The Netflix docuseries should be a model for others — it avoids the mistakes that "Serial," "Making A Murderer," and "The Jinx" made
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Netflix’s “The Keepers,” a seven-part docuseries that premiered May 19, is that nearly every speaking character is a middle-aged woman. This is rare enough that it begins to be surprising, and soon after that, it becomes one of the defining elements of the show — following an interviewee into her living room as she is accompanied by her five small dogs, or reminiscing with another about her loving husband, now deceased. The B-roll notices things like the decorations on the walls, the family photos on the mantle, and the niceties of small talk. These are no Hollywood-friendly million-dollar kitchens, or carefully composed sitcom living rooms. The subjects of “The Keepers” keep cozy homes, in an unassuming, uncontrived way that indicates much about them. In this largely Catholic, working-to-middle class community of Baltimore, “The Keepers” manages to convey a mindset and shared, accepted values by just following the interviewees home.
“The Keepers” tells the true story of the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a young nun and high school teacher who disappeared in late 1969 only to be found dead two months later. Her disappearance was followed a few days later by another murder of another young woman named Joyce Malecki. Both cases remain unsolved. But Cesnik and Malecki had in common a connection to a powerful local priest, Father Joseph Maskell. As Cesnik’s former students started to ask questions about what happened, they began to uncover a shocking legacy of sexual abuse and coercion around Maskell and the high school he and Cesnik worked at: Archbishop Keough High School, an all-girls school with a primarily Catholic student body. Two former students of Sister Cathy’s, Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, started a Facebook page and a tip line. A third, who remained anonymous for years to protect her reputation, comes forward in “The Keepers” to identify herself as Jean Wehner, one of Maskell’s most-abused victims who had repressed much of what happened to her. Schaub, Hoskins, and Wehner work together to compile information, pursue leads, and corroborate Wehner’s own disturbing memories.
“The Keepers” emerged from a recent mushrooming resurgence in true-crime docuseries that began with the podcast “Serial,” an investigation into a murder conviction that became an unlikely sensation. Journalist Sarah Koenig, who hosted “Serial,” was able to tap into the fact that listeners wanted to see an investigation unfold in real-time, as she demonstrated how difficult it is to find the truth amidst imperfect memory, lost evidence, and conflicting stories. Koenig gets very close to her subjects in the first season of “Serial,” which meant that audiences could hear convicted murderer Adnan Syed explain his own defense as she and her producers tried to recreate victim Hae Min Lee’s final day. At the same time, Koenig’s investigation of the material sparked some controversy; she was as limited by her perspective as Syed was by his, and it’s only late in the season, following listener responses, that she explored the sorely needed racial context of the story.
“Serial’s” success and its failures are indicative of the endemic problems in the true-crime format. First: The investigator is always implicated in the ultimate conclusion. Koenig’s biases shaped the story of “Serial.” Andrew Jarecki’s similarities to Robert Durst — they’re both the sons of New York real estate tycoons — led Durst to trust Jarecki and agree to participate in “The Jinx.” Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the filmmakers of “Making A Murderer,” have repeatedly indicated that they are absolutely convinced of their subject Steven Avery’s innocence — to the point that they eliminated implicating evidence against him from their 10-hour first season.
Second: Because of how murder works, the audience only ever hears from the living — who in these stories are all suspected murderers. The victims — Lee in “Serial,” Kathleen Durst in “The Jinx,” and Teresa Halbach in “Making a Murderer,” among others — don’t get to build the relationship with the audience the way that Syed, Durst, and Avery get to. It makes for an inherently lopsided narrative, unless it’s addressed by the production.
And lastly, because of the nature of storytelling, true-crime stories are hampered by the rather human desire for a neat ending. “The Jinx,” in this regard, sets the bar for every other docuseries, because it backed into an once-in-a-lifetime denouement, in one of the most startling final episodes in television history — a confession recorded on a live microphone. But most stories about cold cases will not luck into such stunning circumstances. And that can mean trying to force a convenient arc through the same lack of clarity that was there when the story started.
Audiences don’t always pick up on these pitfalls at first — and indeed, sometimes, these pitfalls make for intriguing viewing. With “Serial,” Koenig’s unstable relationship with Syed makes for some of the most fascinating exchanges in the podcast, and certainly “The Jinx” wouldn’t be the “The Jinx” if Jarecki and Durst didn’t have their odd affinity towards each other. But the true-crime nonfiction format relies on a covenant of trust between the storyteller and the audience, just like journalism. When that is damaged, it’s not just the missteps that get rejected — it’s the whole story. So it was with “Making a Murderer.” The docuseries first inspired huge public support for Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, as the filmmakers had hoped; shortly thereafter, it spawned a backlash precisely because it was biased — entrenching the support for Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s convictions, when the docuseries hoped to exonerate them.
“The Keepers” is a gutting story that is told well, but it is especially admirable for avoiding so many of these pitfalls. It’s the most journalistically sound docuseries of those that have followed the vogue of “Serial” — the most comprehensive and relentlessly contextualizing, even when narrative exigency would reward bias. Amidst the mundane, intimate lives of these ordinary women is one of the most radically progressive stories on television — of a victim-led, digitally facilitated, community-driven call for justice against the wealthiest and oldest institution in the Western world. Cesnik and Malecki can’t speak for themselves — and Maskell, too, is now dead. But the former students who were abused at his hands can speak, and do.
“The Keepers” manages to tap into the informal but incredibly effective network of women that Schaub and Hoskins create: Women who call into the tip line or post on Facebook with their own stories of abuse, their own memories of Sister Cesnik, or even recollections of how their ex-husbands or distant uncles had come home the night of the nun’s disappearance with a bloody shirt and a flimsy excuse. In a detail that would be implausible in a fiction story, Schaub and Hoskins are floored when not one but two different women reach out saying they have uncles that they think could have killed Cesnik. In another anecdote, Wehner’s family describes how they sought more data on the students attending Keough, and they laugh over how simple it was: Her sister-in-law just went to the school and asked nicely.
Wehner, with her unshakable courage and sincerity, quickly becomes the heart of the docuseries. Because she is so compelling, it would have been easy to gloss over how farfetched some of her story sounds. But director Ryan White — who is himself a part of the community (his aunt was a student of Cesnik’s) — instead chooses to guide the viewer through a measured assessment of repressed memories. Similarly, when most of the evidence points towards one scenario, “The Keepers” doesn’t settle for that conclusion; the series ends with a few possible guilty parties, rigorously identified and researched. And to paraphrase my colleague Maureen Ryan, who reviewed the series, White’s especial skill is his restraint: It is the overlapping voices and stories that take center stage, not the filmmakers’ narratives.
Ultimately, the story of “The Keepers” is of how difficult it is for even a concerted community effort to combat the crisis management of the Catholic Church; in that sense, it is a little like a longer and less glitzy “Spotlight.” Like “Serial,” “Making A Murderer,” and “The Jinx,” “The Keepers” is an engaged docuseries that gives the impression of investigating in real-time; the audience is pulled into this quest for truth, and is given ample room to come to their own conclusions. But the real takeaway is that in centering the women, “The Keepers” is more authentically about justice than any of its contemporary predecessors. It’s considered and responsible. And it ends, not with a pointed finger, but with Wehner’s voice, pledging her dedication to keep speaking until every powerless person can be heard by the world. This is a docuseries that others should model their approach on.