There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.
—We Keep the Dead Close
Mystery, like unrequited love, is best experienced in anticipation. Before myriad possibilities are collapsed to a single blunt conclusion, before the riches of the imagination are reduced to the merely factual and a cast of captivating suspects is reduced to a single guilty perpetrator, the romance of mystery lies in its very irresolution. Whether the genre is true crime or mystery-detective fiction, whether its mode is the straightforward police procedural or the elaborate puzzles of the locked-room mystery, it begins with death made specific: a dead body. (Nearly always the body of a “beautiful” young woman or girl, as if in homage to Poe’s dictum that “the death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”) As in a chess game, the opening gambit precipitates all that follows, though the author, knowing the solution of the mystery before she sets out, will structure the text in such a way that it moves inexorably toward its conclusion even as it must digress, misinterpret, and mislead, to provide the heft required of a book instead of, for instance, an article or a column of newsprint. It might be said that the art of mystery is the art of obfuscation.
In fiction, the investigation must involve a cast of suspects of whom one is the guilty party, but not obviously so: if the murderer is too easily detected, the reader will feel cheated; if the murderer is a minor character or a stranger inadequately integrated into the narrative, the reader will feel doubly cheated. Something of the same structure is required in works of true crime except, in these cases, there remains the very real possibility that the murderer will turn out to be a total stranger, not a suspect, identified through an impersonal means of detection like forensic DNA testing, and all that precedes this identification—the close scrutiny of suspects and persons of interest; attention paid to background, circumstances, speculation; indeed, most of the investigation and its chronicling—will turn out to have been irrelevant. “It was random? It was senseless? It could have been anyone?”—such a revelation defeats the purpose of the heroic effort of detection, like a postmodernist mockery of narrative itself that refuses to provide the meaning that justifies the story’s existence.
We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper is a brilliantly idiosyncratic variant of generic true crime, rather more a memoir than a conventional work of reportage, so structured that the revelation of the murderer is not the conclusion or even the most important feature of the book. Instead, the journey to nonrevelation—“the absence of mystery, of narrative echo, of symmetry or rhyme or sense”—becomes the memoirist’s subject.
The product of ten years’ research and speculation by Cooper, a former New Yorker staff member and a senior fellow at Brandeis’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Reporting, We Keep the Dead Close resembles a Möbius strip in which the more information the author accumulates, the less certain she is of its worth, for the history she is writing has “blurred into a vehicle for telling my own [story].” As she tries to “disentangle myth from fact, and to study the iterations of these myths for what they revealed about the storytellers,” it is the “limitations of my imagination” with which Cooper is finally confronted. Appropriately for an investigation into the brutal murder of a student of archaeology and anthropology, We Keep the Dead Close questions traditional procedures of interpreting the past:
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.
In January 1969, on the day of what would have been the first of her three Ph.D. general exams, twenty-three-year-old Jane Britton, a Harvard anthropology graduate student and daughter of a Radcliffe administrator, was found in her off-campus walk-up apartment at 6 University Road, Cambridge, savagely bludgeoned to death, her body partly covered with fur blankets and sprinkled with what appeared to be “red ochre”—in the eyes of some observers a re-creation of a burial ritual. Semen stains on underwear belonging to Britton were never identified since, long before forensic DNA testing of such evidence became routine, the underwear was lost by police. Nothing appeared to have been stolen from the apartment; no one reported hearing screams. Though owned by Harvard, the building had “a history of violent crime” that included two previous attacks on young women, one of them fatal. Nonetheless, Britton was said to have rarely locked the door to her apartment as if, in Cooper’s words, “she seemed to live with a sense of invulnerability.”
Cambridge police investigated the murder but did not, inexplicably, secure the crime scene (“There was no caution tape, no barriers. You could just push in the front door and climb the stairs right to Jane’s hallway”), inevitably botching the investigation. Though numerous “persons of interest” associated with the Harvard anthropology department were interviewed, as well as others involved with the victim, no arrests were made. The inquiry eventually stalled and became a cold case, kept alive in the memories of people who’d known Britton and also in lurid legends of the kind Cooper would hear, as a Harvard junior in 2009, of a beautiful young graduate student in archaeology who was murdered sometime in the late 1960s by the professor with whom she was having an affair:
Police found her [body] the next day and questioned the professor. The school forced the Crimson to change its article about the murder. They couldn’t have it point to one of their own…. Suddenly, everything was hushed up. The press stopped writing, the family never investigated, and the police never arrested anyone.
