Netflix's Latest True Crime Docuseries Will Haunt You Forever
'The Keepers' begins with a murder mystery and becomes an unforgettable saga of abuse and religious institutions.
Descriptors like "brilliant" and "riveting" come to mind while watching The Keepers, but it feels somewhat callous to use either word. The Netflix docuseries is technically considered entertainment: seven television episodes of a true crime mystery, released in the now-normal binge-model for obsessive viewing over a weekend. But calling it entertaining feels cheap. It's harrowing and upsetting, and it will haunt you for a long time, which is part of what it makes it necessary viewing.
Ryan White's The Keepers begins (and is marketed as) the usual true crime fare that we're used to. It quickly introduces us to the central crime: the unsolved murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik. The 26-year-old teacher went missing in Maryland on November 7, 1969; her body wasn't found until January 3, 1970. The first episode sets up our sympathetic victim, introduces us to the women—former students—who are obsessed with finding the truth, ties in another unsolved murder (Joyce Malecki, who disappeared four days after Cesnik) walks us through the disappearance, shows us the clues through photographs, articles, testimonies, and diagrams. Then, The Keepers pulls a bait-and-switch, resolving to expose all the murky, fucked-up crimes of an entire community, the church, and law enforcement. It's about mass cover-ups, repressed memories, the faults in religion, and how sometimes you can't trust the institutions put here to help you.
What also sets The Keepers apart from docuseries of its ilk (The Jinx, Making a Murderer, etc.) is how focused it is on women—and not just the requisite female victim. The whole series is anchored by former students and amateur detectives Gemma Hoskins (a retired teacher) and Abbie Schaub (a retired nurse), who use coffee filters to create a "crazywall"-type web of the people involved. They are two friends who have been haunted by Cesnik's death and have dedicated their time to researching and crowdsourcing the murder via Facebook . They warmly describe Cesnik (who lived with another nun), the English and drama teacher at Archbishop Keough High School. She was the type of teacher who resonated with teachers because of her young age, her enthusiasm, and her kindness. Listening to her former students talk about her, you can tell that they loved her; you can tell that Cesnik cared.
It's important to note that Keough is an all-girls Catholic school, and not just for the obvious disturbing reasons. The former students accurately paint the picture of all-girl Catholic school life, from the nervous excitement of waiting for high school acceptance letters down to the specificities of saddle shoes—details so familiar they made me cringe. "It was supposed to be a safe place," one woman remembers. Catholic schools—and particularly all-gender Catholic schools—are often considered by parents to be the "safer" alternative to public or co-ed schools, a place where you're free from distractions of the opposite sex and where you're safe under the watch of nuns. It's also where you often form lifelong, sisterly bonds with your classmates; it's unsurprising that Hoskins and Schaub, decades after they graduated, are still friends with a shared desire to tell the truth and honor a woman who was important to them and important to their adolescence.
Keough wasn't a safe place. Cesnik knew this, and perhaps, the docuseries asserts, that's why she was murdered. The other important woman at the center is Jean Hargadon Wehner (known as Jane Doe when she filed the lawsuit), another former student who (after repressed memories are triggered and resurface) describes the alleged abuse at the hands of Father Joseph Maskell, a priest and guidance counselor at the school. The Keepers doesn't shy away from telling Wehner's story, and Wehner doesn't shy away either, describing the abuse in horrific detail. (This isn't a show to binge; I had to take frequent breaks during just this one episode). Wehner depicts the flipside of religion: the unwavering belief in religion that spreads to an unwavering belief in priests, even when they're hurting you. According to Wehner, Maskell would use his position of power within the church—and Wehner's belief in Catholicism, especially her guilt about small sins—as means to manipulate her into abuse. He had to do these "therapy sessions" to her to help save her soul, to help her be forgiven. "They were powerful," Wehner says, "because they represented God."
The theory that The Keepers puts forward is that once Cesnik knew about this abuse—Wehner confided in her while pressed because Cesnik already had her suspicions—and decided to go forth, she was killed as a warning. Wehner alleges that Maskell even took her to Cesnik's decomposing body in the woods and warned, "You see what happens when you say bad things about people?"
As The Keepers goes along, it becomes clear that this isn't just a crime on a micro level, but it expands to include more and more people who were complicit, who ignored the abuse and kept putting Maskell in positions of authority. In 1992, after the first allegations against Maskell, he was removed as pastor of Holy Cross and sent to a psychiatric hospital (director of psychology L.M. Lothstein explains how doctors were sent priests for counseling under the guise of "depression"). In 1993, he became pastor of St. Augustine's. Even law enforcement officials basically shrug in The Keepers, saying they didn't have enough evidence to investigate Maskell—more than 30 women have come forward; a box Maskell buried with nude photos of underage girls "inexplicably vanished" before making it to court.
The Keepers doesn't have a satisfying ending—and how could it? The murder is unsolved, Maskell died in 2001 without facing any charges, and more women are still coming forward with abuse allegations. Instead, you're left with an unsettling feeling of frustration of unfinished business, but that's what's so important. The Keepers needs viewers to sit through these awful stories of abuse and to listen to survivors, both in the docuseries and in our own lives. It needs us to follow the powerful women in the story: Cesnik's willingness to believe her students, Wehner's bravery to come forward and share in order to help others to do the same, and Hoskins and Schaub's steadfast resolve to honor their teacher and keep investigating even when— especially when—no one else is willing to.
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