Becky Cooper was a junior at Harvard University when she first heard the story, though it had been campus lore for decades: A female student in Harvard’s graduate archaeology program was murdered by a professor with whom she was having an affair. But the police could never pin the professor down, so he walked free—and remained teaching—to this day. Cooper’s fascination with the story sparked her own 10-year investigation into the tragic, unsolved murder of Jane Britton in 1969.
Cooper’s findings have culminated in a new book, We Keep the Dead Close, out today. While it’s easy to chalk this up to just another work in the true-crime canon, the author takes great care not to sensationalize Britton’s story or bludgeon it into tidy, conclusive narratives. Instead, she painstakingly chases down every lead, source, and tip—which, more often than not, are inconclusive. (“You need to make sure you are not wielding it to modern ends,” Cooper says of her exhaustive research process.) The result is an honest portrait of both the victim and those who loved her, as well as the cryptic, archaic world of academia.
Vogue spoke with Cooper about her own time at Harvard, the true-crime explosion in pop culture, and separating fiction from reality.
What was your own experience like at Harvard?
I had a very wonderful lucky time at Harvard. I think I was made to feel like my past—I grew up in a household where ordering a drink with dinner was an unnecessary indulgence—didn’t matter at all. Only later did I realize what some of my friends had.
It was only coming back, when my friends were the graduate students, that I realized the structural voicelessness that puts people in a position to feel powerless.
When you were there, Jane’s story had become almost a myth—a tale that represented the dangers of being female in academia rather than a factual event.
There’s a quote in the book: “Some realities need to be fictionalized in order to be apprehended.” The version of it that I had inherited, the version that stayed alive before the case was solved, was that her adviser had killed her because they had an affair.
As I get deeper into the investigation, I don’t think at all that he’s the murderer. And so my question is both who killed Jane—but also why is this the story that has such a hold on this community? What is it trying to gesture at? [What’s] contained within this myth? I was reverse engineering that quote, where it’s like, All right, here’s the fiction, what’s the reality? Here’s reality for me. There’s a 2018 study that was done by the National Academies of Sciences that shows that 50% of female faculty have experienced sexual harassment. In the last three decades in the anthropology department, of the withdrawals from the program, 87% were female. The past is not that distant.
Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.This book is mainly about Jane, her life, and her untimely death, but you also interweave your own view into it. Why did you make that decision?
My impulse was to have as little of me in the book as possible. But I think there were a couple of structural things that made it important for me to be a character in the book. One was that for the 8 of 10 years that I was working on the book, it was unsolved.
Then, there’s the afterlives of her murder: the ways that people knew Jane in the anthropology community or didn’t and how they infused meaning or their own morals in the story. In order to be able to tell the story of how her death impacted people 50 years later, you needed a character who was able to bridge that gap. And so I hoped that my character could be the person through whom time was allowed to collapse.
The title—We Keep the Dead Close— very much is a nod to the people that Jane left behind, rather than Jane herself, which is an interesting way to view a true-crime story. I feel like so many novels, documentaries, Netflix series are all about solving the crime rather than chronicling the never-ending aftershock of it.
One of the things that captivated me the most about exploring Jane’s story—besides obviously Jane herself—is that it was a chance to explore the ways in which we relate to the past. I think that’s why I decided to call the book We Keep the Dead Close, both because it was a quote from one of her professors but also because of the ambiguity. What does it mean to keep something close? Are you hiding it? Are you burying it? Are you treasuring it? And then also the question of: What’s the most responsible way of doing it? Is it by retelling the story so that people don’t forget? But then you need to make sure you are not wielding it to modern ends. So is it by refusing to retell it?
In the past decade or so, there’s been a rush of true-crime content in pop culture. So when you were writing this book, what tropes did you want to avoid? What did you want to add to the genre and the narrative?
Some people have said the book is a commentary on the true-crime genre. I’m flattered by that, but I didn’t purposely intend it. I think we all have a gut reaction to true crime that is entertainment—that kind allows you to inhale other people’s suffering and divorces it from the pain, the very real pain that not just the victim suffered but the people in her community or his community. But I just tried to set out to write the book I would have wanted to read.
Your book really goes into the amount of journalistic grunt work that is required when investigating a cold case. So tell me—you said you worked on this book for 10 years?
Yes. I first heard the story in 2009 when I was a college junior [at Harvard]. Then I really was able to find myself in a position to research it and talk to people in our community in 2014. At that point, it had become clear that what had been described to me—which was almost like an open secret within the academic community of Harvard’s anthropology department—was distinctly something that required an investigative journalist.
Then an opportunity to be David Remnick’s assistant at the New Yorker came up. That was an invaluable kind of journalism school for me. I figured out how to file Freedom of Information Act requests, public-records requests. I finally had access to the database to find people’s contact information. And I got to ask David Remnick how to doorstep someone.
But you’re right. It’s not glamorous. The amount of hours I spent in the archives just trying to find one person whose name got mangled in the 50-year game of telephone…. It’s just a whole lot of alphabetical-order searching.
While you are doing all these old-school research methods, you also go down the rabbit hole of internet message boards and their conspiracy theories. What do you think about amateur internet detectives? Are they a help or a hindrance?
I have complicated feelings about it. I recognize that often attention being put on an old case is the push that authorities need in order to justify diverting resources from modern murders to cold cases. But I also recognize, having talked to people in Jane’s community, the hurt, pain, and trauma it causes.
Have Jane’s family and friends read the book yet?
I’ve given it to a few people. I gave it to Boyd, her brother. I gave it to Don, her neighbor, who has not read it yet because he wants to write something separate. I gave it to Elizabeth, her best friend.
What were the reactions?
I was most worried about Boyd. I just was acutely aware, through the whole process, of the very, very real risk of retraumatizing people.
Anyway, Boyd, he emailed me. He read it in a night. Boyd is not the most forthcoming with his emotions. So I sort of expected the most I would get was one line like, “You did all right, kid.” He basically said that, but that kept following up on his email. I told him, “I’m sure you have questions. You can ask anything.” And he, over the week, would just send me like, “Which friend was this? Who said this? Do you have an answer to this?” I had become an archive of information about his sister that he didn’t have access to.
How do you make sure not to sensationalize someone who’s the heart of a very sad story?
I think by focusing on who she was and what her dreams were. It’s not the facts of her death and the gruesome details of the tragedy that really interested me. It was the quotes that she would make, the letters that she wrote from the archeological dig in Iran, where she’s like, “I wouldn’t mind getting married, but I also wouldn’t mind having a pizza when I got home.” It’s allowing the time and the space and the luck to have access to these documents to really get to know somebody as a friend, not just as somebody who was killed.