As a press representative for Union Pacific Railroad, Joann Killeen has plenty of experience with train wrecks, which may explain why she is handling publicity for Nadya Suleman, the Whittier mother who gave birth to octuplets last month. You might say Killeen is the 47th member of the maternity triage team that tended to Suleman, whose in vitro fertilization (IVF) pregnancy has generated the worst blowback against a mother since Casey Anthony reported her young daughter Caylee missing. Killeen is quick to point out that Suleman, who had six frozen embryos from her previous conceptions implanted in her, did not set out to have a multiple birth. Judging by a conversation with her, Killeen and her partner, Michael Furtney, have certainly had their work cut out for them in the pro bono case.
"There's another side to this whole story - the impact on me!" Killeen says. "I've been in seclusion - the media are parked outside my house in Brentwood and paparazzi follow me, thinking to use me to find Nadya." So far, she said, she's received 500 phone calls from media outlets and her company's Website crashed for four hours last week from the volume of emails it was receiving. Many of them were death threats against Killeen or Suleman and her family.
"You're nothing but an ambulance chaser," one man called. "I'm going to put you in my wood-chipper."
"I'm going to cut you up in pieces and leave you at the bottom of
the ocean, where you belong," offered another. What stuns Killeen is
that her attackers take the time to fill out email forms on her
company's Web site, nonchalantly leaving their names and email
addresses behind, just as they call Killeen at home to brazenly leave
messages on a machine that records their numbers. Killeen is used to
this kind of stuff, having had angry letters slipped under her hotel
door in Ithaca, New York, when her client, Walmart, was pushing to
build a store in the collegiate town. Besides, dealing with this is
nothing compared to the job of rehabilitating Suleman's image.
"This was not an entertainment story - it was crisis management,"
she recalls. "I had to put a gag on Nadya's mother, who sold her out to
RadarOnline. They paid her $40,000 to sell [Nadya] out and she can't talk about her daughter for three months."
Nadya Suleman has become a lightning rod for public anger - not only
because of the fact that she is an unemployed single mother with, now,
14 children, and receiving welfare. She's also become a magnet for nativist and racial fears - a woman who might be getting an easier ride if her name were Sullivan and not Suleman.
"I think there are multiple issues involved here," Killeen says.
"This is really about a woman's right to choose, about what she does
with her body and how she creates her family. Nadya and IVF run against
the American paradigm of a married couple with 2.5 children - there's
no man involved here, no bank account." Killeen also believes the current
uncertain economic times are making people feel nervous about a
phenomenon like Suleman.
For now Killeen, who's appeared on Dateline and Dr. Phil,
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is focused on turning the tide in her client's favor. "This story has
arms and legs," she says without understatement. She also believes
Nadya Suleman's days in maternity wards are over.
"There's nothing left in the frozen vault," Killeen says. "There's nothing left to defrost."