Letters to the editor
Dear editors of the New York Times Magazine:
Whoa, hey, that wasn't very subtle, was it?
First come the photos. It starts with the picture on the cover, where writer Alex Kuczynski cradles her belly with a knowing, feline smile, as if to say, "I've an icepick concealed in my Spanx. Fancy a spot of stabbing?" Cathy Hilling, the gestational surrogate who carried Kuczynski's son, stands by looking calm and approachable, perhaps even slightly abashed. I know, she looks like she's thinking. Believe me. I know. The stories I could tell you. Buuuut what are you gonna do?
Then alongside Kuczynski's article, which details how her child came about, there's the photo of Hilling lolling on her porch. She is literally barefoot and pregnant. We're supposed to contrast it with the photo of Kuczynski near her porch, manicured lawn, Southampton address, baby nurse and all. Thanks, photo editors! Without even reading the text, I get it. Alex Kuczynski is a cold, remote bitch who hires other people to do her dirty work. Of course!
A casual reading of the story supports that initial impression. Kuczynski doesn't do herself any favors in that department, evincing a delicate shudder at the very idea of having Hilling over for Thanksgiving. (Yeah, I mean, she did bear your son and all, but what if she brought that awful green bean casserole? And I bet her husband would want to watch the football, which is, I have heard, a sporting enthusiasm shared by many of their lowly station.) She's relieved to dodge the physical indignities of pregnancy herself — a mother who "just didn't have to do the hard part" — and describes with offputting relish the way her pregnant friends have let themselves go. (I halfway expected her to sneer about how fat they'd gone around the middle.) The article is full of nonchalant asides that tell us just how fabulously well fixed Kuczynski is, thanks to her marriage — his third — to sesquitriskajillionaire investor Charles Stevenson. (I can only assume that "For fun, we snort powdered diamonds through rolled-up trillion-dollar bills" got cut from the original article due to space considerations.) And that kind of money can buy any kind of reproductive assistance money can buy. (Like what I just did there, editors? Hey, any chance you're hiring?)
Plenty of people bit. The comments on the online version show that readers are largely appalled by Kuczynski — her narcissism, her coldness, her willingness to spend enormous sums of her husband's money to propagate their genes. (90% of those comments offer the groundbreaking opinion that people with fertility challenges should just you-know-what because there are so many blah-blah-blahs in need of a good what-the-fuck-ever. 5% say something crappy about Kuczynski hiring a nurse and what that must reveal about her mothering; 2% congratulate her on her son's birth and thank her for her courage in sharing her story so candidly; and the remaining 1,237% are clamoring to know just what the hell was up with those photos.)
Me? No. I read a little bit more into Kuczynski's words — more than there strictly was on the page, maybe even more than there was in her heart when she wrote them. She wasn't simply talking about Thanksgiving; that was clumsy shorthand for uncertainty about the kind of relationship she, her son, and her surrogate would eventually forge. It's a question that demands consideration, one faced by anyone whose children don't come easily. I don't think less of her for swaddling it in a metaphor.
And maybe it did seem like mean-spirited gloating when she talked about skipping the unpretty parts of having a child. (Just because you can mention a pregnant woman's hemorrhoids doesn't mean you should. That is what blogs are for.) But as a way of negotiating her grief — 11 IVFs and four miscarriages is plenty, no matter how much yoga you do — I can't say I fault her for embracing the positive in her situation, working to find some advantage in getting what was, as she tells it, second prize.
As far as ethics and money go, each of us who pursues an unorthodox reproductive path asks ourselves whether it's ethical to do what is, in the end, purchasing the privilege of creating human life. Kuczynski decided it is, and had the cash to do so. Although 759% of the online commenters want Kuczynski to know she should have spent that money on something more meaningful and enduring than her own monstrously selfish urges — I paraphrase only a smidge — I don't agree. First, I don't know how much she and her husband spend on charitable endeavors, but it's probably more than the few hundred thou they dropped on fertility treatment. Surely they're entitled to spend some of their unfathomable fortune on leisure activities like IVF retrievals. (That is, if there's any disposable income left after the powdered diamonds. I assume those don't come cheap, especially when you're buying snortin' grade.) Second, I happen to believe that this is one of the few situations in which money can buy happiness, or at least a chance at a particular kind of happiness, and who among us, having the money, would turn down that chance? Not me. But you knew that already. My own ethical backflip is sleeping upstairs in the proverbial ladybug onesie.
So I get it. I see what you were trying to do. I see that you even had Kuczynski's cooperation, because, damn, the pictures didn't work, but her own words easily might have if I'd been in a different mood. But you failed to make me hate Alex Kuczynski.
Oh, I don't mean I like her; I think in places she seems downright awful. But I appreciate that she doesn't whitewash her attitude toward Hilling, blotting out all its complexity with platitudes. I'd expect such a relationship to be complicated, especially as it's experienced by the infertile woman, and I'm grateful that Kuczynski relays her less attractive reactions faithfully — or shows her ass, as those of us in Sunday-delivery-only-land might more picturesquely put it.
Better luck next time, New York Times Magazine, on getting me to hate someone obnoxious.
P.S. Don't beat yourself up about it, okay? You'll have other chances. For every Peggy Orenstein there are fifty David Carrs, and I trust you to showcase them all.