Becky Cooper was a Harvard undergraduate in 2009 when a fellow student took her aside and told her a story. A student had been murdered in her apartment and then taken back to campus. She’d had an affair with a professor. The school covered it up. And the murder remained unsolved. Cooper was one of many students hearing a version of the story, which took on the characteristics of a myth, obscuring the facts in the process: Jane Britton, a 23-year-old graduate student, was found murdered in her Cambridge apartment in early 1969, and a prominent archaeology professor was questioned by police. Her killer remained elusive.
How could Harvard allow such an open secret to fester? What could she find out about Jane, whose surviving friends and romantic partners still recalled her ferocious personality? And how naïve could she be to think she could get to the bottom of a murder that had remained unsolved for nearly half a century?
Cooper’s obsession immediately took hold, and every time she tried to leave the case alone, unanswered questions would worm their way back into her psyche. “I never lost my sense that there was more under the surface or my desire to get inside the dark,” she writes, and over the course of the next decade Cooper dove deep into the mystery of Jane Britton’s life and death, akin to the digging Jane herself did as an archaeology student on expeditions at Tepe Yahya, in Iran, during the summer of 1968. Jane cannot really live and breathe on the page, but Cooper ventures awfully near the ledge of reanimating her from Dead Girl trope into the fully human. Readers can hear her laugh, revel in her adventures, commiserate with her failures, and appreciate her capacity to care for friends and lovers.
The story Cooper tells is far larger than one of a single, dynamic, unique young woman. Jane Britton studied in a department that almost never allowed women to get tenure, and Harvard was a breeding ground for sexual harassment, pervasive misogyny, and the slings and arrows of privilege. Those who pursue archaeology, she finds, are split into data miners and storytellers. And as Cooper tellingly quotes a source: “The best story? That’s the truth, whether or not it actually happened.”
Cooper’s explorations of the broader problems of women in academia through extensive interviews are wonderfully reminiscent of Vivian Gornick’s landmark Women in Science: Then And Now. Cooper is a dogged reporter and researcher—bolstered, in no small part, by her years as a fact-checker for The New Yorker. She is excellent company as she trawls through university archives, mining box after box for scraps of information about Jane; as she travels to Hawaii and the outskirts of Toronto to interview Jane’s nearest and dearest (sometimes with their blessing, other times not, with the resulting awkward exchanges); and as she tries and fails to get key investigative files, efforts that eventually force the Massachusetts State Police’s hand, bringing about a surprising conclusion.
“The best story? That’s the truth, whether or not it actually happened.”
We Keep the Dead Close is part of a burgeoning trend of nonfiction writing that is as much about fashioning the crime, and the victim’s life, into narrative as it is about the crime itself. As in Emma Copley Eisenberg’s outstanding true-crime memoir/cultural history, The Third Rainbow Girl, and Michelle McNamara’s posthumously completed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Cooper weaves her own story into retelling Jane Britton’s life and death, because an obsession so personal cannot be a dispassionate investigation.
Cooper never lets herself off the hook as a result. Is investigating Jane’s murder an act of compassion or prurience? Will it compensate for festering wounds of trauma or rip them open anew? She considers all of these states, separately and together, and arrives at a conclusion that cannot satisfy but is nonetheless correct: “Some days, I don’t even know what to tell you about Jane. I know even less about whether telling a responsible story of the past is possible, having learned all too well how the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know: There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.”
The story We Keep the Dead Close tells about the facts of Jane Britton results in a minor miracle: the abrupt and random cruelty of her death—and the identity of her murderer—is far overshadowed by the fullness of her life. “The puzzle of who is Jane Britton is never going to be solved. Ever,” remarked one of Jane’s friends. We Keep the Dead Close reminds us that the puzzle is always more important than the solution, and that a woman’s life always matters more than the manner of her death.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita and the editor of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession