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In The Keepers, the pain of the past morphs from curiosity to responsibility. For journalist Tom Nugent, the past is a paying puzzle that became an obligation to solve. For retirees Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, the past is a hobby that grew into a crusade. And for a woman known for decades only as “Jane Doe,” the past is a forgotten trauma that rocks her anew and reframes her life. In a culture of comic book escapism and stranger things, The Keepers gives us ordinary people as superheroes. They’re the real justice league of Baltimore.
A seven-part Netflix docuseries dropping May 19 (four of which were made available for review), The Keepers is addictive serial made for the post-Serial market, synthesized with the compounds that have rejuvenated this very old, often dubious genre and made it a buzzy, conscionable kick. Director Ryan White gives you socially aware pulp nonfiction, driven by cliffhanger storytelling and advocacy. But he tweaks the recipe somewhat by redirecting our gaze, profiling the victims of evil and those who would champion them — not the evildoers. The cold case he’s chosen to re-investigate also frustrates the pleasures of true crime in some provocative ways. Here, what is true may ultimately be unknowable, and the crime might be impossible to rectify. The nettling ambiguities provoke valuable questions for reality pulp junkies at a time when the genre is transitioning from pop phenomenon to pop fixture, complete with prestige expressions and celebrity roadshow fandom. Why am I entertained by suffering? How do I know what’s true? Do I really care?
White’s narrative is a nesting doll of colorful characters giving way to more colorful characters — stories inside stories, mysteries within mysteries. The face of the franchise is Catherine Cesnik, a young nun who taught English at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore during the 1960s. She was an inspiration to her students, capturing their imagination for the humanities, modeling a walk of faith that mirrored their own challenge, one that sought to reconcile religion and modernity. And to some of her kids, Sister Cathy was a secret ally – their only ally – in an institution where sexual abuse perpetrated by priests was allegedly rampant.
Abducted from a shopping mall on the evening of November 7, 1969, Cesnik, 27, was found dead about a week later. She had been murdered; her killer was never found. Was she silenced for what she knew about the men who ran Archbishop Keough? Did they conspire with law enforcement to perpetrate a cover-up? Did local church leaders know? And might her slaying be connected to the murder of Joyce Malecki, age 20, also of Baltimore, who was abducted while shopping and killed just days after Cesnik?
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The title of The Keepers can be interpreted a few different ways, including a wink at an older documentary, Brother’s Keeper, and a Bible reference: Genesis 4:9, when Cain denies knowing the whereabouts of Abel, who he has killed. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” White’s do-gooders are the anti-Cain; they choose to be keepers of each other, brother or sister. They can’t ignore the blood crying out to them from the ground. Their questing recalls Spotlight, the Oscar-winning docudrama about Boston newspaper reporters bringing to light the occult sins of pedophile priests. White’s scrappy DIY heroes offer surrogate catharsis for the wrongs and exasperations that roil our moment.
They’re also one way in which The Keepers is can be seen as self-reflexive. The first episode opens with Nugent, a doughy, gray newshound, rumpled as wrinkled newspaper, whose approach to his career comes off as mercenary, at least at the beginning. We meet him in his attic, a disorganized dump littered with boxes piled with folders stuffed with reams of his work, ruminating on his 30 years as a nomadic freelance writer. “It’s been a life of wandering around and finding a good story and getting an editor to agree to cover it and assign me to it,” he says. “As soon as it was done over — thank you very much! — I’d throw it in a box like the ones you see here and start crankin’ on the next one.” Somewhere in his trashy clip morgue is a “6000 word monster review” of the Cesnik case that he wrote and sold back in the nineties — White turns Nugent’s rummaging hunt into a knowing metaphor for his whole enterprise, not to mention a legacy of evil. Nugent knows his part. Shot dramatically in semi-shadow, standing under a dangling light, Nugent pontificates with performative eloquence: “But these clues linger on, in a place like this attic. Those objects hold that energy and they twist you and turn you in the wind, and you start asking yourself: What is the past? What is it?”
The story shifts to Hoskins and Schaub, a pair of suburban Baltimore sixty-somethings who’ve spent roughly 10 years poking around the murders of Cesnik and Malecki. They clearly love their righteous hobby, and they’ve become excellent at it. We see the polite, bespectacled Schaub, a former nurse, cheerfully doing research; we see the gregarious, rose-haired Hoskins, a former teacher, handle the social aspect of the job with flirty charm. You might be tempted to take them for busybodies looking for late-in-life adventure and purpose. But we come to understand that Schaub and Hoskins were adoring students of Cesnik. Sister Cathy made Shakespeare come to life for Schaub; she blew Hoskins’ mind by teaching The Scarlet Letter. They also represent a much bigger community of women and serve a cause of justice that has been neglected. “This is not Abby and Gemma sitting at a table being detectives or playing Clue,” says Hoskins late in episode one.
My first read on The Keepers was that it was two things at once: A sincere true crime saga and an ironic one, with White identifying with Nugent and these amateur detectives to confess his mixed motives and interrogate the value of the genre. That duality become more complex when “Jane Doe” enters the picture. White devotes most of episode 2 to Jean Wehner, now 64, who revealed her true identity in 2015 in a lengthy the piece in The Huffington Post. White films and cuts Wehner’s introduction as a dramatic coming out, and he allows her to narrate a number of anecdotes about repeated rape, molestation, intimidation and mental manipulation at Archbishop Keough. Wehner’s most explosive charge is that the priest who violated her and exploited her the most, Rev. A. Joseph Maskell (now deceased), took her into the woods to see Cesnik’s corpse and chillingly told her: “This is what happens when you say bad things about people.”
