Liza Rodman’s and Jennifer Jordan’s book The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer (Atria Books, 2021) chronicles Rodman’s 1960s childhood in Provincetown, MA. The book also chronicles Rodman’s interactions with Tony Costa, otherwise known as the “Cape Cod Ripper”. Costa killed at least three women in the 1960s; he buried their bodies in the woods after dismembering them, and he did this all while working for Rodman’s mother as a motel handyman and sometimes babysitter of Rodman. The horrors of Costa’s murders are told alongside the abuse that Rodman faced at the hands of her mother, making this an extremely complex true crime memoir. This book was notable for the way it combined the story of Rodman with Costa. Beyond this, it stands out within the true crime genre because it features an author who had such close contact with a with a serial killer—notably, as a child—but survived.
In the final chapter of the book, Rodman expresses that somehow during her childhood, she was more afraid of her mother than she ever was of Costa. This rang very true for me—I found myself much more affected and disturbed by Rodman’s story than I was Costa’s. I felt so much for the little girl that Rodman was, a girl who was so neglected that she was happier to be in the company of an actual serial killer instead of her own mother. In passages that so effectively capture childlike curiosity, Rodman explains the way she felt about Costa as a child. She would sometimes feel uncomfortable at what he did or said, while other times she felt totally safe. Later, as an adult, she wonders if Costa was grooming her—she was too young, then, to be of interest to him. But she wonders what would have happened had he not been caught before she reached a certain age.
This book is a painful one to read. It is difficult to have a front row seat to Rodman’s childhood trauma, and it is difficult to watch her being cared for by a man who was killing women simultaneously. Reading Costa’s story was heavy as well, but for a very different reason. In many ways, Tony Costa was a typical serial killer: he could not hold down a job, he had serious problems with intimacy and relationships, he possessed incredible illusions of grandeur, he was intelligent while being void of common sense, he was incredibly self-absorbed and manipulative, and he had no real ability to feel for other people. This is all very predictable and was not particularly interesting to me. I do; however, think the book needed to include the gritty details of Costa’s personality and perversions. The contrast between how Rodman saw him as a child and who he truly was is a contrast the book needs and utilizes well. What was very striking to me was the way Rodman’s story intertwined with Costa’s. It was also very interesting to see that the reality of his crimes was hidden from her when she was a child after he was arrested. The book opens in 2020, with Rodman’s mother telling her that Costa was the one who killed those girls all those years ago. This realization takes Rodman down a rabbit hole of discovery and is what leads her to tell two separate—and yet intertwined—stories of trauma.
The alternating chapters in the book, entitled “Liza” and “Tony” respectively, are the perfect structure through which to tell this story. The alternating perspectives helps to create a timeline of events. These perspectives also help the reader to understand just how close Rodman’s childhood was lived in proximity to a serial killer. This structure allows a certain kind of reflection to occur. The kind of consideration this book promotes is not always fostered in the true crime genre. This book is not really about Costa, it is about his victims, as well as those who survived him—notably, Rodman herself. The Babysitter is about a little girl who was predisposed to trusting someone dangerous because of the abuse she suffered at home. Yes, we get the violent details here that true crime texts have become infamous for. But these details are told without losing sight of the lives that were lost. The prose is sensitive, detailed, and does not mythologize Costa or his crimes. It recognizes him for what he was: a psychopathic coward who killed because he could. The book spends less time with what he did and more time with those who he affected along the way, namely Rodman.
Costa was suspected in connection with more disappearances, including three women who disappeared from Provincetown in the 1960’s. In their Epilogue, Rodman and Jordan do incredible investigative work to track down the three women that were suspected victims of Tony Costa. They discovered that all three women were dead—but they had not died at the hands of Costa. I was floored by this work and the reclaiming of these women’s memories.
The Babysitter also does a wonderful job of relaying life in 1960s United States. Provincetown was heavy with hippie culture at this time, and Rodman chronicles this culture in rich detail. She also explores and explains the landscape of Provincetown from the perspective of her childhood memories. These passages were some of my favourite in the book.
Although there is no shortage of horrors in The Babysitter, all of them are relayed with a thoughtful sensitivity, and all of them serve a greater purpose. This book is indicative of how effective the true crime genre can be at relaying all the stories of people’s lives, and how those stories can be relayed with something greater in mind. This book is a must read for anyone who loves true crime or memoir—bear witness to this incredible story.
A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index from Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.