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.
I fell into “Keep The Dead Close” – Becky Cooper’s writing is just beautiful, she immerses the reader into the narrative so you feel like you are walking in her shoes- following behind a girl long gone – and trying to find out what happened to her.
The murder of Jane Britton in the late 1960’s, somewhat of a quiet urban legend within the walls of Harvard, suggests she was having an affair with a professor who then killed her. The ensuing supposed cover up by the historic institution is still whispered around decades later when our author first hears the story.
What follows becomes an obsession and somewhat of a salvation or so it seemed to me..the intricate nature of this story is stunning in its complexity, past and present intertwined, sitting at the heart of it a young woman who with every revelation becomes more and more enigmatic as well as vividly real. At the end I still hadn’t fully grasped who Jane Britton WAS but I felt her loss – not, of course, in the same way as the people who surrounded her at the time of her death, but still..
Feminism, misogyny, power and memory all play into the authors discoveries. Her sense of self wraps around the story in a way that is utterly compelling and oft melancholy, she digs deep into everyone who may have relevant information and breathes life into them for the reader who will want an answer as much as she does.
I won’t tell you where this ends because in a lot of ways it never will, I will tell you that I didn’t think I’d read another true crime narrative that would sink into my soul like I’ll Be Gone In The Dark and Hell In The Heartland but here it is. I read it fast and late into the night, devouring each page and not wanting to sleep. I highly recommend it.
I’ll leave you with a picture of a picture from the book, of Jane gazing out from the page and with a quote that will stay with me, it being a truth known to women everywhere…
“It’s just the most recent iteration of the same damn story”