Books June 2006

How To Treat the Help?

The age-old problem of the rich has become the brand-new problem of the middle class

Twenty-five years ago I got fired. I had been employed as a thrice-a-week afternoon babysitter for the two-year-old daughter of a prosperous young matron, who used the free time to run errands or nap. I never met the little girl’s father, but I talked to him regularly. At least once a week, usually more often than that, the phone would ring thirty minutes after my arrival, and he would give me a message for his wife: he was working late in the city and wouldn’t be home for dinner. I would duly report these facts—often as an afterthought, while the wife was fishing in her purse for my pay—and she would take the news stoically, heaving a brave little sigh and nodding.

One day I showed up for work, gave the little girl a hug—we were fond of each other—and then settled the two of us down in the playroom. I made her a castle out of large cardboard blocks, and once she was happily playing inside it, I opened my French textbook and started to read. At no point did it cross my mind that by doing this I was in dereliction of duty. I was raised with my mother close by, but not hovering. Ditto my Saturday-night babysitters, whom I adored and who often did their homework as they sat beside me on the couch in the TV room. Anyway, while the little girl and I were enjoying the peaceful afternoon, the playroom door suddenly swung open—it was clearly a sting operation—and my boss glared at the scene as though she’d caught me in flagrante with the gardener while her child played with matches. I was sent home, and two hours later I was fired over the telephone. (“You were supposed to be playing with her, not studying,” she told me—perfectly reasonable, but I hadn’t known that’s what she wanted.)

So there I was: an eighteen-year-old college freshman who felt humiliated and angry, cut to the quick by a woman I had admired. When she’d been out running her errands, I would put the girl on my hip and wander through the large rooms of the house and imagine what it would be like to be married, to have a home and a baby of my own. I hadn’t taken the job because I needed money. At that time, I received a generous allowance from my parents, which arrived in my campus mailbox each month in the form of a check, cut and signed by their accountant. I had taken the job for the same reason I started babysitting at age eleven, for fifty cents an hour: because I liked children, and I liked being a contributing member of a household. And now I’d been shamed and fired. There was only one recourse: telling all my friends about the husband’s phone calls (“Maybe he’s having an affair!” someone said, which hadn’t occurred to me, but which quickly became the top line) and throwing in a few other facts of my former employers’ domestic lives, which I had either imbibed or discovered. (What babysitter in the world hasn’t idly pulled open a bedside drawer or peeked into a medicine cabinet?) Two weeks later, the woman’s name and phone number reappeared in the binder of babysitting jobs that was kept in the student employment office, and I drew a red line through it with a Flair pen. Over it I wrote, “Bad Family.”

In reviewing these facts, I would have to put myself in the category of “behaved badly” and my boss in the category of “had it coming.” If she had wanted different behavior from me, she could easily have gotten it, and if she’d wanted me out of the house, she could have finessed it without my being any the wiser. I’m old enough now—much older than she was when she fired me—to realize that the husband’s telephone calls, and the sting operation, and the outraged sacking, were not unrelated events. Through no fault of my own, and through the essential nature of the job, I had landed myself squarely in the middle of an unhappy domestic episode, and that fact had done me no favors when the time came to evaluate my work. But I’m also old enough to realize that in the particular imbalance of power that marks the mother/ babysitter relationship, an ugly falling-out usually leaves the employee with no artillery but her knowledge of the other woman’s private life. Hence “Bad Family,” and hence also You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again, the confessional of a woman named Suzanne Hansen, who once spent an unhappy year caring for the three children of then-formidable Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz, co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, and his wife, Judy.

Hansen was a competent child-care provider, an unrepentant snoop, and a star-fucker extraordinaire, and she has produced a trash book of fearsome quality. The story takes place in the late eighties, when Ovitz was at the height of his powers and when Hansen, an eighteen- year-old who had recently graduated from a nanny training program in Oregon, eagerly moved to Los Angeles, “land of milk, honey, sunshine, and money.” She interviewed with a nanny agency and was quickly dispatched to the Ovitzes’ Brentwood manor house. She was hired at once, moving into a room next to the nursery and carrying out her duties with an efficiency that left plenty of time for a first-rate surveillance operation. She eavesdropped on the Ovitzes’ telephone conversations, looked through their mail and searched for financial papers, and conjectured about the nature of their sexual relationship. In her reflective hours, she holed up in her room, recording her findings in a diary. In short, a legendarily ruthless player got stuck with the world’s most repellent nanny, and now here she is—almost twenty years older, a mother herself—telling every secret thing.

Her portrait of the private Ovitz is consistent with what one has read about the public man: he was tireless, fastidious to the point of priggery, and obsessed by notions of loyalty and betrayal. His dedication to his clients extended even to the way his household was run: the front and side doors were never to be locked (the book is several times enlivened by the arrival, through one of these doors, of a movie star), and there was no telephone answering machine or service—every call was answered personally. Once, in his eagerness to return a call to Robert Redford, he dived into Hansen’s bed so that he could snatch the closest extension. When he rang off, he seemed suddenly to come to his senses, jumping up, fussily straightening the coverlet, and thanking Hansen, who was perched at the foot of the bed. The book’s single best moment occurs when the Ovitzes lunge upon a recently delivered anniversary gift from the Eisners, ripping the box open in a frenzy of greed and glee and then rocking back in horror at its contents: a stuffed Minnie and Mickey.

Judy is a more difficult character to assess, because—like every nanny in history—Hansen was obsessed with her mistress, and the reader needs to tease the facts about her from the miasma of anger, hurt feelings, and imagined slights in which they are suspended. The arrangement seems to have consisted of Judy’s doing the lion’s share of caring for her two school-age children (one of whom took an immediate—and apparently prescient—dislike to Hansen), with Hansen being responsible for the youngest, an infant. She was also charged with caring for the older two during the afternoons and evenings when Judy had social engagements. Judy was an at-home mom of a certain stripe: not single-mindedly devoted to her children’s care, but far more involved with their daily lives than many women of her wealth and social position. Hansen is censorious of every moment Judy spends away from her kids, but it seems to me that if you disapprove of mothers relying on hired help, you shouldn’t take a job as a live-in nanny for a prominent society woman.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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