I’ll Be Gone In the Dark
So many crime shows and documentaries about serial murder are about little but collecting details — the evidence, the chronological tick-tock, the ins and outs of the investigation, the specific rituals and perversions that separate one killer from the rest of the pack. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has all of those things in abundance, as any true-crime procedural should, but it has also been about something more, which is rarer. Themes have developed around the case and around Michelle McNamara’s life that have been bigger than the Golden State Killer and applicable to more lives than the ones he altered.
The second episode, which focused heavily on GSK’s years as the East Area Rapist in the Sacramento area, turned into a look at rape culture — how it impacted the case and how it affected survivors then and now. “The Motherlode” is about the difficulty of living with trauma. Gay Hardwick, who lived to have four children with her husband Bob after an EAR attack, says her psychologist compared her lingering feelings of terror and exhaustion to a rewiring of her central nervous system, suggesting a defense mechanism that had permanently replaced a more serene expectation of day-to-day life. The wound never heals. Even 40 years later, it still throbs on occasion.
The episode title is double-meaning, referring to the motherlode of boxes on the GSK case in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the burdens of the soul. Let’s tackle the former first: In late 2015, McNamara was granted access to this treasure trove of information, a mission for which she summoned Paul Haynes, her chief researching partner, who helped finish the book after she died. The two of them drove separate SUVs to the office, expecting some sort of Ocean’s Eleven situation where they’d be sneaking off with materials that weren’t meant to leave the property. But McNamara had established her seriousness of purpose enough to get unfettered access to the files, and she firmly believed that the identity of the killer was likely in those boxes, waiting for excavation.
For McNamara, it was a double-edged sword: Her publisher had moved the deadline on her book up one month, and she wasn’t anywhere near completing it. At the same time, she would have to step on the brakes and give this new material the thorough vetting that it deserved. Finishing a book about a case that she was also eager to solve was an impossible task, each goal tugging her in opposite directions. Despite reassurances from her husband, Patton Oswalt, who had more experience with the flexibility of book deadlines, and her editor, who was satisfied with her rationale for pushing it, McNamara could not let go of the stress. Between fretting over the status of the book and immersing herself in the gruesome business of GSK’s crimes, she got caught up in cycles of sleeplessness and anxiety that could only be managed by a dangerous cocktail of prescription meds.
On the deadline front, McNamara’s feelings are completely relatable. Oswalt may be right about the commonplace phenomenon of extensions on book deadlines, but McNamara’s publishers were clearly interested in getting the book out as soon as possible or else they wouldn’t have moved the date for a first draft up a month. But any writer, especially one so inexperienced, wants to be understood as a diligent worker and wants to please his or her editor. Deadlines are the hot fire under writers’ butts, even when they’re artificial, but without any chance of meeting hers, McNamara could only get singed by the flames.
But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark suggests that the case itself, linked to McNamara’s own longstanding personal trauma, was the accelerant most responsible for ending her life. The episode opens with McNamara’s recollection of a confusing and unwanted sexual encounter she had with a superior in Northern Ireland in 1992. “What was I thinking last night?” she asked herself in a diary entry. “I let myself get drunk and fall into a trap. But with a married man with children? I did not want that to happen.” As the incident continues to play out in her mind — shades of another HBO show currently airing, I May Destroy You — her memories crystallize into something more unsettling than a drunken mistake. (“Did he? Did he rape me?”)
The key line from McNamara was this: “Belfast has driven itself within my bones.” That was the thread that connected her to the survivors in the GSK case. She understood what it was like to live with trauma, and that both compelled her to relieve some of the trauma by working to solve the case and revived the deep-seated terrors of her own past. The book’s publishers — and the editors of the Los Angeles magazine piece — were correct to recognize the importance of McNamara telling this story in personal terms. And the documentary has made elegant associations between McNamara and the crimes that obsessed her so completely.
“The Motherlode” also effectively circles back to the Hardwicks, who have given the most affecting commentary in the documentary. The Hardwicks are frank about how their experience with GSK has manifested itself in their lives and it’s remarkable to see how raw those emotions still are decades later. “You learn to live with these things,” says Gay, “like you learn to live with the loss of a loved one. And you pass through stages and hopefully you recover and you become a fully functioning human being with a happy life.” The Hardwicks succeeded in that, against difficult odds. Others were not so fortunate.
• “Never say, ‘How’s the book going?’” Excellent advice, from a writer, about what not to ask another writer.
Staging the box pick-up as if it were an actual heist is a little too cute on the filmmakers’ part. McNamara and Haynes may have worried about whether they could leave the sheriff’s department with the files, but once they discovered they could, loading 37 boxes into two SUVs was likely a mundane affair.
• We get a little information here about GSK’s activities from 1974 to 1976, before he was the East Area Rapist, when he was possibly known as the “Visalia Ransacker.” McNamara seemed dubious of the connections, but the similarities in the criminal’s habits, combined with the steady escalation of his violence over time, do sound persuasive.
• Heartbreaking words from McNamara to Oswalt about her interest in having a second child, which he doesn’t share: “The cliché is so true, though. At the end of your life everyone wishes it had been more about family and less about work. I just need to reflect on priorities and stuff like that a bit more.”