Truncated as this sensational account is, and essentially inaccurate, nonetheless the implication that Harvard exerted its influence to stall the investigation will turn out to be true.
As an undergraduate Cooper immediately became enthralled with the story of Jane Britton, long before knowing her name, “filed in my head, as a fable”; after graduating in 2010 she felt herself drawn back to the unsolved case: “It seems obvious in retrospect that Jane was still waiting there for me.” This startling statement, the implied intimacy between subject and researcher presented as if it were not one-way but somehow reciprocal, suggests how strongly and how immediately Cooper identified with the victim of (presumed) male violence, whose favorite quote (from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan) turned out to be uncannily prescient: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” (Cooper remarks in passing that she has pinned this quote to her own wall.) The connection soon becomes obsessive, fated:
For female graduate students, [Jane’s story] had become a kind of cautionary tale about the systematic imbalances they faced…. I wasn’t innocent, either: Jane had become something to keep me company. A way to structure my life. Something to give it meaning.
And an admission of particular poignancy, as out of place in a generic true-crime book as it is heartrending here: “I had found a companion in my loneliness in [Jane Britton].” In a novel, such a statement would be a signal to the reader that a powerful, perhaps lethal delusion has overcome the narrator. In a memoir, the statement suggests an awakening from delusion, since the recollection is past tense: had found.
Throughout We Keep the Dead Close there is a dramatically sustained tension between the subject (“unsolved murder, Jane Britton”) and its (secret) meaning in the life of the young female investigative reporter:
The distance between my world and Jane’s had already become hallucinatorily thin in spots, but the #MeToo movement felt like 1969 had come crashing fully and completely into the present day . What had, for years, felt like a secret confined to the halls of archaeology was suddenly what everyone was talking about: whisper networks, the need for rumor to tell stories with no other outlet, the corrupting influence of power, the silencing, the erasure.
“The silencing, the erasure”—these are burials of a kind to which the female sex is particularly vulnerable. That Britton was not only murdered but her murder both given sensational initial coverage (“Pretty Graduate Student Found Slain in Apartment” was one headline) and subsequently erased (the Cambridge police department and the district attorney soon generated “administrative roadblocks” as if to sabotage the investigation) charges Cooper with a mission to address more than simply an individual death but a gender-determined “cultural amnesia” involving male-generated violence against women and girls. She quotes from a lecture she attended at the Harvard Club: “There are many kinds of memory…but the ghosts of alternative histories always surface.”
What fascinates the investigative reporter even as it appalls and infuriates her is the unexamined interpretations given to Britton’s death by those who’d known her, or claimed to have known her, and who were originally questioned by Cambridge police and, years later, interviewed by Cooper. We are made to see how reflexively people may blame a victim for her own murder: some make much of the facts, if they are even facts, that Britton was sexually adventurous, with a predilection for having affairs with academic colleagues, and that she was guilty of consorting with questionable persons—“‘hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types.’ There was talk of a secret abortion, and affairs with at least one professor.” One theory held that Britton had threatened to expose the professor with whom she was (allegedly) having an affair, another that she had “maybe threatened to undermine [the professor’s] claim about Tepe Yahya,” an Iranian archaeological dig in which both had participated the previous summer.
Britton’s brother, a Christian minister, is startlingly accusatory in speaking of her, suggesting that she was “sexually active” at the age of eleven. Far from expressing sympathy for his murdered sister, Boyd Britton speaks critically of “affairs that Jane had had with people in the Anthropology department. Several of her section men.” He adds as an afterthought that Jane could be “dreary and pretentious and a bitch.” Cooper notes, “I had no idea what to do with a brother who was talking about his dead sister like that.”
Accused of “negligence” in violation of the Cambridge building code, Harvard seems to have interfered with the investigation because the murder in one of its properties “cast an unwelcome light on Harvard’s real estate policies…at a time when Harvard was in the middle of a $48.7-million fundraising drive.” Britton’s father was a vice-president at Radcliffe who presumably might have insisted on a serious investigation of his daughter’s murder, yet it seems “he never pursued it”; a reporter who’d covered the case in 1969 tells Cooper that neither Harvard’s administration nor the police seemed interested in finding Britton’s murderer: “They just wanted it to die down, bury her, and move along with life as usual at Harvard.”
