I'll Be Gone In the Dark: HBO adaptation of Michelle McNamara's book could reflect best and worst of true crime genre
As much cautionary tale as public service, Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone In the Dark — on the hunt for the Golden State Killer — gets the docuseries treatment courtesy HBO
"There's more than one way to lose your life to a serial killer."
In a 2013 article for Los Angeles Magazine, the writer Michelle McNamara recounts the tag line for the movie Zodiac (about the Zodiac killer). McNamara's story was about a different serial killer — a man believed responsible for over 50 rapes and at least 10 murders in California, in the 1970s and '80s. The police called him the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker (to distinguish him from the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez), or the rather prosaic acronym EAR-ONS. McNamara dubbed him the Golden State Killer.
In her LA Mag story, she used the Zodiac tagline to describe how law enforcement officials assigned to the now long cold case continued to be consumed by the hunt for the perpetrator. But it was equally — if not more — apt for McNamara, who followed the story obsessively for years, seeking clues on message boards and in old case files, in conversations with police officers and survivors and other "citizen detectives" who were equally invested in tracking down the Golden State Killer.
In 2016, about 90 percent through her book about the case — I'll Be Gone In the Dark, titled so for the threat the Golden State Killer would whisper to his victims ("Make a sound, and I'll put my knife through your throat and I'll be gone in the dark") — McNamara, 46, died of an accidental drug overdose. She had an undiagnosed heart condition, and had also been using prescription medication to fuel her late-night online crime-fighting forays.
Her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, sought the help of McNamara's researcher and fellow "citizen detective" Paul Haynes to finish the book. A few months after I'll Be Gone In the Dark was published in 2018, the police arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, 73, and named him the Golden State Killer. DeAngelo had been found via a DNA ancestry database. And while he hadn't featured on McNamara's list of suspects, the attention she brought to the case, via her popular blog True Crime Detective, her LA Mag article and I'll Be Gone In the Dark, certainly helped put it in the public consciousness.
If the launch of the book turned out to be inadvertently timely, so too was the start of the screen adaptation of the same — a six-part HBO docuseries directed by Liz Garbus. A day after work began on the docuseries was when DeAngelo was apprehended, and the release of the first episode (on 29 July in India, on Disney+Hotstar) coincided with his appearance in court, where he pled guilty to 13 counts of murder, in exchange for a life sentence. (The statute of limitations on the rape cases had passed.)
The first episode lays out McNamara's meeting with an editor at Los Angeles Magazine (Nancy Miller), and her correspondence with several citizen detectives on a message board dedicated to solving the EAR-ONS case. A survivor who was only 15 when she was raped describes in matter of fact tones how she stayed home from a school dance at the last minute because of a cold, while her parents were at a party, stuck a frozen pizza in the oven and was playing the piano in the living room when she sensed a presence next to her. It was the East Area Rapist. She gave up playing the piano after the rape; the feeling that someone was standing behind her was difficult to overcome.
Also covered in this first episode is the blossoming of the relationship between McNamara and Patton Oswalt, their marriage and family life, what she was like as an individual and how her fascination with true crime developed. Oswalt talks about how they went to their respective homes after a movie date when they'd just begun to see each other, and realised they were both watching Creature from the Black Lagoon on television that night. A video clip from the 1950s horror classic shows the female protagonist diving into the lagoon and enjoying a swim, unaware that the creature, Gill-man, is stalking her underwater all the time. The clip is used to depict McNamara and Oswalt's shared interests, but is also a stand-in for the ways in which his victims' lives would come up against the Golden State Killer's, known for lurking and observing his prey for months together before attacking them. Ultimately, it serves as a metaphor for McNamara's obsession with the case too — so close on his trail, but never quite being able to reach him.
A Guardian review for What Happened, Miss Simone?, her biopic on the legendary Nina Simone, describes director Liz Garbus' style of filmmaking as "Wikipedia-entry-as-cinema", and having seen Lost Girls, her Netflix movie on the 2010 disappearance of 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert, I can see why this is an accurate description. Garbus' forte seems to be in picking really great stories to tell, but the execution itself isn't groundbreaking or memorable. Having seen only the one episode released so far, perhaps it would be best to reserve judgement on how I'll Be Gone In the Dark will play out. A Salon review (where the journalist seems to have had access to a few more episodes) says Garbus does for true crime docuseries what In Cold Blood did for true crime non fiction books, so maybe I'll Be Gone In the Dark gets better as it proceeds. Some elements in this first episode certainly work better than others: for instance, Amy Ryan's voiceover, reading McNamara's writings on the case, strikes an off note; the best parts are when Garbus lets McNamara's story do its talking.
It's not comfortable viewing — McNamara's blog post describes her obsession with the case (and other true crime cases) as "having a (lifelong) murder habit". A reason she offered in her previous interviews and the LA Mag article and in her book was her proximity to a violent crime in her growing up years: a young woman, out on her nightly run in McNamara's neighbourhood, was murdered in an alley. McNamara found pieces of the woman's Walkman while passing by some days later; boys she knew from school discovered the woman's body minutes after the crime and called the police. It's a story she's told often, and for some reason, it reminds me of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides: about a group of boys who are fascinated by five sisters who live on their street, all of whom die within a short span of time by suicide. The boys collect whatever stray possessions of the sisters they can find, carefully guarding their collection of macabre memorabilia, trying to piece together a story of the girls that doesn't exist outside of their minds.
Those of us who consume true crime — especially cases where someone was murdered or raped or otherwise assaulted — are aware of the essentially ghoulish nature of what we're doing. There's been comment aplenty on the industry that's sprung up around true crime — not only the news articles, but the podcasts and documentaries and series and books and message boards and forums and even conventions, all of which feed off these cases. (Gillian Flynn's Dark Places delves on this industry; her protagonist, the sole survivor of a massacred family, makes money off her appearances at true crime aficionado meet-ups. So does the podcast The Clearing, where a woman who turned in her father for a string of violent crimes reexamines the accepted narratives about him.)
The best true crime chronicles seek in some way to redress past wrongs: find justice for survivors or those wrongly incarcerated, tell the stories of victims sidelined by their "celebrity" murderers/rapists, to show up all the ways in which justice and law enforcement systems routinely fail the most vulnerable, or the bunkum pseudoscience and legal loopholes that sometimes allow criminals to evade consequences. It has to go beyond being a real-life version of a horror story manipulating the audience's emotions.
McNamara's writings shone light on a case and on a perpetrator who not many seemed to be paying attention to, or whose crimes hadn't incited the level of public outrage and pushback that there should have been. The people whose lives had been impacted by his violence deserved to be seen and heard and counted. But McNamara's was also a cautionary tale. How HBO's retelling of I'll Be Gone In the Dark balances these aspects will determine its value as an addition to the conversation on true crime.
I'll Be Gone In the Dark is currently streaming on Disney + Hotstar. Watch the trailer here —
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