I first learned of Stephanie Nielson's plight when I read a New York Times article, which I have included in its entirety here:
WHEN a small private plane carrying Stephanie Nielson, a young mother who lives in Mesa, Ariz., crashed in eastern Arizona three weeks ago, Katja Muggli, a graphic designer in Munich, said she felt as if there had been a tragedy in her own family — and in a virtual way, there had been.
Ms. Muggli, 34, has never met Ms. Nielson. But as a blogger and single mother, she was an avid follower of Ms. Nielson’s blog, the NieNie Dialogues. The site, a diary of home life that she started in 2005 for close friends and family, had attracted a small but ardent following, thanks to its upbeat dispatches about marriage, home décor, entertaining and the art of raising four children ages 6 and younger. To her admirers, she was Supermom.
“Stephanie always inspires me,” Ms. Muggli said in an e-mail message, adding, “she always pushes me to do more.”
That was then. Now, Ms. Nielson, 27, and her husband, Christian, 29, are in a Phoenix hospital burn unit. Mr. Nielson sustained burns over 30 percent of his body. Ms. Nielson has burns over 80 percent of hers. On Friday they were in critical condition.
Since the accident, bloggers have joined with Ms. Nielson’s siblings to organize more than 350 online auctions on their sites. As they sell bridesmaid dresses and baby shoes, the fund-raiser may surpass $100,000, family members said.
When one of Ms. Nielson’s sisters called on readers to release helium balloons carrying get-well messages as an inspirational gesture, readers from as far away as Australia and Guam joined in. And bloggers have spread the word on their sites. Since the accident, readership of Ms. Nielson’s blog, which a sister has been updating, has spiked from about 1,000 visitors a day to as many as 20,000.
Sociologists may talk about “weak ties” that bind people on the Internet. But Stephanie Nielson’s story is evolving into one about how the Web can forge powerful friendships. Unlike much of the blogosphere, which is ruled by sniping and snark and where commenters might coldly question the judgment of a mother of four who chose to get in a small private plane, these women inhabit a feel-good corner of the Internet.
And when one member of the community suffers, everyone feels it.
“I did have a difficult time sleeping for the first few days after the accident,” said Stephanie Brubaker, 31, a blogger in Salt Lake City who follows Ms. Nielson’s blog. “It was taking over my life a little bit. But I’m buoyed up by the way the blogging community has responded. It’s such a unique community.”
The crash occurred around 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 16, according to a federal crash report. Ms. Nielson and her husband were returning home from a weekend trip at a family ranch in New Mexico in a propeller-driven Cessna 177, accompanied by a flight instructor, Doug Kinneard. (Mr. Nielson learned to fly after his wife bought him a flying lesson two years ago for his birthday. It is uncertain who was behind the controls on that flight, family members said.)
As they attempted takeoff after refueling at an airport in St. Johns, Ariz., the engine stalled, the report said, and the plane crashed. Mr. Kinneard died shortly afterward. Last week, during reconstructive surgery on Ms. Nielson’s badly damaged face, doctors retrieved enough tissue from parts of her body to craft a new nose and ears.
The couple’s children — Claire, 6; Jane, 5; Oliver, 3; and Nicholas, 23 months — have only a dim knowledge of the accident, said Courtney Kendrick, one of Ms. Nielson’s sisters. “They know that their mommy and daddy are in the hospital and look like mummies,” Ms. Kendrick said. “But that usually brings up Halloween, and the subject changes.”
The welfare of the children has been a prominent concern of Ms. Nielson’s readers. Some wondered if the children would recognize their mother, who, Ms. Kendrick said, has been given a 60 to 70 percent chance of surviving.
Ms. Nielson’s doting relationship with her children provided a key story line on her blog, which she started mostly to keep in touch with her large Mormon family in Utah while she was living in New Jersey. Ms. Nielson is the eighth of nine children of Stephen D. Clark, a Republican state legislator in Utah, and Cynthia J. Clark, a city councilwoman in Provo.
But Ms. Nielson always displayed a knack for portraying motherhood as a celebration, not a grind, readers said.
As her elder daughters prepared for school last month, for example, Ms. Nielson orchestrated a back-to-school feast at home. The family dined on honey-seared salmon smoked in alder wood with garden-picked beets. For each child, Ms. Nielson constructed a paper crown decorated with fabric and embroidered appliqués. Strung between the arrangements of white baby roses on the white tablecloth were ribbons with the motto she declared to be the family’s theme for the new school year: Be prepared.
“Toasts were made, stories told, goals planned, and the girls walked the catwalk showing off the new school duds in a family fashion show,” Ms. Nielson wrote in a post.
While some might roll their eyes at a woman who presents herself so perfectly, others were drawn to the blog because of the inspiration — and escapism — it offered. Among mommy blogs, the NieNie Dialogues stood out, said Gabrielle Blair, a blogger and graphic designer in Tuckahoe, N.Y. On many sites “there’s a lot of complaining,” she said, adding: “ ‘I hate potty training,’ ‘Motherhood is the worst,’ ‘How did I get here? I didn’t want to have kids!’ ”
But Ms. Nielson’s blog made motherhood “sound like the highest calling on earth: a job full of color and vibrancy and of the utmost importance,” said Wendy Whitacre, a photographer in Temecula, Calif., who said she read the blog for years before recently meeting her when the family hired her for a portrait. “When my own children are whining and crying and tugging on my clothes and taking up every inch of personal space I have, I think of how she’d react to the situation, and it completely changes the way I act,” she said in an e-mail message.
Other bloggers expressed admiration, and envy, that Ms. Nielson found the energy to make marriage sexy while raising four small children. Ms. Brubaker recalled a post in which Ms. Nielson told her husband to take off his shirt while doing the chores on her honey-do list, just so she could watch. “This is coming from a mother of four,” she added.
Like people who deeply identify with characters on television, a character on a blog can help people escape their own anxieties and insecurities, said Steve G. Hoffman, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the State University at Buffalo. “She is a kind of empty vessel within which her readers can fill with their personal hopes, dreams and desires,” he said in an e-mail message.
But readers who have helped raise money for the Nielsons said they saw little distinction between online friends and “physical” ones.
This might explain the enthusiasm by so many readers to overspend on the fund-raising auctions. One of Ms. Nielson’s brothers, Christopher Clark, offered to make people “famous” on his little-known blog, celebrating their life in words and photos. Bidding started at $20. The highest bid was $825.
As the dollars roll in, the legend only grows. But Supermom had her off days, too.
“People don’t understand that of course Stephanie had days where she was crazy and wanted to pull her hair out,” Ms. Kendrick said. “Her relationship with her husband wasn’t perfect. But she chose to focus on the beauty.
“And the more she focused on it, the more she had.”
If you're in Arizona, there's a Benefit Concert on Wednesday, September 10th. More details on that here.
You can follow Stephanie and her husband's progress at her sister's blog, C Jane Enjoy It.
Return to the Neighborhood.