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Octomom, 'Hoarders' and compulsion

Whether it's having lots of kids or just lots of stuff, Americans are compulsive about watching those who are compulsive.

January 07, 2010|Meghan Daum

Just when we thought we knew everything there was to know about Nadya Suleman, there's suddenly another Octo-news flash. In an accusation of gross negligence filed by the Medical Board of California against Michael Kamrava, the Beverly Hills doctor who performed the in vitro fertilization procedures that led to the births of Suleman's 14 children, it's been revealed that the Octomom demanded the creation of fresh embryos despite having a stockpile of frozen ones. This despite her claim that she pursued multiple pregnancies because she didn't want her existing embryos to be destroyed or go unused.

In other words, what's disturbing here is not just that Kamrava "went beyond the reasonable judgment of any treating physician." It's that Suleman, with Kamrava, engaged in the reproductive equivalent of your buying 30 giant bottles of ketchup at Costco, even though the cupboard is already overflowing.

I know some of you are probably wagging your fingers at me -- for comparing embryos to ketchup (hey, there are worse analogies) and for discussing Octomom at all (believe me, I'm wagging my finger at myself, then stabbing it into my eye). And yes, Sulemania has waned, but it hasn't disappeared. The paparazzi still follow her every move, and the New York Times Magazine published a cover story in November about the filming of a British documentary series, "My Life As the Octomom."

Of course, ultra-fecundity is in vogue these days, particularly in the realm of unscripted television. From the unceasing car alarm that is the din of "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" to the more subdued though strangely creepier Duggar family, who've added a 19th child to their reality show-making, home-schooling, birth-control-eschewing dynasty, there's no doubt that large broods attract viewers. And why wouldn't they? If there's anything television audiences like watching more than cute kids, it's adults whose lives are more harried and banal than their own.

Lately, however, I've been wondering if some of the interest in mega-families is cut from the same psychological cloth as another phenomenon that's captured a lot of attention: hoarding. Often connected with obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding involves excessive collecting and an inability to throw things away, a pattern that in severe cases can lead to major health hazards.

The syndrome even has its own reality program. A&E's "Hoarders" takes viewers into homes that are literally collapsing under the weight of their own squalor. One episode featured a woman whose dead cats had been decomposing under her living room debris for a decade. Oh, and it's doing great in the ratings.

Suleman, as far as I can tell, is a decent housekeeper, but am I the only one who sees her obsession with childbearing as a manifestation of the hoarding impulse? Am I the only one who reads about Suleman returning to the doctor for more embryo transfers just three or four months after giving birth and wonders just how different her mentality is from whatever drives someone to let newspapers pile up so they block the windows? I hear about Angelina Jolie wanting "up to 14 kids" and the Duggars giving all their children names that start with "J" and wonder if, in addition to being magnanimous or true to Scripture or whatever they'd like to think they're being, they're not also a little . . . compulsive?

Of course, I'm not a psychologist, a fact I was reminded of when I called Gail Steketee, dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University and coauthor of the forthcoming "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things." Steketee sees no connection between hoarding and addiction to baby-making or baby-adopting. In fact, she's never heard the two referenced together. She points instead to hoarders' problems with decision-making; with fundamental difficulties understanding what they need and don't need. She thinks that behavior like Suleman's "no doubt represents some form of need" but that "it's unlikely to be similar to the need for information [a reason hoarders save years' worth of newspapers], for keeping sentimental items or for having control over one's stuff."

OK, so the research community isn't backing my theory. But when we ask why we're simultaneously so repelled and captivated by Suleman, perhaps we also need to ask why we're so drawn in by stockpiling excess: Is it pure voyeurism? Is it strictly us versus them, the rational versus the nut jobs? Or does the notion of acquisition-run-amok resonate with an extreme ketchup buyer in all of us?

I'm not sure what's worse, that we want to gawk at it or that we secretly relate to it (either way, A&E wins). But one thing's for sure: If Kamrava loses his medical license -- a distinct possibility -- maybe he could land a job at Costco.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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