Becky Cooper was a junior at Harvard in 2009 when she first heard rumors about the dead girl. No one knew her name, but they knew that she was an archaeology grad student who was (allegedly) violently and ritualistically murdered by a professor with whom she was having an affair. Harvard, the rumor went, was so determined to avoid bad publicity that it stopped a police investigation, forgave the professor and acted like nothing happened.
Cooper became obsessed with the crime and, determined to find out the truth, investigated the cold case on her own for ten years, culminating in a gripping new book on her findings: We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence.
Early on she finds out that the woman’s name was Jane Britton, and she was an archaeological grad student when she was killed. Cooper painstakingly recreates Britton’s life, interviewing her friends, her family, her classmates, her boyfriend at the time and every still-living law enforcement officer who investigated her death. She pores through Britton’s letters and journals, files Freedom of Information Act requests with multiple government agencies and even spends a month on a dig in Bulgaria, similar to the one Britton did soon before her death.
Though initially motivated by the possibility of solving the murder, Cooper’s project eventually morphs into something way bigger—a story about sexism, flagrant abuses of power and the systems in place to keep it all quiet.
In a particularly chilling passage, Cooper interviews Britton’s academic advisor, who was one of the prime murder suspects for a time. The now-elderly professor revealed that after Britton's death, he received a call from the dean, who offered him Harvard's full support without reservation. She writes that the professor grinned as he added: “[The dean] didn't even ask me if I did it!”
Frustrated by dead ends, red herrings and ruled-out subjects, Cooper’s investigation takes a turn as the #MeToo movement gathers momentum and friends start to confide their own experiences of inappropriate behavior by Harvard faculty. “The distance between my world and Jane’s had already become hallucinatorily thin in spots,” she writes, “but the #MeToo movement felt like 1969 had come crashing fully and completely into the present day.”
Britton’s murder remained unsolved until two years ago, thanks to advances in DNA technology, but the revelation of who actually killed her becomes less of a shocking reveal than an afterthought. Her story is incredibly sad—and compelling—but it ends up becoming a conduit to Cooper’s meditations on the ‘I’ve got your back if you’ve got mine’ attitude among empowered male elites–the silencing effect of institutions and our compulsion to rewrite the stories victimhood.
And yes, it would make an absolutely incredible Netflix miniseries.