Joyce Carol Oates, BABYSITTER

Joyce Carol Oates, BABYSITTER

“As a novelist, I want to present people who are different from myself. The reader should have her own opinion.” Literary giant Joyce Carol Oates joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, Babysitter, which grew out of a short story. The two talk about the real-life inspiration for the story’s serial killer, how she sought to portray the complexities of mother and womanhood, and why she never satirizes her characters, even if she doesn’t agree with those who behave like them off the page.


Zibby Owens: Welcome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about Babysitter.

Joyce Carol Oates: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Zibby: This book completely kept me up at night. I absolutely love how you wrote it. I am in it every moment trying to figure out what is happening, worrying that the scariest thing is right around the corner, the visual aspect of it, like the heel sinking into the hallway carpet, just every little moment and even what it’s like to be a mom with her gala benefit and all this stuff. I am just absolutely loving this book. Thanks.

Joyce: It’s as a mother that she finally comes to her senses protecting her children. When it came down to it, she was basically doing this instinctive, good thing.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners a little about what inspired you to write Babysitter and what it’s about?

Joyce: Sure. When I lived in Detroit in the 1970s, there was actually, in the northern suburbs of Detroit, there was a serial killer. He was called by the press, Babysitter. He was also called the Oakland County Child Killer. Basically, the novel presents this person as he was in real life historically. What I wanted to do was to give the impression in a very realistic, psychologically vivid way of what it’s like to live in a world immediately where there is a serial killer right there perhaps a few miles from you. You don’t know who it is. Maybe he’s in the grocery store with you, or the drug store. When we were living there in the 1970s, it was an existentially very melodramatic and somewhat paranoid time. I was friendly with several women, maybe five or six or seven women, who lived in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. They’re like Hannah and her friends, quite well-to-do, very well-educated, really intelligent women, but most of them did not have careers. They might have had careers, except they were married. They were married to quite well-to-do men, executives in corporations and small businesses. I did really experience that sense of paranoia and fear opening the newspaper every morning and seeing whether the Babysitter had struck again.

He kidnapped, tortured, and mutilated children between the ages of about seven and thirteen. Most of them were boys. A couple were girls. It wasn’t clear whether he meant to take girls or whether he thought they were boys when he took them. I think it had a homoerotic — it was pedophilia. It might have been homosexual. I’m not sure. The Babysitter was never apprehended. There are speculation about who he might have been. Law enforcement has some idea. There are maybe one or two people who might have been the Babysitter. One of them committed suicide. One of them may have died in prison. The novel has this strong core of reality malevolent radiation, like something’s radioactive, and that’s the Babysitter. He’s there. Then around that orbit are domestic situations and people with marriages and a woman who makes some decisions that turn out to be mistaken. She made some mistakes, but I don’t feel that she was in any way malicious or even stupid. She made mistakes that women were making in those days, maybe not so much now. After Me Too, women are more alert and alive to being exploited. In the 1970s, not so much.

Zibby: Wow. The way you wrote Hannah’s character and how you allude to some sexual abuse, perhaps, from her own father — you keep calling him Daddy. How you dribble that in, tell me about that.

Joyce: Hannah is a woman who, as a girl, had a very anxious relationship with her father. He was judgmental. He was sarcastic. He was the dominant figure in the household. The mother was subservient to him, which is very typical of households in the 1950s. It was basically the template for the patriarchy in the midcentury. Girls were either traditionally trained or unconsciously conditioned to try to please men, to be smiling and gracious and acquiescent and, I guess you could say, polite and sweet. There’s nothing really wrong with being polite and sweet. We all smile, but little girls are trained that they should do that. If they don’t do that, then they get this kind of hostility from the father. Hannah was really conditioned by her father who wanted her to be as beautiful as possible, as charming and seductive as possible. He himself is a rather enigmatic figure. I call him Joker Daddy because he often made jokes. He was ironic. He was not really easily understood by his children.

Zibby: I feel like there was also this level of unsettledness when she thinks about him and that relationship. I feel like it comes into her relationship with the man in the hotel. Somehow, it’s a backdrop for, perhaps, making the decision to visit him. The novel opens with Hannah — basically, a man touches her hand, her wrist rather, during a gala, and she decides that this will be the man to suddenly have an affair with in the hotel. You tell it in the detail of her driving on the windy highway and looking at the empty gala reception room where she had just cochaired and got to stand up and preen in front of all the fans, and the doubt and the self-doubt and then all of the mothering doubt too. Then when you have her daughter get very ill, tell me about that. She feels like it’s almost a punishment from God that she had made this mistake of going. Then of course — I don’t want to give things away. Fairly early, first hundred pages or so, the daughter gets very sick. Tell me about that plot line. I love how you have some line about how it unites her and her husband, Wes, when they both are there and scared waiting, to see how there was something so unifying about that for their relationship, in a way.

