q&a

The Perfect Nanny Author on the Dark Side of Motherhood

The Perfect Nanny is a book that haunts you long after you’ve put it down. Beginning with the stark sentence “The baby is dead,” French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s domestic horror story concerns a Parisian couple named Paul and Myriam who hire a nanny named Louise to care for their two young children. At the beginning, Louise appears to be their saving grace, allowing Myriam to escape the bored confines of stay-at-home motherhood and go back to work, to “fulfill the fantasies of an idyllic family life.” But as that first line portends, Myriam’s fantasy turns inexorably to tragedy.

The book became a best seller in its native France, earning Slimani the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, and has been translated into 18 languages so far. While the American title and cover speaks to U.S. publishers’ attempt to market the book as the next Gone Girl (the French title is Chanson Douce, or Lullaby), it’s hardly what you’d expect of a best-selling thriller: In spare and evocative prose, the book explores both parenthood’s primal fears and the modern relationship between mothers and the women who care for their children.

While Slimani got the idea for the story from the murders of the Krim children that shook New York City in 2012, she says she isn’t following the trial that’s taking place right now, taking care to distinguish The Perfect Nanny as a work of fiction distinct from real life. Still, for anyone who has been following that harrowing case, Slimani’s perspective is illuminating. We called her up to ask why we’re so drawn to domestic horror stories like this one — as Maureen O’Connor writes for the Cut, the Krim trial is both “impossible to watch and impossible to look away from” — as well as our perpetual instinct to blame the mother, and why she considers her novel a love letter to nannies everywhere.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

How has the response to the book has been different in the States versus in France so far?

Maybe the idea of perfection: that you have to be the best you can be as a professional, as a mother, as a wife, a woman. It’s something that I read a lot in the U.S., while it’s something I haven’t read in France. I think maybe in France, there is a sense of irony and women are trying to laugh at themselves, saying: I’m not perfect, I’m a bad mother, and I’m okay with it and I don’t care, even if it’s not true. Maybe French women like to laugh about it and be ironic about it because they don’t want to cry about it.

You really do show that ambivalence in the book, how Myriam sometimes really adores being around her children and at other times she’s really bored or frustrated by them. Why was it important for you to write about that?
There are a lot of dark feelings when you are a mother. You have love but also have fear and a lot of anxiety. People tell you when you are going to be a mother you will never feel alone again, you will feel fulfilled. But actually, sometimes you feel very bored with your children. Sometimes you feel lonely with your children. And I think that women feel guilty when they have these kinds of feelings. I wanted to explore this: the fact that you can’t talk about those feelings, because you have the impression that you are not a good mother if you feel this way.

I read some responses to the book that sort of took its moral as being like: Your nanny might be a psycho so you may as well stay home, and Is your career worth the risk? Did you anticipate this kind of response?

People who think this have misread the book because it’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to say. I decided to call Louise “Louise” because of the case of Louise Woodward — I remember when the trial began, the lawyer of Louise said to the mother, if you didn’t want something to happen to your child, you should have stayed home. For me, it’s so cruel and so violent and so disgusting to say something like this to a mother. That’s why I decided to call her Louise: I wanted the reader to remember that it’s always the mother who is guilty.

Something Myriam does in the book that I’ve heard a lot of mothers do is refer to Louise as “a member of the family.” But of course, you don’t pay members of your family. 

When I began the book, I was listening to my friends speaking about their nannies, saying, My nanny is very nice, my nanny, and I was like, It’s very weird. It’s the nanny of the children, it’s not her nanny, and they’re saying “my nanny” as if she owns her and as if she was herself a child being raised by the nanny. And they also say, I like her so much. She’s like a member of the family. She’s like another mother to my children. But you know that she doesn’t think this and that she doesn’t want this. She doesn’t want her to be a second mother. She wants to be the only mother. It was a way to show the hypocrisy of everyday life.

This story is also a story about appearances, about hypocrisy. Everyone is playing a role: The nanny is acting as if everything is okay and Myriam’s acting as if Louise was a member of the family. But what I wanted to show is that nothing is true; all this is just theater.

What is it about this relationship between mothers and nannies that was so fascinating for you to explore?

It’s a very ambiguous relationship. It’s not all black or white. First of all, it’s the only relationship where you pay someone to love someone else. You say to someone: I give you this money because I want you to love my children and I want you to be as tender as you can and take care of them. So that’s a relationship where there is a lot of intimacy and trust. But at the same time, it’s a very violent relationship because it’s a relationship of power. One woman has the power over the other. She can tell her what to do, what not to do. It’s a relationship of domination, and it’s a relationship where there is a lot of jealousy, because as the mother, you want your children to love the nanny, but you don’t want them to love her too much.

There’s also the fact that nanny and the mother don’t often belong to the same social class or the same cultural class. So they live together, they take care of the same children, but they are very, very different and they have to act as if they were members of the same family.

