True crime documentaries are rarely ever about the actual victims. Take Making a Murderer for example: The 10-part Netflix series is nominally about solving the mystery of what actually happened to Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old aspiring photographer who was found dead in 2005. But ultimately, the show is more interested in exploring whether the Manitowoc County police department framed Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey for murder than it is in shedding light on this young woman's short life, and brutal death. The same thing goes for Serial — Adnan Sayed is the true protagonist of that podcast, not Hae Min Lee.
Partly, this is because the dead women are, well, dead. They can't be interviewed; we can't hear their side of the story. But as Kathryn Lindsay wrote in an essay on the topic earlier this year, it's also partly explained by the creators' reluctance to delve into the dead woman's story, at the expense of a juicy whodunnit. "A dead woman is the ultimate creative exercise, and the grislier the murder, the better," she wrote. "The creators can project whatever story they want onto the victim, even if that means choosing to not tell their story at all."
What makes The Keepers, Netflix's latest true crime experiment, so interesting, is that it manages to avoid this problem. The show, which premiered on May 19, explores the events around the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a Baltimore nun and English teacher at Archbishop Keough High School, who went missing on November 7, 1969. Though her body was found 2 months later, the case soon went cold — until the 1990s, when former students came forward with allegations that her death could have been covered up by the authorities in an attempt to conceal a much larger scandal: widespread sexual abuse by a priest at the school, Father Joseph Maskell.
A woman, who until now was known only as "Jane Doe," started recovering memories about the horrifying abuse that she had endured at the hands of the Keough chaplain, including that he had allegedly taken her to Sister Cathy's as yet undiscovered body, warning her: “See what happens when you say bad things about people.” Though she brought the case to court, it was dismissed under the state of Maryland's statute of limitations, and then largely forgotten.
The Keepers isn't so interested in exposing who killed Sister Cathy, as publicising why they did. (Although, there's enough contradicting evidence and potential suspects to keep mystery buffs guessing.) Instead, the show slowly and methodically exposes the scandal that she died trying to bring to light. It brings a form of justice to the survivors, many of whom came forward publicly for the first time, and in a way, it brings some closure to those who still wonder what happened to their beloved high school teacher.
Director Ryan White manages to explore each complex facet of the story, through interviews with friends, relatives, journalists, and government officials. Former Keough students and amateur investigators Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, in particular, are valuable resources in tracing the timeline of events, and how they relate to each other. But most importantly, he lets the survivors speak for themselves. "Jane Doe" has a name: Jean Whener. We know her story now. We know what Cathy meant to her, and what Cathy meant to do. Whoever killed Sister Cathy, this documentary ensures that they didn't succeed in their ultimate mission: In death, she has not been silenced.