true crime

Why We're Obsessed with Killer Nannies

An ongoing murder trial in New York and the book inspired by the case point to a special brand of primal fear that isn't as simple as you might think.
April 12, 2018, 2:30pm
Left Image: Yoselyn Ortega in court in 2013. Photo by Susan Watts/NY Daily News via Getty Images. Right Image: Louise Woodward after her conviction. Photo by Tim Ockenden-PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

After Chanson Douce, the novel based on the real-life story of a killer nanny, was first released in 2016, writer Leïla Slimani became the most-read author in France, won the prestigious Goncourt award, and landed on the cover of Elle magazine.

When the book dropped in the United States as the The Perfect Nanny in January, the New Yorker hailed it as “extraordinary," lavishing praise on Slimani’s examination of previously unspoken ambiguities of motherhood. Others said that despite its “exquisite craft,” the ultimate takeaway of the book was an old-fashioned one: “Stay home, Mom.”

Meanwhile, the grisly slayings that inspired the novel are still on trial in New York City.

Former nanny Yoselyn Ortega, 55, is charged with murdering two children in a Upper West Side apartment on a Thursday afternoon in October 2012. But there is no doubt Ortega killed the kids—the question for the jury is why did she do so, and whether she was of a right mind at the time.

Ortega is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Her defense’s argument is essentially that when Ortega took a knife to two-year-old Leo Krim’s jugular vein, stabbed six-year-old Lulu Krim 28 times, and made a botched attempt on her own life, she was in a “dissociative” state and hearing commands from a voice she thought was Satan.

The prosecution, meanwhile, has contended Ortega lied when she told a doctor she heard voices instructing her to kill and that she murdered out of spite because she felt overworked and underpaid. They suggested an already-taxing life situation was exacerbated when Ortega’s teenage son came to live with her from the Dominican Republic after years spent apart, and that she was struggling to pay rent and school fees.

But there is another question that the court will not—and cannot—answer: What is it about a killer nanny that so captures our imagination?

I’ve been thinking about this since I was ten years old. I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, site of another infamous killer nanny case. Louise Woodward was an 18-year old British au-pair when she was charged with murdering eight-month-old Matthew Eappen in 1997, shaking him to death while his parents, both doctors, were at work. (The once liberal diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome has since come under scrutiny.)

It was one of those cases that was famous in part just by virtue of being famous: covered gavel to gavel on Court TV, followed by millions in the US and UK, sparking considerable conversation about working mothers worldwide.

Headlines announced that it wasn’t just Woodward, but the “yuppie” lifestyle writ large on trial, and the mother, Deborah Eappen, was harshly criticized for not staying at home. (Slimani has said she named the nanny in her novel after Louise, an homage to the double-standard that mother is always to blame.)

Woodward was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder, though the judge reduced the offense to manslaughter, and sentenced Woodward to time served. (Full disclosure: My father, a criminal defense attorney, was a regular commentator on the trial, and later represented Woodward, briefly, on a civil suit related to the incident.)

Like the Woodward trial, the Ortega case has incited a certain degree of panic, with one New York screening agency reportedly going so far as to encourage suspicious parents to ransack nannys’ purses to check for psychiatric medication.

But according to Columbia psychologist* Susan Scheftel, if parents have doubts, they should trust their gut and let the nanny go. “If you have to have a Nanny Cam, then you are already in trouble,” she told me of the device sometimes used to spy on caretakers. “That you so feel that someone you’ve hired might be doing harm to your baby—why did you hire that person?”

In her 2012 paper, Why Aren’t We Curious about Nannies, Scheftel wrote that though nannies “have had a ubiquitous presence among professional working women and are frequently involved in the lives of patients seen in private practice, their psychological significance for both employers and charges has rarely been considered.”

The topic of nannies is a "scotoma" or blind spot in the professional field, Scheftel argued, and has been since the days of Freud, who noted that his nurse occupied a pivotal place in his unconscious, and made frequent reference to “nursemaids,” but did not seem to engage in his trademark analysis on the subject.

“The figure of the nanny can reside in a problematic and potentially split psychic space,” Scheftel continued, a place that represents the mother’s absence and shortcomings incarnate. Thus, we block out not only the danger of letting someone else care for a child, but also “a nanny’s need for a reasonable salary and working conditions.”

That is, we suspend our disbelief until something truly terrible happens, and then it is impossible to look away.

“It’s this topic that’s very hard for people to think about, I think because people overlook the nanny, as if she’s invisible because she’s coming into this breach where there is a lot of conflict,” Scheftel told me, cautioning that she could not comment on the Ortega case directly.

Thus far, reviews of Slimani's work have focused on her depiction of motherhood, but it is her depiction of the nanny’s intimate alienation that I found most striking.

Though the real-life nanny murder trials are compelling in part for the simple reason that they speak to primal fears, it is irrational to think we can learn anything about the rights and wrongs of the upper-middle-class relationship to hired help by way of these senseless tragedies. To project our anxieties on the parents in these cases is irrational. To think Ortega was in anyway justified is deranged.

But by way of fiction, perhaps Slimani allows us to move closer this strange unspoken part of modern life we often seem otherwise content to ignore.

Slimani writes of Louise’s “immense solitude,” of her failed attempts to “create a world” with the family she is paid to mind, and that she is “haunted by the feeling that she has seen too much, heard too much of other people’s privacy, a privacy she has never enjoyed herself.” She also compares nannies to “those figures at the back of a theater who move the sets around in darkness.”

Not that you should come to the novelist to understand why a nanny, or anyone, would kill children in her care. In a recent interview, Slimani said it was important that Louise was “still a mystery” at the end of the book.

Let’s hope for the jury’s sake that they're able to reach a more definitive decision on Ortega at the end of her trial.

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*Correction 04/12/18: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Susan Scheftel as a psychiatrist when in fact she is a psychologist and child psychoanalyst. We regret the error.

Follow Susan Zalkind on Twitter.