[On November 17, 1894, infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Holmes and four other murderous histories, leading up to this Guest Post on serial killing and a true crime documentary from one of my favorite scholars!]
[Laura E. Franey is Associate Professor of English at Millsaps College, where she teaches Victorian literature, Communication Studies, writing, and much else. She’s the author of Victorian Travel Writing and Imperial Violence: British Writing on Africa, 1855-1902 (2003) and the editor of the first scholarly edition of the first novel published in the United States by someone of Japanese descent—Yone Noguchi’s The American Diary of a Japanese Girl (originally published in 1902). This post is drawn in part from a chapter of her next book project, which I’m very excited to read!]
On Serial Killing and Netflix’s The Keepers: An Unexplained Absence
Law enforcement officers sometimes wrongly consider a set of individual murders the work of a serial killer. A strong incentive exists for such a misinterpretation: Find the guy (and, yes, serial killers are almost exclusively men) who committed one of the horrible crimes, and you’ve caught the guy who committed all of them. On the other hand, could there be an incentive for someone to downplay or ignore the possibility that a set of murders could be the work of a serial killer? The way femicides (the killing of women, specifically) are treated in The Keepers, a seven-part true-crime series directed by Ryan White and released in May 2017, suggests there may be. Here I’ll explore the way that ideological fervor against patriarchal institutions may have encouraged White to ignore the possibility that a serial killer was responsible for the two murders investigated in the series.
The Keepers offers an intriguing blend of two storylines that have been popular in documentary storytelling in the last ten or fifteen years. The first storyline is the unsolved-murder investigation (á la Someone Knows Something, a podcast, or Disappeared, a television series). The second storyline is the discovery of a cover-up of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests (examples include Deliver Us From Evil [dir. Amy Berg, 2006] and Mea Maxima Culpa [dir. Alex Gibney, 2012]). However, The Keepers does not bring together the two types of storylines all that smoothly. Brian Lowry laments that the series “splinters off in several directions,” and New York Times critic Mike Hale says that the “shifts back and forth” between the two plots “can be jarring.” This failed intertwining may arise from the fact that the potential link between the two types of crimes explored in the series, the murder of two young women and the continuous sexual assault of high school girls, is tenuous, resting almost exclusively on the statements of one woman, Jean Hargadon Wehner, who came forward (as a “Jane Doe”) in the 1990s to tell police and the Archdiocese of Baltimore that she was now remembering having been raped and sodomized repeatedly at her Catholic all-girls’ high school, Archbishop Keough High School, between 1968 and 1972. She also communicated to them that she was now remembering having been taken by one of the abusive priests to see the dead body of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a former teacher at the school who had disappeared on Nov. 7, 1969, and whose dead body was found on January 3, 1970, thrown on a kind of makeshift dump site. Wehner said the priest, Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, leaned down close to her as she knelt next to the dead Sister Cathy and said “See what happens when you say bad things about people?”
You are likely wondering at this point what serial killers have to do with any of this. Isn’t this clearly a case of motivated killing by someone who wished to keep their own abuse from getting exposed? Well, maybe—or maybe not. The first episode had already informed viewers that Sister Cathy was not the only young woman abducted and killed in the Baltimore area in November 1969. Only five days after the 26-year-old Cathy disappeared, a 20-year-old woman, Joyce Malecki, was also abducted. Her body was found the next day, face-down in a stream out by Fort Meade, with her hands tied behind her back with a knapsack cord. The Keepers makes a somewhat weak attempt to link the two murders, but not through a serial killer, as those who consume a lot of true crime media might expect. Instead, the series links them through what one commentator has called a “serial perpetrator”—the abusive priest, Maskell. Though Malecki never attended Keough High School and did not seem to have known Rev. Maskell personally, White pushes a conspiracy theory that has her death being orchestrated by Maskell. The proof? Maskell’s name was printed with two other priests’ names on the sympathy card that St. Clement Parish sent to Joyce Malecki’s parents after her death.
What makes more sense, especially if we explore the simplest explanations of crime first, would be to see a serial killer behind the deaths of the two women. The phrase “serial killer” is never uttered in the series, however, and the idea of a murderer attacking and killing women he had never met before is dismissed. One of the two amateur investigators featured in the series, Abbie Schaub, a former Keough student who enjoyed Sister Cathy’s English classes, says that random killing seems unlikely. “Back then,” Abbie Schaub says, “random abductions and murders of young women were almost unheard of.” While it is true that the term “serial killer” had not yet been coined when these two murders happened, it is true that kidnappings and murders of young women did happen in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, each fall for two years after these unnatural deaths saw another young female Baltimorean disappear and wind up dead, with her body not concealed particularly well. In October 1970, the body of sixteen-year-old Pamela Conyers was found in a wooded area, after she was last seen at Harundale Mall. (Both Sister Cathy and Joyce were likely shopping when they were abducted.) In September 1971, the body of a 16-year-old girl, Grace (Gay) Montayne, was found in a vacant lot in South Baltimore. It does not seem unreasonable to think today that a serial killer may have been responsible for all four of these deaths.
But Ryan White’s series never mentions this possibility, because White is, ultimately, less interested in exploring all possible angles on the deaths of the two women than he is in telling a story of corruption and cover-up by a patriarchal institution, the Catholic Church, that in his eyes sacrifices women’s and children’s well-being for power, money, and the continuation of all-male authority. This theme continues his politically-themed work in his previous documentary, The Case Against 8, which chronicled the story of same-sex couples and their lawyers struggling for the right to marriage against the combined power of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Catholic Church. White crusades to change systems and to advocate for the individual’s freedom vis-à-vis institutions; he’s not interested in going down the true-crime path of chasing a serial killer who may have killed a few women he randomly met at a shopping mall. Of course, though, Cesnik’s and Malecki’s deaths almost certainly emerged out of misogyny, whether that misogyny was the kind that would allow a Church to cover-up rapes by a priest or the kind that pushed a man to kidnap, assault and murder girls and young women he didn’t know. No matter who killed them, Cathy and Joyce and Gay and Pamela suffered terror, pain, and death because they were women in a society that didn’t care a whole lot about their lives.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other serial killer or true crime shows, histories, or stories you’d highlight?]