Joyce: Hannah is a very devoted mother, but she’s not really identified by her children in any other way except as a mother. She’s on the cusp of turning forty. She’s a very attractive woman. She has lightened her hair and has nice clothes, but she feels that she’s losing her attractions as a woman. Her marriage is a comfortable marriage. Her husband may not even be always faithful to her. She doesn’t exactly know because he travels a good deal. She embarks upon an adventure that quickens her excitement and maybe raises her estimation of herself as a woman a little bit. She goes from being somebody who’s not noticed in the household — her husband is eating breakfast and looking at the newspaper. He’s not really conscious of her. Then he goes away to his office in a very nice building. I know Detroit very well. I lived there. I put him in a nice office building. I don’t know what it’s like now in 2022. At that time, the Fisher Center in New York was maybe like Rockefeller Center. It was pretty classy. He’s from a very affluent Grosse Pointe family. He has access to a lot of social connections and financial associates that she doesn’t understand.

I think she just feels that she’s lost an identity. She’s a kind of nonentity. Her children love her, but they love her as Mommy. They really adore her, but she doesn’t feel that they know her. Then Wes, of course, doesn’t even look at her anymore. The man who pursues her is — I don’t want to give out too much of the novel. We learn retrospectively that he was zeroing in on her and that there are predators like that who can be extremely charming. They may be psychopaths or sociopaths. They can just exude such an air of sincerity and fascination. He also has social connections. I think that people get a sense of their worth as they connect with others. I’m looking at the sociology of the upper-middle-class suburban society where an individual is sort of buoyed up by the regard of other people. Hannah’s so happy when she gets invited to the Friends of the Detroit Institute of Arts. She’s on this committee to do the gala. I remember those years. I was never a part of that society, but my friends were. One year, a friend could be the chair of the gala, an enormous amount of work, all volunteer. You’re at the head table. The mayor of the city sits with you. Maybe the governor comes.

You’re a woman who’s basically a housewife, but you have a well-to-do husband. You give money to this charity. Then you become somebody for an evening. You’re really a VIP. Hannah, she gets that. She’s actually applauded. She looks around and sees that these people, they really like her. At the same time, it’s kind of a performance and a charade. I wanted to suggest how touching and real those experiences are. I didn’t mean to be satirical. My friends who belonged to these organizations were genuinely altruistic. They were cultured. They were like Hannah and her friends. Friends of the Detroit Public Library, the Friends of the Opera, Friends of the Chamber of Music Concerts, Friends of the Symphony, those are all women volunteering their time. I don’t present them satirically. I do present them as somehow naïve and easily victimized. There’s this one character named Marcella. She’s at the periphery. She’s a little bit like Hannah. I just mentioned her casually, that she’s disappeared. There’s $800,000 missing from her bank account. What’s happened to her? She’s obviously been exploited. I don’t pursue that, but I think the reader would notice that.

Zibby: You wrote the relationship between Hannah and her housekeeper, Imogen. That was so amazing because you include her interior monologue about her relationship. Then you show why sometimes she’s almost snapping, because she’s feeling so deficient in her own ways. Tell me more about that relationship.

Joyce: Ismelda is actually based on a Filipina housekeeper and friend who was just such a wonderful person. She was the heartbeat of the household. She took care of the child. She did the cooking. She did all this. Eventually, she became the companion of the wife because there was a divorce. The household fell apart. This quite attractive, very petite Filipina housekeeper stepped forward. She had a lot of responsibility. I don’t know what has happened to her now because the whole household just broke up. The wife had a nervous breakdown and became an alcoholic. The husband fled and went to New York. The housekeeper, she may have been an illegal immigrant. She may have just disappeared somewhere. She’s probably working for someone else. She was just wonderful. Ismelda was not her name, but Ismelda is a portrait. I wanted to really look at these quiet people in households who may be running everything. While Hannah is out having these trysts with her lover and having all her experiences, it’s Ismelda taking care of the children. She makes the dinner. She serves it. She takes care of the house. She does the vacuuming. She’s sort of holding things together. She drives the children to school. She picks them up. She’s just doing everything.

Zibby: Is this some sort of commentary on that type of mothering? Do you feel like Hannah is a “good mother?”

Joyce: I don’t know that she’s not a good mother. Again, it’s not a satirical portrait. It’s more like holding a mirror up to a society. If your husband is making a couple million dollars a year or whatever and you have some children, it’s really not all that unreasonable that you have a housekeeper or a nanny. You can afford it. You can have two cars or three cars. The housekeeper or the nanny is really very helpful for women. I have never had a housekeeper or a nanny, so I’m not writing about myself. I want to be respectful of people who are different from myself who come from a different background. I think it’s too easy just to satirize and show caricatures of people. I don’t ever really do that. I try not to do that in my writing. I wrote a whole novel, A Book of American Martyrs, where I spent a lot of time with people — we would call them Trump people today — people who are anti-abortion, evangelical Christians. I wanted to present them sincerely as they are without presenting them as clowns or bullies or fools or evil. As a novelist, I want to present people who are different from myself. The reader should have her own opinion.

