connective tissue

I May Destroy You, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and the Therapeutic Power of Narrative

Taken in tandem, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and I May Destroy You illustrate how much has changed from generation to generation in terms of the way women talk about their experiences with assault. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and HBO

When Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You shifted from its initial Sunday time slot to Mondays in late June, it did so to make room on HBO for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the true-crime series about Michelle McNamara’s search for the Golden State Killer. The two shows finished their runs on those separate tracks; I’ll Be Gone in the Dark concluded on Sunday, August 2, after six episodes, while the 12-episode season of I May Destroy You ended Monday night. It’s a real shame that they didn’t air in back-to-back time slots, because these shows strike me as connected, like two voices in an ongoing conversation about rape and how victims deal with its aftermath. They definitely share some similar insights about victimized women: the coping mechanisms they use and the need for closure they feel but rarely get. When considered in tandem, the two shows also illustrate how much has changed from generation to generation in terms of the way women talk about their experiences with assault.

Even the first-person titles of the respective series are worthy of parallel analysis. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is an actual quote from the Golden State Killer: “Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,” he once told one of his victims while holding her at knifepoint. It’s a foreboding phrase and one that places all the power in the hands of the rapist and murderer who believes he will never be caught. It also implies something that both shows, but especially I May Destroy You, address: that there is no true sense of closure after you’ve been raped. But the title is also ironic because we know that the Golden State Killer, a.k.a. Joseph James D’Angelo, won’t be gone in the dark forever. Eventually he was caught, as the series explains, and, as of just last week, was sentenced to life in prison. Michelle McNamara wrote in her book that someday GSK would hear the footsteps of police approaching his front door and be forced, finally, to “show us your face” and “walk into the light.” By writing that series of events in her book, which inspired this docuseries, it’s as if she manifested it into reality.

Before watching I May Destroy You, it’s easy to assume its title is also rooted in the unspoken threat from the assailant who drugs and rapes Arabella, played by series creator Michaela Coel. Certainly throughout the series, Arabella struggles to keep herself mentally and emotionally together after the incident. But I May Destroy You is insistent on exploring a wider range of sexual abuse. The notion that someone else could destroy “you” could just as easily apply to the you that is Arabella’s friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who is also raped in a situation that starts as consensual sex, or the you that is Arabella’s BFF Terry (Weruche Opia), who engages in a threesome that leaves her feeling like her opportunity to consent was stolen from her. The title also can be flipped, with the “I” being Arabella and the “You” being her rapist, identified in the finale as David (Lewis Reeves). As Arabella demonstrates on social media and in her very public outing of Zain (Karan Gill) after he took off his condom during sex without telling her, Arabella knows she has the power to potentially ruin any man who tries to destroy her. (Well, at least temporarily. Zain gets to continue being an author, albeit under a pseudonym, so he’s not exactly destroyed by Arabella’s actions.) In the first of the three hypothetical scenarios that play out in the finale when she finally confronts David, that idea is taken to revenge-laden extremes.

The three different confrontations between Arabella and David in the finale, which each are punctuated with Arabella rearranging the note cards guiding the writing of her second book, are not real. They spring from her imagination. Essentially, Arabella is trying to do what Michelle McNamara did: put into writing a comeuppance for her attacker that leads to some form of closure, with the hope that putting it on paper will make it so in real life.

Obviously the late McNamara was a real person writing about actual cases of rape and murder, and Arabella is a fictional character writing about experiences created specifically for television. But Coel also based I May Destroy You on her own experience of being drugged and raped, so there’s an underpinning of reality even in the fiction of that. It’s significant, too, that both McNamara and Coel are writers, and therefore drawn to the act of building narratives. Arabella’s work is about herself, while McNamara’s involves events that happened to other people. But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark clearly connects McNamara’s own personal issues to her drive to investigate and tell the story of the Golden State Killer. She, too, was sexually assaulted while living in Ireland. She also dealt with depression and the pressure to create that also weighs on Arabella, and, undoubtedly Coel, throughout I May Destroy You. In different but overlapping ways, their writing is deeply personal and tied to past trauma.

