Television

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark S.1 E.5 “Monsters Recede But Never Vanish” – Recap & Review

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“You know, you never expected that, your baby sister to pass before you or anyone else in the family,” Maureen Stratton, Michelle’s sister, says. She points out that there was a history of addiction on both sides of the family, mentioning some time their father spent in rehab for alcohol.

Bob McNamara, Michelle’s brother, discusses a family history of depression. We’re shown a familiar photo: Michelle and her mother at the beach together. As Bob discusses this familial connection, the photo shifts to one of Michelle and Alice, also with the water at their backs, grinning broadly. 

We learn  that after Alice was born, Michelle lived with postpartum depression. Having a daughter reminded her of her fraught relationship with her own mom, who had passed away just as they were beginning to heal. She says how, holding Alice, she, “Got it…the love that guts you.” We watch Michelle cradle baby Alice as she describes, in a diary entry from 1993, how there are “moments of light and happiness…but they don’t stay.”

Kera Bolonik, an author and childhood friend of Michelle’s, mentions being aware of Michelle’s depression as they were growing up.“When you’re writing a book,” she adds, “all you think about is whatever you’re writing about…but then, how to shut off that darkness? I honestly don’t know how she lived the horror of that, day after day.” 

“I remember thinking that it was the case,” says Michelle’s sister Kathleen Conroy, remembering her reaction to hearing about Michelle’s death. “I could not wrap my head around the fact that she could just die in her sleep.” As the whole of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has demonstrated, Kathleen wasn’t entirely wrong.

“How often do you think of him?” Michelle says in a recording, quoting a question she is often asked. “What can I say? The truth is all the time. When I climb the stairs to my bedroom. When I’m folding laundry. The truth? Too much.” 

Michelle’s passing came as a shock, for all the reasons that the death of a healthy forty-six-year-old should. But there was also another reason it seemed so impossible, articulated by My Favorite Murder podcast host Karen Kilgariff:

“Of course nobody expected it, but you really don’t expect it when someone is in the midst of something like that…she was on this very public journey…And then just a sudden loss. Like a shocking stop.”

There’s something unbearable about that much unfinished business. So she reached out to Patton, offering her help with finishing the book. He answered, “We’re already on it.” 

Courtesy of HBO

“When I learned she died,” says Paul Haynes, “it was so painful, I felt like I was damaging my body. And then I was contacted by one of Michelle’s friends with respect to the boxes.”

The boxes, meaning the thirty-seven evidence containers constituting “the Motherlode,” which Paul and Michelle had “heisted” out of the Santa Ana EAR/ONS evidence room. “My commitment was to ensuring that the many hours she’d spent working on this case weren’t futile.”

Michelle’s agent and editor, Daniel Greenberg and Jennifer Barth, searched through their computers and pulled together the manuscript pages they’d received from Michelle so far. Billy Jensen, a true crime writer and friend of Michelle’s also joined the team to finish the book.

Paul Holes discusses the pain of losing Michelle, and the looming presence of the GKC case, in the same breath. “When she died, the emotional blow was like the loss of a family member…and then there was the case. And I just lost my investigative partner.”

Paul Haynes, Billy Jensen, and Paul Holes, all investigators-turned-friends who dedicated themselves to finishing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, did it because they loved Michelle–and because they were like Michelle. They were as chafed by the idea that this work would go unfinished as she would have been, and likely also would have been frustrated to see their own contributions languish in a forgotten computer file. 

Michelle had been heavily invested in the idea that uploading the GKC’s genetic profile to a database like 23andMe would be bound to yield a clue. “I feel like he’s gotta be related to someone,” she insisted. 

After she passed away, Paul Holes obtained enough GKC DNA to pursue the theory. He reached out to Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogist. Together, they reverse-constructed family trees based on the information from an online genetics database, until they were able to narrow their suspect pool.

At the same time, the FBI publicly emphasized their continuing search for the killer. Paul Holes says their announcement can be “directly attributed” to the attention that Michelle’s work on the case was getting in the wake of her death. “There was momentum within agencies recognizing that we needed to get this done.” 

