Sixteen years ago, a nightmare Liza Rodman had been having for months suddenly got real. She finally recognized the face of the man who approached her in the dream — tall and handsome Tony Costa, the 24-year-old handyman at the Royal Coachman Motor Lodge in Provincetown, who had looked after her and her little sister when they were young girls — just as he put a gun to her head.
She had previously only had fond memories of Tony, whom she hadn’t seen since 1969, when he left town and no one would tell her why. After he reappeared to her 36 years later, she told her mom, Betty, about the nightmare. In the late ’60s, Betty was a sexy divorcée; she owned the Bayberry Bend, a motel across Route 6A from the Royal Coachman, and had a fierce love-hate relationship with her older daughter.
“Well,” Betty said, “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.”
“A serial killer?” Liza responded, aghast. “Tony, the babysitter?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t be so dramatic,” Betty retorted. “He wasn’t your babysitter. He was the handyman.”
If the latent danger in Tony Costa’s charm and manner couldn’t explain why he appeared in Liza’s nightmare, the crimes he committed — perhaps the most notorious and grisly murders in Cape Cod history — certainly could. Even so, Liza, who was unaware he was the killer whose arrest and trial had caused such a brouhaha in Provincetown, could only have had a subliminal sense of the horror lurking about when he drove her and her sister to isolated Pine Grove Cemetery in Truro and showed her the “secret garden” where he was growing marijuana plants.
The nightmares started while Liza was working on a thesis in creative writing for her college degree, one she had gone back for in middle age after being married and raising kids. With Tony’s true identity revealed, she knew what her first book would be.
“Sometimes, you’re called to something,” Liza tells the Independent by phone. “Even before I knew it was a book, it led me down a rabbit hole I never came out of.”
After years of research and writing, she produced an 1,100-page draft and showed it to her college best friend, Jennifer Jordan, a journalist and published author who had been coaching her along. Jordan came aboard the project at that point, and three years later, pared down to 300-plus pages, The Babysitter: My Summers With a Serial Killer is being published in March by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The authors will give a virtual reading and discussion via East End Books Ptown on Wednesday.
The Babysitter is both a memoir of Liza Rodman’s childhood, filled with emotional and physical abuse and moments of comfort and wonder, and an investigative report on the life and exploits of Tony Costa. The chapters are alternately titled “Liza” and “Tony,” and their lives intersect frequently, particularly during the summers Liza spent with her mother and sister in Provincetown. Though the worlds of a prepubescent girl and a grown-up drug dealer were hardly parallel, they reflect upon each other in an eerily compelling way. Dysfunction rules these lives, as does emotional pain. And the sexual awakening of the ’60s only seems to be an excuse, over and over again, to treat women like garbage.
Anyone who intimately knows the Outer Cape and its postwar history will be riveted by the number of familiar landmarks and personalities in The Babysitter. The Royal Coachman is now the Sandcastle Resort, a large time-share on Beach Point. The rooming house at 5 Standish St., where Tony met two of the young women he would shoot, sexually assault, chop to pieces, and bury in South Truro, would become Victoria House. The bar Fo’csle would become the Squealing Pig. Avis Costa, the 14-year-old Tony would marry, have three kids with, barely support, and divorce, and who later testified in his defense, is the niece of Beata Cook, nonagenarian columnist for the Provincetown Banner.
“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.”
The Tony Costa who emerges from its pages is anything but a monster. A native son of Provincetown, Tony was an avid reader and sharp talker, a voracious drug user, and mentally ill in ways that are far more diagnosable today. The extensive research Liza Rodman did is astonishing: reading endless hours of interviews, memoirs, and police reports, combing archives, and digging up the stories of three of Tony’s alleged “victims” who, in fact, he never harmed and who lived out their sad lives without him. This is information that no other investigators or nonfiction writers were able to unearth (Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote a story about “Tony Chop Chop” for Life magazine in 1969; Leo Damore’s book In His Garden was published in 1981).
Though it’s fair to say that Tony Costa, who died in Walpole prison in 1974, is ultimately unknowable, The Babysitter gets deep inside his consciousness and the lives of nearly all the people it covers, in his orbit and in Liza’s. Its observations are remarkably sensitive, detailed, and balanced, and though it doesn’t have the exquisite prose of In Cold Blood, the language is lucid and vivid.
“It was as much an excavation of self as it was anything else,” Liza says. “And Tony bumped up against that.”
Once Upon a Time in Provincetown
The event: Virtual reading and discussion with Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan, authors of The Babysitter: My Summers With a Serial Killer
The time: Wednesday, March 3, 6 p.m.
The place: Presented by East End Books Ptown; tickets via Eventbrite; Zoom link at eastendbooksptown.com
The cost: Free