Writing for both of these women serves as an escape from their own realities and a form of therapy because it gives them control. McNamara gains control by connecting dots that law enforcement had not fully connected for decades. Arabella finds it by putting into words how it would feel to confront David via a series of different outcomes, and in the process, finally finishing her second book. Sorting through her understanding of what happened, even if it’s not a full or definitive understanding, still liberates Arabella. Coel’s experience working on the show, which, like Arabella’s book, is her second as a creator, had a similar effect. “When I realized that there was a game, for me, I realized there was a way I could win it and go into the next phase,” she told my colleague E. Alex Jung, referring to the process of sorting through the drafts of I May Destroy You. “It’s something to do with growth, and it’s definitely something to do with allowing each of these characters to let go.”

Even the nonwriters among us do this, don’t we? One of the reasons so many women watch true crime, a genre in which women are nearly always the victims, is because listening to and telling stories about these things gives the random, the cruel, and the unfathomable a shape. Absorbing or sharing such stories doesn’t take away the trauma or the fear. That still exists. But it instills a sense of order around what are often the most chaotic moments a person will experience in their life. Storytelling makes us feel like there is sense even where there may be none.

Arabella, a “fed-up millennial,” per the title of her first book, has no qualms about discussing her rape. She reports the crime even though she is not sure who is responsible and tells her story to police. She posts about it on social media, though most of those posts tend to be more performative than genuine. And she shares her experience in a self-help group, another form of asserting control over the experience. Ultimately, she writes about it from what we can assume is a more authentic place in her second book.

The many victims that share their experiences in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, who are mostly baby boomers, didn’t feel so liberated in the wake of their attacks. The docuseries repeatedly shows us survivors who did not talk much about what they went through or were encouraged to keep it to themselves. One, Fiona Williams, even admits that she apologized to D’Angelo after he told her to shut up while he was in the process of assaulting her and her family. “This is how women were in the ’70s,” she explains. Only much later in life, as we see in the finale, do some of these women connect with each other via their own pseudo-support group and form friendships where they can actually talk about the things that happened to them and know they will be seen and heard.

The capture of D’Angelo, depicted in the docuseries’ finale, should theoretically provide some closure for his surviving victims. But it doesn’t entirely. Gay Hardwick says his arrest prompted her to go therapy, then adds, “I’m much better in some ways. In some ways, I’m worse.” Hardwick says that some people don’t understand that the PTSD from being raped and nearly killed, even though it happened 40 years ago, doesn’t go away, even if the man responsible is behind bars.

For Arabella, there is no official closure either. As the three different scenarios in the finale imply, she doesn’t actually get to have a real encounter with David. Though I May Destroy You never explicitly states this, it seems fair to assume that David is never caught and never arrested. Like so many other women who have been raped or abused, Arabella just has to decide to move on and do the best that she can. In that interview with Jung, Coel says she basically had to do the same thing in her own life. “My dream scenario was ‘the police find him and everything is a match and he goes to prison,’” she says. “That would have been so cool. And then that didn’t happen.”

In another striking parallel, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and I May Destroy You end on nearly identical visual notes. In the latter series, just as Arabella is beginning to launch into an excerpt from her book at a reading, the episode cuts to an image of her standing on a beach with a smile on her face. At the end of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the camera pans from a picture of McNamara’s daughter, Alice, to one of Michelle herself. She, too, is captured with a smile on her face, on a beach, and with an ocean behind her, another use of the water-based imagery that Liz Garbus weaves throughout the series. There is closure in McNamara’s story, in that the rapist and killer she wanted to catch finally was caught, thanks largely to her tenacity. But there is a lack of it at the same time. That photograph is a reminder that McNamara is no longer with us and never got to see the rapist and murderer she obsessed over get caught.

Arabella doesn’t have the satisfaction of knowing that the man who raped her has been arrested and punished, either. But she is still here. The image of Michelle McNamara is frozen in time on a beach, but Arabella is able to turn around, face the crashing waves, and run into the sunlight.

IMDY, IBGITD, and the Therapeutic Power of Narrative