By Charlotte Manyasli
Charlotte is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.
“This is the first generation of women who were told by the society they are living in that they can achieve everything. That they could even be selfish,” stated Leila Slimani during a book talk at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, for her novel The Perfect Nanny. Slimani not only illuminates the complex responsibilities of motherhood, but also what it looks like to be an independent woman. She is a journalist on women’s and human rights issues in the Maghreb, as well as a non-fiction writer focusing predominantly on the issues of sex and misogyny in Morocco. Slimani draws on her personal experiences growing up in Morocco, her own life as a mother, and other significant life events in order to understand gender roles in the different kinds of places that have been home to her.
In Leila Slimani’s novels, she takes a distinct narrative stance in her books. She draws on morbid cases like sexual assaults and murders in order to criticize contemporary gender inequality. In her novel Adele, which she wrote before the Perfect Nanny she writes from the perspective of a mother and closeted sex addict. In her short story “Confessions,” the reader is enticed by an unknown narrator living in an unknown village. He reflects on his experience raping one of the local girls with his father. Slimani tells the stories that are untold: for other authors would not dare tell the story of a rapist or in the case of the Perfect Nanny, a murderous protagonist. Slimani proves that the unspeakable perspective is her comfort zone.
The Perfect Nanny, originally published in French in 2016, tracks the story of Myriam, who returns to work as a lawyer when her children are two and five. The story features various perspectives and a non-linear chronology. The plot begins with the brutal murder of Myriam’s and Paul’s two children, Mila and Adam, by Louise the caregiver. The story then backtracks revealing the frazzled sentiments of a stay-at-home mom who desires to return to work and an adored white nanny. Louise feels the need to serve the rich families but can never truly belong due to her low economic status. Yet, she tries to emanate the white French bourgeois class. The flashbacks also include smaller chapters of Louise’s past employers, Myriam’s mother in law, Louise’s daughter Stephanie, and Paul.
Slimani shows the intricate relationship between a mother and her children as well as mother and nanny. The question of intimacy is central to the book. Myriam, Louise, and the children experience an emotional and physical intimacy with a thin line between violence and love. Slimani explains how a nanny is the only occupation in which there is an expectation to love and nurture a child that is not one’s own.
Guilt is crucial to the novel. Who is guilty for the murder of the children? Is it the mother who returned to work or the nanny who was in charge of the children, but snapped? This question inspired the book and is central in today’s society. Slimani shows how what can seem to be an outdated gender role manifests itself in a contemporary metropolitan setting. In the novel, Myriam struggles to find a balance between her career as a lawyer and her desire to be a “perfect” mother.
Myriam begins motherhood by feeling that “She alone [is] capable of meeting her daughter’s needs.” Her attitude shifts as she is swamped by the responsibility of being a stay-at-home mom. She reflects, “For months she pretended she was okay. Even to Paul, she didn’t dare admit her secret shame. How she felt as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children and the conversation of strangers overheard in the supermarket.” Myriam embodies the typical anxieties of a mother. She feels that she can provide for her children yet feels a kind of guilt for not being the ideal mother who would love nothing more than to spend all her time with her children. She instead longs to return to work.
The plot of the novel is morbid reality. It is based on two real-life murders: the Eappon murder in 1997, and the Krims murder in 2012. Louis Woodward was a nineteen-year-old British au pair at the time and was convicted in 1997 for involuntary manslaughter of eight-month-old Matthew Eappon in Newton, Massachusetts. Woodward was charged of killing the baby by shaking him while she was in a state of frustration. Eappon’s mother and father were full-time doctors at the time. In the “New York Time’s” Retro Report documentary of the trail, the viewer can see how guilt was not only placed on the nanny, the murderer, but also on the mother. Woodward’s defense even goes so far as to argue that if Debbie Eappon, the baby’s mother, did not want her child dead she should have stayed home to care for him herself.
This acute statement of guilt is exactly what Slimani attempts to highlight in the Perfect Nanny. Louise Woodward even inspired the character of Louise, the perfect “Marry Poppins-esque” character in the novel. The Woodward case shows us that even though women are told that they can achieve whatever they want – be a mother and have a career- the old cultural gender norms of responsibility for the wellbeing of the child still falls in the hands of the mother, not the father.
The Krims children murder was the second inspiration for the Perfect Nanny. Yoselyn Ortega was a Dominican nanny for the Krims, a Manhattan family. Ms. Ortega worked part-time helping the mother, Marina Krim, to pick up and care for her three children. On October 25, 2012, Yoselyn Ortega was watching Leo Krim, age two, and Lucia Krim, age six, while Marina was taking care of her eldest daughter. When Marina returned home, she found her two children murdered in the bathtub and a knife against Ms. Ortega’s throat. The case raised the issue of mental illness. Can the nanny be responsible for a murder if she was suffering from mental illness? The jury rejected the defense that Ms. Ortega cannot be held responsible and she was charged with life in prison.
In the Perfect Nanny, the reader never learns the result of the case. The book ends abruptly with Louise plotting to coerce Myriam and Paul into having a third child so that she could stay permanently with the family. The last chapter of the novel features the investigator, Captain Nina Dorval, trying to recreate the murder to collect more evidence for the trial. Even as she retraces the murder, she relays the sentiments of the nanny falling into insanity.
There, she will let herself be engulfed by a wave of disgust, by a hatred of everything: this apartment, this washing machine, this still-filthy sink, these toys that have escaped their boxes and crawled under the tables to die, the sword pointed at the sky, the dangling ear. She will be Louise, Louise pushing her fingers in her ears to stop the shouting and the crying. Louise who goes back and forth from the bathroom and the kitchen, from the trash to the tumble dryer, from the bed to the cupboard in the entrance hall, from the balcony to the bathroom. Louise who comes back and then starts again, Louise who bends down and stands on tiptoe. Louise who takes a knife from a cupboard. Louise who drinks a glass of wine, the window open, one foot resting on the little balcony.
Slimani shows directly how the desire to be the perfect housewife and performing these duties unhinges Louise. The murder is not important, but rather where the guilt falls and the exposed of the inherent flawed character the sentiment of guilt and the expose of the flawed character, the perfect mother. Leila Slimani has done something genius. She reveals Louise’s sentiments of trying to achieve perfection and her inevitable fall into insanity.
Perfection is not reality and ultimately we cannot truly know what is underneath it. Louise and Myriam are used as examples to the various shapes of motherhood. The perfect mother does not exist even if you are a stay-at-home mother. Slimani unfolds the relationships that society resists to hear and gives them agency, but not because they deserve it. She tells the story to highlight how feminism has not lessened the burden of motherhood. The takeaway is that gender equality has not reached parenthood.