I listened to the audiobook version of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara while driving alone, crying hysterically.
I was crying in part because I had made the unwise choice of listening to the book at night, and I was terrified–Michelle’s writing, which I was glad to hear excerpted often in this new HBO docu-series based on her book (directed by Liz Garbus), is strategic and spare, chilling you with just the right balance of meticulously researched detail and eerie atmosphere.
I was also crying because although Michelle McNamara passed away before she was able to finish her book, it was completed and published posthumously by a group of loved ones and fellow investigators who cared so much about Michelle and her work that they could not bear to see her passion project, and the justice it represented, lay forgotten. Having just lost my mom, caught up in thinking about what she had left behind and who would remember her, this struck a nerve for me. The first episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark hits in that same paradoxical place, walking the line between murder mystery and in memoriam.
In “Murder Habit,” we are introduced to the case of the serial killer and rapist known as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (referred to by those familiar with the case by the unwieldy acronym EAR/ONS), a man who spent 1974 to 1986 committing acts of violence and terror throughout the Contra Costa County, Stockton, Modesto, and Sacramento areas of California. Michelle would eventually come to call him The Golden State Killer.
We are also introduced to Michelle, through the testimony of her friends and colleagues, as well as through her writing, and audio and footage from her interviews, podcast, and home life. In many ways, the show is an unlikely love letter to Michelle–sometimes literally, as her husband, actor and comedian Patton Oswalt (known for many roles including Spencer Olchin in The King of Queens, and Neil in United States of Tara), tells stories of their early relationship and later years together, interspersed with Michelle’s own diary entries. As he recounts, she was always fascinated with cold cases and seemingly unsolvable crimes.
We also learn the impetus for Michelle’s shift from simply reading about these cases, to seeking out answers herself–the kidnapping of a boy in Missouri, which seemed to her eerily similar to the case of another young boy a few years prior. When investigators found the two boys being held together, Michelle realized she could do more than just follow along. She could collect pieces, and try to fit them together.
As Michelle became more active on the true crime message boards, she connected with other “citizen detectives” like Paul Haynes (“The Kid”) and Melanie Barbeau (“The Social Worker”). Melanie served as a sort of de facto gatekeeper for the EAR/ONS message board, and when Michelle reached out to share a theory with her, Melanie invited her to Sacramento for a personal tour of some of the most essential sites of the case. The two eventually developed a close and collaborative friendship. The show cuts between Michelle’s own recording of her and Melanie’s intense and somewhat excited conversation as they drove through suburban and rural California, and new footage of Melanie taking the documentarians on that same journey. This includes driving her by some of the homes of the victims.
Even from the first episode, it’s apparent that keeping emphasis on the stories of those attacked by the EAR is a crucial element of the story Michelle wanted to tell. Much of our modern fascination with true crime can seem centered in a morbid fascination with those who commit the crimes. Just look at the obsession with notoriously despicable serial killer Ted Bundy, which has led to a level of romanticization culminating in his being portrayed by classic heartthrob Zac Efron. The genre has come under fire for this preoccupation, which can elevate the run-of-the-mill misogyny of violent men, while erasing the experiences of their victims.
Michelle wasn’t interested in that route, and so far, the show reflects that. The photos we see of the survivors are not the typical true crime images, cultivated for creepiness, that seem to have been developed in a bath of pre-tragedy. We see them lit neutrally in their own homes, not cast in blue light or shadows on a set. “I think the story of the victims,” says Michelle in a home interview that is at one point interrupted by her baby daughter Alice toddling into the frame, “it has to be told.”
It’s in this spirit that we meet Kris Pedretti, the tenth person to be attacked by the EAR, at the age of fifteen in her home, while her parents were out. Kris describes the events that unfolded, her demeanor both frank and emotional. The details that she recounts will come to be EAR/ONS calling cards of a sort, things like pre-placed ligatures and certain phrases and methods that he hones over time. Kris shares that although she once loved playing the piano, being attacked by the EAR while she was playing has ruined this hobby for her. She always feels like someone is standing behind her.
We are also introduced to some of the law enforcement officers who were involved in investigating the EAR’s widespread crimes: retired Sacramento detectives Carol Daly and Richard Shelby, and retired Contra Costa detective Larry Crompton.
There’s something unsettling about the early efforts by law enforcement in Sacramento to prevent the media from informing the public about the threat of the EAR, in an attempt to prevent panic. Footage from a community meeting on crime prevention, during which an officer describes to a crowd of 500 a homemade security system that they might rig up themselves with wire and a bell, paints the picture that they were perhaps in over their heads from the start.
We will surely hear more testimony from law enforcement as the show goes on. “My job is to catch him,” says Crompton during an interview, “and I didn’t do that. And I can’t let it go.”
To my credit, I did not cry hysterically while watching this episode. But I was touched by the portrait it cultivated of Michelle, and the time and care put into capturing her. It mirrors (albeit somewhat less fervently) the exacting effort she put into her research on the EAR/ONS case. It feels something like a promise the show is making, to dedicate a similar effort to the other people we will be introduced to, with passions of their own, who were gone too soon.
“She wasn’t a ghoulish gore-hound,” says The Kid. “There was nothing tasteless about her writing.” At the same time, though, it’s clear that the drive to investigate, to steep herself in shadowy atrocities until patterns emerged like shafts of light, was intrinsic to her character. It’s apparent that it would be impossible to memorialize Michelle without exploring her work on the EAR/ONS case, or to discuss her research without lingering on what it was about her that made her so dedicated and effective at uncovering truths. This juxtaposition of true crime and profile maybe shouldn’t work. It could easily come across as jarring or inappropriate–but somehow, it doesn’t.
“Michelle ultimately wanted to serve, helping to get this guy caught,” says Patton Oswalt. Over the coming episodes, we can look forward to finding out how she did just that.
Lindsay is a freelance writer, book publicist, horror enthusiast, and over-thinker in New York City. Her work has been staged by Infinite Variety Productions, developed into a short film at Prague Film School, published in the Sarah Lawrence Review, and described by her mother as, “Cool, but kind of weird.”