"We Keep the Dead Close" author Becky Cooper on the ritualistic murder that shocked Harvard

The author spoke to Salon about seeking a solution to the crime that had become an Ivy League cautionary tale

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
November 10, 2020 11:15PM (UTC)
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We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper (Photo illustration by Salon/Lily Erlinger/Grand Central Publishing)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Becky Cooper was haunted. As a student at Harvard University, she'd heard the tale of the brutal murder of a female student, decades before. There were whispers of a cover-up, a collection of suspects and a series of clues straight out of a whodunit.

The death of Jane Britton, and the hunt for her killer, became a decade-long obsession that has now turned into Cooper's new book, "We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence." But the story isn't a conventional true crime tale. Instead, it's a story of a real woman whose hopes and ambitions were ended violently. It's of what she left behind. As Cooper became more and more entangled in the way Britton's life ended, she discovered what's so often left out of the narrative of murder: the life that preceded it. 

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Salon spoke to Cooper recently about the case that shocked Cambridge, and how a woman who died in 1969 changed her life.

Tell me what happened on January 7, 1969.

It's the day when Harvard anthropology graduate students were taking their general exams. This big moment in their graduate student career. One student had failed to show up to take her exams. Her name was Jane Britton. Her boyfriend was also in the exam room that day. He noticed that she was missing. She hadn't answered her calls that morning. So, right after the exam finishes around noon, he goes over and he climbs up the four flights of stairs to her place. He knocks on her door, even though he knows better than almost anyone that Jane just didn't lock her door. There was no answer.

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He then talks to Jane's neighbor, Don Mitchell, asks him if he'd seen Jane. He hasn't. That's when they both realized something is likely seriously wrong. They go in and discover that Jane is lying on her bed. Her legs are splayed. Her right leg is off the bed and she's covered in her fur blankets that she had around her apartment. Her body is sprinkled with red ochre. At least to her neighbor Don, [it's] the kind of bright red powder that's sprinkled at ancient burial sites associated with the earliest burials of humanity. There's also a headstone next to her bed.

Police get called. Her parents get called. They come in. They don't see anything notable missing. Her jewelry and her money are still lying there. They call her family and close friends in for questioning. Then, over the next few days, call in professors in the anthropology department, because the recreation of a burial ritual seems to narrow the field of suspects to somebody in the anthropology department, as if it were a kind of Agatha Christie construct.

Then three days later, after this flurry of tabloid interest that makes its way to tiny papers across the country, the police chief issues a press blackout. Pretty much from that day on, other than a little mention of a grand jury hearing that takes place in February and gets dissolved six months later, that's it for Jane's murder in the public sphere. It really only seemed to stay alive within the community of people who knew her and the community of Harvard's anthropology department.

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This case got you almost from the beginning. It had become this ghost story. Then years later it winds up taking over your life. What do you think it is about this girl, this murder, this crime that spoke so deeply to you?

I think the reason for my compulsion to take the story as far as I could go changed over the course of working on it. When I first heard the story, it was told to me like an academic fairy tale. It had made a villain, not just out of the alleged professor who had killed her, but also out of Harvard.

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I was a Harvard undergraduate when I first heard the story. I had a pretty miraculous time there as an undergraduate. It really felt like, you got three wishes and anything was possible with those three wishes. It was not the world in which I grew up at all. But that omnipotence, that ability to make kind of anything come true, it wasn't too hard to imagine it having a kind of flip dark side. That the same place that could make anything possible could also make an unflattering story disappear, which was consistent with at least the version I first heard of the story – that the university had caught wind that the school newspaper was about to publish an article linking their kind of famed, up-and-coming professor to the murder and squashed the story.

I eventually learned that it turned out not to be true. That was one of the reasons it felt so compelling. It had crafted a villain out of an institution that I both loved and recognized. As I got further into the story, I got to know Jane, the woman who was killed. What was interesting to me is that in so many versions of the story about her, she had no name. One of the hardest parts of reconstructing the book for me was trying to remember that moment when I first Googled her case after I learned that it wasn't just a fairy tale. Yes, some details were kind of grotesque and exaggerated. A lot of the central tenets of it were grounded in some kinds of reality.

I learned her name. I read some articles that described her as ambitious, a little vulnerable, but nothing even close to what I came to learning about her, that would explain why I felt this flush of utter recognition. It was more alchemical than rational. I really don't know how to describe how I knew in that moment that she and I, I think, were at least at that point, haunted by the same demons.

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As I got deeper and deeper into the story, I learned more and more about her and how funny and ambitious and compelling she was. Getting to know her, the people who loved her, it also then morphed into a responsibility to get the story right for them.

When someone becomes a victim, suddenly there's that part where the detective says, "Who would have had a reason to hate her? Who would have had a reason to be angry at her?"

That is the story that happens then after an act of violence. That is not the 1969 story. This is not a 50-year-old story at all. It has an extremely contemporary resonance.

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The resonance never escaped me at all. The ways in which stories of female victims are compressed into a question of, "In what way was she at fault? In what way did her lifestyle kind of place blame on her for the event that happened?" I tried to steer clear of comparisons for the book, because I wanted to have my conscience in the clear for any kind of unintentional pilfering of either structure or character development. You described it as a choice to describe Jane in the fullness of her humanity. That was always the crux of my interest in the case once I learned about her.

