Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Objectification: It's not just for men | Main | Casual sex »

July 17, 2005

Olen reprise

Ezra is perplexed by the blogosphere's reaction to Helaine Olen's account of firing her blogging nanny.

Lance Mannion calls Olen a bully. Amanda is incensed by Olen's prudishness. Prof. B. has the best response, a more nuanced meditation on Olen's inability to deal with an employee rapidly busting through her accepted archetype. But one thing seems to be forgotten here: It was the Nanny, Tessa, who gave Olen the blog.

If Olen had searched the web, homing in on Tessa's personal reflections and using them to terminate her, that'd be one thing. It's a whole other if Tessa twice invites Olen to enter her personal world and is surprised when she's uncomfortable with what she finds. Particularly when some of what Olen finds is about her. [Emphasis added.]


I don't think the fact that Tessy told her employer about the blog has been overlooked, per se. That detail is critical to the story, but not for the reasons Ezra (and Steve Gilliard) cite.

Olen tried to blur the boundaries between "employer" and "friend." She didn't want a strictly professional relationship with her nanny. She thought she wanted some kind of friendship or intimacy with the women who cared for her kids. The fact that Tessy was willing to tell her employer about her blog says a lot about the kind of relationship she thought she had with Olen.

Olen got off on the idea of being friends with this hip young woman. As she says in the article, Tessy's blog made her feel vicariously young and hip. Why might that be? It wasn't just nostalgia. Tessy's secret blog validated Olen because she thought of herself as having some kind of emotional connection to her young employee. To Olen, the blog was a special invitation into Tessy's private world, proof that Tessy didn't see her as a stodgy old boss.

Of course, Olen wasn't really interested in friendship. She didn't want to be the stodgy boss, but she didn't want to be a real confidante either. What she really wanted was a pseudo-relationship that was all about her. When her manipulative pose got her into uncomfortable emotional territory, she eliminated the source of her discomfort without a second thought. Then she wrote a "reflective" essay about the situation in which she congratulates herself for recognizing her own motives, while taking for granted that her self-centered manipulative behavior was acceptable.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d834590f7369e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Olen reprise:

» "I also feared she would judge my life and find it wanting" from Making Light
There's an entire novel of manners lurking under the surface of this, particularly when paired up with this response. For... [Read More]

» "I also feared she would judge my life and find it wanting" from Making Light
There's an entire novel of manners lurking under the surface of this, particularly when paired up with this response. For... [Read More]

» Anonymous... from The Republic of Heaven
There's a lot of discussion in the blogosphere yesterday and today about an essay published in the Style section of this Sunday's New York Times by a woman who fired her nanny because she couldn't deal with her nanny's blog. Bitch Ph.D., Majikthise, ... [Read More]

Comments

Just out of curiousity, what part of "It was the Nanny, Tessa, who gave Olen the blog" forces Olen to fire Tessa and write an insulting column in the New York Times?

I'm very surprised that the Times would print Olen's column about her nanny. Tessa is almost certainly not a public figure so the standards for libel are much lower.

I've commented on Bitch's blog and read Tessy's responses there as well. Truth be told Olen writes as if she's so offended that she and her family are characterized in an unflattering way in a pseudo-anonymous blog by a woman whose character she assasinates in a very public forum. Olen says much more in the unflattering light she focuses on herself.

She sure does. Here's the post she claims to have been the last straw, the one about the fight between her and her husband: http://subvic.blogspot.com/2004/11/i-consider-book-gift.html>it's a poem, no names, no identifying details. Olen couldn't possibly have known that it was about her, nor would anyone else have assumed that it was.

Sure she Olen saw herself in it, but that hardly constitutes a public betrayal. If Tessy had published the same poem in a magazine, no employer would have dared to fire her for it.

I'm not sure you're right, though you're pretty convincing. But the emotional relationship with her nanny may have taken a backseat to having a cool nanny trophy. It sounds like Olen was looking for details to share with her friends, so they could admire what an edgy nanny Olen had picked out. Vicarious thrill maintained; emotional relationship unnecessary.

My favorite part of this repulsive story is the Style editor's reaction: this is sooo emotionally affecting. Ah, the trauma of being an employer. It's like the landlords-getting-screwed Michael Keaton movie.

