We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper
Categories: True Crime
First Publication Date: November 10th 2020
I received an advance copy via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: 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 the biggest true crime book released this year that came to my attention: it exposes Harvard’s history of misogyny and dives into who Jane Britton was, who the people in her life were and the decades of unsolved mystery that seemed to have all the looks of a coverup by Harvard. It was definitely an interesting read, and there were such unsettling coincidences in this case (so many people dying mysteriously) and several shady characters that are easy to suspect.
I have to disclose that I have an ambivalent relationship to true crime: I often find myself initially intrigued and drawn to the mystery and puzzle aspect of it, but then I start feeling a bit weird diving so deep into people’s lives, seeing just how easily one could become a victim, how horrible people can be and so on. This was also the case for We Keep the Dead Close, where I felt a lot of times that Jane was being treated as a cautionary tale and a stereotype than an actual person. While the author does address these misgivings, how she herself had seen Jane a certain way and was humanizing her more and more as the book goes on, I just did not think it was necessary to spend half the book treating Jane like a character of a story instead of a real person.
I was not a fan either of how Becky Cooper chose to insert herself so much in this book – I had hoped to read mostly about Jane, and I truly did not care to read about Becky’s relationship, or how she starts to feel like she and Jane were so similar etc. I thought this was weird. I understand that she was trying to make a point about how history / true crime / archeology are all sciences that are still told through people; biased, flawed people who will see things a certain way depending on their own experiences. In that, I think she really made her point brilliantly! And I have to say reading about all the archeology was super fun. I just wished there was a little less author and more Jane (that would’ve easily shortened the book by 100 pages in my opinion).
I enjoyed this read, and I think Becky Cooper is a very committed author, I truly enjoyed that there were photos and interviews, and that she put such a focus on misogyny in Harvard, touches a bit on homophobia and racism, too, and challenges us to not try to fit Jane’s story into a narration we’re familiar with. I think most people will love this a lot more than I did, honestly! So despite my lukewarm response, I think this is probably one of the best true crime books out there and I highly recommend it, if only to get you positively enraged with Harvard.