The reader might think Hannah is a bad mother. Hannah’s doing something I wouldn’t do. Hannah goes away because she has an appointment with this man. She leaves home, and her daughter has a temperature. She’s sort of gambling. Should I stay home or keep the little girl at home? She decides to go off and let the housekeeper deal with the problem. That’s one of those decisions that she makes as a mother which I would guess a lot of mothers make, and fathers. If you’re a parent full time, you make little decisions now and then that usually turn out okay. You’ll allow a playdate with somebody that you wondered about it. Then it turned out your child got COVID or something. You can’t really predict. I don’t think it means anyone’s a bad mother. Then Hannah’s very guilty. She feels terrible. She thinks that she caused her daughter — she thinks it’s meningitis, but it isn’t that serious. She vows she’s never going to do this again, but she doesn’t keep that vow.

Zibby: Even though it seems highly unpleasurable, what she goes through.

Joyce: Again, that’s sort of hard to say. I don’t think I would tolerate anything like that. The thing for Hannah is that she is so utterly bored in her life. She has financial security. She has a husband who’s not very attentive to her, but he’s there. She has these meetings with the women’s organizations. She doesn’t have any excitement in her life. Nobody’s looking at her pretending to love her. It’s maybe just a charade. I don’t want to give too much away. She sincerely believes that this man is sexually attracted to her and that this is all very real. It seems real to her. Again, it wouldn’t be anything that I would do. Definitely, people do these things. I was not satirizing her. I was just presenting that. I do know people whom have made really bad mistakes getting married. They just made a mistake, an honest mistake.

Zibby: Can you tell me more about the process of writing this book and even the decisions you made about interspersing some of the all-italicized, almost group voices from the deceased?

Joyce: It started off as a short story. It was published. It was called “The Babysitter.” It was a short story maybe fifteen, ten years ago. I always wanted to go back to it. It starts off, Hannah’s driving on a Detroit expressway. She’s going to the hotel. Then she’s with this man. Then she comes home. Way in the background is the Babysitter, the serial killer. He’s not in the story, but he’s a prospect, something in the background. When I went back to the story, I took the beginning, and then I, obviously, what we call enhanced or developed it some backstory. Then I go into the minds of the children who have been victimized, who have been killed. Eventually, we do discover who Babysitter is, which one can’t do in real life. This is not a true-crime story. In a way, it’s like a true-crime story . Then I actually have an idea.

I strongly feel this person was probably Babysitter. He committed suicide. He took his own life. When somebody is an active pedophile with a record, you can be sure that other people know about that. There’s pedophilia rings. They send things on the internet to one another. It’s a secret society that we don’t have access to. The Babysitter, it was thought he was part of this pedophilia ring in Detroit where boys where shared with — particularly boys who weren’t protected by parents, who might have single mothers who were prostitutes. I did do research into that, so I have a little bit of that in the novel. There are women and girls who are so addicted to cocaine or crack that they actually give up their children to a pedophile. They actually do that. This is real. There’s a little bit of that in my novel. Mostly, it’s set from Hannah’s perspective.

Zibby: When you set out to write this, did you know all the pieces of the puzzle ahead of time? Then how did you go about writing it? How long did it take to write? What was your process like in the writing of it?

Joyce: All novels take place over a period of time, a period of months. I always knew the ending because the first chapter is actually the ending. In the first chapter, it’s the ending, but then we don’t know exactly how the first chapter ends. I have the bookends or the frame. I always knew she was going. Maybe she’s got a gun in her handbag because it’s a little heavier than usual. The signal is sent to the reader that the handbag is heavier than usual. Does she have a gun? She’s going to use the gun. She’s been backed in a corner like a trapped rat. She’s being blackmailed. She’s desperate. Whether in real life Hannah could actually take out a gun and shoot somebody, I don’t know. It’s doubtful that she could do that. Maybe she doesn’t actually even have to do it. I’m always tempted, if anybody reads my novels, to ask if they really know what happened. I don’t want to do that because it would give away the plot of the novel. It’s very intricately plotted. It’s the second chapter to the end that really ascertains what is going to happen. Then the actual final chapter is leading up to that, if that makes any sense. Yes, I did plot carefully because it is also a mystery and a thriller. In that genre, you plot everything carefully. If somebody’s a killer, if somebody’s been killed, it’s your responsibility to solve that crime in the novel. That’s a tradition or convention of mystery, detective fiction, and thriller. I did that.

Zibby: Wow. Thank you so much. That’s it. Hope that was easy.

Joyce: Ponytail.

Zibby: What’s that?

Joyce: Ponytail is my favorite character.

Zibby: Oh, yeah. Again, I really found it quite riveting and page-turning and beautifully written. I, having come from more that world, just absolutely loved it.

Joyce: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Take care. Buh-bye.

Joyce Carol Oates, BABYSITTER

BABYSITTER by Joyce Carol Oates

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