The Perfect Nanny

Her presence on the phone drew me to her. I cannot tell you exactly what it was—her simpleness, her saneness? She said her name was Maggie Boyle, she was 20 years old and one of 13 children. She spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent, but she said what I wanted to hear, and when I hung up, I knew that of the hundred callers, she was the one I must hire.

Our baby was 2 months old by then, and I had already hired and fired three helpers. Friends had warned me that finding good child care is the hardest part about having kids. But there was no way any friend could have prepared me for what was to come.

The first woman I had hired when our son, Daniel, was born, was a British nanny named Glenda. She turned out to be a magpie, who yammered constantly and complained that our baby cried too much and needed too much holding. Before long, I was taking my meals in my bedroom, huddled over my desk with the door locked.

I next tried a Danish au pair girl, who was sunny and serene but had had no experience with babies and left after one day to go to Hawaii with her boyfriend.

After two more disasters, I placed an ad in the newspaper. On the first day the ad ran, I received a hundred calls. Most of them sounded flaky, a few were promising, but of all the callers, Maggie Boyle stood out.

“Have you done this type of work before?” I asked her.

“Yes. I worked for a family in Sherman Oaks.”

“How many children did they have?”

“Two boys. Age 1 and 3.”

“How long did you work there?”

“A year and a half.”

“Why did you leave?”

“My services were no longer necessary. The mother decided to quit work and stay home with her children.”

I told her the main focus of the job was the baby. “We don’t mind if the house isn’t immaculate, but if the baby wants holding, we want him to be held.”

“Oh, sure,” she said. “You cannot spoil a baby. If you give him all the love he needs, he’ll be more confident when he grows up.”

Right answer.

“We’d also like you to play with him, not just leave him in his crib,” I said. “Some people think babies are blobs.”

“No, babies are very intelligent,” Maggie said. “It’s amazing how much they can learn.”

Right again. Excitement was mounting. I told her we’d want her to live in from Sunday night to Friday night. “The hours are long.”

“That’s not a problem,” she said. “I usually work six days a week, and my day off is whatever fits in.” She said she wanted $125 a week.

Be still, my heart. We had paid Glenda $150 for five days.

I called Maggie’s reference, a Mrs. Raphael, who verified all the details Maggie had given me. “I wish I could have kept her; she was a joy to have around,” she said. “Before Maggie, I had so many girls who just ran up the phone bill and quit. Maggie gave so much love to our kids, and she kept the house very clean.” After the call, I wanted to hire Maggie sight unseen, but caution prevailed, and I asked her to come out to our home in Malibu on Saturday to see how we got along. “I’ll pay you for your time.”

“You don’t gotta pay me,” she said, “because it’s your time also.”

On Saturday, she arrived exactly at 10, the time we had arranged. She looked like what she said she was: the daughter of a truck driver from a depressed town on Long Island. She was thin and pale, with stringy blond hair and a troubled complexion. She had obviously made an attempt to dress up, wearing a purple dress with ruffles, brown high heels with no stockings and chipped red nail polish. Her grammar was terrible; she said “youse” and “ain’t,” but she went straight to the baby and picked him up with an air of loving authority, and the baby fell quiet and stared at her. Behind her back, my husband, Tim, flashed me a thumbs-up sign. We had been scheduled to interview a Peruvian woman in the afternoon, but Tim didn’t want to wait. We told Maggie she had the job.

Life was a party after Maggie moved in. She was a diamond in the rough, funny and smart. She showered Daniel with affection, she laughed and danced and invented games, and the baby began to flourish. She did not think Daniel was difficult or cranky. She genuinely adored him. “You’re such a good-lookin’ baby,” she would croon. “Let’s us run off and elope.”

Maggie got up at 6 in the morning and worked until 6 at night. While the baby was sleeping, she swept the floors, washed windows, ironed shirts. She taught me a more relaxed style of baby care, and she gave me the time to write. In the morning, after I nursed, she would say, “OK, get to work. You stay in your office and write 10 pages and don’t come down till lunchtime.” She brought me snacks and glasses of juice at my desk, as if she were an airline hostess.

We shared a delight in the baby, and the first time he laughed, we repeated the gesture that had made him laugh until all three of us were giggling. It was so simple, and it was one of those moments when life is as good as it gets.

