Reviews: We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper and Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford
I’m grateful to have received an eARC of Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close via Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing in exchange for an honest review! (Because the ARC archived before I finished reading I also picked up a final copy from my library to complete the read, so my review comes from a mix of both the early and published editions; I have checked the final copy for accuracy of all quotations included below.)
In the wake of the #metoo movement, there’s been a definite trend in literature toward exposing long-running abuses, often but not limited to powerful white men taking advantage of women they are meant to be helping in some way, and ensuring their silence with gaslighting and/or direct threats. At this point, most of us know these abuses of power have been taking place across all sorts of institutions that are meant to protect and nurture women (and others), but it is still shocking to stumble upon cases that reveal how deep these issues run, and how deeply they still impact the world today.
So I thought I knew what I was getting into when I picked up Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close; it’s a true crime / investigative journalism / memoir account of the infamous murder of a young woman at Harvard in 1969, an account of which has been kept alive by archeology students on campus for decades. But We Keep the Dead Close is so much more than the piecing together of a long-unsolved tragedy- it is a thorough look at pervasive sexism, gatekeeping and patriarchal self-preservation in a prestigious university (and specifically, its archeology department). This is the story of how one young woman’s terrible fate was left to rumor and speculation, which achieved something quite different than justice.
“The very things that made me love Harvard- its seductiveness, its limitlessness- also made it a very convincing villain. Harvard felt omnipotent.”
CWs: sexism, rape, murder, gatekeeping
We Keep the Dead Close opens on two timelines: one in which Jane Britton fails to attend an important exam in 1969 and is subsequently found dead in her apartment, and one near present-day as another Harvard student, Becky Cooper, hears a version of the unsolved mystery that’s been passed down from student to student for years. What fuels the story’s longevity and sparks Cooper’s interest is the fact that the man implicated in the story was not only never arrested but actually still working at the school. Before long, Cooper begins a deep dive into Jane’s life and death, the shoddy police investigation, and Harvard’s insular archeology department.
Of course a cast of suspects, many involved with Harvard archeology, begin to appear, each as convincing a criminal as the last- at least for a chapter or two. Cooper’s skill in painting a plausible picture of guilt without dehumanizing anyone or falling into the trap of sensationalism is remarkable. Instead of attempting to capitalize on shady characters for plot twists, Cooper uses each possible culprit as a jumping-off point for a closer examination of Britton’s story; she examines not only the suspects but those who believe in the suspects’ guilt, and how each version of the narrative serves its audience. In this way, Cooper manages not only to assemble a mystery but to highlight its deeper cultural context.
“…Jane’s story, one about a girl disappeared by her adviser, was still so alive in the community because it was an exaggerated, horror-movie version of a narrative that was all too common.”
I predict some readers who pick up We Keep the Dead Close as a juicy crime drama might be disappointed. Even though Britton’s story has all the shocking and surprising elements of a compelling mystery, it is much longer than the surprisingly simple answer to her death really requires and its pacing is slowed by supplemental Harvard history, the gritty details of archeological digs, and the effects of rampant sexism (with nods to racism and intersectionality as well) across the board. It’s all incredibly well done and every aspect compels, but someone expecting a fast-paced whodunnit may find their expectations misaligned with what Cooper has to offer. Where this book excels is not so much in unveiling scandalous details (though it has those) but in examining the machinations of the story itself. Here we discover how Britton’s fate has become a sort of mythology- taken on a life of its own as a way for Harvard students to warn each other about professors who seem to operate above the rules, the department’s tendency to protect itself (and the privileged white men at its helm) at any cost, and the stubborn tradition of patriarchy woven into Harvard’s very marrow. The murder mystery is only a vehicle Cooper uses (with utmost humanity, not even sparing her own research efforts from criticism) to examine greater flaws in elite academia.
“I had been reassuring myself that I was doing the right thing by telling Jane’s story, but I, too, had been propagating the things we preferred to believe. I was wrong- we were wrong.”
Photographs and visuals (nothing gory) add an extra dose of reality to the tale and help the reader keep track of the main players, while statistics and anecdotes drive the book’s feminist points home. Archeological digs lend the story an air of adventure, and Cooper’s style of unearthing facts and using them to build a story about the past feels particularly apt in relation to Britton’s area of study. I wouldn’t change a thing, and recommend this book highly.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. While I can see some readers potentially finding the many layers to this mystery a bit superfluous to what they were looking for, the depth of information and exploration really worked to tip We Keep the Dead Close toward top-tier reading for me.
Inspired by the exceptional experience I had with Cooper’s book, I decided to keep following the thread and picked up Lacy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing.
In this memoir, Crawford recounts her experiences at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, including a sexual assault against her and the boarding school’s shocking efforts not only to cover it up but to place Crawford in the path of further harm. In this account she details the assault and the messy aftermath, but also gives fantastic coverage of boarding school life for those of us who aren’t in the know, and takes the time to interrogate the language surrounding sexual assault- all in all, it’s revelatory, informative, and so sharply written that the CWs (rape [of a minor], sexual assault [of a minor], sexism, gaslighting, silencing, gatekeeping) are really the only potential deterrents.
“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who- some of them- had never even been in a room with me. They still never have.”
