Reclaiming Power Through Humanity: On Michelle McNamara and “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

By Kristen KittscherSeptember 17, 2018

Reclaiming Power Through Humanity: On Michelle McNamara and “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

“I THINK YOU BAILED when the world began to change,” writes journalist Michelle McNamara in an imagined letter to the Golden State Killer in the epilogue of her true crime memoir, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. She is offering a hypothesis to explain why the psychopath who had terrorized California communities throughout the state from 1974 to 1986 — committing at least 46 rapes and 12 murders — abruptly stopped. “Memories fade. Paper decays,” she writes after cataloging the many ways past policing limitations had hampered the hunt for one of the most prolific serial rapists and killers in modern history. “But technology improves.”

Technology does indeed improve. As McNamara and others had guessed, the key to the killer’s ultimate capture lay in familial DNA databases. In uncanny timing, on April 25 — just two months after I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s release and subsequent rocketing to the top of the New York Times best-seller list — authorities hauled in the suspect that had eluded them for over 30 years. Thanks to a complex process involving an open-source DNA database and time-consuming genealogical analysis, investigators were eventually able to zero in on Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., a 72-year-old former police officer who had lived in the same Sacramento suburb for over 30 years. While a jury has yet to determine his guilt, the odds are astronomically against him. Not only did analysis of his publicly discarded DNA result in a 100 percent match — a one in 400 trillion chance — but the details of his life also appear to square exactly with the locations of the crimes and other reported specifics. A judge has recently also allowed the prosecution to order fingerprints and additional DNA, not to mention anatomical photographs to determine whether he possesses the “physical abnormality” described by his surviving victims: an exceptionally small penis.

It’s hard to imagine a capture more emblematic of this particular cultural moment of reckoning: an aging dinosaur of a predator is finally brought down by the advances of a new age — humiliated in the process, whether by way of potted plant or micro-penis. For Harvey Weinstein et al, the scale of atrocity and the modus operandi were obviously more modest, but it’s still easy to discern similarities in the rough outline of misogyny and sexual predation. And, it’s easy, too, to see a ready hero in hard-charging armchair detective Michelle McNamara, who — it is only the slightest stretch to say — died in pursuit of the monster responsible for such a wide swath of devastation.

While officials in Sacramento were quick to assert that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark did not contribute to the capture of Joseph DeAngelo, McNamara’s work certainly raised the public profile of the long-cold case — and thus very probably also heightened the pressure to solve it. A true crime junkie back before “binge-watching” and “podcasts” were words let alone catalysts for full-blown true crime addiction, McNamara brought her hobby armchair-sleuthing out of the shadows in 2006 with the launch of her blog True Crime Diary, a place for fellow amateur detectives to swap leads and crowdsource clues to help solve cold cases. However, nothing consumed her attention more than the case of the at-large brutal serial rapist and murderer then known by the cumbersome moniker East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker, or “EAR/ONS.” Surprised that a predator more prolific than the Zodiac Killer was not well known outside of law enforcement circles, McNamara rebranded him with the much more media-friendly “Golden State Killer” nickname — a step she had mixed feelings about, considering it aggrandized him. However, the angle worked. Potential leads poured in as the crimes and victims received much more press over the next years — including a 2013 piece in Los Angeles Magazine written by McNamara herself that would become the basis for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

In a tragic twist, Michelle McNamara’s unexpected death in her sleep in April 2016 garnered even more attention for the case. Not only did McNamara’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, share her investigative efforts with his millions of Twitter followers and fans, but more importantly, he recruited researcher Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen to complete her partially finished manuscript by piecing together her copious handwritten notes, tentative hypotheses, interview transcripts, and roughly 3,500 separate computer files.

