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The Pros and Cons of Watching 'The Keepers' as a Sexual Abuse Survivor

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Released in May 2017, the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary series “The Keepers” examines the decades-old unsolved murder of beloved Catholic school teacher Sister Cathy Cesnick in Baltimore. The series connects the nun’s disappearance and murder to the claims of sexual abuse filed against the then-chaplain of Archbishop Keogh High School by former students in the 1990s. Through interviews and conversations with former Keogh students, “The Keepers” pieces together the story of Sister Cathy, the dark testimonies of mistreatment by chaplain Father Maskell, and the ways in which the cases may have been mishandled by Baltimore police or repressed by the Catholic Church.

• What is PTSD?

As a lover of true crime, I was very excited for the release of this series, but as a sexual assault survivor, I was afraid to watch it. My abusers were not members of the clergy, but any stories or images of sexual abuse can trigger me and send me into a state of hypervigilance and panic. Fueled by curiosity and perhaps a bit of masochism, I turned it on — against my better judgment. The first episode of “The Keepers” is harmless enough (as far as brutal, unsolved murders go), so I decided to continue, naively unaware of the truly horrifying narrative ahead.

I ended up watching “The Keepers” in its entirety, and I don’t think I am worse off for it. It did, however, bring up some terrible memories and sensations I may not have been equipped to deal with at the time. Episodes 2 (“The Burial”) and 3 (“The Revelation”) are particularly difficult to watch. Jean Hargadon Wehner, former Keogh student and “Jane Doe” in the Doe/Roe v. Maskell case of 1996, details very specific instances of sexual abuse committed against her by Father Maskell and several other men while she was in high school. Other survivors, including Teresa Lancaster (“Jane Roe” in Doe/Roe v. Maskell), discuss specifics of what they endured as well.

The series description on Netflix does mention the investigation of sexual assault allegations and a potential cover-up. The rating is MA-17, for mature audiences only. However, there is no warning that the sexual crimes will be discussed in detail, which is what triggers most survivors. There are no safety messages before or after the episodes with contact information for sexual assault hotlines. Perhaps the logic is that most people watching the show are adults and they will reach out to the appropriate outlets if need be, but people in crisis aren’t always thinking logically. People in crisis are much more likely to react without thinking and do something potentially harmful just to lessen their symptoms.

My post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms were triggered while watching the show. I spiraled into a flashback. My body felt electric — every nerve on end, every touch a jolt, every sound a siren in my ear. I had a panic attack and severe suicidal ideation; I barely slept that night. Luckily, I texted my friend who could empathize with me and help me focus on something else, but not everyone has that. Not everyone has had intensive psychotherapy. Not everyone is able to recognize and name symptoms of flashback, dissociation, hypervigilance and panic. Not everyone has a friend they feel they can talk to about very sensitive, personal topics. Content and trigger messages are crucial to the emotional safety of viewers. Having that number on the screen at the end of a triggering show can be the difference between panic and security. Self-harm and help. Death and life. I hope Netflix steps up to amend this soon.

Now, you’re probably saying: You did this to yourself. You could have turned it off. And, yes. I realize I willingly subjected myself to the show. Really, it was all on me. I didn’t turn the show off because I became obsessed, not just with the murder of Sister Cathy, but with the women coming together to expose rampant injustice.

The amateur investigators, two former Keogh students, compiled information about the murder for years despite dead-ends and scarce assistance from the police, just to bring this story to light. Wehner, Lancaster and the numerous other survivors and witnesses of sexual abuse testify so vulnerably and courageously that they instilled in me an incomparable hope. Wehner, especially open and willing to delve into her past despite its darkness, speaks to the process of uncovering repressed memories — something I’m dealing with and am struggling to discern the reality of — and the pushback she received from the culture around her and her own inner critic. “I thought I was,” she says. “It was easier to think I was crazy.”

She discusses her trauma and recovery with such confidence and self-respect that all I could think while she was on screen was, “She did it.” She moved past this terrible thing that happened to her, or at least moved to a place where she can live with it and talk about it and help others with it. “She did it,” I thought. “And I can do it too.”

I think someone who has survived sexual assault or has PTSD should approach “The Keepers” with caution. There are no re-enactments, but there are graphic accounts of repeated sexual abuse and, honestly, the story is disheartening. So far, there is no justice for the abused, and it is implied that colossal institutions like the government and the Church are knowingly standing in the way of that justice. Please create a safe space for yourself if you choose to watch this show, and make sure you have a support system immediately available, whether it’s a friend you can call, the Crisis Text Line, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a pet you can hug or a local hospital you can check yourself into. Treat yourself gently. Don’t binge watch the show all in one sitting. And remember that you are not alone.

That said, I think any survivor of sexual assault can benefit from Wehner’s story. She did not receive justice, she endured immense pain, but she survived. And others survived. So many people, worldwide, have been mistreated this way. Many of them are lost to depression, addiction, continuing abuse and suicide. The powerful testimonies in “The Keepers” demonstrate the possibility of survival. The more we talk about sexual abuse, the more people will feel empowered to speak the truth — to begin chipping away at the walls of systems and culture that make this crime so hidden and possible.

To quote Jean Wehner in the final moments of episode 7 of “The Keepers,” (“The Conclusion”):

“If I can speak for myself, and maybe others: this is the opportunity. It’s like a little crack. And I personally feel that what I’m doing — facing my fear — is coming up to the crack and saying, ‘Hello! Do you know we’re here? Is anyone out there?’ And now it’s still silent. But we’re hearing each other. Because we’re all coming up to the crack. And what’s happening is we’re all bumping into each other, coming to the crack. And before you know it, the pressure of that voice, seeping through the crack, is going to shatter it.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Image via The Keepers Facebook page

Originally published: July 25, 2017
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