“God has sent me the perfect nanny,” I told friends. “My life works.”

I asked Maggie if she had a boyfriend, and she told me about Jimmy; she had loved him “forever,” but he had gotten another girl pregnant and married her. Jimmy lived in Florida now, she said, but he called our house a lot and asked for her. Maggie also talked about her favorite sister, Kelly, who lived in Phoenix and was expecting her first baby. “I can’t wait till it’s born,” she said. “I’m dyin’ to know what it’s gonna be.”

Two months after Maggie came to live with us, we went to Chicago to visit Tim’s family and took Maggie with us. At the last minute, I asked two friends to house sit because one of our windows had been broken mysteriously the night before.

Maggie unfolded like a flower on that trip. Everyone loved her and congratulated us on having found someone so warm and intuitive with the baby. Once, during a large family dinner, Daniel started crying, so Maggie hoisted him in the air and said, “All eyes on me!” All the relatives halted in mid-sentence and looked at Daniel, who stopped crying.

We went to the Art Institute (Maggie had never been to a museum, she said, except Ripley’s Believe It or Not), and as we were walking through the Renoir and Degas rooms, Daniel needed a diaper change. There was no bathroom in sight. I turned to Maggie: What do we do?

“You hold him, and I’ll change him,” she said, pulling wipes and a fresh diaper from the bag. I made a shelf with my arms and held the baby prone, and just as she opened the diaper, exposing a full load, through the door walked 60 people with a guide. Maggie turned red, but as they filed past us, she said, “This is the famous statue of Daniel, gettin’ his diaper changed.” Everyone laughed, and Maggie scampered off to throw out the dirty diaper.

Each time we passed a shop or souvenir stand, Maggie had to stop to buy trinkets for herself and Daniel: a music box, a mechanical bear. “It’s a good thing you don’t have a credit card,” I told her. “It’s painless. You don’t even know you’re spending.” She nodded with a smile.

When we flew home, we found a raft of mail and messages on the phone machine, one of which was for Maggie: “Important, call your sister Kelly in Phoenix. It’s important.”

“Maybe the baby’s here!” Maggie said. I told her to make the call while I put Daniel down for a nap. Minutes later, Tim walked in and said, “Maggie’s sister had her baby, but it was stillborn, choked by the cord around its neck.” I went downstairs and called, “Maggie.” She rushed into my arms and sobbed, and I cried with her.

I asked Maggie if she wanted to go to Phoenix, but she said no. “I think Kelly needs to be alone with her husband.” But she did want to go see a brother who lived in Torrance to discuss what the family should do. I agreed to lend her our Toyota.

A few hours later, she came out of her room, wearing her best dress—a tight pink number—with high heels and bright red lipstick and carrying a large packing box, scaled with masking tape. “I hope you don’t mind. I borrowed one of your boxes from the garage,” she said. “I want to send my mother some of the stuff I bought in Chicago.”

She said she would be back by 10, or would call, and I asked her to leave the phone number where she would be. A few seconds later, we heard the engine start and my car roar away down the Pacific Coast Highway.

At 11 that night, when I went to sleep, Maggie had not come home, but I figured things had taken longer than she’d expected. Daniel woke me up at 3, and I noticed all the lights were still on. I settled Daniel back to sleep and went down to check Maggie’s room, thinking she might have come in and forgotten to turn off the lights. Quietly, softly, I looked through the crack in the door, then pushed it open. All her things were gone; the room was stripped bare, the drawers were pulled open and askew, and there was nothing in the closet but hangers. I walked into the bathroom—same thing. I went to the phone to call the number she had left us and got a recording: “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. . . .” She had taken my car.

I woke up Tim, who thought I was overreacting. “She’ll be back. I’m sure there’s an explanation.” I went to my office to look for a file I kept, labeled “Help,” where I had her application with names and phone numbers of family members, but the entire folder was gone. With heart pounding, I checked my stores of cash and jewelry, but everything was there. Then I noticed that a pile of photos I had recently taken had been removed from the drawer and left on a table. I flipped through them, puzzled, until 1 realized that all the pictures with Maggie in them had been removed. What the hell was going on?

