At around 5:30 on a Thursday evening in October 2012, Marina Krim returned home to her apartment on the Upper West Side from her younger daughter’s swimming lesson to find the bloodied bodies of her two other children — her older daughter, 6, and her son, 2 — dead, in the bathtub. The family’s nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, was standing over them, slashing herself with a knife. Ms. Krim’s husband, Kevin, had been flying home from a business trip and learned what happened when he was met by the police at the airport.
The details of the case hardly require recitation for a certain parental class in New York City, for whom crime long ago had become almost invisible and for whom child rearing had become an obsession. Every anxiety now seemed valid, every distant suspicion worth pursuit. For many, the image of Ms. Krim’s face pressed against the window of an ambulance as she was taken away from a scene of mythic barbarity remains indelible.
After five years of delays, hearings, debates about her mental fitness, and efforts on the part of her lawyer to suppress statements she made in the hospital, Ms. Ortega is now standing trial for the murder of the Krim children; opening arguments are set to begin next week. The process of jury selection has been onerous, in part, because the trial is expected to last several months — this is common when a defendant professes that he or she is not guilty by reason of insanity.
Lawyers for the accused bring forth psychiatrists who claim the client acted in madness, and prosecutors deliver counterexperts who testify that the madness had merely been performed. Beyond that, the impartial do not present themselves in vast numbers in a case like this — nearly anyone who has ever left a child with someone, or really anyone who has ever had a young child at all, could seem unsuitable to sit among the 12 men and women rendering judgment.
Was the Krims’ nanny out of her mind, or was she envious? Her employers’ life was exceedingly comfortable; her own was not. She lived in a small tenement apartment with her son, a sister and a niece. To make extra money, she went around her building selling cheap makeup and jewelry. Was there a deep, underlying instability — one never made apparent to the Krims — or was that instability driven by her circumstance and grievances?
In statements made to prosecutors after the murders, Ms. Ortega, who is now 55, said that she was angry with the Krims, that they asked her to work too hard and that her skin had been damaged by cleaning products she was forced to use. Did she act out of vengeance or delusion?
In the years since the murders, little about Ms. Ortega’s life or frame of mind has been illuminated, which is one reason to have imagined that the “The Perfect Nanny,’’ a French novel inspired by the tragedy, would compel American audiences when it arrived here in translation last month. Ms. Ortega’s avatar in the novel, Louise, a middle-aged widow with huge debts, providing care for the two young children of a Parisian couple, might feed some hunger to know.
Originally published as “Chanson Douce,’’ or “Lullaby,” the book was an enormous success in Europe, selling 600,000 copies in its first year, translated into 18 languages and winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. The author, Leila Slimani, had quickly become a celebrity in France, reportedly pursued by president Emmanuel Macron to become the minister of culture. In advance of the book’s publication in this country, she was profiled in The New Yorker.
Since the arrival of “Gone Girl,’’ six years ago, we have been living through a long, peak moment of the domestic thriller, and yet “The Perfect Nanny’’ has failed to enjoy the reception here that it has had abroad. A.J. Finn’s “Woman in the Window,’’ a novel about a former child psychologist abandoned by her family, who spends her hours drinking wine and staring out of her Harlem brownstone at a mysterious family across the street, made its debut in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list. “The Perfect Nanny,’’ despite the expectations surrounding it and strong reviews, did not achieve similar recognition.
In the quarters where it might have had created the most commotion, among mothers in Brooklyn for instance, it seems to have made little impact at all. At first I wondered whether this had to do with the book’s exploitative nature, but we consume cultural products that take advantage of real and recent suffering all the time. The 2016 film, “Manchester by the Sea,’’ is clearly a work of art inspired by the Christmas Eve fire, a few years earlier, in which a Connecticut mother lost her three daughters and her parents. It was seen and analyzed endlessly.
In novels like “Gone Girl” and its imitators — “The Girl on the Train,” among them — the heroines are drunks and nuts; they are in other words, not like you. Myriam, the mother at the center of “The Perfect Nanny,” more artfully composed than many of the books in its genre, is an urbane lawyer, knocked off balance by motherhood but only to the point of a very recognizable disturbance. She is in other words, very much like you.
“Mila’s tantrums drove her mad, Adam’s first burblings left her indifferent,” Ms. Slimani writes of Myriam’s reaction to her children. “Sometimes she wanted to scream in the street like a lunatic. They’re eating me alive, she would think.” The honesty with which Ms. Slimani writes about maternal ambivalence coupled with the fact that Myriam is relieved of the burdens of motherhood in the most horrific way give the novel a darkness that is, perhaps to many tastes, best left unexplored. Some ideas may be better sublimated.
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