November 2020

Becky Cooper

True crime like you’ve never read it before
Interview by
We chatted with Becky Cooper about her true crime masterpiece, We Keep the Dead Close, her kinship with Jane, her transformation into an investigative journalist and the community she found along the way.
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In We Keep the Dead Close, Becky Cooper uncovers the true story of Jane Britton, a graduate student in Harvard’s anthropology department who was found dead in her apartment in 1969. This 10-year investigation straddles the line between memoir and mystery, and the result is unlike any true crime book you've read.

We chatted with Cooper about her kinship with Jane, her transformation into an investigative journalist and the community she found along the way.

What is the significance of the book's title, We Keep the Dead Close?
When I first heard the story about Jane Britton’s murder, the rumor was that she had been murdered by her adviser with whom she was allegedly having an affair. Though that rumor would eventually prove false, that professor was a real person who still taught at Harvard. I decided to audit his class, and during one of his lessons, he said, in reference to the people of ’Ain Mallaha, “They kept the dead close.” The people of that settlement had buried their loved ones under the living areas in their houses. In fact, archaeologists believe that the population’s beliefs and ritual behavior were the reasons people settled there, rather than agriculture.

Even in that moment, back in 2012, I knew the quote would play a significant role in Jane’s story. It encapsulated so many things. I loved the idea that remembering the dead was maybe one of the earliest marks of our humanity. I also loved how ambiguous the nature of “keeping something close” is. Are you hiding it? Are you defending yourself with it? Is it an act of nostalgia? A tribute?

Over the course of working on the book, the ambiguity of that closeness mirrored the myriad ways people relate to the past, and to the dead specifically. How does someone grieve? How does someone honor what came before? Is it through telling and retelling the story of that person? Or is it by refusing to talk about it and, in that way, refusing to wield that story for your own purposes? The stories of our past and the stories of our dead can be molded, as that same professor said in class, to suit the demands of the present. I wanted the book to be an exploration of the ways in which we—as individuals, historians, detectives and archaeologists—keep our dead close, and what that reveals about who we are and what society we live in.

“I have trouble with true crime when it’s salacious or gratuitously violent—when it’s entertainment consumed without a sense of the victim’s humanity or the loss suffered by his or her community.”

Your kinship with Jane Britton is woven throughout the book. Now that the mystery of her murder is seemingly solved and your book is complete, do you still feel that closeness?
Jane still feels like a very dear friend (if you can say that without knowing if the other person would have liked you at all), but I don’t feel the same hallucinatory blurring I did at the height of researching and writing the book. When I was retyping the cache of Jane’s letters, for example, Jane felt as real to me as my own past did. It didn’t help that I was still adjusting to life at Harvard, and I felt surrounded by the ghosts of what had come before. But the new distance between us feels less like a loss than like she’s let me be at peace.

I think part of it is the resolution I feel from finishing her story, but another part of it is that the book captures me at a slightly younger stage of life. One reason I was able to channel Jane was that she and I shared a lot of the same essential preoccupations: a fear of being unlovable in some fundamental way, an inexplicable loneliness, a yearning to feel like I was made of a cohesive whole. I knew instinctively that I had to finish the book before I forgot those worries and that yearning, and before I fell happily in love.

In the year since finishing the first draft, I’ve felt more at peace with myself than I think Jane ever had the chance to feel. In other words, I was allowed to get older, and that fact only underlines the unfairness that Jane’s world stopped at 23.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of We Keep the Dead Close.

Intense experiences, such as those involving death, can unexpectedly bind people together. Have you developed friendships with anyone you interviewed for the book?
I feel very close to a number of the people in the book. Mike Widmer (the former journalist who was also pushing for the Middlesex records) would get coffee with me every few months or so at Flour Bakery in Harvard Square. I visited Don Mitchell (Jane’s friend and neighbor) for Labor Day weekend. Stephen Loring (Anne Abraham’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance), thank goodness, still sends me postcards.

But I’ve been hesitant to blur the line from journalist into friend completely before the book comes out. Janet Malcolm’s warning that all journalism is an act of betrayal (forgive the paraphrase) preys on my mind. I wanted to be able to write an honest book, and I didn’t want the people in the book to forget that I came into their lives first and foremost as a journalist. I also wanted to limit how bereft I would feel if and when those people were dissatisfied with my account and ended our relationship. My hope, though, is that they will read the book, we will have an honest discussion, and we’ll be able to form a friendship on a foundation that isn’t transactional in nature.