Tim was finally getting alarmed. He called the Sheriffs Department in Malibu, but they said that since we had given her the car, they couldn’t report it as stolen until three more days elapsed. “She could be long gone by then,” Tim said. “She could be in Arizona.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s still possible she’ll return the car, and we can’t risk a felony arrest. Officers would approach the car with guns drawn and somebody might get hurt.”

“Can’t you at least help us try to trace her?”

“The detectives will be in on Monday.”

It was Saturday morning. “Thanks for your help,” Tim said.

We called information in Long Island, but there was no one listed by the name Maggie had given us for her mother, Anna Boyle. Then I remembered: I had written down the number of her reference, Mrs. Raphael, in a book I kept by the phone. Maybe she would know how to reach her. I dialed the number but was told by the person who answered that it was a pay phone in a Laundromat in Hawthorne. Tim and I stared at each other. We had been set up. The shock, the reeling, was compounded by the fact that we had come to love Maggie. We had grown so close in Chicago. Who was she? Had anything she’d told us been true?

By 5 in the morning, we had no leads. I decided she had made a clean break, and then it came to me: the phone bill. She had run up a number of long-distance charges the previous month, for which she had paid, and I had filed the bill with my tax records. I dug out the bill, and Tim started calling all the numbers she had dialed. Everyone who answered said they did not know a Maggie Boyle. Tim described her and said, “We know she called this number because it’s on our phone bill. She stole our car. Tell her she should return it, or we’ll have a warrant sworn out for her arrest.” He did this a dozen times, and we sat down to wait.

At 7 in the morning, Daniel woke up. I went in to change him, opened a drawer and saw that most of his clothes were gone. My eye flicked to his toy basket—it was half empty. Then I saw that all the newest toys and clothes, the presents from relatives in Chicago, had vanished. I felt dizzy. Why would she take the baby’s things?

We had been up all night, and Tim suggested he would watch the baby so I could get some sleep, but I was too frightened to sleep. Maggie had our keys and knew all our habits. The house had walls of glass and it felt like we were sitting ducks. There might be people watching us right now. Then the phone rang; it was Maggie.

“Where are you?” I said, trying to keep my voice calm.

“Santa Barbara,” she said.

I told her we’d called the police, and a bulletin had gone out for a stolen car.

“Sara!” she said, sounding shocked. “Why?”

“You’ve moved all your things out.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“The closet’s empty.”

“I’m getting everything cleaned.”

“Daniel’s clothes are missing.”

“Missing?” For everything I said, she had responses, which grew more flimsy.

Tim got on the phone and said, “We can’t understand why you would steal from us, from Daniel.”

She started to cry and said she could explain but not over the phone.

“Just bring the car back, and there won’t be any trouble.”

“There won’t be no trouble?”

“No. You have my word.”

I wanted to get away from the house, but Tim thought he should stay. I drove the baby to my mother’s place, handed him to her, got in bed and shook. Maggie could have taken the baby. She’d always joked that she wanted to elope with him. I had left her alone with Daniel countless times. How could my instincts have been so wrong? I had always thought of con artists as slick, fast-talking hustlers who tried to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, and anyone with sense could spot them a mile away. But Maggie had conned us by making us love her, and when you love someone, you let down your guard.

As I lay in bed, I thought of things that should have been warning lights, that should have triggered my suspicion but that I’d let slide. The phone numbers Maggie had left me whenever she went out were always screwy; when I called, the number was disconnected or nobody knew her. She had told me things about her family and Jimmy that did not make sense. She said that her family was poor, but she said they had horses, cows, a boat for water-skiing and an old Mercedes she had learned to drive on. She said she’d worked at a fabric store the previous year, but that was the year she was supposed to have worked for the Raphaels.

