"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s not often you get two nanny maelstroms in one week. Nannies, after all, often fly under the radar as invisible laborers, changing diapers, taking kids to school, making life easier for the parents who hire them.
But this week, nannies are news. First came a New York Times story in Sunday’s “Modern Love” column by a mother who fired her nanny after reading her blog; it provoked an angry blogged response from the canned caretaker. Just a day later, news broke that “Alfie” dog Jude Law had cheated on his fiancée with his kids’ nanny.
The stories are very different, but they both highlight an uncomfortable condition of middle- and upper-class life that we don’t like to talk about very much. It’s incredibly hard to wrap our heads around the tricky contradictions and muddled ways we view the people — usually female, with varying degrees of education, money and racial advantages — who help parents privileged enough to employ them balance the responsibilities of work, social life and child rearing. It’s a powder-keg relationship, packed with class, gender and age anxieties, doused with the lighter fluid of psychological transference and jealousy. When it explodes, as it has in these two cases, neither nannies nor mommies nor jilted girlfriends come out looking good.
The “Modern Love” piece, by Helaine Olen, tells of how Olen started reading the blog of her family nanny, Tessy (as she refers to herself in her blog). Olen describes Tessy as a “26-year-old former teacher with excellent references,” as if she were a horse-trader selling a mare with pearly white incisors. Her dismay at what she found in her well-bred babysitter’s online diary makes her envious and critical of Tessy’s social and sexual life, as well as doubtful about the young woman’s devotion to the family.
Olen writes of her shock at learning that Tessy — who spoke of going to graduate school! — engaged in deviant behavior like touching her own breasts while reading the New Yorker, having sex with men and women, expressing erotic curiosity about pundit Tucker Carlson and actress Jennifer Ehle, drinking alcohol and taking sleeping pills. All of this on her own time, off the babysitting clock, but still … Tucker Carlson?
Olen’s dismay at these activities betrays her sense of surprise that a woman who pursues an advanced degree might also have desires, quirks, pleasures, breasts. In short, it came as a shock that Tessy’s nannyhood did not preclude her humanity.
But of course what Olen feels (and to her credit, acknowledges that she feels) is jealousy of Tessy’s youth, her energy, her unencumbered and active sex life — all of which she writes she used to have herself, before her marriage and her kids. Olen even admits that in the past, she’d been comfortable listening to the woes of previous babysitters who’d had abortions or had their hearts broken by unfaithful men. “Those were problems I could feel superior to and that made me feel grateful for the steady routine of marriage and children.”
The trouble is, it’s not a babysitter’s job — any more than it is a housekeeper’s or a pool boy’s or an office mate’s job — to make an employer feel secure about herself. A babysitter’s job is to provide care for the children.
Olen’s description of Tessy indicates that she is possibly of the same economic caste as her employer. But Olen’s staggering assumptions about her relationship with Tessy reveal how she conceptualizes class. That Olen should not feel in any way threatened by someone who works for her — simply because she works for her — is a major leap from the reasonable assumption that she should receive services from the person she pays. As for the moral lines we draw around things like marriages and bonds with children, they are certainly blurrier; but Olen gives no indication that Tessy violated those. Olen says that Tessy made her doubt herself; that’s a transgression only if the base assumption is that those who work for us are, and should be by definition, less than we are in every way.
It’s also clear that part of what chafes at Olen was the fact that Tessy did not use her blog as a forum in which to extol the joys of caring for her children. “Most parents don’t like to think the person watching their children is there for a salary,” she writes. Perhaps she thinks they show up every day for the spiritual uplift of cleaning up her children’s vomit. Has she considered the pesky matter of making a living? “We often build up a mythology of friendship with our nannies, pretending the nanny admires us and loves our children so much that she would continue to visit even without pay,” she writes.
Sure, many of us former babysitters have built lasting friendships with the parents and children whose lives we entered. But that’s not in the contract, lady.
My horror at Olen’s piece was amplified by Tessy’s blogged rebuttal, posted after the Times piece. Tessy, it turns out, is about to start a Ph.D. program concentrating on the late Victorian novel, which is pretty funny, since in her piece Olen had dismissed the nanny’s interest in literature with casual “I used to read books too back when I was a self-indulgent single person” facility.
Tessy’s response to Olen’s assertions includes links to the entries that Olen describes in her story. The nanny’s alleged “offbeat erotic fantasies involving Tucker Carlson” stem from a riff on how political frustration with conservative Carlson reminds Tessy of the sexual friction in a Jane Austen novel. Tessy says that what Olen called her “semi-promiscuous couplings” during her five-month nannying stint were hampered by the two and a half months she spent celibate. Her sleeping pills are over the counter from Target. Her crush on Jennifer Ehle is inspired by the actor’s appealing turn as Elizabeth Bennett in A&E’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.”
It’s easy to imagine 7,000 New York mothers jockeying to get this woman on their own domestic payroll.
The nanny’s response also tackles less funny problems with Olen’s essay, such as Olen’s expression of fear that Tessy might judge her boring married life. “This might be hard for Ms. Olen to understand, considering this article reveals that she lives in an insular world where everything is about HER, but I didn’t judge her life,” writes the nanny. “She employed me to care for her children. Her choices? Her compromises? Not my business.” What Olen was trying to do, Tessy argues, was paint the young nanny as “anti-mother and anti-children.” Tessy claims that she is neither, pointing readers to posts about her desire to one day be a mother herself.
