I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
By Michelle McNamara
Harper, 352 pages
The Golden State Killer is still out there.
He was never arrested and he never turned himself in. He simply disappeared. But before that, between 1976 and 1986, he preyed on middle-class neighbourhoods throughout California where he broke into homes, terrorized couples who lived there, committed at least 50 sexual assaults, and eventually turned to murder in what investigators can only assume was to better cover his tracks. He was a nameless, faceless rapist who tortured his victims and waged psychological warfare on those he preyed on and those who were afraid they would be next. And then one day, the attacks stopped.
None of this would be the subject of current discussion without the work of the late Michelle McNamara, an investigative force we lost cruelly and suddenly in April, 2016, at only 46.
Fellow true crime obsessives know her work well: As the founder of TrueCrimeDictionary.com, McNamara’s gift for writing and for details made her voice one that felt safe to follow, one that assured readers that despite the darkness we’d inevitably wade into, we wouldn’t be left to sift through it alone. She was funny, she was brilliant and she was relentless in her research. And perhaps most importantly, she kept her work free of salaciousness and sensationalism. Someone else’s tragedy never felt like entertainment; it was never presented as ours to gawk at and claim as our own.
So it’s no surprise that McNamara’s posthumous masterpiece, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is a testament to her generous way of storytelling. She details the horrors committed at the hands of the Golden State Killer, the evolution (and dissolution) of the investigation and the effects he left on the communities struck. McNamara takes us on a journey that quickly becomes all-consuming – and not just for those of us peering in. It becomes all-consuming for her too, particularly as she travels and loses sleep and reads and rereads and interviews and reinterviews and never, ever stops. All in the name of uncovering the truth.
At the time of her passing, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was still unfinished, consisting of legal pads full of notes, books that were part of her research and file upon file of related information. As a result, a few of the chapters make sure to note that they’re the outcome of research found and have been sewn together by those who knew, loved and admired her work. But the book is still by no means impersonal. Instead, it’s a testament to McNamara’s impact: both the one she has on us as readers and the one she left on those whose paths she crossed. (Which is especially made evident in the chapter that follows the one she last wrote, both in the contrast between her writing style and that of her colleagues and in the words of admiration they reserve for her.)
Because the thing is, as well as McNamara understood true crime, she understood why so many of us are obsessed with it just as much. She recognized that our fixations are connected to something tangible, even tragic: that some of us (hello) use it to make sense of death or of the worst parts of humanity. Or that others (hi again) embrace it as a control mechanism, as we tell ourselves in vain that knowledge means we’re protected. We know this because McNamara shares her own source of true crime passion: the murder of a young woman in her childhood neighbourhood. A crime that remains unsolved to this day.
Which is also what makes I’ll Be Gone in the Dark so special. On top of the facts (and believe me, they are countless), it’s a generous glimpse into McNamara’s own psyche and the toll it can take to be so tireless. She details the relationship she shared with her late mother, the understanding between her and her husband, Patton Oswalt (who very much supported her work to find the Golden State Killer), and the love she had for her own daughter, Alice. She reminds us, through her book, that our obsessions can spill out beyond our own hearts and minds and lead us to kindred spirits. But she also reminds us (especially through the account of a night spent reading case files amidst the backdrop of a stranger’s wedding), that our obsessions can make us feel isolated and alone.
So, while I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is an incredible look into the hunt for a serial rapist and murderer, it’s also a front row seat to better understanding human nature. It’s a look into the way we interact with our neighbours, the way we try and protect ourselves and what we’re willing to do to learn the truth. It’s a gateway into the relationships we form, the way we understand strangers based on shared obsessions and how who we were as children explains how we are as adults. It is smart, it is warm and it is too quickly finished. It is also the stark reminder that we lost a brilliant mind and incredible woman far, far too soon.
Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares, to be published in September.