Kate’s Review: “We Keep The Dead Close”

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Book: “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: You have to remember, he reminded me, that Harvard is older than the U.S. government. You have to remember because Harvard doesn’t let you forget.

1969: the height of counterculture and the year universities would seek to curb the unruly spectacle of student protest; the winter that Harvard University would begin the tumultuous process of merging with Radcliffe, its all-female sister school; and the year that Jane Britton, an ambitious 23-year-old graduate student in Harvard’s Anthropology Department and daughter of Radcliffe Vice President J. Boyd Britton, would be found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment.

Forty years later, Becky Cooper, a curious undergrad, will hear the first whispers of the story. In the first telling the body was nameless. The story was this: a Harvard student had had an affair with her professor, and the professor had murdered her in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology because she’d threatened to talk about the affair. Though the rumor proves false, the story that unfolds, one that Cooper will follow for ten years, is even more complex: a tale of gender inequality in academia, a “cowboy culture” among empowered male elites, the silencing effect of institutions, and our compulsion to rewrite the stories of female victims.

We Keep the Dead Close is a memoir of mirrors, misogyny, and murder. It is at once a rumination on the violence and oppression that rules our revered institutions, a ghost story reflecting one young woman’s past onto another’s present, and a love story for a girl who was lost to history.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

During my college years at the U of MN I didn’t live on campus, so I wasn’t as in tune with the campus myths and rumors of the dorms and the community. I know that there were rumors that one of the dorms was haunted, and that the bridge that connects the campus across the Mississippi River was supposedly haunted as well (clearly I was into the ghost rumors). But nothing struck me as a college campus or community urban legend based in truth. “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper examines a Harvard story that sounds like generalized campus lore, but is in fact a true, and until recently, unsolved murder.

“We Keep the Dead Close” is very much a true crime story, involving the murder of Jane Britton, a Harvard student who was found murdered in her apartment in the late 1960s. Over the years this unsolved tale spun into its own campus mythology, with details tweaked and added and the main facts blurred to serve as a cautionary tale for women students. I had never heard of this murder, and I felt that Cooper was very respectful in how she both examined her personal investigation, as well as the investigation and fallout during the time, and the life that Jane led up until her death. Cooper made it so Jane was centered, all sides of her, the student, the woman, the friend, the lover, the difficult but funny person. Cooper ties all of these threads together in a way that made for a compelling narrative that keeps you reading, wanting to know who could have possibly done this as more suspects, scenarios, and possibilities are given. There are former lovers, jealous colleagues, and the main antagonist in the campus lore, the flamboyant professor she supposedly had an affair with. Cooper does her due diligence to explore all angles, and to try and find answers. Cooper also never centers herself, as some of these true crime/memoir books can stumble in. While it also concerns her curiosity and her own insecurities and fears as a woman student in a revered, but still male dominated, institution, this never feels like a ‘this could have been ME’ screed.

But what most fascinated me about “We Keep the Dead Close” was how Cooper so effortlessly examined the toxic undertones of academia, with oppressive forces and misogyny run amok in the 1960s when Britton attended. Not to mention how some of these themes are still quite present in academia today, being exposed by women who have had to live with it. You really get to see how Harvard was such a boys club at the time, and it truly paints a picture of how a professor, whose rumored involvement in the death of a female student, could still not only retain his position at the school, but become a big wig therein. While it’s true that not all is as it seems when it comes to the lore of the case and the actual facts of it, the fact that a potential murderer retains his job in this story and you think ‘oh, yeah, maybe’ instead of ‘preposterous!’ says a lot about the culture there at the time, and into today.

On top of that, Cooper has very insightful gleams into how lore can change and evolve as time goes on, and how Britton’s story has turned into a cautionary tale for students, particularly the women. While it’s true it definitely has a victim blamey feel at its core (don’t sleep with your professor or he will kill you and you just may deserve it! Keep your legs closed, ladies), it feels like the old fairy tales and monster stories that have been used over time to try and keep kids safe. It’s deeply fascinating to me as a true crime enthusiast and someone who loves a good horror story cum morality tale to see that kind of thing happening in the 20th century and into the 21st.

“We Keep the Dead Close” is a must read for true crime fans and those who are interested in the origins of modern myths and lore. I greatly enjoyed it, and it exceeded my expectations.

Rating 9: A well researched, poignant, and disturbing true crime novel about myth, misogyny, and the dark sides of Academia, “We Keep the Dead Close” is a must for true crime fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Keep the Dead Close” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Fiction Family Secrets”, and I think it would fit in on “Campus Days”.

Find “We Keep the Dead Close” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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