You know, I'm kind of embarrassed to say that when I wrote my post I didn't even think about the whole point that Tessa's telling Olen about the blog was actually something Olen claims to have wanted: friendship. It struck me as false when Olen claims at the beginning of the essay that she just wasn't that interested in the blog, and tries to paint Tessa as having basically *insisted* she read it, but it didn't occur to me why. And I think that's it: she *says* she wanted a friendly, intimate relationship; but when she got one of the things friends get (access to private thoughts) she got obsessive and possessive and then defensive and judgmental.

And not once, by her own account, did she ever say anything to Tessa about any of it until she wrote the damn article for the NYT.

That's a shitty way to be for any kind of employer, let alone one who wants to be "friends."

this is the corrected link to the "final straw" post

I would have thought it was a poem of sorts out of context (actually, I still do in context). Not a firable offense.

Someone commented at Pandagon that Olen was jealous Tessy paid attention to her own life at Olen's expense which Olen sees as an alienation of affection of sorts. I think, ulitimately, Olen was angry & jealous that Tessy was spilling all the details of her life on her blog instead of using Olen as her extra-special confidante.

Having read Tessy's response on her blog, complete with links to the "offending" posts, I'm pretty appalled at Olen. But even before I'd read a word of Tessy's blog, I felt Olen gave the game away when she started talking about how Tessy described her work as "work." What else did she expect? Her own thoughts on the relationship are evident in her vindictive little essay about the servant problem.

I'm very surprised that the Times would print Olen's column about her nanny. Tessa is almost certainly not a public figure so the standards for libel are much lower.

I'm not so sure, to the extent she's talking about material that has been "published," Tessa has put herself in the public sphere, and subjected herself to commentary. Which isn't to say that there isn't a libel case here, but it's not the low standard of a private individual.

"Olen tried to blur the boundaries between "employer" and "friend." She didn't want a strictly professional relationship with her nanny. She thought she wanted some kind of friendship or intimacy with the women who cared for her kids. The fact that Tessy was willing to tell her employer about her blog says a lot about the kind of relationship she thought she had with Olen."

This seems rather assumed to me. Olen appears to think it the other way, that Tessa wanted Olen to take a maternal stance towards her, and Olen failed her by not being ready for it. I, given my vantage point as a blogger reading two people making each other look bad, have no idea what the truth is. But what I find strange about the reactions is that there seems to be an instant identification with Tessa -- you assume that Olen wanted the relationship, not that Tessa pushed it on her (Olen's vicarious enjoyment of the blog really isn't evidence one way or the other -- Tessa could have given it to her randomly and Olen, though uncomfortable, enjoyed it).

As I said, I don't know which direction all this went in. But the whole of it is weird. Tessa knew her employer had the URL -- it was stupid to complain about her on the site (even if she did it rarely, and in a wholly understandable way). Olen's article is kind of shady, but so long as she didn't name Tessa, her crime seems to be opportunism rather than character assasination -- a freelance writer trying to milk a failed domestic relationship for its stage-of-life insights and its relationship to blogs.

As I said over at my site, the main lesson of this seems to be the same as that Chronicale article: be careful with blogs your employers can find (and for heaven's sake, don't give them out), reactions are simply unpredictable.

As a new parent, I can vouch for the fact that Olen is not a unique case, but very much representative of a social type. Call it parentus yuppiens. I encounter them all the time at the baby store, at daycare, in the playground, and elsewhere. Ugh!

I had run across the poems before and only read that post which I thought was an attempt to write Plath-like poetry (or Hughes, it has all that physical language both used about their relationship) and was surprised today when I found it at the end of one of the links----OK...if Olen knew that the nanny was there when she and husband fought she'd guess it was about her. I originally read it as overhearing two strangers fighting. No one but Olen looking for it to be about her would assume so. It didn't say "my employers fight" or Helaine and Bob fight or whatever.

Olen condemns herself. I original was directed to this by an amazed friend who read it in the NYT today and thought it "amazingly awful"

The fact is, the woman admits she fired an employee because she felt inferior in some way. My original emailer who pointed me to it said that her husband (an employment law attorney) said that the writer must have either been naive, nuts or the victim of bad advice to admit *that* to millions.

