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

“Back then, I was blind to the idea that an institution could still be destructive even if its members were good people.”

We Keep the Dead Close

4.5/5 stars

Institutions have a funny way of leaving their mark on things–my undergraduate alma mater, Kenyon College, often boasts of its “new Ivy” status and certainly enjoys being as steeped in tradition as the Ivy League. Ghost stories, songs, and weird superstitions dominated much of my undergraduate experience. But a lot of my personal landscape at Kenyon was marked by the Women’s Coordinate College, opened in 1969–it included many of the Brutalist, concrete-and-brick dorms I lived in, the old women’s dining hall that had become an administrative building, the Crozier Center for Women where I spent many a Sunday night discussing feminist causes. Until 1972, women at Kenyon had their out-of-class lives sequestered on that corner of campus, and even in my time there, some remnants of that era lingered. Fraternities all had their own lounges to host parties while there was a catch-all “sorority lounge” for four separate groups to share, there were unspoken-but-Draconian rules about which dining hall table belonged to which sports team, and I was told campus legends that those old Coordinate College dorms were built to deter any late-night rule-breaking, with the maze-like halls too confusing for male students from South Quad to navigate after lights-out.

We Keep the Dead Close tells the story of Jane Britton–a Radcliffe graduate student who was found murdered in her Cambridge apartment in January 1969, the morning of her Generals, an important milestone for proceeding with her doctorate in anthropology. The strange murder scene, incorporating red ochre, a pigment regularly seen in archeological digs, led police to suspect it was a jilted professor or a jealous student. But the leads went nowhere, and Jane’s own family, including her father who was a Radcliffe administrator, rushed to close the case. The murder seemed to define the turbulent 1960s in Harvard and Radcliffe’s joint history–1969 was the last year that Radcliffe did not have joint commencement ceremonies with Harvard, marking the beginning of some sort of end. Cooper notes that Harvard themselves seems to be erasing Radcliffe from their history, with maybe just a single panel at alumni events now, even though, until 2000, female Harvard graduates technically received Radcliffe diplomas.

Cooper first learned of Britton’s story as a Harvard undergraduate, and remains haunted by the unsolved mystery even years after graduation. This is a long process, with a lot of suspects and a lot of tangents–if you have the patience, it’s worth the wait. Cooper unspools the threads surrounding Jane’s death, from her Boston Brahmin upbringing to the eventual #MeToo reckoning for many of the anthropology professors still on the Harvard payroll. There are frustrating dead ends, potential witnesses to Jane’s last day on Earth that are dead now, Cambridge police who have misplaced files, missed opportunities to take advantage of DNA testing when the technology became available. Cooper’s battles with the institution of Harvard are frustrating too, with constant pleading to drop it altogether, actions to protect shady professors, and the ever-present mantra that Harvard is older than the country it’s in–so you don’t want to open too many doors.

As a true-crime lover, this was right up my alley. I loved the twists and turns, and Cooper clearly is invested in her subject. Not only is this a history of Jane, Radcliffe, and Boston in the late 1960s, but it’s also an investigation of the ways academia and especially anthropology has evolved–Jane participated in quite a few archeological digs, including a fateful one in pre-Revolution Iran. Many of the older professors Cooper interviews and features whine about the “good old days” of anthropology, when digs felt more like Indiana Jones movies and were wholly unconcerned with the needs and considerations of local and indigenous people. The book acts as a social history and a damning expose, an exploration of the deep-rooted sexism that still taints academia and a celebration of the potential Jane had as she broke the norms for women of her era.

My main gripe with the book is that it’s long–this was one of the few books I read this year that took me over a week to finish. Cooper sometimes seems to lose sight of her subject, until it all comes together a few chapters later. Some of her personal life bleeds into the narrative in a way that feels largely unproductive. I was able to look past these flaws, though–if you’ve ever spent time in a place where silence seems to be the preferred policy, the intrigue of We Keep the Dead Close is immediately recognisable.

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