One of the reasons I actually chose my editor was because she was one of the few people who didn't really describe it as a true crime book. It's kind of strange, because it is obviously. But she was like, "Oh, this is a book about ritual. This is a book about how we tell stories and relate to the past." It was not just a biography of Jane, but also an exploration of the afterlife of a murder. The ways in which the narrative of it ripples out and continues to affect people and continues to be something through which we can insert our own desired morals.

One of the theses in the book is that her story had been re-appropriated as a kind of academic cautionary tale. I was interested in reverse-constructing it. What was the fiction that people had turned Jane's story into? What was the reality that fiction was trying to gesture at?

And the search is so full of red herrings and MacGuffins.  

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As I was writing the book I had in mind Nabokov's "Pale Fire," in which many of the footnotes are these infinitely, self-referential symbols. I remember reading it in high school and we would go down these rabbit holes of searching for meaning. There would be these moments of almost authorial humor, where it was Nabokov laughing at the reader for having desired meaning so much that you made it for yourself. I wanted to tell a story about the ways in which we do that.

There are certain unresolved cases now that you can just see people picking apart. "Why did he do that on that day he went missing? What did that mean? Why did he take his wallet with him? Why did he buy a one-way ticket?" All of the things that maybe don't mean anything at all.

It's comforting to think that it does. But I wanted people to stop and be like, "Is it dangerous to do that, though?"

You really explore the danger of that and you explore what has happened to people's lives for 50 years because of that. That is hard to shake off. Someone can be accused or suspected, and that never, ever really goes away. And you show your own fascination with that. You could've written a story that you didn't insert yourself into. Was that ever a question for you?

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I inserted myself in the book as little as possible. I really didn't want it to be a thinly veiled memoir and navel-gazing effort. There were multiple reasons I inserted myself in the book. One, because for eight of the years that I worked on the book, it was unsolved. I needed to be in there as a character in order to bridge the gap between the event, and the investigation in 1969. Then the rumors that kept cropping up 40, 45 years later.

Without me as a character in there, you really didn't have that time bridge or the ability to make time collapse. I hope there's a sense of dislocation for the reader. Once the solution to the case was found, I think to tell it as a straightforward, "This is what happened. This is who killed her," you then miss so much of that meta-narrative about storytelling. The ways in which we construct desire of guilt or find ourselves compelled to find meaning in the clues. My existence in the book I hope is both a proxy for the reader and as somebody whose journey allows the reader to go on the same kind of experiential visceral path.

That's really different in the narrative. "Oh, I was looking into this guy and pursuing his story. It turns out I learned so many things that I didn't know about him, or I was wrong about some of my assumptions."

I talk so much about the bias of the historian, whether it's the person constructing the past as an archeologist or as a detective or as a biographer. It would have felt disingenuous to not have inserted myself in the very active role of the historian. I acknowledged that despite my best efforts, this story that you've read is still colored or influenced by who I am. I needed to be very honest about my own blind spots, my own journey.

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What was the hardest part in living within a story of sexual assault of violence, of home invasion, for that long? That's a tough, grainy place to be for a long time. I think you can certainly see from "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," the toll that takes on the author is very real.

There was definitely a little bit of the psychosis of paranoia. The kind of physical vulnerability I felt working on an unsolved murder, that for all I knew was committed by a very powerful person or the person was protected by a powerful institution. One of the surprising parts of working on the book, and maybe the reason that I could really get through the 10 years of working on it, was that there was a community of people that developed around Jane and developed around my working on the book.

Mike Widmer, that 80-year-old journalist, was the first reporter on the scene and was also extremely touched by her case. He would then try to get files 50 years later, as well. He said to me in the car, coming back from the announcement, "Even before we had the solution, there was catharsis and solace in just being able to talk about it."

I think I was doing at least some people some good and helping them process this and maybe see things in a new light and have them in return comfort me. The hardest part, I think, honestly, was the prospect of hurting people who had healed. I don't know the extent to which the scabs really can ever cover over a wound that is left to fester for so long. The responsibility I take as a journalist is very great in terms of wanting to get to the truth, but also really trying to not hurt people in the process.

What is it like writing a book when you don't know what the outcome is going to be and spending so much time in a story that doesn't have a conclusion? You began this in a much more ambivalent place in terms of what information has since come to light.

I feel very lucky that working on the book, working on Jane's story, has felt inevitable regardless of the ambiguity of where it would end. It for me was never really a question that this was something I had to do. When I left The New Yorker, I didn't know whether the book was going to be fiction or nonfiction, because I didn't know how much was knowable. At that point I hadn't even met Jane's brother. We talked, but that was it.

The other thing that I feel really lucky for is my parents. I wouldn't really let myself look over the wall of that finish line, because I didn't know what it looked like. I couldn't tell you if I could get there. My mother said, "You'll be done with the book, whether or not you finish it." As in, it was necessary to see how far I could get with the book in order to be free from it. The permission to just see how far I could go, regardless of the kind of output of that effort, was so freeing. I feel so grateful for it.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Becky Cooper Books Harvard Interview True Crime We Keep The Dead Close