I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: The price of pursuing endeavours that nourish us — and diminish us

I'll Be Gone in the Dark is a psychological portrait of an artist. Its emotional hook lies not so much in the investigation involving the Golden State Killer as Michelle McNamara’s journey from true-crime blogger to full-time author.

Rahul Desai August 06, 2021 14:55:43 IST
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: The price of pursuing endeavours that nourish us — and diminish us

Image via Facebook/HBO

The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.

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Over the last fortnight, US gymnast Simone Biles and English cricketer Ben Stokes did the impossible – by refusing to do the impossible anymore. They became the latest high-profile names to hit the pause button due to mental health reasons. Twenty-four-year-old Biles withdrew from all but one of her Olympic events. Stokes opted to take an indefinite break from cricket on the eve of England’s Test series against India. The two followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old Japanese tennis player who pulled out of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon citing mental health issues. Osaka, Biles and Stokes don’t owe anyone an explanation. But there’s no denying that sports is having a moment.

On the one hand, these withdrawals are tangible symbols of an imminent mental health crisis.

While the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic is measured by the finality of loss, its legacy will be rooted in the psychological tariff of survival.

It had to be the athletes. They’re trained to be extraordinary – the closest thing to superheroes – but the last year has forced them to embrace the ordinary. The pandemic has reduced them to mortals, thereby demonetising the cultural currency of their identity. In the Netflix docu-series on Osaka, we see her pondering about who she is if not a good tennis player. This awakening to a world beyond their bubble is evident in their awakening to themselves. On the other hand, this pandemic is only the messenger of a letter that was being written for decades. Before Osaka, Biles and Stokes, there were others: 1980s tennis icons Pat Cash and Yannick Noah, English batsmen Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick, swimming legend Ian Thorpe, and recently, all-rounder Glenn Maxwell. A common theme marks their struggles: success.

These are remarkable athletes who’ve won enough to confront the void beyond. The shock that greets their decisions is defined by our inability to accept their “right” to feel empty. It’s easy to forget that champions earn the privilege of asking a difficult question: Now what?

It’s lonely at the top – but this is a loneliness only a handful of individuals merit the agony of feeling. Yet, a lot of their candour can be lost in translation.

While it’s important to laud their courage for being the faces of human expression, it’s equally essential to understand that pressure is not an elite emotion. We get so caught up in romanticising the fears of the best that we fail to recognise the tears of the rest. It’s lonely at the top, but it’s also crowded in the middle. Other difficult questions do exist. Can the ordinary afford the luxury of respite? Is pain meant to be channeled or treated?

As a writer who regularly grapples with the invisibility of purpose, I found answers in an unlikely source. I recently watched I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a docu-series about a blogger obsessed with the unsolved case of an American serial killer. I was riveted from the very first frame – not so much because it features the hunt for the infamous Golden State Killer, but because the perspective of a writer is what shapes the narrative of the seven-part series. The emotional hook of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark lies not so much in the investigation itself as Michelle McNamara’s journey from true-crime blogger to full-time author. It juxtaposes McNamara’s deep-dive into the case with the anatomy of her research: a series of rapes in 1970s California, the social stigmas faced by the survivors, the detectives and dead ends. History is scrutinised through the lens of McNamara’s personality: her attention to detail, her fanatical scouring of archival reports, her envisioning of the attacks.

All said and done, this is a psychological portrait of an artist; the art is striking, but incidental. It felt reassuring to see a self-taught writer grow in confidence and realise her talent. It felt thrilling to see a late bloomer shed her inhibitions – including her identity as “wife of Hollywood comedian Patton Oswalt” – and wade into the uncharted waters of professional writing. It felt inspiring to watch McNamara impress publishers with her disarmingly intimate literary style. McNamara puts a lot of herself – her feelings, her gaze, her nerves and nagging instincts – into her pieces, inviting readers to encounter the procedural maze through her head. You feel her giddiness when her pitch gets approved by Los Angeles Magazine. And subsequently, when her long-form story, In The Footsteps of a Killer, goes viral and triggers a surprise book deal. It’s the perfect underdog arc – a career finding its person rather than vice versa.

I wasn’t aware of Michelle McNamara before the series. I found a kindred soul in her: the self-doubt, the late blooming, the personal style, the all-or-nothing language. To say McNamara’s death stunned me, then, would be a gross understatement. In the fourth episode, her mental fatigue gradually dawns upon the viewer. The investigator-by-day and author-by-night life takes its toll, even as the looming deadline intensifies her writing. She dies of an accidental overdose. Nobody saw it coming. The next episode reveals the signs we missed – the introversion, the social anxiety, the history of depression, the candle burning at both ends. Her loved ones knew of her prescription pill problem, but perhaps her unerring drive diluted their perception of her pain.

Michelle’s untimely demise broke my heart, but it got me thinking. So many fields of life fetishise the notion of suffering. You must suffer to create, to win the marathon, to clear the bar, to finish that bestseller. While the head and body of athletes divide the suffering, writing is purely a contest of mental acrobatics. Demons are encouraged, dysfunctionality is harnessed, eyes are squeezed dry to put words on water. It seems perverse that whenever I’m in trouble, my first thought revolves around whether I can write about it. I jot down my feelings in the hope that an idea ties them together. That’s the conditioning – to prey on your own remains, to replenish your wounds and bleed on paper. McNamara put so much of herself into her pages that she vanished. She wasn’t around to see her own coming-of-age story culminate in a happy ending. The Golden State Killer is captured; her book is completed and released to posthumous acclaim.

Was it then feasible for someone like Michelle to pause? Easier said than done. The process that dismantled her was also the process that nourished her. Her pressures were different. She was not at the top. But she was making up for lost time. She was also shouldering the desire to revolutionise the art of investigative non-fiction. And she plunged into the ocean the moment she could smell it.

I’ve long been a subconscious subscriber of this deal. I found my calling so late that my mental health has simply become a device to fuel my craft. I am prolific because I spent years accumulating the hunger to be understood. I take up impossible assignments because there’s no podium to validate me. I didn’t know any of this was unhealthy – until that fourth episode. I had no idea this was a form of self-abuse – until Michelle McNamara’s final draft was incomplete.

When I now watch our athletes convey to the world that it’s okay to hold your own hand, it feels strangely humbling. So it’s okay to stop chasing and start walking? It’s okay to be vulnerable? The message is noble and necessary. But I wonder if it can apply to people like us. I wonder if my everyman emptiness can afford to wear the cape of their superhuman emptiness. Taking a break, for instance, would mean forsaking an income. It would also mean forsaking the opportunity to reach a stage where I can consider taking a break. Most of all, it would mean resting a mind trained to milk its mayhem. Healing, too, can be injurious to health. Because the brutal truth is: Some of us get lost in the dark so that we can reclaim the joy of finding ourselves.

When Simone Biles arrived at the Tokyo Olympics, she was expected to sweep her events. A silver medal was not an option. But the bronze she won in the balance beam final – the only event she competed in – is now worth its weight in gold. It is, impossibly, the greatest triumph of her life. As a beaming Biles stepped onto the podium, all I could think was: Can I write about this?

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