The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer
by Liza Rodman & Jennifer Jordan
Atria Books – March 2021
What if you found out that someone you cared about deeply—someone who was your babysitter and a happy fixture of your childhood—turned out to be an infamous serial killer?
If you answered “that’s already happened to me, Peter,” or some variation of that, then … yeesh. I’m assuming that you’re reading this review wedged in between the myriad therapy sessions it would take to cope with something like that. I’m giving you a virtual hug through my computer.
If you’re like most people, however, and have (thankfully) never experienced something that traumatic, then you’ll probably find The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer by Liza Rodman & Jennifer Jordan quite the ride—to put it lightly.
The Babysitter recounts Liza’s lonely childhood growing up in Cape Cod in the 1960s. Under the neglectful eye of her abusive mother, Liza and her younger sister became fast friends with the charismatic, handsome, and friendly handyman of the motel where their mother worked. The handyman’s name? Tony Costa, also known as the “Cape Cod Vampire,” a serial murderer suspected of brutally butchering at least four women from 1968-1969.
Tony never laid a finger on Liza and his sister, and routinely drove them around in his truck and treated them to popsicles. To Liza, this warm, kind man was a wonderful tentpole of her life—especially given that her own father was never around much. But Tony was also a man who took Liza and her sibling to his “secret garden” out in the woods—a place where he, unbeknownst to Liza and her sister, had buried the dismembered parts of his victims’ corpses. Tony was sentenced to life in prison in 1969, but only for two of the vicious slayings he was suspected of.
And the most astounding part? Liza didn’t put together who Tony really was until decades later—when her mother made an offhand, flippant remark over a cocktail about his identity.
If you’re like me, true crime is a bit of a mixed bag. Without a doubt, it’s a genre that can be perversely compelling—a truly fascinating deep-dive into the dark abscesses of the human species. But, at the same time, most of the subjects of true crime are, to put it mildly, horrible people. Do they and their utterly dehumanizing cruelties deserve to be dredged up, examined, and thus (in a weird, backwards way) celebrated? It’s a moral dilemma that I’ve never been able to 100% square with myself when I consume true crime books or podcasts.
So, I went into The Babysitter with some trepidation. But I had to see for myself.
And I’m so glad I did. Because if I hadn’t? I would have missed a truly exceptional piece of nonfiction.
Sure, on the surface, The Babysitter isn’t the most “original” conceptual spin on the true crime genre to ever exist. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that there are a fair amount of people in the world who have realized, years later, that they were friends, or neighbors, or classmates with a criminal.
The x-factor here? The Babysitter isn’t your typical, strait-laced true crime recitation of a case’s facts. Don’t get me wrong. It has that component, without a doubt. It will absolutely satisfy junkies of the genre in that sense—it is impeccably researched and footnoted without ever reading as dry or bland.
But interlaced with that biographical storytelling is Liza’s heart-breaking, poignantly written memoir—the book’s real ace-in-the-hole. It gives the work a wholly personal, utterly tangible, humanistic feel. Instead of looking at the ins and outs of a case, like a scientist sterilely examining a slide under a microscope, we are down and dirty in the thick of it with Liza—living and breathing with her as she walks us through her life story, traumas, and experiences with the man known as the Cape Cod Vampire. Liza’s raw vulnerability and bone-chilling candor pumps through the pages with abandon, plunging you headfirst into the treacherous waters of her youth—and the psychological fallout she experienced after learning who Tony really was.
More to this point, because of the approach The Babysitter takes, it almost reads like a psychological suspense novel—the slow-burn dread of its dramatic irony makes for unreservedly gripping reading. In that sense, it reminded me quite a bit of the hit true crime podcast Serial—which similarly used dramatic irony to spellbinding effect.
All said and done, The Babysitter was one of the most hotly-anticipated titles of 2021—and it lived up to the hype, and then some. Be prepared to be simultaneously frightened, fascinated, and flabbergasted as you curl up to read it with a hot cup of tea.
Although if I were you? I’d recommend something stronger.