By Sarah Osman
To its credit, this “true crime” documentary treats the tragedy of each victim with empathy and respect.
In the ’70s and ’80s, a serial killer and rapist known by many names (the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer) terrorized Northern California. It took law enforcement years to figure out that each of the horrific crimes had been committed by the same person. This vicious murderer did not become notorious until acclaimed true crime writer Michelle McNamara decided to tell his tale. Sadly, McNamara fell into the rabbit hole of her own personal demons while researching the killings, which ultimately led to her undoing.
The Golden State Killer and McNamara’s pursuit of him is the focus of HBO’s new documentary series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which shares the same title as McNamara’s book (which was completed after her death by assistant Paul Haynes, fellow true crime author Billy Jensen, and McNamara’s comedian husband Patton Oswalt). Director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), with the assistance of Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury, weave together a compelling study that dovetails McNamara’s obsession with true crime and the horrors of the Golden State Killer. The two stories work together in tandem, along the way revealing how little rape culture has changed and how a fascination with true crime can become all-consuming.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark could easily have been yet another sensationalized true crime story, one that exploits the victims, as do so many true crime stories. However, to its credit, the series treats each tragedy with empathy and respect. There aren’t the standard reenactments of what happened to the victims; instead, each episode focuses on interviews with the survivors themselves, law enforcement, and civilian detectives. One reason that the narrative’s inhumanity is handled so gracefully is McNamara’s perspective, which was empathetic and respectful (qualities that set her writing apart from other examples in the genre).
While much of the series focuses on McNamara the sleuth, including footage of her traveling to Sacramento to track the steps of the Golden State Killer, there is also footage of her everyday life. Through home video footage and interviews with McNamara, we learn that she was obsessed with true crime at a young age: yet she was also a caring wife and mother. She is humanized in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which makes her death all the sadder. We also learn that McNamara dealt with her own trauma, which explains why she was drawn to true crime in the first place. Her own inner turmoil – -and the personal strain of researching this case — fueled McNamara’s depression, which led her to having vivid nightmares. She took more and more drugs to help her cope with her condition. Unfortunately, she accidentally overdosed.
Interwoven into McNamara’s backstory and her pursuit of the case are the specifics of the Golden State Killer. Because of ’70s rape culture and the silencing of women, many survivors were forced to suffer in silence for years. This attitude of suppression also partly explains why it took authorities so long to piece everything together; rape wasn’t taken seriously as a crime in the ’70s (and it could be argued that it still isn’t). The stifling of women remains a massive problem today; some of the advice given to females then are still being told to women today (be careful of what you wear, don’t be too inviting, don’t park in the dark section of a parking lot, etc). Demeaning attitudes toward rape culture are still depressingly prevalent.
So yes, the series is rather dark and disturbing. But it provides an uplifting message. Due to her research, local and regional police became intrigued by the cold case. In 2018, that led to the eventual arrest of the Golden State Killer, 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo. McNamara made sure that survivors were able to tell their story without being exploited. And her own research enabled her to reflect on, and grow to understand, her own trauma. The killer once told one of his victims that he would be “gone in the darkness.” To her everlasting credit, McNamara ensured that the monster wasn’t able to slip away.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.