Becky Cooper Heard a Rumor About a Murder at Harvard. She Spent a Decade Searching for the Truth


There is a huge degree of responsibility that comes with the kind of influence that Harvard has, and the system just can’t be allowed to continue as it is. Even if, as I write in the book, the members of these bodies are good people and don’t have the worst of intentions for the most part, that doesn’t mean that the system itself shouldn’t be seen and dismantled where appropriate.

You closed a big chapter of your life with the release of this book. I guess that’s true for all writers who publish books, but you were by your own admission very wrapped up in Jane and her life and her death. How does it feel to be done with her?

I mean, it’s a little dizzying. For so long, my life was so single-minded, almost to the point of claustrophobia, which I realize is its own kind of luxury. And during that time and even after I wrote the book, I didn’t let myself look over the wall of publishing it.

I’m only just now—having come through the hurricane of press and talking about the book —starting to allow myself to take stock and to decide what comes next. Working on this book brought me to the frontier of so many other stories that need to be told, whether it’s individual stories that just require a whole lot more reporting or stories about programs like Title IX that need to be explored in depth. That has to happen.

With every story, though, I have to think about whether I’m the right person to do it. And so I think some of the next period of my life will be spent figuring out if I’m the right person to do it. And if not, how do you pass along those stories? How do you make sure they land in the hands of the right person?

The last question I have is about the discipline at the heart of the book. Over the past year, there’s been so much conversation about needing to be honest about the American past, needing to dig it up, sometimes literally, and needing to reckon with it. This book is about anthropology and its blind spots—how even in a field that’s supposedly based on objective fact, there’s some much manipulation and bias. You’ve obviously thought a lot about that. Do you think it still works as a discipline that can help tell the truth?

I think it has to start with an awareness and an admission of the imperfection of it. I think part of it is getting a wider, more diverse set of people to dig up the past and reconstruct it. So that even if everyone, with the best of intentions, is going to kind of influence the narrative that they find, if at least there is a diversity of ideas represented, then that would be a better start. I think there’s also a positive trend in anthropology that’s called “expressing your positionality” at the beginning of ethnography and not trying to hide that.

I think those things are crucial. And then I think we have to figure out how to reward the very unsexy process of trying to dig up as many facts as possible and incentivize people to present their work not only in its synthesized narrative form, but also the data itself so that other people can decide if they would come to the same conclusions themselves. That was part of why my book is loaded with endnotes because I wanted people to be able to do that for themselves. Like, here’s my version of it. It’s flawed. I tried my best, but it’s still influenced by who I am. But here’s all the stuff I read and used because I want you to be able to check my work. I think that attitude, I hope, will start taking over the field.

A little opportunity for some peer review.

Exactly. I hope so.

Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour. 


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