Like a skilled mystery novelist, Cooper presents her cast of suspects in so beguiling a way that as each is examined, it seems likely to the reader that he is the killer. Initially, the leading contender is the enigmatic, darkly charismatic anthropology professor and archaeologist Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky, with whom Britton was believed to have had an affair, in his early thirties at the time of her death but already tenured at Harvard partly on the basis of his work on Tepe Yahya. Among the kinder things said of him is that he is a “bully,” a “plagiarist,” a “toad,” and “Machiavellian.” As Cooper presents him, Lamberg-Karlovsky was a swaggering academic con man with a flair for self-promotion who might have stepped out of the pages of a Saul Bellow novel:
Over the years, as his academic reputation arguably faded, his personal life grew wilder and more legendary. As if to encourage this, Karl stalked the halls of the Peabody Museum in a cape—at least according to graduate student lore. To these students, he seemed to play up to a caricature of the villainous professor…. The whispers that followed Karl seemed, perversely, to give him more power. The story, while never proven, was never dispelled, and it lurked in the background of his interactions: This man might have killed somebody.
Though Lamberg-Karlovsky was known to be a suspect in the Britton murder case, with, at best, a shady personal reputation in the anthropology department, Harvard provided legal counsel for him and eventually promoted him to direct the distinguished Peabody Museum; his value to the university, it’s suggested, was primarily monetary—Lamberg-Karlovsky was a skilled fundraiser whose success was believed to be reason enough “for Harvard to overlook any flaws.”1 By the time Cooper interviews him he is seventy-four years old, still a prominent presence in the department, an “imposing” figure with an “aristocratic” aura; it is he who provides the title for Cooper’s book, remarking, in a classroom lecture that she attends, “The dead are kept close to you.”
Another “flawed” individual associated with the anthropology department, Lee Parsons, whose relations with Britton involved bullying, stalking, and threatening behavior, and who was known to be a habitual drinker with a predilection for sudden outbursts of temper, was “lawyered up to the gills” by Harvard: “This would mean that Lee was someone worth protecting even if he was a misfit of the department.” The implication is that the university preferred to take a chance on harboring a murderer among the faculty rather than drawing adverse publicity that might interfere with fundraising.
There is a sociological term—“structural violence”—to describe the effect on individuals of oppression of various kinds within institutions, which is likely to be indirect, thus invisible, in contrast to the way the violence of “street crime” is visible: the exclusion of many individuals from full citizenship, for example, thus full protection under the law. This sort of violence can be exercised in secret, and certainly in silence, within long-established institutions like government bureaucracies and private universities; its effects can be devastating for countless individuals, and yet its origins may remain elusive.
For instance, 87 percent of the students who withdrew from the Harvard anthropology Ph.D. program over three decades were women—a fact that Cooper discovers in tandem with her investigation into the Britton murder, along with the fact that 70 percent of five hundred women at Harvard reported having experienced sexual harassment on archaeological field sites. Cooper notes, “It was only because I was talking to all these women in the department, studying this amorphous pattern of unhappiness, that I was beginning to realize how corrosive institutional habits could be.”
From the frustrating case of Jane Britton it’s a logical leap for Cooper to consider more generally the reluctance of Harvard, surely a microcosm of the (patriarchal) academic world, to integrate women into its faculty and student body,2 as well as its failure to confront rampant sexism (including outright sexual harassment and abuse) among its male faculty toward vulnerable women faculty and students. The closing of ranks to protect their own is a familiar feature of this “culture of silence”—“the great enabling,” as it’s called by one of its victims, Terry Karl, a former assistant professor of government who was forced to leave in the aftermath of bringing charges against a tenured professor in her department. (Though known to be a “repeater,” this professor was later promoted to director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and, in 2006, as if in rebuke to the accusations made against him, named a Harvard vice-provost.) A formal sexual harassment case initiated by a woman against a tenured male professor “pits a person against an institution that is predisposed to defend the accused.” The university’s complicity through inaction allows the victimization to continue; the signal is sent that “speaking up does nothing but harm the speaker.”
We Keep the Dead Close shares an impassioned advocacy for victims of injustice at Harvard with William Wright’s Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals (2006), a revelation of the systematic persecution of undergraduate men suspected to be homosexuals, involving clandestine trials, expulsions, blacklists intended to destroy lives, and subsequent suicides among the expelled.3 In each case, a “culture of silence” protected the oppressors while the victims were ostracized and forced out of Harvard. Cooper quotes a former anthropology associate professor, Kimberly Theidon, who’d sued Harvard in 2014 for failing to give her tenure because of her gender and her “outspoken advocacy” for victims of sexual assault:
On college campuses nation- wide, senior professors—frequently male—wield tremendous power over their students and junior colleagues…. These gatekeepers operate with virtual impunity, administering silences, humiliation, and career-ending decisions. The black box of tenure, lacking transparency, is precisely how silencing and impunity work to the disadvantage of those who would speak up and unsettle the status quo.
