I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the gripping true crime drama you may have missed
HBO's docuseries detailing Michelle McNamara’s obsessive hunt for the Golden State Killer has added a bonus episode after it was initially released in 2019. It highlights just how gripping the series truly was to watch.
It’s rare to see true crime written with the sensitivity that writer Michelle McNamara has brought to the genre. So often, we see true crime handled the wrong way. In which it makes serial killer Ted Bundy as infamous as a scandal-riddled rockstar, leaving his 30-plus female victims no more than blurred photos on a screen.
Shock value can take precedence when it comes to crime, particularly those of unsolved mysteries; as if honing in on a horrific death makes a case more solvable. It doesn’t and it rarely leaves the victims with the dignity they deserve.
She became fixated on the case, a series of at least 50 rapes and 13 murders committed by a then-unknown assailant who broke into people’s homes in northern California in the 1970s and 80s. Why, she pondered, had this case not gotten the coverage that say, Son of Sam had? There were twice as many victims. Her intrigue, turned to an obsession-like resolve to not only write about it but to solve it as well.
She was both detective and journalist, following up on leads, searching for new ones, combing through over 40 boxes of evidence to try to find the killer.
It was first about the story, then it became a book, but it was, above all, a dedication; a declaration of commitment and solidarity with the victims, in particular the women, who never had closure and decades later still felt the effects of the crime reverberate through their lives.
Her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search For the Golden State Killer is the result of her tireless pursuit of justice. In a tragic twist, she passed away suddenly in 2016, just as she was on the brink of cracking the case, and it was finished posthumously by her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, her research partner, Paul Haynes, and the crime writer Billy Jensen.
McNamara’s work was more than an engrossing read; it was vital to the investigation, and she was responsible for rebranding the man originally known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker as the Golden State Killer, in an effort to reignite interest and truly re-open the case.
A shift in the genre
She does what the recent Sophie du Plantier Netflix documentary did so well – shifts to victim first story-telling. Forgoing the gory details, she sensitively tells us of the lives of the victims. Those lost, the ruin left behind, those left without their mother, father, sister, brother. It centers on the victims and the ways in which they were failed by a victim-blaming culture. Rape in the 1970s was not taken seriously as a crime.
Until 2001, when DNA evidence proved that the murders and rapes were connected, the East Area Rapist case was largely forgotten. There are the stories of the survivours throughout the documentary and while the stories told are heavy, the images are not triggering. The screen is littered with the lives the killer forever changed and took away. It’s all dealt with a sensitivity we did not see before it as she challenged the view that these were simple assaults – they were interconnected, there was a pattern.
Michelle sought not to make this killer infamous, but to give him a face – he always hid behind a ski mask – and thus, render him powerless.
Often compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it’s an apt description of her writing – I’ve never read true crime as poetic.
“One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk.
The doorbell rings.
No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.
This is how it ends for you.
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.
Open the door. Show us your face.
Walk into the light.”
And he now has a face and a name: Joseph James DeAngelo pleaded guilty to the murders and admitted dozens of sexual assaults on 29 June 2020.
The series makes for utterly compelling viewing. Watch it – but not alone in the dark – and be sure to devour Michelle’s book afterward.