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Nanny State of Mind

Murderous nannies and post-feminist anxiety

We meet the family at the center of the 1965 Seth Holt film The Nanny in the state of crisis. One child is dead from a tragic accident, another is locked away in a school for troubled children, the mother is in hysterics, and the father is cold and authoritarian. But holding the group together is Nanny, played by Bette Davis, brushing the mother’s hair to calm her down, being steadfastly calm and forgiving as the son returns from school and begins to abuse her.

The twist is that it is she who killed the family’s little girl, and now she’s poisoning the mother, trying to drown the son, and murdering the aunt, slowly enough to give a full confession, of course. The film makes a brief attempt to explain why she snapped—her abandoned daughter is dead from a botched illegal abortion, and the doctor rails at her, “You were too busy looking after other people’s children, weren’t you? No time to spare for your own.” But the reason doesn’t matter. There has been a monster living in our house this whole time and we had no idea.

The position of the nanny—of the family but not in the family; asked to care and love but only while on the clock—is narratively provocative. And yet unless she is Mary Poppins-level magically perfect, in books and films the nanny is mostly a threat. She is the entry point into a family’s vulnerability, she is the stranger we thought we knew. She is The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. She is a Lifetime movie about a family broken apart by a nanny’s violence toward the children or sexual advances toward the husband.

Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny caused an international sensation. Originally published in French, it was a massive bestseller and won the Goncourt. Presenting a fictionalized version of the recently concluded New York nanny murder case in which the caretaker was found guilty of murdering the young girl and boy in her charge, Slimani tells the story of a (barely) upper middle class family: a husband who works in the music industry, a stay-at-home mother longing to get back to her law practice, their two adorable children, and the nanny who comes to wreck everything.

It is as if Slimani worries the reader’s sympathies might accidentally lie with the murderous nanny.

In their announcement of Slimani’s award, the Goncourt Prize committee announced, “Many will recognize themselves in this book.” Not, of course, in the character of the nanny who is overworked and underpaid and yet somehow still so grateful to be working for the family. It’s the couple the reader is supposed to relate to: financially well off, well paired, pursuing their ambitions, and yet still there is something missing.

The case The Perfect Nanny is based on is the trial of Yoselyn Ortega, which dominated New York City media for weeks. Ortega stabbed the children dozens of times, left them to bleed to death in a bathtub, and then stabbed herself in the throat, repeatedly, upon the return of the mother. The reasons for her act remain murky, and few have tried to suss them out. A reporter for Jezebel called Ortega a “monster” and “self-obsessed.” The New York Times implied she was simply envious of all her employers’ money and possessions. The stresses in Ortega’s life, from money problems to overwork to arguments with her employer to the fact that her job was keeping her away from her own son, are dismissed as “resentment” in the New York magazine summation of the trial. But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts. It quickly becomes clear, however, that as Slimani turns Yoselyn into Louise, she is as disinterested in this as the Jezebel reporter.

Myriam and her husband Paul decide to hire a nanny so she can return to work. She is barely making enough money at her entry-level law day job to cover the nanny’s salary, but she cannot take the boredom of daily life with two small children any longer. “Sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street. They’re eating me alive, she would think.” It’s a relief, then, not only to outsource the domestic labor, but to find a woman who actually seems to enjoy it.

Louise is the domestic ideal. She cooks and cleans, with patience and strong boundaries she turns a willful child into a well-behaved one, she is thoughtful about her make-up and her appearance, and her whole life is devoted to the children she is hired to watch. “She sews buttons back onto jackets that they haven’t worn for months because they’ve been too lazy to look for a needle. . . . When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready.” She is the wife and mother Myriam only vaguely wishes she could have been, but she is aware her husband perhaps wishes he had married. She is a Mary Poppins who snaps.

The deviations Slimani makes from the real life case are telling. Where Yoselyn is Dominican, Louise is white. Where Yoselyn took the nanny position out of financial need—Ortega previously worked in factories and in the service industry and faked job experience to get this gig—Louise is a lifelong caretaker with excellent references. Where Yoselyn lived with her own family and had a busy home life, Louise has no life outside of her work except for a daughter she alternates between neglecting and abusing. Slimani depicts Louise spending her off hours sitting at her kitchen table, longing for her employers to call with an emergency and ask her to come over.

