In the late 1960s, young people left home and headed for places like San Francisco, protested Vietnam, and did a lot of drugs and had a lot of sex. At this same time, a little girl named Liza Rodman spent summers in Cape Cod. Liza could never do right, incurring the wrath of her mother and then spewing the same energy and violence on her younger sister. To get rid of her children, Liza’s mother would ask strangers, “Hey, you babysit?” and leave her children behind while she worked or went out with girlfriends. It is this lackadaisical parenting that lands Liza and her sister with Tony Costa as a “babysitter.” Because she loved how kind and attentive Tony was, Liza was surprised to learn decades later that Tony was a serial killer.
The Babysitter has two authors. Liza Rodman writers her experiences (memoir) and Jennifer Jordan uses sources to put together Tony’s story (journalism). What you get is a cool, multi-genre nonfiction book. During our book club, Biscuit and I asked whether Liza’s chapters were needed, given that at some point her mother moves the children to a different city in which Tony does not live. Yes, we decided. Liza’s chapters gave context for the time period. Biscuit was born the same year as Liza and eagerly pointed out similarities between Liza’s experiences and her own, especially the way hippies traveled to and from her town, often without a trace.
The accepted behavior toward children — the time Liza’s car door wasn’t secured and she flew out on a turn, hitting children, dumping kids off with strangers — all come through crystal clear. At every turn there’s a moment when I would think, “I’m so glad there are safety regulations in place today to prevent children from needlessly suffering.” I’m not talking about helicopter parenting or preventing kids from independent outdoor activities. I’m referring to seat belts, Child Protective Services, and laws (a new one in Indiana) that requires you to report suspected child abuse lest you face the same charges as the abuser. Basically, Liza’s life provides context for Tony’s world.
Jennifer Jordan’s chapters are all carefully cited, with pages of endnotes containing sources. She’s able to quote many people, giving them voice on the page. After Tony’s capture, his lawyer does not believe Tony is innocent, and instead works to find a doctor who will declare Tony “guilty but insane.” It never works; although all the psychologists and psychiatrists agree Tony has mental health issues, he can tell right from wrong. The result of so many interviews is over 50 hours of recordings with Tony from which Jennifer Jordan can include information in The Babysitter.
The most bizarre character in The Babysitter is not Tony, but his child bride, Avis. At fourteen, Avis starts dating Tony, who in his twenties often tried to garner the attention of early-teen girls. Together they get pregnant on purpose to force her mother to sign off on their marriage. By fifteen she’s a wife and mother. Later, with three children, she and Tony divorce, but she continues to help Tony, giving him rides and lying to police for him, despite the sexual abuse she faced while married to him. At his trial for multiple murders, Avis blows kisses to Tony when she enters the courtroom with her boyfriend. She often refuses to shower, clean her home (police note there is dog shit on the floor and refuse to sit on the furniture), or properly care for their children.
I wasn’t pleased that Jordan included some trickery in her section of the book, namely in the epilogue where she clears up some questions from early in The Babysitter. Holding back suggests Jordan wanted to manipulate the reader’s feelings about Tony, whereas I believe that if the story is so compelling, there’s no need to fake left. Tony’s trial was also anticlimactic, a fact that Jordan acknowledges, because the event was over so quickly. It’s often ratcheting tension in the courtroom that appeals to me, or a manhunt with a countdown timer, but neither were the case.
Fans of the true crime genre will enjoy The Babysitter for what it adds to culture and norms of the 1960s in America. The fact that surprised me most was that for all the teen boys and girls who ran away from home to be hippies, boys often turned up later after having an adventure or a drugged out escapade, whereas many teen girls were never heard from again. . . Some parents contacted police, who frequently ignored the missing person concerns because hippies were known to be hard to track down, and other parents never reported missing children because their teens had already run away from home so many times.