But first: my roommate and I watched Now and Then a couple nights ago. It’s a fair statement that I haven’t watched that movie in fifteen years, but it’s also a fair statement that I watched it nearly every other week between the ages of, say, ten and thirteen.
Even so, I remembered almost nothing of the plot besides a bunch of then teenage girls who I really like (still) turned into a bunch of grown women who I also quite like (despite their more recent travails with the celebrity press). I had completely forgotten the plotline about how the girls pluck a mystery out of a graveyard séance, take their question to a psychic and then an older person (always the first two lines of inquiry…), and then, when all else fails, head to the dusty library basement to look through huge, bound volumes of newspapers from years earlier. As an adult, the fact that most of them live years before finding out how their mystery relates to their present-day strikes me as particularly poignant—only Gaby Hoffmann/Demi Moore learns the truth as a young girl.
Which brings me to The Keepers—I understood the power of Now and Then, even as a tween, to be that it was about girls who turned into women who always had each other’s backs in face of everything that the world could throw at them. How I understand the power of The Keepers means that the horrifying story of church abuses is fortified by the strength of the women-driven mystery narrative. Two women, Gemma and Abbie, started a Facebook group to find justice for Sister Cathy, their beloved teacher. Their group connects women who believed they were alone and who, in this new context, gain strength from knowing that other women support them. At first, it even seems like Sister Cathy may have actually been murdered as the result of her steadfast devotion to protecting and supporting her female students.
Gemma and Abbie are a study in unlikely detectives. They cracked me up as they narrated for the camera how they did their research and organized their thoughts. The last times I remember microfilm readers looking so cool on camera were early episodes of The X-Files, filmed before digital records were an option. In The Keepers, Abbie and Gemma were also filmed organizing their thoughts via a system of coffee filters with notes written on them. They talked candidly about deciding who took on tasks based on their personality strengths—Gemma could talk to anyone without fear so she did interviews, while Abbie focused on research deep dives.
When we meet Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, the two women who were at the basis of the initial case about Father Maskell’s abuses at their school, they are presented as strong, intelligent women. They are, first and foremost, shown to be capable people—they speak clearly and forcefully about how their lives have unfolded over the past forty years. They save themselves, though they give credit to their friends and family where it is due. This approach was fascinating to me and deeply moving. This isn’t a story about women being victimized, but a story about women trying to fight back with the help of other women. A story about women coming back together after years apart to learn the truth and take action.
For me, the approach to documentary story-telling that centered women’s voices proved to be the real draw. I had chosen to watch the show expecting a splashy true crime story that would indulge my odd fascination with nuns, and got a carefully drawn portrait of a group of women who suffered guilt at their inability to save themselves and perhaps to save their teacher, Sister Cathy. To me, that makes the criminal elements of the story feel even more galling and even more violating. As a strategy for encouraging change, it’s a good start.