For good measure, Tessy explains that while she is eager to set the record straight about her own promiscuity, she wants to be clear that she “will defend any woman’s right to sleep with whomever, whenever she wants. Ms. Olen is shocked by a single woman who has and talks about sex … One of the most disappointing things about this essay is the way it suggests that a woman who thinks about sex … [is] not fit to care for children. Ridiculous.”
Amen. But for other deeply twisted nanny news, we need look no further than the peculiar melodrama being played out across the pond by actor Jude Law, his nanny Daisy Wright, his onetime fiancée Sienna Miller and his ex-wife Sadie Frost.
It’s all very tangled, but mercifully, everyone involved seems anxious to see it unfold on the pages of tabloids, so we’ve got lots of information to work with. Here’s a condensed version: A couple of years ago, Law left Frost (reportedly suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of their third child) for the much younger Miller, a beanpole ingénue and his costar in the remake of “Alfie.” Law and Miller (whose career has since blossomed along with her heir-of-Gwyneth reputation as designer clotheshorse) got engaged.
Then, while Law was filming a remake of “All the King’s Men,” 26-year-old nanny Wright brought his kids to see him on the set just after Miller had jetted off for an acting project of her own. Law was feeling lonely, so, within a day of Wright’s arrival, he had sex with her. Unfortunately, one of his young children walked in on Daddy and Daisy in bed. (Apparently Law told him to go back to bed, then rolled over and had sex with Wright again.) The Law-Frost spawn squealed to his mother back in London; Frost promptly sacked Wright, who just as promptly sold her diary to the London papers.
Law soon confessed publicly; Miller’s mother told reporters that Law is “so stupid.” Not to be left out, Frost got on the horn with a British paper and offered to comfort Miller, the sylph she was jilted for. “I have all sorts of advice for her,” said Frost. Mm-hmm. We bet she does.
Miller, the only lead in this saga not to have called a reporter yet, has been seen in London without her engagement ring.
But there are dismal side effects of this diverting summer sudser. Most alarming is that rather than considering the possibility that Law might be something of a cad, not to say a major-league asshole, the press, with help from the relevant players, has set about dismantling both Wright and Miller.
Wright’s account of the affair begins when Law whines to her about his beloved Miller’s commitment to work and social life. Wright wrote, “I said to Jude I didn’t understand why he didn’t find a wife who didn’t want a career and to party all the time … He said … he would love that more than anything.” A seriously pissed friend of Miller’s has confirmed this angle of the story, claiming that Law explained his straying to his fiancée by saying, “I told you I needed you to be there for me.”
It’s a charming rehash of this year’s Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston boy-meets-girl fable in which girl selfishly insists on carrying on with her own career and refusing to tend to boy’s every need. What’s boy to do but diddle the babysitter on a pool table?
It’s also the oldest story in the book, an embarrassing cliché: the needy male taking comfort in the unthreatening (and often younger, though not in this case, since if Law went younger than 23-year-old Miller he’d be on a perilous legal ledge) woman whose sole professional function is to do the domestic work of child care. Babysitters are, after all, women who are paid not to go to offices, or movie sets, or anywhere else that might smack of competition or abandonment. Their job is to stay safely at home. Foxy, right?
Right, according to the New York Post, which on Wednesday ran a story tastefully headlined “Come to Papa,” asserting that “many New York wives don’t understand why anyone would invite a Daisy Wright into the house; they want someone older, and preferably homely.” The scare tactics of the story — Beware the hot nanny and her vagina dentata! — was so ludicrous that Gawker ran an item lampooning it: “Any nanny who’s even slightly attractive is clearly a husband-fucking varmint … Besides, everyone knows that the best domestic servants are the ugly ones. It’s God’s way.”
But hot-nanny Wright didn’t stay hot for long, and on Thursday, the Post ran a cover shot of Wright with the blaring headline: “Hey Jude, what were you thinking? Nanny ain’t no movie star.” The thesis of this delicate piece of prose was in its second paragraph, when reporter Bill Hoffman wrote: “Even all tarted up for a photo shoot for London’s Mirror newspaper, nanny Daisy Wright looks more like a late-night belt-notch than a top-shelf taste worth scrapping an engagement to a gorgeous A-list actress” for.
For the many working women who can’t afford child care, there are costs much steeper than the pestilential plague of nannies. But the double frenzy of the past week reminds us that we’re not yet beyond punishing women who choose not to stay home, and who are lucky enough to be able to hire someone else to fill in their blanks. We cannot let them carry on the balancing act of career, family and love life without menacingly suggesting that their help might just fill in their blanks too well.
And those who take on the job of caring for other women’s children — for financial reasons, or because it is their calling — face a double bind. Be good, but don’t be too good. Be smart, but don’t be too smart. Take care of needs, but not too many needs.
After all, it remains vital that we be able to marginalize and look down on the people who raise our kids — mothers and nannies both. What would happen if we ever started looking up to them?
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)