The Help Speaks Back, Sort Of
The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus, Read by Kathe Mazur, Books on Tape, Inc. 2002
With the urge to exposure becoming such an inherent part of our national (and for that matter, global) character, with talk show confessionals all the rage, it is only surprising that it took so long for a book like this to be written. Certainly the employees of the rich and famous have been a step ahead of the average upper class servants, doling out the secrets of Elvis’ late night drug binges, Prince Charles’ trysts, and Michael Jackson’s entire life. For the same guilty pleasure of watching the high and mighty get skewered without the tabloid sensationalism of fame’s dirty laundry being aired, two former nannies have teamed up to present us with a delicious behind-the-scenes look into the playdates of the soon to be rich and famous.
There is nothing terrifically complicated about the book, no grand theory of life discussed, and no revelations that would shock anyone. The book’s strengths lie not in exposing a hidden world or in illuminating dark secrets, but in the mercilessly humorous way in which the easy targets of wealth and self-indulgence are skivered, one layer at a time, an accumulation of egocentricity pricked repeatedly, devilishly.
The Prologue is a charmingly amusing interview that is described as being the same no matter when it's done or who does it. When the narrator mentions the child, the name keeps changing, always one of those pompous upper crust name like Hutchinson, Stanton, Tinford, Jace, or Elspeth. This ends with the observation that to “do [the job:] well is to lose it,” the mother ultimately resenting how close the nanny and the child becomes. This is a bit of foreshadowing and also a bit of a gloss over the myriad motivations and bitter little revenges that lead to the firing of a nanny, but it smacks the main point directly on the snout.
The Nanny Diaries is filled with deliciously vicious portraits of upper class wives and their disconnected businessmen-husbands. One woman sneers with real venom that her maid, Consuela has another visit to her doctor regarding her hip transplant. “The third one this month,” the woman angrily declaims. We also meet the ironically named Darwin, a child of most unevolved behavior, a regular monster of pampered, violent intemperance who repeatedly hits his nanny. His favorite game involves karate chopping other kids or trying to smother them with his bulk.
The story is that of Nan (or Nanny as she is called while working, her name demonstrating that she is in fact her occupation) who takes a job with Mr. and Mrs. X to care for their four year old son, Grayer. Nan takes this job as a means to pay her bills while she finishes up a degree at NYU in child development/education. The two worlds are set up as to be as starkly divided as possible, the poverty of college for a middle class kid against the Delft riches of her employers, the open-minded world of learning and experience against the rigidity of rules, diets, and the over-scheduled lives of the toddler set.
Between the two authors, they demonstrate a perceptive and amusing ability to sketch certain types with deadly precision. And that’s the book’s real strength, not its plotting but its send-up of types. The collective of white boy posses with their PDAs, backward white baseball caps, and their nanny porno fantasies. The various immigrant servants, downtrodden and harried, with advanced degrees but no chance at better jobs. The other nursemaids, British au pairs, and their pretension to the riches they serve. The walking dead of bankers, MBAs, and stock market speculators. The vacuous trophy mistresses who don't grasp that "winning" against the wife means eventually becoming the hated wife. The portrait of FAO Schwartz during the Christmas crush is a Dantean nightmare of whining spoiled children, harried parents, dazed and idiotic part time clerks, and Kansans being Kansans.
As social commentary, there are many pointed scenes in which the writers indite with a poison pen. Then there are moments that read as though this were a novelization of a major Hollywood film starring the immoderately perky Kate Hudson or the vacuous Brittany Murphy. One scene involves a business related costume party in which Nanny and her charge have to dress up in Teletubbies costumes for a party while Mr. and Mrs. X decide at the last minute to ditch their costumes. This, of course, ends up involving a cramped elevator scene with Nan’s crush, the dashing Harvard Hottie.
As a scenario, this seems to happen in every sitcom and romantic comedy ever written or even dreamed of. Right at this very minute, someone is typing up a screenplay in which a variant of this scene is playing out. Then there is the nanny accidentally stumbling on the husband in flagrante delicto with his mistress at an office party. Another cinematic moment you can simply close your eyes and see all too easily. These are the bit trite scenes, amusingly portrayed, yet cliched nonetheless.
The Nanny Diaries is one of those stories in which the protagonist takes shit for so long you begin get angry yourself, wondering just how much this person is going to swallow. I include this lengthy scene with Mrs. X’s “consultant” who comes in to evaluate Nanny’s performance as a fine example (and also as an amusing look into the life so expertly pinned and mounted):
“How would you describe your agenda during his scheduled playtime?”
“Right…Grayer really likes to play trains. Oh, and dress up. So I try to do activities that he enjoys. I wasn’t aware that he had an agenda for playtime.”
“Do you engage him in puzzles?”
“He doesn’t like puzzles so much.”
“He’s a little young—”
“When was the last time you practiced circles?”
“I’m sure sometime in the last week we had the crayons out—”
“Do you play the Suzuki tapes?”
“Only when he takes a bath.”
“Have you been reading to him from the Wall Street Journal?”
“The Financial Times?”
“Should I be?”
She sighs heavily and scribbles furiously on her pad. She begins again. “How many bilingual meals are you serving him a week?”
“We speak French on Tuesday night, but I usually serve vegieburgers.”
“And you are attending the Guggenheim on what basis?”
“We go to the Museum of Natural History—he loves the rocks.”
“What methodology are you following to dress him?”
“He picks out his clothes or Mrs. X does. As long as he’ll be comfortable—”
“You don’t utilize an Apparel Chart, then?”
“And I suppose you are not documenting his choices with him on a Closet Diagram.”
“Nor are you having him translate his color and sizes into the Latin.”
So at the book's end, when Nanny finally does go off, to a Nanny-cam, the effect is a bit underwhelming. You want her to slap Mrs. X's face or shake her, you want Mr. and Mrs. X to grasp the folly of their self-centeredness. Of course, it's probably more realistic that Nanny never does actually go off on her employers, at least to their faces. How many of us have stuck it out in horrible employment circumstances because we had no better options on the horizon, because we needed the money, because we thought circumstances couldn't possibly get any worse — and when they do, we tell ourselves, well it won't get any worse than this?
And so the novel is a bit like telling your friends all the good retorts you came up with after the fact. The authors get their bit of revenge, but does that change anything? Venal, self-absorbed utter refuse posing as human beings will continue to reproduce despite having no interest in their children. The author bios on the back of the book inform us that Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus are no longer nannies. I doubt they could ever return to the profession, and so with this book they were able to burn all the bridges to that life. I certainly hope the parents left on the other side of those bridges saw themselves in these unflattering portraits and blushed with shame and promised to become better people, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Kathe Mazur, the reader, inhabits the book as a nice background sound, never intruding, never overstating her case, while all the while giving us a wonderfully nuanced performance.