LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — The 9-year-olds have matching button noses; toothy grins; roaming, smiling eyes. Noah and Josiah are Nordic blond and fair, Nariyah and Maliyah olive and deeply brunette, and their four brothers — Jonah, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Makai — run the gamut. Octuplets.
“Hand me the spoon,” said Maliyah, standing at the stove.
“I’m already mixing the potatoes,” Josiah said.
The children moved in unison, weaving around the tight kitchen and adjacent living room of their three-bedroom Orange County townhouse while their mother checked on their brother Aidan, 13, who has autism.
One kid chopped veggies, one boiled water, one readied the silverware and on and on.
“Be careful with that,” warned Amerah, 16, supervising while thumb scrolling.
Twelve-year-old Calyssa was coloring quietly while the eight hustled like “Top Chef” contestants. A fat gray-striped cat named Penelope slinked by. Two teenage brothers were playing Fortnite in another room.
A boogie board was propped up on a wall with chipped paint; a giant stuffed Minnie Mouse rested along a row of couches. A pumpkin-spice candle flickered at a dinner table, which despite the size of the family somehow had only two chairs.
There are 14 siblings in all, so many that they eat in shifts. Some sleep on the couch.
The octuplets are small for their age, but they’re polite, they cook, they’re vegan, they read two books a month and do their homework without being prompted. In spite of all of the horror stories in the tabloids since birth, they’re model fourth graders. How did she do it?
The family introduced a signature milkshake in West Hollywood, Calif., in 2010.CreditToby Canham/Getty Images
In 2008, Natalie Suleman was implanted with 12 embryos by Dr. Michael Kamrava, a Beverly Hills fertility specialist who had also implanted her for all six of her previous in vitro pregnancies.
It was hard to believe the octuplets all came from the same father — an unidentified sperm donor — and even harder to process that Ms. Suleman didn’t know she was having so many babies at once. But that’s what she says.
It took 46 scrambling doctors and nurses to perform the C-section when Ms. Suleman went into labor at 31 weeks. The babies weighed between 1 pound 8 ounces and 3 pounds 4 ounces. Six boys and two girls. Never before had so many been born at once and survived, a medical marvel overshadowed by its treatment in the supermarket glossies.
Ms. Suleman played the callous brood mare, a cartoon character called the Octomom. She spent hundreds of thousands on plastic surgery to resemble her idol Angelina Jolie, the magazines accused: a single mom on food stamps, a crazy who’d do anything to build a family. In other words, a character perfect for our so-called reality era, when circus sideshows become the main act.
It wasn’t surprising that Ms. Suleman cashed in. But when the money ran out, she turned desperate: a short-lived pornographic film career, stripping, boxing. A suit by Gloria Allred followed accusations of child endangerment and exploitation, and Ms. Suleman went on “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil” to shore up her side.
Public interest eventually waned, and tasked with caring for so many, Ms. Suleman said, she turned to booze and Xanax from 2011 to 2013, before briefly checking into rehab. During this time, friends and family helped take care of the children.
“I was pretending to be a fake, a caricature, which is something I’m not, and I was doing it out of desperation and scarcity so I could provide for my family,” she said on the phone in October. “I’ve been hiding from the real world all my life.”
“I’m at work on a book,” she said, one 13 years in the making. She hopes it will set the record straight. “That’s why I want to do this interview. I’ve been writing this manuscript since graduate school.”
“I was the classic victim,” Ms. Suleman said at her home in November, a day before the worst wildfire in California history turned the skies red. A victim of having an alcoholic father, she said, a victim of having been an only child, hungry to fill that void. A victim of fate since she couldn’t conceive naturally. Most of all, she said, “I was misled by my doctor.”
Ms. Suleman said she only wanted twins, but that Dr. Kamrava, a graduate of Case Western Reserve University with 30 years of experience, pushed her to consent to implanting additional embryos while she was strapped to a gurney and under the influence of heavy narcotics.
“He told me we lost six embryos, he said they were expelled out of me, and that’s why he wanted to implant another six,” said Ms. Suleman, who grew up in nearby Fullerton, Calif. She has a B.S. in child development and worked for a state mental hospital for three years before suffering an injury that resulted in over $80,000 in disability payments. A subsequent family inheritance of $60,000 helped fund her IVF.
Dr. Kamrava has said she pressured him into the multiple rounds of implants, an accusation echoed recently by David Shofet, a rabbi and a childhood friend of the doctor.
“Michael invented a technique where every egg could be fertilized — that was his problem,” Rabbi Shofet remembered. “He told me he suggested to her not to keep all of them, but she said no.”
January is the octuplets’ birthday. They’ll be 10. Ms. Suleman said the doctor has had no contact with her or the children.
Dr. Kamrava, an Iranian national, lost his United States medical license in 2011. Unable to practice, he left the country after a failed medical-board appeal in 2016. At least two doctors believe that he is teaching his methods abroad. (Attempts to reach Dr. Kamrava were unsuccessful.)
Medical guidelines suggest a woman in her 30s should be transferred no more than two embryos at once, but it’s not law.
“Human reproductive technology is very lightly regulated,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, the director of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Insurance companies don’t always cover IVF, which adds to the lack of regulation. “If a third-party payer wasn’t involved, there’s no assessment,” Dr. Kahn said.
The guidelines are there for health reasons. Multiple embryos are more vulnerable: Twins are 12 times more likely to be born prematurely, 16 times likelier to have low birth weight and five times likelier to have respiratory complications. One of Ms. Suleman’s children is severely autistic, another is on the spectrum, and many are small for their age.
With a stomach so swollen that it broke her ribs, could she really have been so unaware? Shouldn’t the doctor have known better? It’s a he-said-she-said, but anyone might wonder: Why implant six times the suggested limit?
