The first week of my new job coincided with the heavily media-covered murder of two children by their nanny in the Upper East Side of New York City. This horrific tragedy, in which the young siblings were brutally stabbed to death before the killer tried to take her own life, was a frequent subject of conversation between me and my boss in our first days together.
My new employer also came pre-traumatized. She had worked in the family court system doing psych profiling. While on one hand she could feel safer as she was trained to identify instability, on the other hand she had witnessed humanity’s worst impulses first hand. I was glad she felt comfortable with me; it made me feel saner just to have her approval.
As I shadowed her and learned the particular routine of their household, I noticed her studying me, holding eye contact a little longer than normal, a searching of sorts. I smiled back knowing that only the passage of time would ultimately soothe her. I tried to show her in my manner what she needed to know about my character. I hoped by acknowledging the tragedy together, I could help assure her that I was different.
Within a week another crime involving a nanny and a knife appeared in the news. In Missouri, a caretaker had fatally stabbed her own child and one left in her care, her motive supposedly retaliation towards her child’s father. My new boss, now working in broadcasting, explained that the news cycle thrives on finding related stories to the big news items since, “They want to get as much juice out of it as they can.” Nevertheless I could tell she was tempted to say before leaving (though she did not), “Please don’t stab my baby.” Even now, over a month in, she says, “thank you” a lot more than she needs to. This could be because, similar to dating, we’re still in the honeymoon period. It could also be because she thinks it will increase her baby’s chance of survival.
When details emerged as to “Nanny Killer’s” motives, it was all the more unsettling. She had been angry over added housework she had been assigned in exchange for extra cash. My new employer made a big deal of my having no other duties outside of watching the baby. “If you can clean the bottles, great! But if not, don’t worry about it!” She tried to bridge whatever gulf there might be between us. Because if servitude is what breeds resentment and that is what leads to violence, well…..
On my own and during off hours, the story rolled around in my head. The crime was so unthinkable to me. So impossible to comprehend. Isn’t that always the hardest part of interacting with other humans though? The inability to ever fully understand anyone outside of yourself? It is the divide between us that leads to the necessity of trust. Because we can’t be sure of what is going on with each other we must have faith in one another’s intentions. And it is easier to trust those we think are similar to ourselves.
Does my new employer feel safer because I’m white? She might.
On websites like Urban Baby, signs of latent and overt racism quickly appeared after the crime. It highlighted that even as people trust their caregivers, ignorance remains. One commenter suggested that the crime might have been avoided by not “hiring Mexicans,” even though the accused nanny is Dominican. The same women who bragged that their nannies taught their children Spanish, quickly found themselves distrustful. Maybe we don’t know them as well as we thought we did. Maybe they are hiding something from us.
The New York Times published a profile piece about Yoselyn Ortega in the days after the crime. As I read the headline, “Life was Chaos for Nanny Accused of Killing Two Children,” I couldn’t help but think that only under these circumstances would people care who she was, the state of her mental health or what her life was like. Generally speaking, no one concerns themselves much over their nannies’ personal lives. It is only in these moments of shock that we take time for reflection.
Most of the time we take for granted the success of the systems on which we rely and most of the time they don’t fail us. This is true of the relationship between Americans and those who take care of their kids. Many more parents hurt their own children than do caregivers, and of course the grand majority of nannies would never hurt their charges. But collective fear is based on the exception, the rare possibility. We don’t fear the mundane but the unusual. That’s why airplane crashes are scarier than those in cars even while far less common. That’s why we fear strangers when we are more likely to be hurt by family. We fear the things we have no control over and often ignore the perils we can prevent, then we go about living our lives in spite of it. Only now across America working mothers will look a second longer at their nannies faces as they shut the front door.