When Michelle McNamara was given a book deal in 2013 to write about the man she had christened “The Golden State Killer,” a rapist and murderer who started wreaking havoc across California in the 1970s — his identity and whereabouts then still a mystery — the true-crime writer wasn’t particularly daunted at the prospect of spending time in the mind of a sociopath. After all, she’d been drawn to crime and death since she was a girl. What really gave her pause was that her editors at HarperCollins wanted her to include herself in the book, just as she had in the initial Los Angeles piece that introduced the world to this little-known criminal responsible, at that time, for at least 50 rapes and 10 deaths. This wouldn’t just be a story about that man and his victims — it was about McNamara pondering her obsession with exposing this ski-masked killer. “That is where I get writer’s block,” McNamara told one of her interview subjects. “I don’t feel comfortable kind of talking about me and my own life. … I’m having a tough time with that.”
She overcame those struggles. Her acclaimed 2018 book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, was praised for its sterling investigative work but also its candor, as she talked about her childhood and her dark memories — including her reminiscence of a neighbor girl who had been murdered when McNamara was a kid, the randomness of the crime never leaving her. Even if she had preferred it not to be, McNamara’s personal story was fated to be inextricably linked to the pursuit of this killer considering that the book was published posthumously: She died in 2016 at the age of 46 from an accidental overdose of pills, including fentanyl and Xanax. When the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, was finally apprehended a couple months after McNamara’s book, she wasn’t alive to see him be finally brought to justice.
The new HBO documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which premieres Sunday, faces the same dilemma that McNamara confronted when writing her book: How much of her story should be part of the overall fabric? Told in six installments, each running about an hour, the documentary is nothing if not ambitious, retracing the killer’s crimes, speaking to several of the survivors, recounting McNamara’s life and also musing on what draws people to the grim world of true crime. And on top of all that, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is crafted like a gripping whodunit, complete with juicy plot twists, startling revelations and even a sorta-heist subplot at one point.
In other words, the documentary wants to be sobering but also exciting — treating the Golden State Killer’s violent acts as atrocities but also trying to get us hooked on every sordid detail. The result is a series that inspires a lot of conflicting responses, including discomfort at the notion that I’m somehow supposed to be entertained by the pursuit of a monster who ruined so many lives. But what ultimately holds I’ll Be Gone in the Dark together, ironically, is McNamara. She may have resisted the spotlight, but even in death, she’s the vital heart of a documentary that, like too many true-crime series, can sometimes be ghoulish in its obsessiveness.
It’s understandable why so many were sucked in by McNamara’s Los Angeles magazine feature and subsequent book. Whereas the notorious Zodiac Killer has sparked countless books and films — including David Fincher’s 2007 stone-cold masterpiece — the Golden State Killer (who at different times was nicknamed the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker) was largely unknown, even though he had caused far more harm. As the HBO documentary suggests, that’s partly due to the fact that he primarily raped, a crime that historically hadn’t been treated with the same severity as murder. It’s a chilling bit of law-enforcement sexism that adds an emotional jolt to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark each time we meet his (mostly) female targets, many of whom had difficulty for years telling people about what had happened. While there are helpful men in this documentary — crime writers, detectives, cops, McNamara’s widower — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is dominated by its female interview subjects, who separately seem to reach a mutual catharsis in talking about their experiences and meeting McNamara.
Seen through archival interviews and home movies — and with Oscar-nominee Amy Ryan narrating the author’s writing — McNamara is presented as a smart, funny, somewhat melancholy and self-critical person who came from an affectionate but complicated family, falling in love with stand-up Patton Oswalt, who was similarly bowled over by her. He was the famous, outgoing one, while she preferred reading and writing, and their marriage was a boon to both, giving them their daughter Alice and a happy, grounded home life. Slowly, however, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark begins to hint at the downside of her passion for true crime — how as she works on the Los Angeles article and the book that she grows more paranoid and anxious. (She was plagued by nightmares, turning to sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication to calm herself.) It wasn’t just chronicling these crimes and interviewing the survivors that weighed on her — it was the pressure to do it all justice in her compassionate writing.