The resulting book secures McNamara’s legacy as a virtuoso crime writer while also bucking the conventions of the genre. The account’s necessarily fragmented nature may be jarring, but its juxtaposition of case facts with personal notes and reflection is also one of its greatest strengths. Had Michelle McNamara merely completed a comprehensive look at the Golden State Killer’s crimes in order to generate more investigative leads, the book would have been rendered obsolete the instant that DeAngelo was arrested. Instead, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a timeless, personal memoir about a woman’s obsessive hunt for justice as well as a moving, fully realized portrait of the killer’s victims, their families, and the army of heroic detectives who tirelessly pursued a predator for many decades.

Michelle McNamara steers clear of the lurid sensationalism that can prevail in the true crime genre. Other crime narratives can sometimes elevate killers, lending them an almost mythic status. McNamara’s depth of empathy for the Golden State Killer’s victims puts them at the center of the story instead. Moreover, the intimacy of her narrative voice combined with her well-chosen details never allow us a safe, voyeuristic vantage point from which to observe the horrors she describes. She weaves in a casual mention of a victim’s copy of Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior on his nightstand. A daughter’s personal calendar empty for the month except for reminders of her dead parents’ birthday. A surviving boyfriend who recalls his girlfriend dismissing a sound from the garage as a washing machine. Michelle McNamara never lets us forget the scope of the killer’s sadism and the lives he destroyed. It’s a terrifying world to be thrust into — but it’s also an oddly refreshing counterpoint to the murder-as-light entertainment vibe of current podcasts and streaming docuseries.

McNamara’s prose is striking yet unfussy. In one prescient moment, she pegs the killer as someone who “strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.” The hard-working detectives she meets “smell vaguely of soap […] excel at eye contact and have enviable posture” while they “maintain a pleasant but vigorous blankness.” The book is replete with similarly efficient yet evocative descriptions.

McNamara is especially adept at infusing the narrative with the specific atmosphere of 1970s and ’80s California, evoking disco clubs, muscle cars, and hot summer days at the beach along with the hopeful promise of the residents of tract homes in impeccably planned subdivisions. Her descriptions are worth savoring. Stories of growing up in 1970s Sacramento are a “tangle of sweet and scary, small-town postcards with foreboding on the back.” She walks us down “ochre-colored carpeted hallway[s]” and reminds us of the Jack LaLanne gyms, Tiffany chandeliers, huarache sandals, and the trademark “surfer bounce” of Santa Barbara teens headed to the beach.

Throughout, one gets a sense of the crushing burden that weighed upon McNamara as she simultaneously attempted to catalog the immense scope of the killer’s brutality and to distill a body of detective work in hopes it could generate more case breakthroughs. When she describes the scream that is “permanently lodged” in her throat after living and breathing the horrific details of the killer’s crimes for so long, her unexpected death is suddenly made somehow more comprehensible, given the nights of insomnia and the all-consuming nature of her obsession. The narrative is punctuated with descriptions of her own fraying nerves. She’s “jittery from sugar, hunger, and spending too much time alone in the dark.” Her eyes are “stripped by computer glare and as devoid of moisture as if they’d been vacuumed clean by an airplane toilet.” These details add an eerie poignancy to the book.

It can be very hard to read — both because we know exactly where McNamara’s obsession led and because she is so skilled at transferring that permanent scream in her throat to ours as she pulls us into the dark maze of grisly specifics — specifics all the more chilling now that we know a former police officer is in custody. The attacker always wore a ski mask and woke his victims by shining a blinding flashlight in their eyes. He surveilled victims at length before pouncing, familiarized himself with the layout of homes, disabled porch lights, cut phone lines — and sometimes even hid pre-cut rope or shoelaces under cushions in the house to use as ligatures. While at first his victims were women home alone, he graduated to targeting middle-class couples, taking particular pleasure in forcing men to witness his assault while tied up nearby, a pile of dishes laid on their back to serve as a makeshift alarm in case they attempted a rescue.