Also, I was personally struck by the amount of offense that Olen took to an employee thinking she was at *work* when she was (well...) at *work*

My, aren't the servants bad? You just cannot get a good nanny these days!

BTW, anyone ever hear of or read this "journalist" before today? just askin'!

Ezra, it seems quite clear to me that Olen was trying to blur the boundaries. She talks about how her previous babysitters confided their problems to her. and then she goes on to say:

But there was another element of her posts that unnerved me. Most parents don't like to think the person watching their children is there for a salary. We often build up a mythology of friendship with our nannies, pretending the nanny admires us and loves our children so much that she would continue to visit even without pay.

When our nanny referred to our house on her blog as work in a seemingly sarcastic fashion, she broke the covenant.

Tessy was open to a less traditional employer-employee dynamic, too. She obviously trusted Olen a lot to give her the link. It's not hard to understand. Her employer is a fairly accomplished writer, and someone who desperately wants to maintain some hipster cred. I can imagine Tessy might have been tempted to open up to someone like that. That trust turns out to have been badly misplaced.

Nyaaaagh! IMO, the exploitation is even worse than any of you all are realizing.

These kinds of scenarios aren't that uncommon. I'm closer to Olen's age that some of your all's age, and I can't tell you how often I've been handed extremely personal journals or websites or similar by students or whoever or whatever.

And I learned long ago not to look or even really respond to anything beyond an encouraging and friendly "how interesting!" or whatever UNLESS OR UNTIL the power dynamic of the relationship changes and I become an "equal" (so to speak) with the other person.

It's just very, very, very bad policy for employers or teachers or anyone in any kind of position of power over another person to accept access to the personal details of the life of someone they have power over in any way.

I'm not talking about materials written for a specific purpose in a classroom --- I'm talking about the details of a person's fantasies, their sexual life, WHATever.

And it's not that it doesn't work because of any kind of disapproval on my part - it doesn't work because it is inappropriate, a violation of everybody's boundaries and places everyone in much too vulnerable a position.

Olen should have known that. Actually, she must have known that --- how could she have lived any kind of a life and not known? Like it or not, Tessy is (was) not only Olen's employee, she's also much younger, which yes, does change the power dynamic. And that dynamic isn't necessarily one of mother-daughter --- it's that people who are 26 years old usually still do some boneheaded things on occasion, like handing their employer the URL to their blog.

I mean, not that we with a few years on us don't do really stupid things --- but generally not this one, at least not any more. Hoo boy.

And then to pull the ultimate power trip --- not just fire, but fabricate an entire fantasy about it for the NYT? Just bizarre. That is a profound violation, IMO. Wacko violation.

Now if Olen disapproved of Tessy's behavior, she should have oughta owned up to that. Not that Tessy seems really all that ourageous --- in fact, she doesn't. She seems pretty normal to me. And not that that would excuse the NYT article, because it doesn't. But at the very least, she needs to be honest that she doesn't want a nanny who has sex or even thinks about it (right, good luck with that one).

I've got a lot more in common, demographically, with Olen than with Tessa: I'm 41, professional, married, not yet a mother but starting a family this year (finally, dammit), and I think that's part of why I'm so disinclined to cut Olen any slack on this. I agree with Cookie: she should have known better.

That doesn't strike me as non-traditional, it strikes me as the opposite. From that line (and this may not be how Olen felt), it loks like the mother wanted the household help to think she ran a good household, to like her kids, to like her family. It doesn't seem she wanted a friendship, it seems she wanted validation, maybe a bit of exoneration from liberal guilt over hiring a nany. That strikes me as pretty standard. But that's my read. Yours is:

"I can imagine Tessy might have been tempted to open up to someone like that. That trust turns out to have been badly misplaced."

My problem is we're "imagining" things here. Tessa may be right, Olen may be right -- my argument is that we don't actually know who was right and we shouldn't be quick to judge one a hypocritical nightmare boss and the other an aggrieved victim.

You know what I love? Typos. Lots of them. You know how I prove it? That last comment.

It seems clear to me that the employer's case is that the nanny expressed discontent with her job:

Here's what the column says:


A few days later her anger boiled over. "I am having the type of workweek that makes me think being an evil corporate lawyer would be O.K.," she wrote. "Seriously. Contemplated sterilizing myself yesterday."

