Lessons of the nanny murder trial

The nanny trial showed that working mothers and nannies alike are held to impossibly high standards, according to an expert.


Dawn MacKeen
October 31, 1997 4:11PM (UTC)

The nanny did it. So said the Cambridge, Mass., jury in the so-called nanny murder trial on Thursday night, ending for now a tabloid-like spectacle that had talk shows across America buzzing about the parental responsibilities of working mothers, well-to-do-parents and teenage baby sitters. After three days of deliberation, the jury found 19-year-old Louise Woodward guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. The English nanny inflicted the two-inch fracture in Eappen's skull that caused his death, the jury found. Middlesex County Judge Hiller B. Zobel sentenced Woodward on Friday to life in prison; she will be eligible for parole after 15 years. Her lawyers say they will appeal.

The trial, which was televised and widely viewed in both the United States and Great Britain, pitted two starkly differing views of mothering. The prosecution portrayed Woodward as a bad girl, an out-of-control teenager armed with a fake ID whose late-night escapades left her unable to perform her duties professionally. According to the prosecution, Woodward was so upset over a newly imposed curfew and the baby's crying that she violently shook him and then threw him against a hard surface, actions that caused his death five days later. For its part, the defense, which was paid for by the au pair agency that sponsored her, claimed that Matthew's injuries had been inflicted earlier. More controversially, it played the "working mom card," attacking the infant's mother, Deborah Eappen, as a part-time mom whose work as an ophthalmologist resulted in her neglecting her family.

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Talk show callers went further, saying that Eappen was a yuppie who worked not to make ends meet but to improve her "lifestyle," leaving her children, Matthew and his then-2-year-old brother, Brendan, in someone else's care when she didn't have to. Almost lost in the finger-pointing was the fact, as Matthew's father, Sunil Eappen, reminded CBS, that "the poor baby died here."

According to Lauri Umansky, co-editor of "Bad Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth Century America" (forthcoming in November, NYU Press), although the defense's playing of the working-mother card didn't work, the outpouring of sympathy for Woodward after the verdict illustrates how conflicted our culture still is about the relationship between motherhood and work. Salon spoke with Umansky about the lessons of the trial.

Why did everyone watch this trial so closely?

Louise Woodward is very young, and the family is prominent in terms of
education and profession. But one of the biggest factors here is
Anglophilia. We in this country love the British -- we love to talk about
them, we get involved in their scandals. The British nanny, from Mary
Poppins to "The Sound of Music," is a cultural icon. She's supposed
to be a proper, buttoned-down figure. So we're dealing with a cultural icon transgressing the norms of her proper behavior, at a time when how to accomplish good day care is very much on our minds.

What was this trial really about?

I think that there are two mothers who are being blamed for being bad
mothers. One is Deborah Eappen. What we're hearing is if a woman doesn't
need to work for financial reasons, then she shouldn't work.

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And the other mother on trial is Louise Woodward. Because child care
providers are really viewed through the same cultural lens as mothers,
they're viewed as surrogate mothers. So Louise Woodward isn't only being
held to high standards as a worker, she's being held to the standards of a
mother. She's supposed to be good in the same way that mothers are
self-sacrificing, absorbed in the kids, never tired, never fed up.
It's not considered proper for someone who's caring for children to be out there in the thick of social, sexual night life, to have a fake ID, to stay out late. We're taught that good mothers submerge those needs, especially her sexual needs. And once she falls into that bad mother territory, the fear is, God knows what can happen.

Who was responsible for the death of Matthew Eappen?

Oh, Lord, I don't know. All we know is, there's a dead baby.

Why do you think there is such an outpouring of support for Louise Woodward? Is everyone shocked?

Yes, I think everyone thought it was going to go the other way. I had 100 students in my class at Suffolk University this morning and only one felt it was the right verdict. I think my young students identify with a 19-year-old and think that a lifetime in prison is a harsh penalty. They think there was reasonable doubt, and they say that these rich people should have never put Woodward in that situation.

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Do we hold poor mothers to a different standard than wealthy
ones?

Yes, I think it's always been viewed differently according to class. We blame poor women for staying home with their children; they're considered good mothers if they go out and work instead of burdening the system with welfare
dependency. Whereas middle-class and professional mothers are seen as bad for
working.

Why shouldn't day-care workers be held to "mother" standards?
They are, in a sense, acting as mothers.

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I think what needs to be recognized is all mothers are held to
standards that are too high. Clearly, the standard needs to be high enough so
children don't end up dead or hurt or neglected, but we have these
unrealistically high standards and they're contradictory. You're not
supposed to be too self-sacrificing, you're not supposed to
live through your kids, but you're also supposed to be almost entirely
self-sacrificing -- you're never supposed to be tired, bored, fed up,
angry. Well, if we acknowledge that mothers get tired, bored, fed up and
angry, as do child-care workers, then we could look for ways to deal with
that rather than denying it. Every mother feels at wit's end at some
point, every nanny does, every day-care worker does. The perfect child-care
worker is going to be no more perfect than the perfect mother. Good enough
is what we're looking for.

