Review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

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Photo courtesy of amazon.com.

An obsession lurks in all of us.

Michelle McNamara (1970-2016), author, screenwriter and former spouse of actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, dedicated ten years of her life trying to solve one of the most diabolical cases in California’s history involving an elusive serial killer never identified, a person she’d coin as the “Golden State Killer.” In her final masterpiece “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” published posthumously, McNamara recounts the history of this criminal mastermind.  

Mcnamara writes in the beginning of her book how “he [the killer] loses power when we know his face….his power evaporates the moment we know him.”

Perhaps no better title could be attributed to this raw and powerful book. Her lifelong fascination with true crime was sparked by a personal experience as a child, which inspired McNamara to start a blog devoted to cracking cold-cases in a DIY manner known as truecrimediary.com – a website she authored herself. Her interest in the GSK began in 2007, when she first learned of his name, then known as the East Area Rapist. She used this blog figuring out who did these crimes, rather than glorify what happened during them.

This profound work of art, however, was left unfinished halfway through completion. McNamara passed at the age of 46 in 2016 due to complications from a heart condition that was exacerbated by the use of prescription pills to treat illnesses like insomnia. Sifting through roughly 3,500 files of police reports and dozens of legal pads and notebooks, McNamara’s lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and close colleague, investigative journalist Billy Jensen, took up the responsibility of completing the work, tying up loose ends and organizing what McNamara left behind. Gillian Flynn, author, screenwriter, and friend of Mcnamara, also includes a thought-provoking introduction, along with an afterword by McNamara’s widowed husband Oswalt.  

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What makes this book so intriguing and unique, however, is not the portrayal of the killer himself, but the woman writing about him. McNamara radiates with brilliance delineating and suspending a wide spectrum of different worlds together into a single, cohesive, and focused narrative. From the minds of the killer to the author, the victims and the investigators, and the daily lives of California’s residents to the major events of the 70s and 80s, McNamara intelligently weaves an endless variety of realities together making this story come alive.

“My point is not to declare a plague but to underscore prominence in a city inhabited by tough locals and lousy with violent offenders, one predator stood out,” McNamara’s book says.

Outside of a few details not much is known about the perpetrator. McNamara’s book enlightens readers on these facts. From 1976 until 1986, a period of more than ten years, a psychopathic and mysterious serial rapist-killer terrorized an approximate 450 mile-stretch of middle-class and suburban neighborhoods, from Sacramento in the north to Dana Point in the south. A total of 50 rapes and ten murders were recorded during this time, with both men and women as murder victims.

According to the testimonies of survivors, eyewitness accounts and data collected from scientific analysis, the individual behind the attacks consistently wore a mask, was in his late teens or early to mid-twenties, wore a size nine shoe, possibly a police officer and had a type A blood. His dastardly deeds also evolved as time passed, starting out as a rapist and eventually escalating to murder. Any further information beyond this is merely guesswork.

Ultimately, this book is not fundamentally about the killer.  Instead, it provides readers with an intimate, personal, and reflective portrait into the rich mind and compassionate heart of McNamara herself.  The humanity, sensitivity and emotion put into this book from McNamara’s insight is unlike most true crime stories.

Readers are taken on a journey exploring the complexities of two minds – the monster and the sleuth; one is a force of evil, the other an agent of good. Although total opposites, both are driven by a single, insatiable compulsion: the former craves destruction while the latter creation.  One seeks to destroy the society which produced him while the other creates a story explaining the reasoning behind the perpetrator’s evil motives.

First, let’s discuss the notion of memoir and its role in this psychological thriller. As she retraces the steps of this cold-blooded murderer, McNamara subconsciously and explicitly presents an intellectual autobiography of herself, luring to the forefront her experiences growing up in Illinois.  The murder of neighbor Kathleen Lombardo as a child living here, for instance, forever changed her world.

Mcnamara writes how “when I meet people and hear where they’re from I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved crime.”

Towards the beginning of the book, McNamara notes how “this all started when I was 14. A neighbor of mine was brutally murdered. Very strange case. She was jogging close to her house: [the police] never solved it. Everyone in the neighborhood was gripped with fear and then moved on. But I never could. I had to figure out how it happened.”

This excerpt, quoted from an article published by the Notre Dame Alumni magazine, was the “sound-bite” version, according to McNamara’s words. In another passage shortly after, she describes more personally her experience involving this murder. Two days after the incident, she walked to the spot near her house where Lombardo was attacked, picking up the shattered remains of her Walkman.