Wehner’s descriptions of what these men think and did to her – which she relays with a bold matter-of-factness that is truly brave – make for one of the most unsettling TV experiences I’ve had in years. When she finally breaks down, I cried with her. I also found myself examining my motives for watching. What do I want from this? How do I respond to this? Do I have the character to hold this knowledge? Wehner challenges us in other ways, too. Believing her requires a leap of faith: Wehner’s claims hinge on the recovery of repressed memories that began in the early nineties. Her PTSD — triggered by seeing photos of Maskell and another priest in an old yearbook — ignited at a moment in which dissociative amnesia was a widely discussed, hotly debated notion in the media. A part of the larger cultural conversation about sexual abuse, as well as a parallel phenomenon, a rash and panic of alleged satanic ritual abuse cases. White waits a bit before acknowledging the controversy over repressed memory. He makes us sit with Wehner, hear her, empathize with her, and perhaps, wrestle with our feelings. Is this possible? Could she be making all this up? Why? I thought those questions, and then I felt shame about entertaining them. Am I veering into blame-the-victim territory?
Is it wrong to be skeptical? No. But it would be a mistake to stop at skepticism, or even make it our first response. White gives you reason to give Wehner the benefit of the doubt, presenting us with testimonials from additional alumni who claim to have been abused. He also uses experts to argue for the validity of repressed memory, and he casts shade on repressed memory-deniers who themselves cast shade on Wehner back in the nineties when she filed suit against Maskell, the school, and Baltimore’s Catholic archdiocese. Still, White doesn’t do enough to interrogate the science or history of repressed memory, at least in the episodes provided. I want to believe Wehner; I think do believe Wehner. What she is, with certainty, is a multifaceted symbol: the legacy of corrupt patriarchy, the oppression of women and demonization of female sexuality, and the problems of proofing when it comes to assessing and avenging specific historical injustice from long ago.
White’s other choices are more questionable. Wehner’s recollections are embellished with stylized imagery – dreamy, shadowy vignettes placing a teenage Wehner, face unseen, in spaces with her rapists or sending her to see Sister Cathy’s dead body, also unseen. Their prudence, fuzzy banality and poor imagination are appropriate to Wehner’s fogged mind and uncanny experience of herself. They also represent our meta-experience. Can we trust this? They give White something to cut to when cutting is needed, which is understandable, and they have downstream payoffs, like setting up episode 4’s cliffhanger. Still, they feel manipulative, and they enhance a queasiness that needs no enhancing.
And speaking of cliffhanger endings: every episode has one. White drives the final act of each hour toward some big reveal or scoop that he then delays until the next episode. Again, it’s manipulative, though it’s mitigated by the instant availability of the next chapter, which resolves the cliffhanger immediately. Sometimes, White’s editing is either trying to tell you something without spelling it out, or erring by introducing needless visual information that risks prompting wrong assumptions. Haskell’s introductory scene, set at a bar, dotes on drinking. A prosecutor suspected of being influenced into wrong choices is shown prior to her on-camera interview looking into a mirror and primping. Make of those things what you will.
But The Keepers keeps you riveted and engaged in more admirable ways, too. The story keeps widening, deepening, and surprising with new people that bring added layers to the story. A heartbroken priest who carried a torch for Cesnik, Wehner’s supportive husband and family, Malecki’s haunted siblings, a “Deep Throat” cop – there’s no end to compelling people here. Another victim, Teresa Lancaster, makes a vivid impression, and the story of how she transformed her life after grappling with her own horror is powerful. By episode 4, The Keepers begins gathering in other social concerns, and the show starts becoming a portrait of a city. White, through Lancaster, forges an empathetic connection between the legacy of the Cesnik case and Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African American man who died in 2015 from a broken neck while in the custody of Baltimore police — a tragedy that became a flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps The Keepers will finish as some kind of lost, intersectional, true crime season of The Wire, David Simon’s brilliant all-timer that built a stunning simulacrum of Baltimore and examined it from top to bottom.
Arriving amid a surplus of scandal about institutional sexism and sexual harassment (see: Fox News; President Trump), The Keepers puts faces to concepts like patriarchy and male privilege that many still deny. As bleak as it can be, the show represents a refreshing break from TV’s villains and anti-heroes. Nugent’s mission statement is a challenge to all of us to care more, probe deeper: “There’s an on the record public story of what happened to Sister Cathy and there’s the world beneath that was actually being lived, and to get at that mystery is our greatest journalistic responsibility.” It’ll be interesting what more White unearths in the final 3 episodes, and if The Keepers can satisfy as a vehicle for justice, or if it will end up demonstrating the limits of true crime’s rectifying powers.
Fittingly – and intentionally? – The Keepers premieres the same weekend that Showtime’s Twin Peaks returns. David Lynch’s cult classic was about America’s troubling ironies and hypocrisies, the dark rot that lies behind idyllic façades. It was also about sexual abuse, psychic manipulation, and a culture that preys on women. Both shows even have demonic father figures named Bob. Netflix has been marketing The Keepers with an ad campaign (“Who Killed Sister Cathy?”) that mirrors the “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” ABC marketing from 1990. Perhaps Netflix noted these similarities too, and decided The Keepers and its outrage over cultural treatment of women represented some clever, subversive counter-programming to Twin Peaks. Point taken. To watch The Keepers is to feel like the “hero” of another Lynch work, Blue Velvet, the story of a wannabe detective who comes to learn that his interest in evil is far from noble, and becomes part of the problem he thinks he wants to solve. Shouldn’t our fascination with abomination mean something more than voyeurism? It’s a question for everyone who makes true crime, and for us, too. A-