Photograph Courtesy of HBO

As Barbara and Paul narrowed down their genetic research, Barbara searched newspaper articles. Her eye caught on one about a police officer who was arrested for shoplifting dog repellant, a hammer, and citricides. He was already on their suspect list.

As they investigated him further, they discovered he’d purchased a gun in a town right outside Visalia, and had a daughter born near there. He had an ex-fiance named Bonnie, and the GKC was known for muttering the name Bonnie cryptically during his attacks. They found his address. “It’s crazy,” says Paul Holes. “After four decades of searching for this guy, it came down to testing a piece of tissue from his trash can outside.” 

When the book was published, Paul Haynes, Billy Jensen, and Patton were interviewed by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, a fan of Michelle’s blog, who also wrote the foreword of the book. Later that night, Paul Haynes received a message from a source claiming that just as he and the rest of Michelle’s team had been zeroing in on a suspect, the police had, too. 

The unexpected gravity that one small moment can hold is also explored by GKC survivor Kris Pedretti in this episode. Kris talks about how she became an overachiever in an attempt to distract herself from her pain, and perhaps to compensate for her shame and hurt. She pushed the feelings down–until 2018, when her husband told her about a newspaper piece he thought she should see.

It was an interview with another GKC survivor. They got in touch, and Kris found herself confronting what she’d experienced in a way she had never allowed herself to in the past. She got a copy of the police report, and read the words aloud, claiming them. “I think that was a real moment for me, in kind of owning my own story and sharing it.” All because her husband happened across that headline.

When the cause of Michelle’s death came to light, it was in a tabloid headline, detailing how Michelle’s blood had tested “presumed positive” for various drugs, including the potent painkiller fentanyl. Another, higher-profile death had just been attributed to the same drug: Prince’s, and the episode continually juxtaposes the two. 

Melanie Barbeau, frustrated by this tasteless display, ordered a copy of the autopsy report. “No doctor prescribed that amount of pills to her like this,” she points out, saying that was likely how Michelle ended up with fentanyl in her system: “That’s where we’re seeing a lot of the counterfeit drugs…cut with fentanyl.” The rise in accidental drug overdoses as the result of this phenomenon has been well-documented. Melanie shares that she herself overcame an opioid addiction.

There is a conversation to be had about the way we talk about drug-related deaths. Whose death is characterized as an unpredictable tragedy warranting thorough contextualization, the posthumous realization of their life’s work, and an HBO docu-series? Michelle was a nice, Midwestern white woman, whose talent and determination were widely admired. People wanted to see the best in her. Her drug use, throughout the series, has been presented to us as a mild problem, and a means to a worthwhile end. When we see images of her, they are home movies, glamour shots. In our society, still mired in the effects of Nixon’s War on Drugs, this kind of care and nuance is a mark of privilege.

Michelle also masked the depth of her dependency well. “The way she said it so casually and so on top of it,” says Patton, made him think that she must have been in control. “And that’s something that I get to carry with me forever, is just not knowing.” 

“I wanted to take care of this person for her whole life,” says Patton, describing how he knew that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark could not remain unfinished, that he would do anything to help realize that vision. “And Michelle’s book was always such a dream for her. So it almost felt like it was my last opportunity to take care of something for her.” 

The vulnerability Patton displays during this episode is heart-wrenching, and befitting of a man who spends his time spinning life into laughter on a brightly-lit stage. We have a way, in our culture, of stifling grief. There can be a shame to discussing it, a sense that it’s inappropriate or vulgar to dwell in such dark places. And there is an idea that not discussing pain is a sign of strength, and that if you must discuss it you should do so quietly and with only a select, trusted few.

Having lost my mother less than a year ago, I politely assert that this perspective is bullshit. Patton seems to feel the same way. I can only think hopefully of the number of people watching this series, of those who have lost people and who will lose people, and how it might make a difference to them to hear him say: 

“If you don’t talk about it, grief really gets to…begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, grief doesn’t get a chance to organize itself, and you can maybe move on a little easier. It’s a way to make the darkness feel uncomfortable with itself for a little bit.” Hearing this has made a difference to me. Both Patton and Michelle dedicated themselves to beating back shadows and making room for light.

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