We Keep the Dead CloseYour undergraduate thesis was a biography of David Foster Wallace. What did you learn (either emotionally or practically speaking) about researching a person’s life and death from doing your thesis?
I was terrified by the idea of writing my thesis about David Foster Wallace. It felt too personal and too daunting. I toyed with the idea of writing about maps—some safe, literary-theory friendly chapters about the politics of memory and space. But the idea of writing about Wallace just wore me down through its insistence. So I guess what I learned most is that I should lean into the feeling of feverish identification, because the desire to write my way through it isn’t going to go anywhere. In fact, writing what scares and haunts me is the only way I imagine I’ll care enough about the material for the time it takes to write it.

The other thing I learned is not to allow admiration for my subject to blind me to that person’s flaws and inconsistencies. My thesis was too hagiographic; I idolized Wallace and failed to examine his treatment of women, for example. I’ve tried to correct that with Jane. My love for her was made deeper by an exploration of her complexities, and I’ve tried to convey that in the book.

Was We Keep the Dead Close your first foray into investigative journalism?
In terms of investigative journalism that I’ve actually published—yes, this book is my first foray into investigative journalism. The book is a meta kind of bildungsroman in that way, with the coming-of-age part partially about learning how to be a journalist. When I say that I shaped my life around Jane, I truly did, for about eight years, make every decision based on whether it led me closer to finishing her story.

Were there points along the way in the 10 years it took to write this book when an aspect of the research felt insurmountable and you thought about giving up? If so, how did you push past it?
The moment I think I came closest to putting the book project down was after I spoke with Jane's brother, Boyd, for the first time and he painted a picture of Jane that was at odds with who I had imagined her to be. It wasn't that I ever expected her to be a perfect victim—not that there is one—but I had so subconsciously identified with her that I was thrown off by her stubborn refusal to be me. Obviously I needed to take a moment to both get to know her on her own terms and also come to terms with the fact that I had been projecting myself onto her. I wasn't just too close; I had been blind. To do this right, I had to get to know her separately from who I wanted her to be. Would I still feel so deeply passionate about her story if that illusion of oneness was dissolved? The rupture took a few months of space and reflection to cauterize.

Was it helpful to be working at the New Yorker for a period of time, surrounded by some of the world’s best journalists, while you were writing this book? Or was researching a story of this magnitude difficult to do while working at a demanding full-time job?
When I took the job at the New Yorker, I had just started my first real round of reporting. I had spoken to Boyd, Elisabeth Handler and Ingrid Kirsch and visited the archives for the first time. I worried that taking an office job at that point was a kind of cloaked cowardice; I was walking away from the story while telling myself I was walking toward it. The job was a two-year commitment.

I'm so grateful I said yes, though. While the job did take me away from the book in some sense—I had to wait two and a half years before going on my reporting trip out west, and I had to relegate research to mornings and weekends––I don't think I could have done this book without it. The opportunity at the New Yorker was extraordinary.

Partially, I had been so exhausted trying to make ends meet in New York City that I didn’t have the energy to fully devote all my resources to Jane anyway. I felt like I needed a place to moor. Professionally, the generosity of the New Yorker staff was both unexpected and unparalleled. And finally, when I cold-called people in Jane's life, being able to say that, yes, I'm only 20-something years old, but I have the credibility of the New Yorker magazine behind me, was a complete game changer in terms of what doors were open to me.

Were you initially thinking this story could be a magazine article, or did you suspect from the beginning that We Keep the Dead Close would be a book-length narrative?
At the beginning, I wasn't thinking in terms of a writing project. Her death felt less like a mystery and more like an open secret, and it bothered me that people believed the rumor enough to repeat it but not enough to do anything about it. I wanted to be the one to take it seriously. As the story became more complex, I felt compelled to pursue it as far as it would go, even if the chances of solving the crime were increasingly slim. I hoped I would at least find peace with the project. That trail took years to follow. It started to change my identity by guiding all my decisions. Naturally then, as the narrative took shape, it blew past the outlines of anything other than a book-length story.

“No one person is the source for the authoritative version of history. It's important to collect myriad perspectives in order to capture an event as it's remembered.”