How she navigated those worries while hunting down clues to the Golden State Killer’s identity is the central thread of the HBO documentary, which might have made McNamara uneasy. (Part of the reason she worried about putting so much of herself in the book is that she wanted to focus on the survivors.) But the series’ directors, including Liz Garbus (who previously made Who Killed Garrett Phillips?), are reasonably thoughtful in this regard, explaining how McNamara’s drive helped raise this killer’s profile so that he, eventually, was caught. (DeAngelo wasn’t named specifically in her book, but the documentary makes the case that she narrowed down the perpetrator’s key characteristics, which provided a match with DeAngelo.)
The filmmakers rightly assume that most viewers will be aware of McNamara’s accidental death, so ignoring that tragic wrinkle in this narrative would simply be perverse. And so they embrace what’s bittersweet about this mystery: The writer who wanted to deliver a small measure of revenge for the Golden State Killer’s victims, including the people he killed, ended up losing her life as well.
McNamara’s admirers and editors talk about how she helped humanize survivors and victims, giving them a voice so that readers saw them as flesh and blood, not crime statistics. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark does the same for McNamara so that we feel like we really know this warm, lovely individual — which is crucial because, as someone who’s seen his fair share of true-crime documentaries, I confess that there can be a numbing familiarity with these stories and the way they’re told. I’m not talking about the genuine anguish that comes through in the survivors’ interviews, which are often touching and enraging. Rather, I’m referring to standardized stylistic gimmicks that have been adopted in this documentary genre, which gives these real stories a dull sameness.
It’s always the same overly sleek credit sequence, the same cliffhanging episode breaks, the same hyperbolic music cues, and the same strained attempts at dramatic intensity — as if these horrific tales have all been fed into the same true-crime narrative machine so that they can be neatly processed for my consumption. (The most aggravating example of this in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is that, early in their courtship, Oswalt and McNamara discover they’re both huge fans of Creature From the Black Lagoon, which is illustrated with a clip from the 1954 horror movie. Sure enough, that clip will be needlessly reintroduced any time water or a sense of unease pops up in the story. It’s an insulting cheapening of a sliver of McNamara’s life elevated for ponderous metaphorical impact.)
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s smooth, somewhat formulaic structure speaks to an inherent tension in documentaries like this, which are meant to be compulsively watchable but not in poor taste. This is the paradox of true-crime fandom in general, and the movie wrestles with this a little, visiting a true-crime fan convention and also talking to those in this world about why they’re enamored with what is, essentially, other people’s suffering. One of the reasons I love Zodiac is that its “entertainment value” is very clearly barbed, subverting all the reassuring conventions of a usual whodunit — chiefly, that the good guys will catch the bad guy — and leaving us with the bleak acknowledgment that, sometimes, the bogeyman goes free.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has, basically, a happy ending now that DeAngelo is in jail — last week, it was reported that the 74-year-old would plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty — so, in theory, the survivors we meet and the murder victims we can’t have now been avenged and, therefore, it’s okay to be absorbed by the gruesome details of the crime.
Still, the documentary remains a little too page-turning in its handling of this manhunt — it’s certainly somber (especially in its treatment of the survivors) but not without its concessions to being a traditional detective thriller with its inherently pulpy allures. And although the survivors’ stories are harrowing, they will be reminiscent of other such horrific testimonials we’ve heard in previous true-crime documentaries. McNamara’s editors were ultimately right that her personal connection to this material would be a differentiator when she wrote her book, and likewise, it’s her life that makes I’ll Be Gone in the Dark uniquely moving.
Oswalt, who executive produced the documentary, is featured rather prominently, talking about his late wife, her work and her death, and in these moments, we understand the human dimension of what McNamara’s obsession looked like. The movie turns out to also be a poignant portrait of a loving marriage cut short, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t soft-pedal the terrible mistake she made while self-medicating. Her death, understandably, has no sense of closure — that loss still stings.
But although McNamara’s life and death give I’ll Be Gone in the Dark its through-line, she’s only a part of the point that the film ultimately builds to, which is that terrible crimes occur around us all the time — and survivors must somehow find a way to make sense of the piece of them that’s taken away. It’s a cruel irony that Oswalt and his daughter were, in a weird, tangential way, two more people destroyed by the Golden State Killer.
And yet, the film’s final moments offer a kind of heartwarming coda. Michelle McNamara wanted to talk to these survivors and make them feel less alone. Although she wasn’t there to share in the moment, her book and its impact helped bring together an entire community of broken people. She didn’t want the story to be about her, but it couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t cared in the first place.