The Enduring Uneasiness at the Heart of the Nanny Thriller

The Enduring Uneasiness at the Heart of the Nanny Thriller

Kelsey Rae Dimberg

Nanny thrillers are uniquely creepy: They take a relationship based on trust and protecting children, and they mix in a sinister element or two to keep readers guessing. Kelsey Rae Dimberg’s new novel, Girl In the Rearview Mirror, tells the story of a woman named Finn who begins nannying for a high-profile family in Phoenix, Arizona. The job is idyllic at first, but soon takes a dark turn. Here, Dimberg writes about the enduring uneasiness of nanny thrillers.

In the campy 1992 thriller The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a mother’s friend eyes her new nanny skeptically. “Never let an attractive woman into a power position in your home,” she says. “How does the saying go? The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

This advice feels absurdly retrograde—more suited to 1952 than 1992. Yet the nanny remains a destabilizing figure, in literature and real life. Nanny clichés abound, from the careless teen whose inattention puts the children in danger to the pretty young thing who seduces the husband. More complex is the stew of emotions the hiring of a nanny may bring up for parents (especially mothers): the desire to do the right thing, guilt for leaving children in other hands, insecurity and fear of being judged, anxiety about hiring a stranger, and on and on. To top off the whole fraught cocktail, the nanny also dwells in a strange place: she cares for the children, fully knowing her place in their lives is temporary; she spends her days in the family’s home but likely belongs to a lower social and economic class. No surprise, then, that literature about nannies has a long, robust history.

Back to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which depicts the nanny as a dangerous usurper in the home. In the film, the nanny, Peyton, played by Rebecca De Mornay, methodically and maliciously works to displace the mother from her own family. Peyton nurses the baby herself, until he refuses his mother’s milk; she persuades the little girl to confide in her rather than her mom; she breezes around the kitchen in a diaphanous cotton nightgown and makes eyes at the husband. The movie shamelessly plays with the paranoia around allowing another woman into the house.

More frightening than a nanny who grows too attached to the family is the opposite: the babysitter who harms the child. In the classic 1950 crime novel, Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong, a couple hires a stranger to watch their daughter while they attend a ceremonial dinner. The babysitter is deeply unstable, and the reader observes in terror as her bizarre, careless behavior veers toward violence. Meanwhile, we alternate into the point of view of the mother, who’s torn between her instinct that something is deeply wrong, and the desire not to be “that mother,” and risk spoiling her husband’s evening. The contrast between her primal fear and the bland social mores that keep her quiet is nail-biting, and still realistic today.

The frightening nanny figure reaches an apex in Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which begins at the end: “The baby is dead.” His nanny, Louise, a seemingly perfect caregiver, has killed him. The novel is based on a true crime, and examines what could lead to such an act of violence. Part of the narrative centers on the parents, who hire Louise after a brief interview and are quickly reliant on her, so they ignore flashes of strangeness. In Louise’s perspective, the reader is witness to her loneliness, lovelessness, and precarious economic position. Her world is hollow, and her relationship with the family takes on an increasing desperateness before the shocking conclusion.

The best nanny thrillers explore the complex gray area of being a nanny: close to but outside the family; neither purely professional nor entirely personal; at once powerful and powerless. In my own novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, nanny Finn Hunt longs to be part of the Martin family’s world, and their complicated relationship contains trust and anxiety, love and resentment, inclusion and isolation. Writing in Finn’s perspective, I also got to examine Finn’s vulnerability in growing close to the Martins, who have secrets of their own.

How well do we ever know the people we allow into our lives? How can we trust a stranger with those we love most? These pulse-quickening questions at the heart of nanny literature won’t lose their potency any time soon.

 

Kelsey Rae Dimberg received an MFA from the University of San Francisco and studied at Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University, where she was editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Lux. Girl in the Rearview Mirror is her first novel.

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