In the afternoon, Tim found the car on the street a block away. He thought Maggie must have dumped it and fled. That night, I began to notice other things missing. It was eerie. I would sense that areas of the bedroom seemed more bare than usual, but I could not say why until it came to me, like a blip on a radar screen: the Polaroid camera, the portable stereo, the navy dress that Maggie had admired. I started going through the house methodically, taking inventory, and discovered things were gone from every room: glasses, china, linens, silverware, clocks, electronic equipment, clothes and shoes. She must have packed them in that box she had carried right past us. Maybe she’d been removing things for weeks. That was the astounding thing: She had removed thousands of dollars’ worth of material, and we had not noticed—because she was crafty. She took winter clothes we wouldn’t be looking for in summer. She took half the silverware and left half in the drawer, which looked normal because at any point, half our silver was in the dishwasher. I noticed she had taken two of everything— two settings of china, two crystal glasses—and I wondered if she had some twisted fantasy of setting up house for herself and Jimmy, using Daniel’s clothes for the baby they would have.

Later that night, I thought about the extra Visa card I kept in my desk drawer. It was gone. I realized I hadn’t seen a Visa bill in months and remembered that Maggie had always sprinted for the mail when the carrier arrived. She must have pocketed the bill. I called Visa and learned I had an unpaid balance of $7,000.

When Tim heard about this, he called the Sheriffs Department again and said there had been property stolen and forgery. The officer seemed annoyed. “Send us a list of the missing property. We’ll call you back.”

“You don’t seem that interested,” Tim said.

“What do you expect me to do? You’re not the only case we’re working on. There’s two or three others.”

Tim hung up in a rage.

When Tim called Visa, the company said it wouldn’t get involved because an investigation and prosecution would cost more than absorbing the loss. So he was on his own. He became obsessed, like the character Charles Bronson had played in “Death Wish.” He spent hours on the phone, calling the people he’d called before, who again denied knowing Maggie. He used telephone cross directories to identify the people who owned the phones.

Finally, he reached a Frank LeBow in Hawthorne, who was living with the mother of Jimmy, Maggie’s boyfriend. LeBow had nothing but contempt for Jimmy and was not reluctant to tell Tim what he knew. So, at last, we started getting information. Maggie was not 20 years old, LeBow said; she was 16. Her real name was Susan Marciano, she had run away from home at 13 and taken up with Jimmy, a junkie and convicted felon who was the leader of a ring of flimflam artists. Susan/Maggie had stolen thousands of dollars from her mother and from her sister in Phoenix, whose name was not Kelly and who had never been pregnant. There were warrants out for Susan in Arizona, and her mother had moved to Texas and refused to tell Susan where she was.

LeBow said Susan was staying at the Casa Blanca Motel in Lennox, near LAX, in a seedy room where Jimmy would come and go along with a dozen other people. “They probably placed the girl with you to gain your confidence, case the house and clean you out,” LeBow said. “They have a moving van; they pull it up to a house and load the whole works inside.” LeBow and Tim figured the group had planned to do this while we were in Chicago. Maggie would have had a perfect alibi—she’d been with us. But their plan was foiled when we arranged for housesitters, so they summoned Maggie back with the message about the stillborn child.

LeBow thought he could get most of our “merchandise” back and offered to act as intermediary.

The next day, when we called, he said Tim could come pick it up. “Don’t do it,” I pleaded, “you don’t know what will be waiting for you.” Tim called the Sheriffs Department in the Hawthorne-Lennox area and spoke with a detective, who said he would send a black-and-white to LeBow’s to pick up the goods. Tim could retrieve them at the Sheriffs Department. If Tim could get the room number at the motel where Maggie was staying, they would arrest her.

Tim called LeBow, who gave him the room number, and at 11 that night, our phone rang. Tim answered it, then flashed me a high sign. “They got her!” She was taken to the Sybil Brand Institute, the women’s prison in Los Angeles, and the next day, Tim drove out to Lennox to the Sheriffs Department. There, under a harsh yellow light, was much of our “merchandise.” It looked like a cheap garage sale: odd bowls and plates and baby suits and forks and shoes.

Maggie’s straw purse was there also. Tim opened it and found, crumpled inside, my Visa statement, the “Help” file and Polaroid shots, surely taken with our camera, of Maggie topless. There were also shots of Jimmy, and when Tim showed them to me, I was surprised, as one always is, to see the object of someone’s obsession. I had pictured Jimmy looking like a character in “Grease,” a ’50s-style hood with oily hair. Instead, he was slim, graceful, coffee-colored, with a mustache and an Afro hairdo.

