Thursday, June 08, 2017

How "The Keepers" Reimagines True Crime Stories

Quick, think back to the last true crime mystery that you watched or read about. Maybe it was Serial or Making a Murderer or whatever you happened to see on Investigative Discovery last night or maybe even The People v. O.J. Simpson. Do you remember the name of the killer (or accused killer)? So long as the story is still fresh in your mind, I’m betting the likes of Adnan Syed or Steven Avery or O.J. Simpson are in your head. Now next question – do you remember the names of the victims?

Sometimes victims become as unintentionally famous as the people who killed them. Most times they fade into obscurity, unless they become part of the zeitgeist like Nicole Brown Simpson or Hae Min Lee. But whenever we watch movies about them or read stories or listen to podcasts, we almost always lose sight of the victims because we tend to get the story more or less from the perspective of the killer, accused or otherwise. There’s a practical reason for this, of course – dead people are notoriously hard to get on the record whereas accused or convicted killers can be interviewed.  That dynamic creates a skewed view on crime where the victims become cyphers, unable to give us the answers we really want.

So what if you had a crime story where the victim of the murder could still speak? Answer that question, and you’ve got Netflix’s new documentary series The Keepers. The series examines the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun and Catholic high school teacher in Baltimore in 1969. And before you get too checked out, this is not a story about ghosts or mediums or mistaken identity or any other trickery. It is, however, about how the victims of a murder (mostly) survived.

Catholicism, man. Amirite?

A quick note: It’s hard to have traditional spoilers in a true crime story, especially one that officially remains unsolved. But The Keepers takes viewers on such an intense ride that if you prefer to experience the story with all the emotional twists and turns that the series intends you to experience, you may want to stop here and go watch the first three episodes before reading any further. The series is full of revelations and I’m only going to review a few of them briefly, but if that’s a concern for you consider this your spoiler warning.

Now that that’s taken care of, let’s explore the facts of the case. In 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik was a 26-year-old nun living in Baltimore and working as a teacher. Not that much older than the girls she taught, she was popular and well-liked. Several of her students, now women in mostly their late 60s, recount how close they felt to her and inspired by her they were.

Sister Cathy began her teaching at Archbishop Keough High School, an exclusive all-girls Catholic school. She taught English and Drama for several years, but despite a strong tenure at Keough, Sister Cathy nonetheless left the school at the end of the 1968-1969 school year and took a position at a local public school with another young nun in her order. The two nuns even opted to live together in an apartment in West Baltimore. The move was part of an experiment in which nuns would try to live among the world rather than in cloistered lives.

On the evening of November 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left the shared apartment and drove in her car a short distance to a shopping center to buy an engagement present for her sister in Pennsylvania. Along the way, she cashed a paycheck and stopped off at a local bakery. She left around 8:00pm. When she hadn’t returned home around midnight, her roommate Sister Russell called a priest and mutual friend, Rev. Koob who drove to the women’s apartment. At 4:30am, Rev. Koob discovered Sister Cathy’s car parked illegally less than 100 yards from the apartment building. The car was dirty and had twigs and debris inside. (In a weird coincidence, Sister Cathy’s apartment was located near the spot where Hae Min Lee’s body would be found 30 years later. Stay classy, Baltimore.)

Baltimore Policy conducted a basic search, however they reportedly didn’t see any evidence of foul play or violence. Sister Cathy would be officially missing for almost two months until on January 3 when two hunters discovered her partially-clothed body in remote wooded area not far from her home. An autopsy revealed that she had likely died due to a skull fracture caused by a blunt instrument to the back of her head.

From there, the case went cold. It remained largely inactive for almost 25 years when something happened that began to shed new light.

Enter these two jerks

In 1994, a woman in her 40s came forward to say that she had attended school at Archbishop Keough during the late 1960s. She alleged that for three years, from her sophomore year until graduation, she was routinely, systematically, and sometimes violently raped by a member of Archbishop Keough’s staff, Father Joseph Maskell, who served as the school’s counselor. The woman recalled detailed events where Father Maskell would call her into his private office, demean her as a “whore” and a “slut” and then rape her, telling her that only by having sex with him could her soul find forgiveness. What’s more, he routinely arranged for her to be raped by multiple men at the same time, often in his office with the door locked while he watched. Some of these men, the woman later learned, were high-ranking city and police officials.

While the woman’s reports were shocking, what really grabbed public attention was another detail: the woman claimed that not only had Sister Cathy known something about these attacks, but that Father Maskell had taken the woman to see Sister Cathy’s dead body a few days after the nun went missing. And what’s more, she may not have been the only one exposed to all this; there could be others.

Tom Nugent (no relation to Ted), reporter, shows the headline of his 90s era article re-opening the case

And therein lies the detail that separates The Keepers from other true crime series that I’ve seen. Unlike most that focus on the accused, The Keepers has access to the victims and investigates the events surrounding Sister Cathy’s murder and Father Maskell’s alleged conspiracy and sexual assaults through the eyes of people who were witnesses to them because it was happening to them too. Sister Cathy is a victim, to be sure, but the story quickly grows to encompass a number of victims who have spent more than 40 years unable to tell their own stories.

The Keepers is dense, but immensely watchable. As I binge-watched it with a friend, I turned to her after one episode and said out loud, “How are there four more episodes to go? There’s so much information here; how are they going to keep shedding new light on this story?” And yet, with each episode, the creators do.

This is largely thanks to the access they have not only to the still living victims of the crimes committed at Keough High School, but also thanks to the small sorority of women who, nearly 50 years later, are still dedicated to getting to the bottom of the murder of a teacher they loved and respected so much. What this means is that the narrative of the series is almost entirely told through the voices of women, most of them middle-aged or older. The women in this story have been abused, literally and figuratively, by a variety of forces and personages and they’re only now getting to tell their stories. That makes The Keepers a natural expression of the nascent “Nevertheless, She Persisted” notion.

Abbie (r) and Gemma (l), the amateur investigators still trying to piece together the crimes. AKA #Heroes.

As such, the series gives out a measure of justice, but justice is like Schrodinger’s cat – it both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. These women finally get to tell their stories and be believed, but of course many of the perpetrators of the crimes done to them are long dead, having escaped whatever worldly justice the law could have meted out to them. There’s a sense throughout the series that history has already passed much of this story by, making it even harder to gain any sense of closure about these events. In a timely, though unrelated event, Keough high school, now officially named Seton Keough High School, announced last fall that the school would be closing its doors for good once school lets out this summer.

Crime and punishment are almost always, by their nature, reactionary things. It’s in keeping then that the way we’ve talked about both of those things has been reactionary as well. The Keepers represents an attempt to change that narrative, if only by looking at those concepts from a different perspective. The results are fascinating to watch.

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