Sunday, November 30, 2008

Free Trade



The cover story of today's NYT magazine, about a rich woman paying another woman to serve as a surrogate and carry her baby to term, was horrific, but irresistible. I was compelled to read the entire thing, wanting to retch as I did.

The author, Alex Kucyzynski, is a 40-year old NYT staff writer (in, of course, the Style section). She and her husband decided to hire a surrogate for various reasons, as Kucyzynski portrays it -- she emphasizes health. However, Kucyzynski revels in the other benefits of paying someone else to have her baby:
AS THE MONTHS PASSED, something curious happened: The bigger Cathy was, the more I realized that I was glad — practically euphoric — I was not pregnant. I was in a daze of anticipation, but I was also secretly, curiously, perpetually relieved, unburdened from the sheer physicality of pregnancy. If I could have carried a child to term, I would have. But I carried my 10-pound dog in a BabyBj√∂rn-like harness on hikes, and after an hour my back ached.

Cathy was getting bigger, and the constraints on her grew. I, on the other hand, was happy to exploit my last few months of nonmotherhood by white-water rafting down Level 10 rapids on the Colorado River, racing down a mountain at 60 miles per hour at ski-racing camp, drinking bourbon and going to the Super Bowl.

I had several friends around my age — 37 and up — who were pregnant with their first children at this time, and I was amazed at how their feet swelled like loaves of bread. They were haggard. They seemed sallow and tired, and they let their hair go gray. I decided to call all of us Gummies — grown-up mommies — with the implication that some of us were so old we could have dentures.

I would soon be a Gummy. I just didn’t have to do the hard part. I had the natal equivalent of a hall pass, a free ride, an automatic upgrade to first class. According to the expectations that govern modern womanhood, I should have been moaning to a shrink or to my girlfriends over cosmos about my inadequacies. But I tried hard not to see myself as a failure. I allowed myself the anguish of the moment when Cathy was playing my piano, and after that I vowed, not entirely successfully, to refuse more self-punishment. I had been through so much — so much death and sorrow — that the gift of Cathy carrying my baby, shouldering the burden of the pregnancy, transferring all the fear of failure to her shoulders, was liberating.
NYT.

The important part of that excerpt, of course, is that the author admits to carrying around her "10-pound dog in a BabyBjörn-like harness on hikes".



Kucyzynski mentions the several homes she and her husband (who is twenty or so years older than her, who has had three previous wives and six previous children, and whom she describes as a "very successful investor") own in various places across the country, her regular trips to Bikram yoga (just plain "yoga" will not do -- it's Bikram yoga), and other aspects of her fancy life. She cares very much about who will carry her baby -- not just any womb will do:
When we came across Cathy’s application, we saw that she was by far the most coherent and intelligent of the group. She wrote that she was happily married with three children. Her answers were not handwritten in the tiny allotted spaces; she had downloaded the original questionnaire and typed her responses at thoughtful length. Her attention to detail was heartening. And her computer-generated essay indicated, among other things, a certain level of competence. This gleaned morsel of information made me glad: she must live in a house with a computer and know how to use it.
NYT.

There is something interesting going on with the photography that accompanies the article. I am not convinced that Kuczynski is aware of it, but the photographer and the photo editor have conspired to throw Kuczynski under the bus with the photos. In the cover photo, Kuczynski appears in a fancy and expensive looking black dress, with high heels, with her hands on her stomach to emphasize her slim figure; next to her, her surrogate is in baggy slacks, a dumpy-looking sweater, and massively pregnant. Another photo inside shows Kuczynski standing in front one of her several homes (this one is in Southampton), with a lushly landscaped garden behind her, and with a shorter African-American "baby nurse" (why the "baby nurse"? is the baby sick?) standing at attention nearby -- in a nurse outfit. It's like something out of "Gone with the Wind".



The next photo is of Kuczynski's surrogate, Susan Hilling, a week before she "delivered", sitting on her stoop in Harleyville, PA. The paint on her white house is dirty, the foundation appears to be cracked, and there's a rack of dirty white sneakers on the porch behind her. She does not have a perfect lawn like Kuczynski; she's got some weeds and mud. Harleyville is not Southampton. Oh, to make sure the point is not lost, Hilling is barefoot in the picture.

Kuczynski tries hard to be "honest" about the situation in her piece, as if her purported "honesty" about the transaction obligates her reader not to judge her, excuses her condescension and obvious self-absorption, and erases any qualms about the role money plays in this market transaction. Kuczynski writes in such a way that makes clear that she wants, and indeed, expects, our sympathy and understanding. The accompanying photos, which steadily undermine her hermetically sealed poses of self-awareness, suggest that perhaps she deserves none of that.

In the end, Kuczynski has given us a long, poorly written essay about how hard it was for her to pay tens of thousands of dollars to someone else to have her baby. And no doubt, she has continued to add to her "healthy income as a writer" with this piece. The photos suggest that perhaps Hilling would have been able to give us a better perspective on the difficulties of this arrangement. But, then again, perhaps Hilling wouldn't have been able to discuss the "paradigms of motherhood" as Kuczynski does -- plainly admiring herself as she raids the dictionary to lard her prose with fifty-cent words. Because, in Kuczynski's world, isn't her very ability to not only own a computer but write about the "paradigms of motherhood" the thing that allows her -- to her mind, justly -- to pay Hilling to carry her baby as Kuczynski rafts down "level 10 rapids . . . drinks bourbon and [goes] to the Superbowl"?

5 comments:

MK said...

"Kuczynski tries hard to be "honest" about the situation in her piece, as if her purported "honesty" about the transaction obligates her reader not to judge her, excuses her condescension and obvious self-absorption, and erases any qualms about the role money plays in this market transaction."

More importantly, the role money plays in fueling said self-absorption, which is a luxury Cathy can't afford.

Kris said...

How did this become the cover piece for the Times magazine? It's an interesting topic, but surely there's someone else who has more interesting things to say about it, right?

David said...

ugh. how can i possibly hate this woman any more than I do right now? let me go read the original article.....

dn

Julia said...

i imagine the photos, which intentionally make the writer look bad, are a publicity stunt (most likely engineered by the writer) to get as much interest and reaction as possible, which is what really makes this disgusting.
and what makes this a successful piece in terms of all the attention it has received.

it makes me hate the publishing world, the media, the judgmental and voyeuristic world of the media consumer more than the author.
of course, i am one of those judgmental voyeurs...

i vomited nearly every day of my pregnancy and hates being pregnant but i wouldn't give it up for anything. i feel sad for the writer that she can't experience that, but she is using it here to forward her career. not sure how bad that is, since we all love reading about it.

Julia said...

i imagine the photos, which intentionally make the writer look bad, are a publicity stunt (most likely engineered by the writer) to get as much interest and reaction as possible, which is what really makes this disgusting.
and what makes this a successful piece in terms of all the attention it has received.

it makes me hate the publishing world, the media, the judgmental and voyeuristic world of the media consumer more than the author.
of course, i am one of those judgmental voyeurs...

i vomited nearly every day of my pregnancy and hates being pregnant but i wouldn't give it up for anything. i feel sad for the writer that she can't experience that, but she is using it here to forward her career. not sure how bad that is, since we all love reading about it.