Gemma, Sister Kathy, and Jane Doe
Nearly a hundred movies have been made in Baltimore. There’s a list in Wikipedia but it’s incomplete. It doesn’t include “The Keepers”. The films and TV series listed on Wikipedia include “House of Cards”, “Sleepless in Seattle,” and “Tuck Everlasting”. Many titles are just trash.
Only a few are not studio films, but actually about Baltimore. I started watching films that were consciously and deliberately made in Baltimore about the city with “Homicide,” the TV series and then “The Wire.” They were often profound meditations on society and culture.
I want to lift up “The Keepers,” which is of equal high value though it didn’t have the stars and budgets. It’s easy to pass over or put down because it is so unique. There are other “revelation” stories about bad guys in cold cases being tracked down and caught. This story is about the true monsters among us — yes, hiding as priests — and how grandmothers tracked down this particularly sly satan. The point is not the perverted destroyer, but the linked chain of grandmothers, often school girl victims, their families and how they survived.
The film starts quietly with a journalist looking for papers and then becomes quiet conversations, mostly with mature family women in their homes. Doesn’t sound like much. In England they call policemen “plods” and this is really how much detective work is done, plodding through the evidence. Maybe to keep themselves going by emphasizing the exciting stuff, police are as covert as the culprits and the victims are entirely excluded from any kind of power or oversight, esp. if they are female and older. Religiously privileged men and cops have guarded respect for each other that sometimes amounts to collusion.
Nevertheless, in the days when the events happened — which was as banal as a middle-aged man using his bureaucratic and clerical power as well as his friendship with cops, since he was the police chaplain for several jurisdictions — families were strong and nuns were still revered. They never admitted what was going on, much less intervened.
Much of what I learned about the world was in Browning, Mt, in the Sixties. Bob Scriver was the City Magistrate and the Justice of the Peace. Also in play were the officers of the Tribal court system, the highway patrol, the border patrol, and the FBI. When Bob was asked to become a Justice of the Peace, there was already one in town, Wilbur Renshaw, the husband of Blanche Renshaw, who was the principal of the primary school. Wilbur, who wrote very bad Westerns, fancied law officers and hung out with the white ones over coffee and donuts. “White” meant highway patrol and border patrol. Every decision he made was controlled by his white cop buddies. But in the tribal context everything was controlled by family, favors, reputation, power — if the jailor was your cousin, he let you out. This was an old oral culture pattern that worked for small nomadic groups, but was a very bad fit for a “modern” bureaucracy. Bob was seen as a person on the border between white and tribe, therefore more just.
In some ways Baltimore had the same confusions. Church bureaucracy is meant to be dominant, based on millennia of complications descended from the Roman Empire, abstract, never under the control of local communities. Families, at the other end of the spectrum, were large (because of the Catholic prohibition on birth control) and their wealth was each other, because they were second and third generation immigrants whose success was based on mutual support. Cops were in the middle.
This is a real story. A teaching nun was found dead and violated in the woods, twenty years earlier. The murder was never solved. Two women who had been her students partnered up and began to accumulate evidence. A third classmate was rumored to have seen the nun’s body before it was found by authorities. She was found by the two and because they were the same sorts — competent, educated, quite sane, computer literate, easy with people — the third woman’s abuse was accepted as true. In fact, her story of how she overcame near-psychosis becomes a key thread of the film.
Bob Scriver used to say two things that came from his experience as a judge. One was that people will do anything they can, regardless of limits, until someone pushes back against them. Presumably, that’s the work of the law. The other was that if you do things that are totally outrageous, far beyond what people think, you probably can get away with it. (Think John Wayne Gacy or David Bar Jonah.)
I would add another rule of thumb. People who look upscale, who seem to be high society and are well-dressed, donors to charity, smiling and cheerful, are just as likely to be criminals and traitors as anyone else. But prosperity is considered an indicator in “prosperity Christian” terms because the idea is that God rewards “His” people. Poor people are thought to fail because they are weak and possibly bad. This is our dominant national belief at the moment.
So it’s an enormous comfort to watch this seven-episode series in which people are good in an old-fashioned way, privileging intimacy and trust over sex, searching for truth, no matter how nasty. Aghast at what the perverts think is sex — the manipulation of bodies of children who dare not resist — the victims were going to unmask the perps, but were too innocent to protect themselves. It soon becomes clear that the nun who was murdered, and another young woman who was also murdered about the same time, in the same way, and undoubtedly by the same people, were killed because they intended to expose this wickedness. There is no satisfying confrontation and conviction, because the offenders had just aged and died, protected by the church which always wants to preserve the illusion of virtue.
The second murdered girl’s family did a bit of parallel sleuthing. Calling a family meeting, they used a directory of alumni to send out a thousand postcards asking if anyone had information. They were shocked by the number of responding women who had also been victimized. Forty have names. (Not in the film.) Most of them thought it was their fault and never went to authorities. “Don’t tell or I’ll kill your family.” “You’re an evil dirty girl and you seduced me.” “God hates you.”
The two original partners stuck together, accumulating the kind of ordinary information that the government lists, that data websites will sell you, the kind of thing that debt collectors use, the sorts of minutia that cops don’t have the time or money to pursue — much less the determination. The women do not wear shoes with four-inch heels, do not wear makeup, do not wear silk clothes straight from the cleaners. Nor do they display the kind of erotic need to pursue evil that is often a feature of cop shows with female protagonists, a sort of eversion of the flawed detective tradition.
They suffer with their knowing, need to reassure each other, look back over their lives and wonder what could have happened if they had not had to deal with this pervasive shadow. How can we not see ourselves? Our collapsing culture? But also, how to go about rebuilding.