Nevertheless, McNamara always guides us through the appalling facts like a gentle professor, pausing for breath in between cataloging crime details to effortlessly explain DNA typing techniques or the geographical peculiarities of Sacramento. While of course many chapters covering possible theories about the killer’s profile are now irrelevant — something that might be revised in future editions — it is still interesting to spot where McNamara’s hypotheses hit close to the truth. Her mind “keeps circling back to the image of a man in a uniform […] an everyday worker whose presence signals that everything is running smoothly.” A hastily scribbled note Haynes and Jensen include reads, “Figure out a way to submit DNA to 23andMe or” One chilling paragraph focuses on Sacramento Sheriff’s Department officer Richard Shelby’s belief the killer was in law enforcement, given his m.o. of wearing gloves and parking outside the standard police perimeter — not to mention the fact a potential victim swore she had heard a police radio outside her window before authorities had arrived. 

Far from being a liability, the patchwork structure of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark transforms it into a fascinating metanarrative that explores the nature of true crime obsession itself. Hayne and Jensen’s editorial asides about Michelle McNamara’s revised opinions and tentative hypotheses — along with McNamara’s own self-reflective interjections — combine to create a case study of what compels the true crime aficionados among us. “How much our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior […] of the one we seek,” McNamara admits, pinpointing an uncomfortable truth about herself as well as her likely readers. She describes her state of “research rapture” as her late-night online investigating provides steady dopamine hits, and she reminds us that rats prefer to seek food rather than be given it. However, she amusingly reflects with exhaustion at one point: “I’m envious […] of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained.” The rest of us true crime addicts can relate. Better yet, the fact that such a seemingly kind and sensitive soul as McNamara shares our macabre compulsion can put our minds at ease.

The portrait of McNamara that emerges in I’ll Be Gone also reminds us that true crime aficionados are predominately female — a fact we could likely intuit even without the several studies that confirm it. Women’s entertainment network Oxygen even recently decided to change its entire format to focus exclusively on true crime stories. That nonfiction crimes stories grip women most is hardly surprising given that the genre focuses overwhelmingly on violence against women — and that more than 70 percent of serial killers’ victims are female. It is unclear whether women are immersing themselves in nonfiction crime stories as a sort of rehearsal in the event they themselves are attacked, or if they are attempting to fathom the depths of hatred directed toward them — or perhaps both.

McNamara’s own interest in crime was sparked by the grisly murder of a young woman in her hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, when McNamara was 14. The image of adult McNamara slipping away from grudging appearances at her husband’s work events or stealing time after her daughter’s bedtime to hunt a killer — her investigative notes scattered near stuffed animals and crayon drawings — makes her an especially relatable and fitting heroine for the times. With a sexual predator installed in the highest office and the United States’s most beloved television dad unmasked as a serial rapist, McNamara represents a perfect antidote to a cultural strain of toxic masculinity that pervades US culture. The breathtaking scale of the Golden State Killer’s crimes — and the staggering amount of time he has remained unpunished — seem to serve as a stand-in for an even more sweeping scope of predation against women in general.

Early in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara suggests her interest in crime stems from a need to reclaim power over evil. “He loses his power when we know his face,” she writes, generalizing about attackers. But what she couldn’t know is that her book would represent an even greater triumph: it is McNamara, brimming with heart and relentless in her quest for her justice, who is far more compelling than her sad-sack subject could ever be. Her self-deprecating wit, her intelligence, fearlessness, and her empathy shine through, serving as the perfect counterpoint to the depravity she describes. She reclaims power through the sheer force of her humanity and heart.

If only we all had that superpower. We could use it these days.


Kristen Kittscher is a former middle school English teacher and the author of mysteries for young readers.

LARB Contributor

Kristen Kittscher is a former middle school English teacher and author of mysteries for young readers. Her debut novel, The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s) garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was named to 10 “Best of the Year” lists. The 2014 James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence and a graduate of Brown University, Kristen frequently presents at schools, libraries, and festivals. She lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade — the inspiration for her most recent novel, The Tiara on the Terrace.


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