Do you think that movies like "The Hand that Rocked the Cradle" and videotapes of nannies strangling babies played into the guilty verdict -- playing into our fears about nannies and those who watch our kids?

I think blaming nannies is a more comfortable way for us to talk about all the difficulties and problems surrounding mothering in our culture. By putting the blame onto nannies and day-care providers, we, as mothers, distance ourselves from it.

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Why hasn't the father been blamed in this child's death? Is
society's definition of a "bad father" different than that of a bad
mother?

Yes. Traditionally a bad father is one who doesn't provide for his
family. A bad mother is one who, at least for the class into which
Deborah Eappans falls, works outside the home, who puts her career before
her children, who doesn't submerge all her needs to her child. And there's
a good deal of class resentment going on here: Here are these doctors who on just one income
earn much more than most Americans do, choosing
to have two incomes and leave their children in day care.

One of the lawyers for the defense, Barry Scheck, is known for his
tabloid-style tactics. What purpose was served in going so far away from
the facts -- playing the "working mom" card the way he played the
race card in the O.J. case?

I think that mothers are highly symbolic cultural figures. It is a very
powerful image to see Deborah Eappen grieving, and a grieving mother is
a sign of a good mother. She has had something taken from her; it's
everyone's worst fear. I guess the defense felt that Scheck needed
to make her a less sympathetic figure. And again, he did this around the
axis of motherhood, playing one version of mother against another. And so he made her out to be a mother whose primary
devotion was to work. I think that's easy to do because those stereotypes
are out there. You don't have to dig deep to access them. As in the O.J.
case, they didn't have to fish around too hard in the deck to find the race
card.

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Nannies have also gotten a lot of flack in this case. Did the
prosecution attempt to taint the image of nannies? Did it work?

The prosecution talked about au pairs being poorly trained, here
for the glitz of a year abroad, opportunists taking on the duties of a
mother. The au pair agencies have been criticized for doing
poor screening. On the other hand, the
Eappens were criticized for choosing an au pair as opposed to a different kind of day care.
Poor Deborah Eappen is caught in the middle of this. I assume that many of
us who choose au pairs or nannies do it so we can give our kids as little
disruption as possible. After all, if you have an au pair, your kids stay
home -- you are trying to be a good mother by choosing that.

Do you think it's unrealistic to believe that a teenager can watch a baby responsibly?

I think it's not realistic to think that your baby is going to end up dead. I don't think the family should have had a real fear of that. So should this family have not hired this nanny? I don't think you can put this in those kind of stark terms. It's not a question whether mothers should go out to work -- that's a reality. This isn't a new issue about our loss of innocence as a culture, that suddenly mothers are going out to work. We need to deal with the fact that we need strong, reliable day-care policy. It shouldn't be a privatized issue, it shouldn't be what it is in this case, a battle between a mother and a mothering figure.

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I understand that you know a lot of nannies in Boston. What are they
saying?

What I have heard a lot of is au pairs are worked unfairly, that they
work excessive hours and that even though the legal limit is 45 hours, many
work more. They don't get paid well. Although having an au pair is not that
cheap for parents, more than half of the fees go to the agency. So the au
pairs feel that they're underpaid.

What's the distant connection you have with Louise Woodward?

Our friend's nanny was friends with her. She said, "God, I can't
believe this. She's a nice girl, I spoke to her three hours before, she
sounded calm as can be. She's like the rest of us, she likes a good time,
no more, no less." I think there is a general feeling among the nannies
that when Louise Woodward expressed resentment, she was in no way
alone in saying she was exploited. They get here and realize that
it's not a cultural exchange, they're being used as a primary day care for
the families, worked to the limit, asked to do things beyond what they're
supposed to do, and held accountable in households and not paid minimum
wage by American standards. I think there was a feeling that Louise was being
worked a lot, but I don't think there was any insinuation that she was over
the edge. To say that she was cracking up and over the edge to be getting a
fake ID and going out night after night -- she was 18. My students said, if
that's a crime, we're all guilty.

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What kind of aftershocks will this have on the nanny/day care industry?

It'll recover very quickly. They'll have to do some PR and there might a lull in recruiting, but I don't think it will have a lasting impact because it's a business that meets a need.

Will this guilty verdict exonerate working mothers?

I don't think any one case changes something so deeply entrenched as this culturally lagged belief that women shouldn't work outside the home. I think the Deborah Eappens are still going to hear, "Well, she made a bad choice in choosing an 18-year-old au pair. It was her fault."

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Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

MORE FROM Dawn MacKeen

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