“I picked them up. I felt no fear; just an electric curiosity, a current of such unexpected, searching force that I can recall every detail about the moment – the smell of newly cut grass, the chipped brown paint on the garage door,” she says in her book. “The hollow-gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me.”

Expanding on these passages is critical in understanding one unfortunate downside of this book. Because she was unable to finish it herself, these emotional, passionate and intimate details in which McNamara articulates exists only within fragmented portions of her work. In other words, only a writer such as her could have communicated these details in such a way. Chapters in which the editor informs readers at the beginning how the subsequent information was pieced together segment by segment from various drafts or notes is a sad reminder of the lost goldmine of intuition in which McNamara could have offered.  

“What her words evoked was the intrigue, the curiosity, the compulsion, to solve a puzzle and resolve the soul-chilling black spots. But there were parts of the story that Michelle had no completed,” writes the editors. “We laid out what she had finished. She had a nuance that one doesn’t normally encounter in true crime…Michelle was writing a nonfiction book that couldn’t be replicated.”

The editors, therefore, are at least explicit as to how each chapter was compiled, written, and organized. Plus, since it was finished by a close colleagues, it seems as if they knew exactly what McNamara would have envisioned. Although the autobiography dimension can never be recovered, the team of editors responsible for its completion certainly knew the importance of continuing to generate compelling narratives of the individuals taking part in this tragic story.

In other words, knowing McNamara’s perspective outside of what’s written is impossible – the editors fully realize this, but manage to the best of their ability. In the end, the product satisfies what’s originally intended: a story about people either coping or eliminating the threat imposed by calculating darkness. The editors finished the book with complete honesty and fairness.

The names of the victims, at times, become a bit overwhelming, not to mention the horrific violence coming along with it. What makes the book, however, not only endurable but riveting, is how this story is told. The focus lies not with the murderer or his gruesomeness, but on the everyday stories of the lives who suffered through them. McNamara gives readers a fair picture of who these people were right up to their final moments.

“I’ve always thought the least appreciated aspect of a great true-crime writer is humanity,” Flynn writes. “Michelle McNamara had an uncommon ability to get into the minds of not just killers, but the cops who hunted them, the victims they destroyed, and the trail of grieving relatives left behind.”

“What interested her, what sparked her mind and torqued every neuron and receptor, were people,” Patton Oswalt writes.  

It’s almost a way of honoring their deaths, showing us what kind up people they were and the lives they lived – which is also the most frightening aspect about this book: these people were mostly your average, common and normal citizens of every day American society. The message is clear: the same could happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere. We could all potentially become victims or at least part of the tragedy.  

Lastly, McNamara transfixes readers with not just glimpses into the minds of the killer, victims and investigators, including herself, but also the world around them which shaped the dynamic in which this story transpired.  As she resurrects the activities of two Californian offenders from the 1970s, both long forgotten and having no connection – the Early Bird Rapist and the Ransacker – McNamara exposes the high crime rates of this period.

“Many retired cops I talk to, from Sacramento but other places too, uniformly recall 1968 to 1980 as a particularly grim period,” McNamara says in her book.  

“Taxi Driver,” directed by Martin Scorsese and released on February of 1976, represents an encapsulation of the violence this time exhibited. Although McNamara is no historian, she recognizes how context determines the way in which societies act out their lives. Individuals are, at least somewhat, products of their society. The time between 1968 and 1980 signified a conjunction between a withering generation birthing into a new one – a decade rocked with violence, drugs, and the counterculture movement.  Vietnam lingered on the back of everyone’s mind. A result of 60s idealism combined with 70s cynicism, McNamara elucidates on the development of a “predator’s paradise” in the post-war Californian suburbs.

Out of this atmosphere a killer was born, whose crimes became very real and spread fear, paranoia and terror across California’s communities. By 1977, for instance, before his tactics intensified to include murder, he averaged two rapes per month.  The killer detested seemingly everything in which surrounded him: the idea of a nuclear family, the changing nature of the society around him, and the revolutionary ideas brought through counterculture – this was a way from him to control what he viewed as increasingly uncontrollable world. McNamara does a spectacular job in capturing how this individual represents the times around him.  The reader could learn as much about policing, science and California’s history as much about the killer and author herself. It is mind-blowing how much can be found in this one book alone.

It’s no easy stomaching some aspects of this book. No doubt is this subject dark, intense and heavy, not for people unfamiliar with this genre of writing or sensitive to the triggering details. Still, those who are fans not just of this writing but McNamara’s works also will be left more than satisfied. The story still continues – the hunt has only begun to enter a new phase.

“We will not stop until we get his name,” concludes the editors. It is a hope we can all imagine.   

4.5/5

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