The Keepers – Episodes 1 & 2

I heard about The Keepers on Netflix about two weeks before it aired for the first time.  I have waited another week before starting the series. I watched the first two episodes this afternoon in one sitting.  I had to stop before I continued with the next episode.  I am not opposed to binge-watching shows like all the cool kids are doing, but I as the second, gut-wrenching episode came to an end, I knew I would sit on my couch consuming one episode after another until it was over.  I had to get up and walk away.  I knew if I kept watching, I would miss something important.

The way many of us watch programs now is hurried.  We start a series and in many cases we can run right through the entire season of a show in a week or less.  (My husband and I are currently making our way through the eleventh season of Midsomer Murders; thankfully there are many more seasons to go.)  I still watch a few shows on “regular networks”and I must wait week-to-week for a new episode.  As much as I hate a cliff hanger, I do love the anticipation of that new season.  I often record these shows on my DVR and watch them later, so I don’t have to sit through commercials.  (I started this speed watching of programs when I was in graduate school in the 1990s and “taped” my soaps.  One just didn’t admit to watching soap operas in women’s history programs in the 1990s.)  In graduate school I also learned to speed-read books (of sorts).  I now know how to “read” a book in an afternoon.  Slowing down to really absorb and consider what an author has presented takes patience (not to mention time).

And time is what I need to absorb the significance of what went on in the late 1960s – early 1970s at Archbishop Keough and Catholic Baltimore at this time.   This new documentary series examines the cold case of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, SSND in 1969.  The first episode introduces the murder – or murders.  Another young woman went missing four days after Sister Cathy and was found dead soon after. Her murder has not been solved either.  So far in the first two episodes, we hear from former students and victims of abuse, the family and friends of the murdered women, some journalists who investigated the cases, and some former police officers and detectives involved in the case.  The police so far have a marginal role thus far.  Some former School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) appear and their testimony of religious life in the 1960s in the context of Vatican II is interesting.  So far, no SSNDs or Roman Catholic Church representatives have appeared.

As a historian of women religious and twentieth-century American Catholicism, I watch these episodes with an eye towards history of this period.  Recent scholarship has begun to look more thoughtfully at women who left religious life and the consequence of clerical sex abuse.  What happened to the Church in the twentieth century that produced such priests-abusers?  Why were there school sisters who could not or would not call out such atrocities in schools and parishes?  And, as the second episode suggests, why were there men in positions of authority – like law enforcement – contemporaries and friends of the chief priest abuser in this account – who not only protected this man, but participated in the abuse?

The second episode is difficult to sit through.  When I heard about this series, I worried to myself – will it be salacious?  Will it exploit?  Is this another example of horror that is numbing us into not caring?  (Or rather, numbing me?)  I think this is why I waited to watch it.  Now that I have started, I will continue to the end.  I hope.  At the center of this episode is the testimony of Jane Doe – who is identified, as is her family, and provides frank and at times stoic accounts of what she endured.  As I listened, I found myself questioning what I had heard.  What did she say happened?  It can’t be real.  And here’s the thing – so much of what we see in programs and the news is horrible.  The line between real and made up – fact and fiction – is blurred.  Reality programs are contrived for better viewing and ratings.  Crime dramas are “ripped from the headlines” and depending on what channel or service you watch, those stories are sanitized or laid bare in a way that one questions the intent of all that exploitive violence.

No, the testimony of the women in The Keepers is real and it deserves time.  It deserves me sitting with it and letting it sink in fully.

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