True crime, as a genre, gets a bad rap. It’s wholly deserved. I say this as both a fan, and a person who writes about it critically on a weekly basis. I’m constantly on the lookout for the latest news of any projects that fall into the sometimes-nebulous category of “true crime.” It’s harder than it seems. Is a news report of a crime in of itself “true crime?” Semantically, yes. Realistically, no. I subscribe to a Google News Alert for the phrase. Here are the headlines for some recent results:
- “Colorado Man Allegedly Kills 4-Year-Old Nephew with Axe”
- “Phoenix Man Accused of Murdering His Quadriplegic Fiancée and Their Unborn Child”
- “Man Allegedly Castrated Transgender Woman in Unsanctioned Surgery She Underwent”
I’m not linking to any of those. They’re newsworthy, certainly. But they’re not entertainment. Not mine, not yours. The more I watch, read, hear, and absorb, the higher bar I set not just for what I enjoy, but for what I will tolerate. Earlier this month, I wrote about the queasiness of watching the HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest. I gave it a decent review because it was thoughtfully constructed and rigorously reported, but I’m not sure what it was trying to say. And in retrospect, I should have interrogated that on a deeper level than I did when I reviewed it. There’s a place for stories that are simply told, where the viewer is asked to draw her own conclusion. There will always be bias and intent behind the way a story is researched, edited, and presented—them’s the breaks for being human and a creator—but there is a way to construct a point of view that still allows for subjectivity and the contribution of a viewer’s own interpretation. Those are the stories that trust us as an audience, and respect their subjects as individuals.
That’s why I’ve been so impressed by The Keepers. Maybe you’ve watched it and maybe you haven’t. It’s certainly not drawing Making a Murderer-levels of interest. And I wonder a bit how much of that has to do with it telling a woman’s story? And an unsexualized woman’s story, at that? Its primary subject, Sister Cathy, a high school teacher, was murdered in 1969. Her murder has remained unsolved. But the story is much greater than that. In the first episode, we’re introduced to another young woman, Joyce Malecki, murdered just miles and days apart. And then this documentary breaks wide open. I won’t spoil anything for you in telling you that the victimization goes far beyond those two women.
So if people aren’t tuning in because this is a women’s story? They’re the ones missing out.
Despite the series sharing some of the most graphic and horrific stories of abuse I’ve ever heard, each was approached the lightest editorial touch. Each woman told her own story without interruption, and each looked like a goddamn hero. Inspiring, too, were the partners profiled in the film. This story has room for both female bad guys and male good guys—and there are a lot of the latter. I found myself holding my breath when a subject would talk about choosing to disclose their abuse to their husbands. To a man, each was unfailingly supportive, patient, and kind. I also appreciated that (in least in the memories shared in this film), women were allowed to own their anger, both with the world, and within their own relationships with their husbands. There was no macho paternalism. This was friends and partners having one another’s backs. How rare and wonderful in the usually grim world of true crime.
I found myself awed by the two women who served as the driving force behind the research and investigation into Sister Cathy’s murder. Neither had formal training but, in watching them doggedly pursue leads and frankly speak to police and witnesses, you would never know that.
You get the sense they would do these things whether a camera crew ever followed them, whether the case was ever solved. That’s dedication, love, and a radical approach to owning your story and protecting those of other women. The Keepers deserves the mantle of true crime because it has a point of view and it doesn’t just politely ask us to consider it—it demands we meet it on its own terms. A woman’s terms. Women’s terms. True crime could use a lot more of that.
Featured Image: Netflix