It took time for the East Area Rapist to become the Golden State Killer. His first 15 victims were all rapes, all women alone in their homes, and only later, seemingly in response to news reports dictating his modus operandi, did he start terrorizing couples and turning to murder. But this exceptionally powerful and disturbing episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark keeps the focus mostly on sexual assault and the culture that surrounded it at the time, which is a bigger story than the vile exploits of any one man. And that makes the series suddenly feel much more purposeful.
Last week, I wrote about the perils of nonfiction-to-screen documentary adaptations, which at their worst can feel like superfluous abridgments of a much richer story on the page. But the victim interviews in “Reign of Terror,” combined with news and PSA footage from the mid- to late ’70s, bring a specific life to the series, grounded in attitudes about womanhood and sexual assault that still persist to this day. The common denominator among the rape victims here is shame, reinforced by a justice system that was treating rape like a more garden-variety assault and a culture that implicitly blamed the victim. The safety PSAs for women make that mindset clear: You shouldn’t walk alone in that neighborhood at night. You shouldn’t wear provocative clothing. You shouldn’t pause to do a little window-shopping. It’s never the rapist’s fault.
Leaning again on passages from Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark circles back to the moment when she first became interested in crime, and it winds up connecting nicely to the theme of the episode. At 14, when she was growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb nestled close to the city itself — the city’s immense public school, Oak Park and River Forest High School, is chronicled in Steve James’ superb documentary series America to Me — McNamara learned of a woman who was murdered in an alleyway close to her neighborhood. She was attacked from behind while listening to her Walkman and was likely sexually assaulted before her throat was slashed with a kitchen knife. The young McNamara was chilled by the proximity of such violence and drawn to the scene, where bits of the shattered cassette player was still scattered about. It was the beginning not only of her interest in violent crime but of her need to be present in the spaces where these crimes occurred — physical spaces and, later, head spaces.
Rather than re-create scenes from passages in McNamara’s book, the series offers harrowing interviews with survivors that paint a picture of EAR/ONS’s rituals — which were so uniform that one called them “scripted” — and puts the crimes in context. Fiona Williams, the 22nd victim, recalls the experience of her husband getting tied up and her 3-year-old waking up as she was being dragged to another room. In the midst of this threat to her life and to her husband’s and child’s lives, she recalls having an exchange where she asked him, “Why are you doing this?” and instinctually saying, “I’m sorry” after he tells her to shut up. “This is how women were in the ’70s,” says Williams. At her worst moment, under the threat of a man certain to do grievous harm to her and possibly her entire family, she couldn’t keep from being acquiescent.
For Gay Hardwick, the 31st victim, what happened after EAR finally left her and her husband behind reinforced the trauma more than it relieved it. The lack of sensitivity to rape cases at the time is evidenced by the all-male investigators that flooded the crime scene after the Hardwicks called the police, but didn’t care to provide her with any comfort, safety, or even basic dignity. She wasn’t allowed to get a robe to cover herself up or touch anything in her house, and her evaluation at the hospital was similarly clinical — again, all strange men, probing her physically and psychologically without regard to her need to regain control over her personal space.
As EAR/ONS started to terrorize couples rather than women alone, the men experienced their own form of shame. “The men don’t know how to deal with it,” says the detective Carol Daly. And “it,” in EAR/ONS’s case, is being hogtied facedown on your stomach while he tortures and violates your partner in another room, often for hours. Linda O’Dell, the 20th victim, says that her husband never wanted to talk about what happened to him. For his part, Bob Hardwick mostly allows his wife to do the talking in their joint interview in the documentary, but the camera stays on his face, and his expressions are utterly shattering. Being unable to protect his wife is emasculating, and it’s hard for men to rationalize their powerlessness in the moment. Hardwick’s solution, too, has been to block it out.
These interviews are difficult to hear, but they keep I’ll Be Gone in the Dark from becoming a ghoulish form of tourism, where viewers get to obsess over clues and rituals and the particular evils that men do, but are divorced from the human cost of it. “Reign of Terror” surveys the specific damage of EAR/ONS’s crimes in the lives of survivors, but their collective voices speak to rape culture at large and how it has and hasn’t changed since he marauded the Sacramento area in the mid- to late 1970s. With this second episode, the series is starting to justify its existence.
• In lieu of re-creations, which would have been in execrable taste, the filmmakers wisely emphasize setting and atmosphere as the survivors tell their story. But sometimes there’s just no elegant solution, and old interviews unfold like the opening credits of Mindhunter.
•EAR/ONS wasn’t the only active rapist in the area, according to former Contra Costa investigator Larry Crompton. Crompton guesses there were close to 15 serial offenders, under names like “the stinky rapist,” “the car key rapist,” and “the pillowcase rapist.” And again, no criminal statute for sexual assault at the time and no therapeutic recourse, either.
• The Zodiac Killer’s use of the media was a large part of how he was able to terrorize the Bay Area in his prime. EAR/ONS used the media too, but as a dare: When articles said he was never in a home with a man present, he started attacking couples. When he seemed to be afraid of big dogs, he made a point of going where a dog was present.
• Great lead-in to the Hardwicks from McNamara’s book, where she writes about trying to put her daughter to sleep with the promise that she won’t have bad dreams. “I leave the room hoping that what I promised, but have no control over, will be true. That’s what we do, all of us. We make well-intentioned promises of protection we can’t always keep.”
• Patton Oswalt’s observation about writers’ needing five hours to do one hour of actual writing is correct, though anyone who can spend those other four hours thinking things through, rather than screwing around, has a discipline I do not possess.