Whatever her reasons, whatever her frustrations, this was unacceptable. She had finally crossed my threshold of tolerance.

This was what triggered the actual firing.

Should an employer have the right to fire an employee over expressions of discontent?

I'd be interested in hearing the answer to this especially from those with small businesses, or who have hired workers like cleaning people or nannies.

But whether you think it's an employer's right or not, the fact is, it happens all the time. It just usually happens in private.

But the nanny was the one who made it a public issue - even though of course the employer expressed her views in a media forum with a much larger readership.

We live in the land of "employment-at-will" - is everybody here aware of that?

"She didn't want a strictly professional relationship with her nanny. She thought she wanted some kind of friendship or intimacy with the women who cared for her kids."

Don't forget that if Tessy's is to be believed, and I see no reason why she shouldn't be trusted over Olen based on Olen's misrepresentation of Tessy's posts, Olen didn't just want a nanny-friend, she wanted a SERVANT who was expected to take care of her as well as the kids.

When I first read Olen's article, I wondered why Atrios made her "wanker of the day." Then I read the actual blog posts that Olen complained about, and I wanted to puke. From what Olen wrote, I expected something on the order of Washingtonienne.

When I found that Tessa's blog was less sordid than "Diary of Bridget Jones", I saw that Olen had fired her nanny for nothing more than having a life. She then compounded her crime by trying to justify herself with an inaccurate account of what she'd read, an account that appeared in the New! York! Times!!! I don't think "wanker" begins to describe Olen.

So Olen made nice with the nanny and the nanny, thinking it was something it wasn't, gave her the URL of her blog.

What she didn't do, apparently, is tell her nanny that she was reading the blog obsessively and passing it along to all her friends.

I don't think she was fired for breaking any social compact. I think she was fired because Olen, having invited all her friends to peruse the intimate details of her nanny's life (and yes, it was on the internet, but no, they wouldn't have known who was writing it if Olen hadn't outed her) discovered to her shock and horror that now her friends were getting a window into life chez Olen.

No wonder she's working so hard to discredit her nanny now.

As others have asked: so what if Tessy initiated the "friendship"? Olen clearly accepted it. And Tessy's initiation of the relationship doesn't give Olen the right to write a nasty column about her in the freaking New York Times.

Cookie's right on. Olen has zero understanding of the class & power differentials she was leveraging as an employer, and her nanny's real life imploded the facades Olen hides behind in the nanny-plantation-parent system. Then she only upped the exploitation through her shabby NYT article. I bet she and her friends, in addition to having hip nannies, have a black friend who makes them feel ghettolicious and an Asian friend to have sushi and intellectual banter with, too, and each holiday season lets the kiddos pick out gifts for the unfortunates. She shamed herself eight ways, ugh.


Cookie's right on. Olen has zero understanding of the class & power differentials she was leveraging as an employer, and her nanny's real life imploded the facades

Sounds to me that Olen understands all about the power differential - she has the right to fire an employee at will. And she did.

And she had access to a larger audience to air her complaints about the nanny.

I agree that she was a wanker to air this matter to a larger audience - although she didn't make it public - the nanny did that. And it wasn't just the poem, as some on various threads have claimed - it was the nanny's complaints about her work week that was the reason given for the firing.

Futhermore, Olen was a fool to reveal so much about the non-positive aspects of her own personality - it left her vulnerable to personal attacks, as we have seen on these threads.

But it seems to me that the nanny was the one who did not understand the power differentials. At best she was naive to think she could complain about her job on her blog without any ramifications - knowing that the employer knew about the blog.

Those of us who have been forced to work in the real world are well aware of the dangers of annoying the boss. So I have to wonder if it isn't privileged people who are so freaked out by this incident.

Because I can't understand why this is such a big deal - the employer decided she didn't like her employee anymore so she fired her. The employee - or anybody else - rarely gets to read a column-long justification of the firing, but the firing itself is extremely commonplace. This is how the workplace works in America, people.

I think the hilarious irony is just how Austen-esque the whole situation is. Two generations, each fans of those 19th century novels of manners and class warfare, find themselves in a sort of similitude with their fictional counterparts. Maybe Robert Altman could eke a Lifetime movie out of this little brouhaha?

The comments to this entry are closed.