In the tradition of classic true crime, Cooper provides an exhaustively detailed account of the police investigation into the Britton murder, which was allowed to lapse for years and was then resuscitated in the summer of 2018, when the results of a forensic DNA test were at last made public. While much that Cooper uncovers in her private pursuit of the case is fascinating in itself, not least her interviews with Lamberg-Karlovsky and other “persons of interest” for whom the case of Jane Britton was never allowed to go cold, it is the revelation of the murderer that is most unexpected: no fellow archaeologist but a local “stalker” unconnected with the Harvard anthropology department, indeed unconnected with Britton herself. “Just some random killer” who had raped and killed at least one other young woman in Cambridge, who had been incarcerated, and paroled, and reincarcerated, and who had died in prison in 2001, years before his DNA would be linked to DNA found at the crime scene.
Like many others who had constructed narratives to explain Britton’s death, Cooper is astonished, dismayed. Hers is the stunning epistemological revelation that no theory generated out of her own intrepid research and analysis had approached: the spare, blunt fact that the murder was a random one, in no way related to the unique person Jane Britton:
Michael Sumpter is not who I would have wanted cast in this role. He is a caricature of a villain, the star of a different myth: the faceless, nameless, shadowy Black figure who abducts white women and has his way with them. A brute. A savage. A beast. This ancient trope is racist and tired…. And it masks the truth: A woman is much more likely to be killed by a loved one than by a stranger…. But my reluctance to embrace this ending changes nothing.
As Cooper presents it, the cruelty with which Britton is treated by the rapist-stalker who enters her life so briefly, even as he ends it, is mirrored, to a degree, by the cruelty with which the young man she’d loved, a fellow archaeologist, broke off their romance with a letter of stunning and inexplicable indifference, which Cooper includes, as if to spare neither herself nor the reader: “Was there anything more horrifyingly indifferent than ‘Health + luck, Jim’?”
At the “white-hot center of the knowable,” after literally a decade of having been obsessed by the death and life of a young woman she’d never known, Cooper finds it as difficult to let go of Britton as she finds it difficult to give up the “reporting mode where everything feels more intense”—the perfect fusion of obsession and rectitude. In the throes of her “immersive insanity” Cooper reconstructs the (probable) death scene, with its terrifying feature of sheer chance; she visits Britton’s grave in Needham Cemetery on what would have been her seventy-third birthday, hoping that she might “encounter someone doing the same pilgrimage…or some flowers left behind anonymously for Jane,” but is made to realize the “very different and very believable alternative that nobody had come here in decades.” Like an inconsolable lover she writes a letter to leave at the gravesite: “Dear Jane, I hope I’m telling the story you want me to tell.”
It’s fitting that Cooper’s beautifully composed elegy for Jane Britton ends with Britton’s own words, from a 1968 journal Cooper discovered, that seem to have been written for Cooper herself, and not for the callow young man who’d so wounded her:
You know more about what makes me tick than anyone else, oddly enough…. Be my chronicler, so the tale of the Brit is told throughout the land, or at least that one person remembers me the way I am instead of the way they see me.
Within days of Britton’s death, Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky received a call from the Harvard dean of arts and sciences, Franklin Ford, offering Harvard’s “full support without reservation,” Cooper writes. “Half a century later, Karl would recount the story to me at our first official interview…: ‘He didn’t even ask me if I did it!’” ↩
Though classes at Harvard became coed in 1946, Harvard degrees were not conferred upon Radcliffe students until 1963. ↩
What is most astonishing about Wright’s investigation is the moral righteousness and vindictive fervor of Harvard’s homophobic “purge,” more appropriate for an inquisition than an institution purportedly concerned with “arts and letters.” The persecution of suspected homosexuals was not a matter simply of conducting secret trials in which undergraduates were terrorized and encouraged to inform on one another, then expelled and sent home in shame; it was a matter of the university, under the presidency of the once-legendary Abbott Lawrence Lowell, pursuing the young men for as long as thirty years afterward, maintaining a blacklist of names intended to ruin entire lives. ↩