For many journalists who write about sexual violence and violence against women, the work can feel emotionally draining and despairing. Was this your experience while researching Jane Britton and Anne Abraham (another young archaeologist who disappeared in 1976)? If so, how did you cope with it?
I don't know whether it was conscious, but instead of focusing on the loss of Jane and Anne and the injustice of what their early deaths deprived them of, I focused on how lucky I felt to be spending time with women like them. I relished every moment I got to read another poetic journal entry or speak to the people with whom they had surrounded themselves. I don’t think I could have worked on this book for 10 years without the sense of hope I found in that community. The solace we felt in finding each other was extremely buoying.

You are critical of the entertainment aspect that can crop up within the true crime genre. What was your relationship to the true crime genre while working on this book?
I didn’t intentionally position the book to be a commentary on the true crime genre. It’s true that I have trouble with true crime when it’s salacious or gratuitously violent, when it’s entertainment consumed without a sense of the victim’s humanity or the loss suffered by his or her community or when the genre glorifies the killer. But rather than writing a book in the negative (i.e., I never said, “I don’t want to write a book that . . .”), I just set out to write one I would want to read.

The books I’m drawn to are rich character studies and philosophical explorations of moral ambiguity. The north stars for my book include In Cold Blood (though not in terms of the journalistic liberties Capote took), Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body, Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, Maggie Nelson’s Jane and The Red Parts and Melanie Thernstrom’s The Dead Girl. But my inspirations were also genre and form agnostic. The literary devices and character explorations in the book are equally indebted to "The Keepers," "Twin Peaks," Jelani Cobb’s This American Life segment “Show Me State of Mind,” Anna Burns’ Milkman, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Lolita, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

It may seem odd, but I sometimes didn’t even classify We Keep the Dead Close as a true crime book in my mind. It was a biography of Jane occasioned by her death, or a portrait of her community as impacted by the crime. In fact, that shared understanding was one of the reasons I decided to work with my editor Maddie Caldwell, who, from the very first meeting, focused more on the book’s repetition of the ritual motif rather than on its entry in the true crime genre.

You went down a lot of rabbit holes in your research and mentioned in another interview that your first draft came in 30% too long. What was a rabbit hole that you found fascinating but didn’t/couldn’t delve into?
I had always been intrigued by the whispers that there was some kind of government connection to the Iranian dig that Jane participated in the summer before her death. After all, the second time I heard the story about Jane was during a discussion of how commonly archaeology had been used as a cover for espionage. This avenue of speculation wasn't helped by the fact that the CIA was the only agency I queried that gave a glomar response. (This means they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of files relating to either Jane or to Tepe Yahya.)

Research led me to a man named Ted Wertime, who was the head of metallurgical survey team at Tepe Yahya in 1968 when Jane was there. It was thanks to Wertime that the Iranian expedition secured U.S. commissary privileges. He had been trained in hand-to-hand combat by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. And he was, for a time, the cultural attaché in Iran, which is about as stereotypical as you can get for a CIA cover. Finally, according to his son's memoir, when the son learned that Wertime had died, his first thought was, “You're finally safe.”

I ultimately got nowhere with that line of research; I could find no evidence that Wertime was still working in intelligence at the time of the dig, and the Harvard professor who ran Tepe Yahya vehemently denied ever working for the U.S. government. Without any of the dots connecting, I couldn’t justify putting any more than a hint of it in the main text, where it serves more as a reminder of my state of mind. A little is relegated to the source notes.

The two books you’ve written so far (Mapping Manhattan and We Keep the Dead Close) are extremely different. Do you have plans for a third book, and if so, can you tell us what it will be about?
On the surface, I completely agree that my books are very different, but I think what bonds them is the idea that no one person is the source for the authoritative version of either history or of a map. It's important to collect myriad perspectives in order to capture an event as it's remembered—or a city as it’s lived. I imagine anything I write will land close to this territory.

As for what comes next, I have a few things in mind, and I’m waiting to see if they’ll gain mass and inevitability. I’m especially curious to see if I can find something that is endlessly interesting but doesn't require what feels like soul scraping. I would love to be surprised.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover all the best new true crime.

Author headshot © Lily Erlinger

Get the Book

We Keep the Dead Close

We Keep the Dead Close

By Becky Cooper
Grand Central
ISBN 9781538746837

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