“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a powerful ode to Michelle McNamara

I'll be Gone in the Dark Photograph by Robyn Van Swank/HBO

HBO’s new true-crime docuseries illuminates not just the Golden State Killer, but the woman who dedicated her life to catching him.

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What made Michelle McNamara’s posthumous book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark so compelling wasn’t just the in-depth portraits of the many, many victims of the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (commonly known as EARONS). Nor was it the portrayals of detectives who spent their careers trying to catch him. It wasn’t even the cabal of internet sleuths poring over grainy scans of city maps late into the night as they stalked the stalker. It was McNamara herself that made the book so damn good. She was a writer who understood herself, understood her obsessions with a self-awareness few people possess. 

She used her evocative gift for words to give voice to the EARONS victims. Her deep dives with detectives—the active ones and those languishing in retirement—showed readers just how an unsolved puzzle could become an obsession, a Mobius strip of facts that never quite connect. She showed her talent for utilizing and mobilizing her fellow citizen detectives, giving them clever monikers like “The Kid” and “The Social Worker.” Michelle McNamara wasn’t just a gifted writer; she was a writer who understood people, what made them tick, what would get them to open up. She gave the EARONS the name he’ll carry to his grave: The Golden State Killer. 

The new series from Liz Grabus (with additional directing from Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury) manages to capture not only the fine detail of the attacks but what it was about McNamara that made her such a perfect advocate for these victims and their families. Grabus doesn’t shy away from her subject’s fixations. For Joseph James DeAngelo, it was the violent subjugation—and eventual slaying—of women. For McNamara, it was a compulsive need to sink into the dark, to find what lurked there and expose it for all to see.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark
Photograph by Robyn Van Swank/HBO

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is two stories, that of the investigation into the Golden State Killer,  and the story of McNamara herself. Video interviews and voice recordings of detectives, victims, witnesses cut through with video interviews of McNamara, home movies of her playing with her daughter, Alice. Text exchanges with her husband Patton Oswalt give heartbreaking context to the last months of McNamara’s life, and the devastating impact her death had, both on her friends and family and the surviving victims. “The stories of these Victims need to be told,” she says in one interview. Without her voice, who would speak for them?  

As the series progresses, there is a creeping sense of investigative excitement slowly plunging into obsession and anxiety. Despite McNamara’s innate talent for investigation, there were aspects of the case that made her reluctantly reexamine her own experiences. Her confusion over an encounter in her early adulthood becomes a slow reconciliation that she, too, was a victim. 

Whether this made her more or less determined to solve the case is unclear, but you can see the tantalizing possibility of actually solving the case pulling McNamara further in, and the toll of spending her nights immersed in casefiles and bloody crime scene photos. The time spent in the Golden State Killer’s wake lends a clammy discomfort to every new lead, every old fact. There is the sickening gut-punch of witnessing the victims introducing themselves to each other not by name, but by number. “I’m 31,” and “I’m 46.” And those were the ones still present, still able to tell their stories. Anyone steeping themselves in that kind of real-life horror would have trouble sleeping. 

As the series progresses, there is a creeping sense of investigative excitement slowly plunging into obsession and anxiety.

Even knowing the outcomes of both stories, by the end of the fourth episode, the pressure becomes so intense viewers may feel the urge to get up and walk around, open a window, hug their children. Conversations between McNamara and Oswalt in the hours leading up to her death tell of lost sleep, nightmares, and desperate exhaustion. 

The devastating fifth episode, “Monsters Recede But Never Vanish,” is dedicated to the fallout from McNamara’s death and how those closest to her came together to complete her book. Even after she is gone, her voice is still front and center, her experiences always lending their texture and weight to the story. When news of DeAngelo’s arrest comes almost two years to the date of McNamara’s death, she feels deeply present in the story, as if she’s standing just out of frame.

I’ll Be Gone In the Dark is an arduous watch, but ultimately a compelling one. It’s impossible to watch without wondering what McNamara might have done after closing the book on the Golden State Killer, who else she might have helped, and what she would make of this, her legacy. 

I’ll Be Gone In the Dark Premieres June 28 on HBO.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Trailer:

Beau North
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