In the States, and I think in France as well, the conversation about how people treat their nannies is so tied to conversations about immigration and immigrant labor. Why did you choose not to make Louise’s character an immigrant? What new dimension did you get by making her a white Frenchwoman?

That was for many reasons. The first one is that too many times in cinema or in novels, you have the cliché that the rich person is white and the poor person is black or Arab or an immigrant, and I think that the reality of our society is much more complex. At the same time, I think it was more violent, the idea that the Arab woman has the power over the white woman. It was a way to show the humiliation and the loneliness of Louise, because she’s doing a job that is done by 99 percent of immigrants, so she’s completely alone. When she goes to the park, she doesn’t belong to the group of Africans or to the group of Filipinos — she’s the lonely nanny. And the last thing is that people could think that she’s maybe a grandmother or an aunt to the children, so there is a sort of interesting ambiguity and confusion.

I know you got the idea for the story from the case happening in New York right now. Have you been watching that case at all? Did you have any desire to watch this kind of story play out in real life?

No, because I didn’t want to be influenced by reality too much. I watched a little bit this case, and the Louise Woodward case, and there were two cases in France where a nanny killed the children. I tried to read a little bit, but I wanted to use my imagination and more the observations of my own friends and the people that I know. I wanted it to be very personal, using my feelings as a woman who was raised by a nanny and as a woman who has hired a nanny.

Was this story in any way a response to the sort of frenzied coverage and public interest that happens whenever a tragedy like this happens?

Not too much, because in a certain way, I understand why everyone is fascinated by those stories. Because this is our worst nightmare. All those stories that are told about murder and very violent things, at the same time as we say this is disgusting and we don’t want to hear about it, we also want to read and to know and try to understand — because it’s impossible to understand. It’s human, I think. Even if you read the Greek tragedies or the myths, you have a lot of stories about women killing their children and things that are very violent because this is a very primal fear. It’s very universal.

Do you feel like you understand Louise?

I don’t know if I understand her, but I have empathy for her. For a few months I lived with her, so I got to know her. For me, it was very important that Louise was still a mystery at the end of the book. I didn’t want the reader to go, Oh, okay now I understand, she was crazy — I needed to tell the reader: I can give you some clues. It’s like a puzzle. You have some pieces but you don’t have everything. And I wanted her to still live in the mind of the readers and for the reader to ask questions like: But why? Why did she do this? Who was she, at the end? When you hire a nanny, you don’t know who she is, what she’s feeling, or how she lives, so I wanted this mystery to still be this way at the end of the book.

To what extent did you want the book to offer a cultural, social and economic critique that was very specific to how things are in France — and in the Parisian upper-middle class — as opposed to being a more primal and universal story?

What is interesting for me about the couple of Myriam and Paul is that they belong to a social class that we call the bobo in France. They are sort of hipsters, and they are nice people. When you read a book by Flaubert about a maid, you always have the very bourgeois and dominating employer, and I wanted to show that today, it’s not the same. These are nice people, they are not racist, they are very open-minded and they try to do their best and try to be very nice to Louise, and not to humiliate her. But I wanted to show that even if they have very good intentions, they do humiliate her and they do harm her sometimes, even if they don’t know it.

Did writing this book make you think differently about the women who helped raise you?

Yes, of course. I was raised by a nanny and I’ve always lived in a home in places where there were nannies. I wanted to write this book also to pay my tribute to [my childhood nanny], to tell her that I understood that sometimes she felt very sad and that sometimes she felt very humiliated and very lonely, but I couldn’t tell her back then because I was too little and I didn’t have the words. A lot of nannies came to me after the book and told me: Thank you very much because what you said is true and our job is very hard, and sometimes it’s just too much and we sort of burn out. One nanny in Lyon, she told me: I just left the family I was working with because I knew that I could do something very wrong. She said: You caught this feeling, this very real feeling that we can have sometimes because we have a lot of power and the children that sometimes are too much.

Have you yourself ever been a nanny or a babysitter?

No, never. And I think I would be a very bad one.

Why?

Because I’m always dreaming and I’m always doing something else and I’m not focused enough to be a good nanny. I try to be a good mother, and I think that’s it.

What did you personally look for when you were hiring a nanny?

Someone I could trust. You know, it’s not something rational. You can’t explain why you trust someone and why don’t trust someone else, and that’s the other thing that was very interesting for me, because when Paul and Myriam do the interview, they have very rational criteria: We don’t want a smoker, we don’t want a woman who’s wearing a veil. In a certain way, I’m making fun of them because it’s ridiculous. All those criteria are nothing — it’s only about your gut. You trust someone or you don’t trust them, and you don’t know why.

If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
$12 at Amazon
Why We Can’t Look Away From Domestic Horror Stories