The Babysitter by Lisa Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

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.

16 comments

  1. As a parent, it’s so hard for me to understand this lackadaisical approach to parenting where you leave your kid with a stranger or don’t make them wear a seatbelt! Though of course I can understand that I grew up in a different era and am approaching these things with very different eyes. It’s sad too to think of those girls that you mention at the end who slipped through the cracks and disappeared. I want to believe that it’s harder for things like that to happen now with greater access to internet and phones but I know there are still girls who go missing and not enough is done to find them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t believe the stories about all the security cameras, and they can see this person a place A and time 1 and at place B at time 2 and then somewhere in a 30 minute gap she disappeared. I mean, wild stuff like that! It still happens.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, you’d think with our heavier surveillance society, people wouldn’t be able to just disappear but somehow they do. In Canada, there is an ongoing issue of Indigenous women in particular going missing. In my own province, there’s a highway dubbed the Highway of Tears because so many women have disappeared along there in the last 40 or 50 years. Some were murdered but for some there are just no answers.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Weirdly, Tony hung around with lots of minors who were teen aged. He liked having followers in their teens, and he started dating one of them who was 14. He started having sex with her and then wanted to marry her, but her mother said no. So, they intentionally got pregnant to force the mother’s hand. The author who knew Tony, Liza Rodman, was about 8 at the time. He wasn’t weird to children or sexual or anything like that. At one point, he took Rodman and her sister into the woods where he showed them some weird dirt mounts (obviously graves), but it was almost like a kid showing off a comic book collection, or something. I’m not sure that he kept the monster hidden or if he just didn’t feel anything toward them other than care and concern — he was NICE to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a wild tale, hard to believe but at the same time awful enough to believe. I have a hard time reading about mistreated kids and I’m not really into true crime but it sounds like a well written read.

    Like

    • I hate reading about mistreated kids, but to be honest, I’ve heard that kids are so “soft” these days that it was a good reminder to me of how folks used to treat kids. They definitely did not seem as valued….perhaps a little more disposable. Biscuit was born the same year as Liza Rodman, and she remembers this time period well. Children did all sorts of dangerous stuff that I know some people call the “good ol’ days,” but it’s a hard pass from me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. i’m curious whether lackadaisical is your word or whether it’s introduced directly in the book? Because given different parenting norms, it could also be viewed as good planning to constantly be on the lookout for a babysitter (after all, people do squeal when kids are left home alone too!) Hee hee. Okay, I’m exaggerating myself, there. But I try to read in context and I know that I was allowed/asked to babysit for all sorts of kids (and to accompany my friends to their sitting jobs) and the presumption was trust (and mostly it worked out–once I got bit by a very cute little blonde girl LOL). Obviously this practice didn’t always lead to a happy place (witness THIS book – hah) but it didn’t always lead to an unhappy place either. And how do we know whether the distrustful practices which hold sway today lead to well-balanced adults?

    Like

    • I think the reasonable thing to do is hire A) a person advertising their services or B) someone your friend/neighbor/co-worker has already used and knows. I don’t think asking a random dude in a POS pick-up truck at the gas station to take your two daughters is considered any kind of normal!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Then again, nothing about this situation is “normal” or it wouldn’t likely have been published. Ordinary stories about kids from that era whose babysitters were not later discovered to be serial killers, or the highlight of my own babysitting experience-being bitten, aren’t going to make it past an agent’s desk. B-o-r-i-n-g.

        All I’m saying is that there aren’t any easy answers and there were vulnerabilities then (when folks, arguably, over-trusted) and there are vulnerabilities now (when folks, arguably, under-trust). Advertising only requires a credit card or a copy machine and even a recommendation from a friend can lead to an unfortunate incident…these sound like reasonable ideas to me too, but maybe reasonable is more complicated than it seems.

        Like

  4. YIkes Yikes Yikes. Ugh, the thing that sounds the worst here is Tony’s child bride wife! Three kids, living in a slum, I can’t imagine what horrors those children endured. It’s all terrible, just…stories of kids being neglected and abused are just so heart-wrenching to me. And to me, what rachets up this anxiety is the thought of how terrible some kids circumstances were during the pandemic. Like, so many children live in homes that aren’t safe during regular times, and being stuck there for months at a time with no school to escape to. I think we are going to be seeing the mental health affects of that play out for decades to come. Ugh, it’s all just so sad!

    Like

    • Yeah, I am especially worried about children in dangerous homes. I knew people when I was in school who clearly did not live in a good place, and I know folks now who felt that school was a respite from home. I also have this horrible experience in my background: the summer after 8th grade I worked at a daycare. The plan was to be there for three months only, but within about two months everything I witnessed and experienced, and addition to a construction crew who was there to remodel the house and saw some pretty horrific things, led to that daycare being shut down on child abuse charges.

      Liked by 1 person

Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s