birth control."
Negative public opinion
Some people have offered to help Suleman, including a church pastor, a non-profit organisation and even the man who says he was a sperm donor for her when they were dating in the 1990s. Although Suleman has denied that Denis Beaudoin is the sperm donor who fathered her children, he told ABC he still stands ready to help.
The majority of reactions have been less than charitable, however. A USA Today-Gallup poll last week found that 70% of those surveyed weren't sympathetic. USC sociologist Julie Albright says Suleman was caught in a perfect storm of events guaranteed to outrage the public, some of her own making, some not. "First, we're in particularly sensitive economic times, people are losing their jobs," Albright said. "Second is that physical resemblance to Angelina Jolie."
Whether it's coincidental or not, Albright said, the resemblance has led many to think Suleman is a "copycat" trying to elicit the goodwill much of the public feels for actress Jolie, who with partner Brad Pitt has adopted three of their six children from other nations.
People might normally overlook that as just silly if they weren't already worried about losing their jobs and their homes and if California wasn't broke and facing the prospect of paying more than $1 million in medical bills for Suleman's babies while the state issues IOUs instead of tax refunds.
"If someone isn't stressed and something happens like their car breaks down, that's just annoying," Albright said. "But if their parent has just died and they lost their job and their kid's in jail and then their car breaks down, that risks a nervous breakdown... That's what's triggering this angry, emotional response in so many people."
(Sapa, February 2009)
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