‘They Created This Caricature’
“I was selfish and immature,” said Ms. Suleman, now 43. She doesn’t admit fault, she wouldn’t change the past, she loves her angels too much. But she admits to an ever-consuming “need for more.”
“I never wanted the attention,” she said, somewhat contradictorily. She said that hospital staff breached her records and sold her out to the media: “There were helicopters flying over the hospital while I was giving birth.”
Her answers kept zigzagging.
“I have PTSD from all the reporters coming in over the years. I would take whatever I could back in the days, and I would let them in. I was spiraling down a dark hole. There were no healthy opportunities for Octomom. I was doing what I was told to do and saying what I was told to say. When you’re pretending to be something you’re not, at least for me, you end up falling on your face.”
Ms. Suleman won’t reveal how much she was paid by The National Enquirer or Star, maintaining: “Octomom was media created. I believe most media is filtered and fake. They created this caricature.”
With a nervous laugh, she said, “Once I finally ran away from all of the pretending, I was able to be me.”
But physically at least, that “me” has been irrevocably transformed.
“My back is broken because of the last pregnancy,” Ms. Suleman said, damage exacerbated by years of running half-marathons. The whole family, she said, would run a 5K after Thanksgiving.
Sipping alkaline water and crouching at the foot of the table, she listed her ailments with a kind of pride: “Four out of the five discs in my lumbar spine are ruptured, herniated fully. Think of a jelly doughnut being squashed, and it hits nerves, causing bilateral sciatica. And I have irreparable sacral damage. And I have peripheral neuropathy. I haven’t felt my toes on my foot on the right side for many years, and my fingers are numb all the time every day. The pregnancy caused it. The eight. My size, my abdomen was all the way out here.” She stretched a hand for emphasis.
There’s also what Ms. Suleman calls her genetic predispositions: migraines and endometriosis. Despite agony every day, she says she won’t take traditional medicine. “I’m a raw vegan, and I perceive pharmaceuticals to be poison.” she said. She relies on prayer, and home exercise. “If I didn’t climb 40 miles a week on the StairMaster, which acts as a buffer, then I’d be completely incapacitated.”
She seems fit, head to foot in Nike, but contorted she looked uncomfortable.
“I can adjust the pain based on my posturing,” said Ms. Suleman, who has a raspy voice, clearing her throat. “I’m not sick, I don’t get sick. I think it’s from being loud and yelling for what feels like the last 18 years. I have 14 children!”
The children don’t get flu shots, but they do see doctors and have been vaccinated. “But my kids don’t get sick, and neither do I,” she said. “Well — you know my daughter, my teenager, she got a cold, but that’s about it. From Day 1, I’ve been giving them healthy food all the time. I hate cooking. I am not domestic.”
Ms. Suleman said that she is working full-time as a counselor, but then added that she is focusing on family and relies on government assistance and “international photo shoots.” As with other statements she made, it was hard at times to get an entirely clear picture.
She doesn’t date, she said, and she doesn’t have contact with the men who donated sperm to achieve her dreams. She did have breast augmentation, which she regrets, but she called the Angelina Jolie accusations false. So is the child endangerment. She said Protective Services is among her strongest supporters. If they believed she was a danger, they would have taken the children. (According to Ms. Suleman, her representative beat Ms. Allred’s suit; Ms. Allred declined to comment.)
Ms. Suleman does have clear social phobias, but she isn’t the monster the public may expect. There’s a fragility to her that makes one want to root for her, and then there are her children, who appear to be thriving. “They’re the only surviving eight octuplets in the history of mankind,” Ms. Suleman said, beaming. “I’ve raised them to be wide-awake.”
Their mother’s sex tape, her drug use, “we talk about everything,” Ms. Suleman said. “They know, they went through it with me. It’s a huge weight lifted off of all of them when I went back to who I was. We were struggling financially, but it was such a blessing to be able to be free from that. Those were chains.”
For a time, her manager was a pornographic film star who led her into the XXX world; if Ms. Suleman puts that in her book, it could be a great guilty read.
“I wanted to quit, but my manager said, ‘If you do, I’m reporting you to welfare for fraud.’ I gave my bank account to her to control because I was so overwhelmed and busy managing my family. Checks that were forged — minimum $60,000 was stolen in six months. And she was selling stories left and right. She was a predator.”
What about their father? “Maybe the kids will meet him at 18, the donor,” Ms. Suleman said. “I don’t know.”
“She’s been fighting for our family for 10 years now,” said Amerah, who’s like a second mother to the eight, which is what everyone calls them. Like her siblings, she has a preternatural responsibility. Not many teenagers would put up with sleeping on a couch or accepting such choices. “No matter what, she’s never going to give up and I know that,” Amerah said.
The children themselves live largely insulated. “Most of my friends don’t know about the eight,” Amerah said. “When they were born, I was in elementary school. I would get questions about everything. But I would answer and say it’s my mom and my family. I was a little confused about that. I get that you’re interested, but I wouldn’t intrude on your family, why intrude on mine?”
Joshua, the 15-year-old gamer, said: “Some of my friends don’t have any siblings, so they want to know what it’s like. It’s nice to have someone to play with, but it can be overwhelming at times.”
Days begin at about 6:20 with a one-woman car pool — in a battered Ford E-350 Super Duty van she calls “the dump truck” — and caretaking. After school: cleaning, chores, bed by 8:30. Saturday family fun nights with vegan junk food and TV are a treat, but most outings aren’t as a group.
“She’ll get anxiety, everyone staring, so she’ll take whoever’s behaving the best. There’s ups and downs,” said Amerah, who hopes to be an orthopedic surgeon and have a large family of her own.
“Not 13, 14 kids,” though, she said. “Four. That’s big enough.”