Looking at his picture—at the shrewd, almond-shaped eyes—I had a chill of fear that he might strike back at us for coming after Maggie. I decided to hire a guard, which may have been extreme, but it allowed me to sleep. The guard, Joe, an off-duty security officer, arrived at midnight and sat in our living room all night with an oversized flashlight and a gun. When I got up to nurse Daniel at 4 a.m., I sat down with Joe and went over the case. I was still mystified at how Maggie/Susan could have duped us. She was only 16. I was a reporter, Tim was an attorney; our entire professional lives were based on piercing people’s masks. Yet she had lived with us for two months and fooled us.

“She fooled her own mother and sister,” Joe said, “and they knew her a lot better than you. She’s been surviving on the streets, with nothing to fall back on but her wits and skills at flimflam, so she’s developed ’em real good.”

When Tim called the Sheriffs Department to check on her arraignment, he was told that because Maggie was cooperating and it was her first offense in California, she probably wouldn’t do time. The jails were full, and crimes of property had a low priority, especially one involving baby clothes and a car that had been returned.

So Tim went to work. If he had not been an attorney, he could not have found his way through the bureaucratic tangles of the judicial system. But he was able to speak on the phone with the D.A. and juvenile authorities and convince them that Maggie needed help, that if she was released, she would perpetrate the scam on other parents. The next time, there might be greater harm.

As a result, Maggie was taken to Calabasas Municipal Court to be arraigned, but when Tim called the court clerk, he was told that her “paperwork didn’t show up,” so she had not been arraigned and could not, by law, be held any longer.

Tim was beside himself: If he didn’t stay on the case at every juncture, Maggie would slip through the cracks. He persuaded the D.A.’s office to release Maggie and immediately re-arrest her. Two days later, she was turned over to the juvenile authorities to await a “suitable placement” in a locked facility where she would go to school and have therapy.

While she was in custody, we moved to a new house in a different part of town where it was unlikely Maggie or Jimmy would find us. We no longer needed someone to guard our sleep, and the nightmare, it seemed, was finally lifting. The bitter lesson, of course, was that I had failed utterly to see the consequences of turning over care of one’s children to “help.” Granted, ours was an extreme case—we had placed our baby in the hands of a criminal. But in whose hands should they be placed? Illegal immigrants? Foreign teen-agers? Someone on the margins of society?

I was forced to see that I could not delegate child-raising. But I still needed help with the baby if I wanted to write. Ultimately, I broke down and hired a Spanish-speaking woman from El Salvador, which I had resisted because I did not speak Spanish. I was told by friends who had employed women from Central America that they were loving, gentle and patient.

To find such a woman, I drove to an agency in the Valley. When I walked in the door, a dozen women sprang to their feet and tried to capture my attention with smiles and imploring eyes. How was I to interview them? The head of the agency, Carlos, said he would translate. He brought the women into his office one by one, and after I had seen five, I told Carlos, “You pick for me. I have no idea.” He chose a woman named Blanca, for reasons that were unclear.

Hiring Blanca required a leap of faith. The first week she was with us, I walked around the house with a Spanish-English dictionary. We sat at the table, holding up objects and naming them. “Fork — tenedor.” I tried to make her feel comfortable, but I kept my distance and reserve, like a lover who’s been burned and is wary of contact. Before six months had elapsed, though, I had learned to speak elementary Spanish, and we had a calm, trustworthy and loving addition to the family.

Blanca has been with us now for seven years, even though Tim and I have been divorced. She has learned to speak English, drive and do the grocery shopping and cook and is capable of running the house on her own if I’m sick or have to travel out of town. When people tell me how lucky I am to have had the same housekeeper for seven years, someone who can do so much, I tell them that I paid at the office.

It took me more than a year to put the episode with Maggie behind me. To this day, so many questions are unanswered. Why did she take the job with us? Was her purpose only to rob us? If so, why did she stay two months?

When her probation officer called after Maggie’s arraignment, she said, “You may never get your answers.” She told me Maggie was doing well in the juvenile facility. “She has the best attitude of any girl there, and she’s a leader. She’s very responsible.” She was studying to pass her high school equivalency test and then would get job training. “Everyone loves her,” the probation officer said.

I felt queasy. “Of course they do.”

“She’s a model prisoner.”