Slimani also removes many of the common work hazards domestic employees face. The family is nothing but generous, the husband, Paul, never leers at or inappropriately touches or makes suggestive comments to Louise (in one unbelievable passage, Paul wonders about Louise’s body, “a body he had not seen or even suspected before, having considered Louise as part of the world of children or the world of employees,” as if men do not consider the bodies of their employees), the children do not mistreat or abuse her, and no one asks her to clean—Louise simply volunteers without expecting extra pay. She has financial troubles, yes, but this is her own fault, as a debt she has been ignoring out of panic continues to grow and grow under her neglect. All this serves to make Louise more monstrous, less understandable. It is as if Slimani worries the reader’s sympathies might accidentally lie with the murderous nanny.

Her emphasis is on the consequences of trying to buy the love and comfort and care that a woman was once supposed to freely give. It has nothing to say about the consequences of having to sell your love and comfort and care.

Slimani, the subject of a glowing New Yorker profile, grew up wealthy, “having never cooked a meal or cleaned a bathroom,” and then married more wealth when she partnered with a Parisian banker. Her novel is caught up entirely in the anxieties of her class, and it is blind to the realities of any other class. Her emphasis is on the consequences of trying to buy the love and comfort and care that a woman was once supposed to freely give. It has nothing to say about the consequences of having to sell your love and comfort and care.

The Perfect Nanny, then, is a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety. Anxiety about failing to live up to feminine ideals, about holding a husband’s interest, about “having it all.” The fear that by leaving behind the traditional womanly role of mother and housekeeper, a woman makes herself vulnerable to those women who have not. It is the same anxiety that leads to endless thinkpieces about how educated and successful women are less likely to marry, the creeping infertility rates of women who wait until after establishing a career to start a family, and whether women can have it all. Of course she can’t have it all, and she is punished for her attempt by having her children devoured by this perfect embodiment of women’s traditional role.

Nannies seem to be accused of killing their charges more often they actually do (see the cases of Louise Woodward or Olivia Riner), but it happens often enough that it’s been studied as a phenomenon. Ortega’s claim that she has no memory of murdering the children or attempting to kill herself lines up with cases psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers examined in his 1909 doctoral dissertation, Heimweh und Verbrechen (Homesickness and Criminality), on nannies and maids who killed the children in their care or burned down the houses they had been hired to tend to. In almost every case, there was a moment when the servant snapped, and sometimes they seemed to have no memory of their incomprehensible acts.

These girls and women were forced out of their familial homes—either because of lack of money, or because they had to work instead of marry, or because they experienced trauma and violation as children and are now psychologically unable to create a family of their own—to enter a stranger’s. Instead of having their own children to love and care for, they are obligated to take care of someone else’s. Often they suffered abuse and assault at the hands of their employers. Often the girls, once in police custody, would ask when they would be allowed to return to their childhood homes, as if they had tossed the baby in the river (in one example) simply in the hopes of being unburdened by the obligations of their work and would now be free to leave. Jaspers diagnosed them with nostalgia, a pining for an idealized home so intense that they were pushed to commit acts of extreme violence.

But as Elisabeth Bronfen points out in her examination of Jaspers’s study in The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents, the issue was probably not a longing for home, but “the unbearable presence of too much home.” Women were told the home and the family was not only their natural place, but that it would be the source of their greatest joy. Then they were sent away or abandoned by their families, forced into emotional contracts not of their own making, and made subject to men who dominated their bodies. Unable to return to families that did not want her or could not support her (which might also have been the home where she experienced her first violation or trauma via a family member), the nostalgic woman’s only possible act was to destroy the home.

It is “not the loss, but the extraordinary attraction of the home that threatens the subject,” Bronfen writes. In a way, her violence solves her impossible dilemma, and she can find a new kind of home away from these obligations, either in prison or in death. We may never get a good idea of who Yoselyn Ortega is or why she did what she did. What’s clear after reading The Perfect Nanny is that some people, particularly those who might hire her kind, don’t even want to try.