Serial killers documentaries are all the rage these days, but I remember a time when I felt embarrassed and rather guilty about my own fascination with them. It dates back as far as I can remember and always made me feel like I was a weirdo. Part of it was that when I was growing up, I shared a first name with the most famous serial killer at the time — Jeffrey Dahmer — and I remember reading about this other Jeffrey with a morbid curiosity. I recall being terrified while watching The Silence of the Lambs at a neighbor’s house when I was 9 years old, and by the time I was 11 and allowed to go to the movie theater on my own, the very first R-rated film I saw without parental supervision was Copycat. As an adult, I’ve devoured the true crime books written by former FBI profiler John E. Douglas, the co-author of Mindhunter, who I interviewed for this website last summer. All this to say that like her many fans, I could relate to the tortured mind of Michelle McNamara, the talented crime writer and gifted investigator who got so caught up in these terrible cases that she died tragically while pursuing a prolific serial killer/rapist whom she dubbed the Golden State Killer.
HBO’s new six-part docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, from Lost Girls director Liz Garbus, chronicles McNamara’s descent into the macabre world of crime blogs and chat rooms, where theories are swapped as often as grisly photos. Though the case has become known in the national media as that of the Golden State Killer, the same man went by many names around California — most notably, the East Area Rapist, or EAR for short.
The EAR started as a prowler who ransacked empty homes before moving on to risky home invasions, eventually becoming a prolific rapist. The stories from his victims will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. He often forced husbands to lie face down with dishes on their backs, promising there’d be hell to pay if he heard one of them break should the man move a muscle. When getting his rocks off was no longer enough for him, the EAR escalated again to murder, which earned him the GSK moniker, among others, including the Original Night Stalker.
Those who haven’t followed this harrowing case in real time may want to avoid reading further, but the fact that this monster was only captured following the publication of McNamara’s book is one of this story’s twisted ironies, given how elusive he proved to law enforcement over the preceding decades.
He may have narrowly escaped McNamara’s own cold stare inside of a courtroom, but she got the last laugh from beyond the grave. Just days before the series premieres on HBO, the Golden State Killer/EAR has agreed to plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. He’s an old man now, and likely to die of natural causes before the death penalty could even be enforced, but his confession is important to the survivors, as it gives them both comfort and closure. McNamara may have died in pursuit of a good night’s sleep, but thanks to her, the EAR’s victims can sleep easy now, knowing that the man who made them feel unsafe for decades will never hurt them again.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark walks a narrative tightrope, in that it isn’t just about our mothers and daughters and sisters, etc. It’s about parents, who play an awfully important role in this series. If you don’t know, McNamara was married to comedian Patton Oswalt, who is, of course, a writer himself. The two of them may have had legions of fans, but they were parents first and foremost, and by the end of this series, we know that Michelle’s legacy will live on beyond this book, which she dedicated to her father (having had a strained relationship with her own mother). As it turns out, we learn that the Golden State Killer had a rough upbringing himself. That’s not to make excuses for his behavior, but more of an armchair psychologist’s attempt to explain the unexplainable.
Oswalt emerges as an incredibly sympathetic figure here. His texts to Michelle offer frequent encouragement and support — not just as her husband, but as a fellow writer. He’s been where she is, staring down deadlines, doing anything to procrastinate and avoid writing. The difference is that comedy allowed Oswalt to confront his own demons, but I’ll Be Gone in the Dark forced Michelle to confront an actual demon, a living, breathing monster who was still out there, on the loose. She even beefed up her own security system due to recurring nightmares. And yet McNamara lived her life with a certain fearlessness that seemed to warn the bad guys that they should be the ones watching their backs for her. Whoever she would’ve turned her attention to next is the luckiest criminal ever, because McNamara was a hell of an investigative talent.
Speaking of which, Garbus is no slouch herself. The empathetic director does a remarkable job here — even the opening credits feel necessary to watch — and you really can’t underestimate the one-two punch of Lost Girls and this series for Garbus, who has gained the trust of so many people, taken their pain, and turned it into something beautiful — a testimony to female resilience, strength in numbers, and dogged determination. That Garbus is also behind the upcoming voting rights documentary about Stacey Abrams only solidifies the incredible year she’s having, which should not go unrecognized.
I’m torn as to the long-term impact I’ll Be Gone in the Dark will have. On one hand, this feels like a seminal entry in the true crime genre that gives survivors a chance to be heard. On the other, it may function best as a peek inside the lives of two married writers, as it’s those intimate moments — the texts between Melissa and Patton and the heartbreaking way this series ends — that put a lump in my throat and elevated this series into something more. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is ultimately about one family’s tremendous loss, as much as it is the collective loss felt by those who survived their attacks and found strength in each other.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a fitting title for a man like the Golden State Killer, whose name I haven’t mentioned in this piece because it is irrelevant. Michelle McNamara will never be gone, not after this series, and certainly not after her book, which will live on long after the Golden State Killer, the East Area Rapist, and whatever else you want to call him. The boogeyman is flesh and blood, and he’s behind bars now. I’m not sure what Michelle would think about that, but if you ask me, he got off easy.
In memory of Robert Offerman, Debra Manning, Charlene & Lyman Smith, Keith & Patrice Harrington, Manuela Witthuhn, Cheri Domingo, Gregory Sanchez, and Janelle Cruz.