I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I know, this is a docu-series, not a movie. But I’m desperate to talk about it. This is why I finally cashed in the free HBO Max trial I got when I bought Birds of Prey (30 days instead of the usual 7). I’d been generally aware of the events this series covers, but the more praise I heard for it, the more I needed to watch it. In six episodes, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark chronicles the crimes and eventual capture of The Golden State Killer. What makes this story stand out in the genre, and makes it truly special is that the focus of the story isn’t the murderous psycopath. The focus is on Michelle McNamara, the true crime writer who pieced together decades worth of evidence against this killer to tell his full story (and more importantly, the victims’ stories) and ultimately brought on his downfall.

The reason I’d first heard about this case is beloved comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. He was married to McNamara until her sudden and unexpected death in 2016. I’ve been a big fan of his for years. His stand up special Annihilation, where he speaks candidly about her death and the aftermath for himself and their daughter is one of the best I’ve ever seen. (Why is it that the best stand up specials aren’t the ones that make you laugh the most, but the ones that touch on the darkest and toughest subjects? See also: Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette). His Twitter feed is one of my favorites to follow, and he still speaks often and fondly of Michelle. It’s from his crusade to carry on her legacy that I learned just what that legacy was. When I’d heard that it was being told in this series, I needed to watch it.

The plan was three episodes on Mon night and three on Tue night. That’d mean I could get one in with dinner after work. Break for yoga. Then two more episodes. Repeat the next night. I wasn’t even ten minutes into the first episode when I thought screw yoga, we’re plowing thru. Even though I knew the broad strokes, I had to know all the details immediately. By the third episode, I was calculating how much past my bedtime I’d need to stay up to finish in one go. I was so stressed out and scared, there was no way I could put myself thru a second night. One hour late was acceptable. Besides, I prolly wasn’t gonna be able to sleep tonight after some of the things I’d heard.

The split into the episodes is a bit of a blur since I went thru it so fast. Before he was known as the Golden State Killer (a term I believe McNamara coined), he was EAR/ONS. East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker. EAR came from his time in Sacramento in the 70’s, where he committed 50 rapes (an unfathomably high number) that escalated with each event. He began with lone women and progressed to holding couples hostage for the extra challenge I guess. He left Sacramento and later appeared in Santa Barbara, this time progressing to full on murdering his victims. After one final kill in 86, he vanished without a trace.

McNamara began her investigation in the mid-late aughts. She had a true crime blog where she would post musings on various unsolved crimes, working together with friends and followers to gather information. She was drawn to the EAR/ONS events and was able to help definitively tie those events together to a single suspect. After writing some well received magazine articles on the subject, she began working on a book. She was never able to finish it. McNamara had gotten so deep down the rabbit hole, she was convinced she could solve the murders with just a little more time and effort. Unfortunately, being in that deep had detrimental effects on her health, including nightmares that kept her up at night. She died in her sleep from an accidental overdose on the pills that she depended on to keep her going. Her collaborators completed the book two years later, and within months he was captured.

Heh okay maybe I’ve given too many details on the story itself, but it’s so fascinating. And basically everything I’ve stated, I already knew when I started watching. The series talks to the surviving victims, McNamara’s collaborators, Patton Oswalt, various police officers, and so many other people who were tied in to this horrific story. But it’s really that investigation and the woman behind it that are the truly most fascinating part. Also fascinating was looking at what a different world California was in the 70’s. Thankfully so much of what made it possible for EAR/ONS to get away with years of crimes isn’t as much of a factor today. That little bit of solace is prolly how I was able to get to sleep that night.

Also helpful, completely unrelated, but a couple days after, my building manager came by and said they were installing an extra security door on my unit. The idea was to be able to open the old door for fresh air coming thru the new metal gate. I was just grateful for one more set of locks between me and the outside world.