In the third episode of Liz Garbus’ miniseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, based on the life and work of the late crime writer Michelle McNamara, McNamara’s editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Barth, makes that inevitable comparison book people resort to when citing true-crime writing that “transcends the genre”: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. While authors have produced plenty of genuinely literary true-crime books since Capote published his celebrated 1966 “nonfiction novel,” the true-crime docuseries format has been far less blessed with artful standouts. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which bears the same title as McNamara’s posthumously published 2018 book of the same title, proves that it can be done.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (the book) recounts McNamara’s dogged investigation of a series of unsolved crimes that terrorized communities in California in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Beginning with prowling, peeping, and burglaries in the town of Visalia, the perpetrator then moved on to committing dozens of home-invasion rapes, mostly in and around Sacramento, and then 12 murders in the south. It was not until 2001 that DNA evidence revealed that the rapes and murders had been committed by the same person. And it was only this week, on Monday, that the man finally arrested for those crimes, Joseph DeAngelo, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and confirmed that he was also responsible for the Visalia crimes.
McNamara herself never lived to see him caught. She died of heart failure in her sleep in 2016. Her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, collaborated with McNamara’s research partner, Paul Haynes, and crime writer Billy Jensen to complete I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, her only book. It’s a moody, complex work built around a lacuna, what McNamara called “a supreme blankness,” that she felt leant the man she named the Golden State Killer an almost mythic power. But that absence also gave McNamara the opportunity to focus on the victims of his crimes and the communities he haunted. She brilliantly captured the blend of idyll and isolation that defined suburban California in the aftermath of the ’60s, a milieu in which the killer was deeply embedded. At Barth’s insistence, McNamara wove her own history through the book, from her childhood fascination with the unsolved murder of a neighbor to her own experiences being sexually harassed.
Garbus doesn’t so much re-create as expand on the twilight potency of McNamara’s book. In a particularly effective motif, the miniseries features brief cutaways to clips from the 1954 horror film Creature From the Black Lagoon, a favorite of McNamara’s and Oswalt’s. Sometimes the lurking, spying creature appears while a voice-over describes the killer stalking potential victims, and at other times it represents something less material: the way the case possessed McNamara, luring her away from happy times with her husband and daughter, sucking her into vortexes of nightmares and paranoia. Both became particularly bad after she and Haynes succeeded in obtaining “the Motherlode,” an enormous cache of investigative documentation, from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, including horrific crime scene photos. An autopsy revealed that McNamara died as a result of complications from prescription drug use, the extent of which nobody knew but herself. “There must have been days,” Oswalt says in an interview in the documentary, “where she thought, ‘I’ll take Adderall in the morning and take Xanax or Vicodin to get to sleep, because this is for a bigger purpose than me.’ ”
As in her wrenching dramatic adaptation of Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, an account of the unsuccessful search for the Long Island serial killer, who murdered 10 to 16 people and hid their bodies on the island’s south shore, Garbus focuses on ripples of damage that spread from a single violent event. The series (episodes of which were directed by Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury, as well as Garbus), interviews several survivors of DeAngelo’s more than 50 rapes. One, attacked at the age of 15 while playing the piano at home, was scolded by her father for even discussing the attack with a friend; in addition to the trauma of the assault, this drove a wedge between her parents and herself. The husband of a murdered woman lived under a cloud of suspicion for 20 years until DNA analysis revealed that his wife had been killed by a serial murderer. The daughter of another murder victim must live with the fact that her last interaction with her mother was a terrible argument.
All of the rape victims suffered unpredictable and lasting harm. One recalls her own reluctance to cry during interviews with the police. (The text of the crime report describes her as being “cool.”) Then she burst into tears at the death of Elvis Presley and then, 40 years later, at the announcement of DeAngelo’s arrest. In a particularly piercing series of interviews with Gay and Bob Hardwick, who were attacked during the Sacramento phase of the killer’s criminal history, Gay recalls the insensitivity of investigators, who treated her desire to cover herself as an intrusive meddling with the evidence. During this period, the killer would break into a home where a couple was sleeping, force the woman to tie up her male partner, then place a stack of dishes on the man’s body, threatening to kill the woman if he heard the dishes rattle. While Gay calmly recounts the assault, the camera cuts often to Bob’s face, on which his pain and fear at not being able to help her appears as raw as it would if the attack had happened the previous week. Later, at a gathering of survivors, the Hardwicks realize that, of all the people present, they are the only couple to remain together after being assaulted. It seems a minor miracle.
There are occasional moments of lightness too. The day when Haynes and McNamara rented two black SUVs to pick up the Motherlode at the sheriff’s office, well aware that officials could change their minds about allowing civilians to access this trove of information, is larkishly re-created as a scene from a heist movie, with Haynes in aviator shades and black high-tops. The documentarians use voicemail messages and texts between Oswalt and McNamara superimposed over tracking shots along suburban hallways or through the windows of moving cars to convey a sense of the mundane but indispensable teamwork of a contemporary marriage. As the deadline for her book looms, he texts that he sees her engaging in some of the same procrastination habits he’d found himself resorting to while writing his own book. “I keep the gas tanks full. My eye is on the laundry,” he writes. “Shower and bedtime at night, soccer on the weekend. It will get done, all of it. These next 54 hours? All you need to do is wake up in the morning, have your coffee and cereal, and write your pages.” These details might seem superfluous, but as many of the series’ interview subjects observe, the killer seemed possessed by a desire to desecrate and ruin the domestic solidarity of couples like Oswalt and McNamara.
DeAngelo’s arrest came just after the miniseries’ first day of shooting, Nancy Abraham, the co-head of HBO’s documentary and family programming, told the New York Times. The filmmakers were able to secure interviews that will fascinate close followers of the case. DeAngelo’s one-time fiancée—several victims recall him calling out her name during bizarre sobbing fits—describes the controlling and ultimately frightening behavior that led her to break up with him. DeAngelo’s nephew recounts stories his mother told him about the abuse DeAngelo and his siblings endured as children. A cousin, a much younger woman, professed complete bafflement and a “broken” heart after learning that her kindly “Uncle Joe”—who took her in for two years after she’d suffered her own sexual trauma and attempted suicide—had inflicted this unimaginable pain on so many strangers.
DeAngelo’s name was not on McNamara’s suspect list, or anyone else’s. He was tracked down using a public DNA database. Arguably, the attention McNamara’s high-profile coverage brought to the case spurred the continuing investigation, and she did make some astute educated guesses about the perpetrator’s background, such as the likelihood that he came from a military family. But most of her efforts, however creative and insightful, played no part in DeAngelo’s apprehension. This is a chastening realization that casts a shadow over the personal cost that “citizen detectives” (as the documentary identifies them) such as McNamara have paid in hunting the Golden State Killer where he never could have been found. At times McNamara herself wrote of the unsettling similarities between her zeal to capture the murderer and the killer’s own stalking behavior. But as the six sensitive, intelligent hours of this miniseries prove, McNamara was motivated by a desire for justice and a cherishing of the ordinary happiness that DeAngelo only wanted to destroy. There is no comparison.
For more culture coverage, listen to Working, Slate’s podcast about how creative people get their jobs done.