This is another case full of shocking facts and astonishing twists, and yet once again we see a slower pace that’s driven not by the crimes but in this case by Crawford’s day-to-day life. She spends three years at St. Paul’s, and uses much of that timeline as a way to show the reader an insider view of the elite boarding experience, warts and all. The narration skips around somewhat (though each chapter is labeled with the year and Crawford’s status at school to ground the reader in time), with the event of her assault acting as a lens through which she reflects upon everything. The assault, which took place on campus at the hands of two older students (legal adults), occurred in 1990, and despite Crawford’s own statements about working hard to forget that night, the intervening years and the insight they’ve given to her show clearly in every passage.
“The story of what happened would have attached to me, the high school sophomore out of bed in the small hours. Even there- do I write the story of what happened or the story of what he did? Trying again: the story of what he did would have attached to me, the high school sophomore out of bed in the small hours, like a cursed baton he’d passed to me on the stairs while my parents and his wife and his children and my brother slept.”
Of course, as for many women, Crawford’s experience with sexual assault and harassment was not a one-time event, and thanks to her school, it was not something she saw legal justice for. It’s a devastating story, and one of the most heartbreaking parts of it for me was seeing her parents seem to lose interest once they learned Crawford had been sexually active outside of the assault case. Looking at her story, there are so many places like this where the unsympathetic listener could (and did, given some of the bullying she faced) make excuses for what happened to her, but Crawford sees these traps and deftly sidesteps to leave the blame where it rightfully lies, and it’s a damn shame to see her parents failing to jump that hurdle. Though she doesn’t speak against them outright in this book, it’s a complicated relationship that wasn’t always helpful for Crawford, and can be difficult to read about. There are some happy moments within these pages, but I think it’s worth being aware of how bleak the book can be as well; the unflinching honesty may have been the hardest part of the read for me, but it is also what impressed me most. Few memoirs (at least, in my limited experience) achieve this level of self-sacrifice and -awareness. It’s truly a powerful book.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I thought aside from the age of the protagonist this book might feel a little redundant, having just read all about Harvard and having picked up #metoo material in the past, but Crawford’s storytelling and skill with language drew me right in and truly set this account apart.
Both of these are books that I think will appeal more to female readers in general, although I would also say that books like these should be required reading for every parent who sends their child to a prestigious school- high school or college- and most of the students as well. I’ve complained a lot in my adult years about my small town public school education, and I’ve been embarrassed about not even applying to ivy leagues, but now… I wonder how these institutions can survive with this sort of information readily available to the public. And I know a sizeable portion of those who attend such schools are the rich and privileged who will benefit from this sort of patriarchal harm and thus may not mind so much that these schools have such a legacy. But I hope going forward that enough people will care about making sure educational spaces- especially where children are involved- are safe for students, so that we will start seeing positive changes. It is evidently a widespread problem. Chessy Prout, coauthor of I Have the Right To, also writes about her experience with sexual assault at St. Paul’s, which occurred in 2014. That’s only seven years ago guys, and her assault wasn’t an isolated event but part of a larger game.
Fiction has taken up the theme as well, showing further readers just how easy and often adults employed by a prestigious school can get away with preying on their students: we have examples such as Elizabeth Russell’s stunning My Dark Vanessa, which takes place at a New England boarding school and beyond, providing a nuanced commentary on survivor response to trauma; Susan Choi’s brilliant Trust Exercise, a high school exploration of teen misperception and trauma that follows survivors into adulthood, and even Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, a Yale-centered fantasy novel which doesn’t focus primarily on sexual assault but does comment on the exclusionary gatekeeping of the prestigious institution (which Bardugo attended herself)- honoring its wealthy and privileged few while treating outsiders essentially as disposable. Even Brandon Taylor’s Real Life speaks to institutional silencing in its own way, highlighting the ways racism can bar students of color from receiving a fair education even while their white peers, mentors, and advisors deny that any such obstacle exists, or at least their own roles in it.
If it’s #metoo stories you’re interested in moreso than the warped educational institutions of America, you shouldn’t miss Chanel Miller’s incredible memoir, Know My Name, in which her own attempted assault on Standford’s campus leads to a legal battle that seems to favor her attacker from the start. Additionally, though I haven’t read these yet, there are She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow, both surrounding the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a prominent American film producer and now convicted sex offender. Speaking of film, #metoo story seekers may also be interested in documentaries like Netflix’s Athlete A, in which USA Olympic gymnasts speak out against national team doctor Larry Nassar who abused young girls and women under the guise of medical treatment for decades.
Clearly, this is a problem that affects so many in so many different settings; the magnitude of it is staggering, and the silencing on top of the assaults makes it all the more horrendous.
“‘…your piece is one of hundreds of pieces. This goes back to the nineteen-forties. I don’t even see the end of this investigation.'” -Notes on a Silencing
But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. We seem to be entering an era where it is no longer difficult to find stories of women speaking out against abuses perpetrated by men in positions of power, and as hard as it can be to think about how deeply affecting these situations can be for all survivors, and how very many of those there are, it is also glorious to witness this page being turned. To see the fear falling away, to seeing predators start to be held accountable, to see the previously unacknowledged truths of our society brought to light. It’s an honor to hear these stories, to bear witness, and to be an ear for voices that have been kept quiet for far too long. And that is why I keep reading and recommending books about sexual assault and abuse of power, no matter how painful they may be. Awareness is the first step. Change, I hope, will be the second.
If you have further recommendations for me and other readers interested in this topic, please feel free to list them below.
The Literary Elephant