I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
One of the most powerful aspects of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark as a documentary series has been the participation of survivors — and, more than that, the primacy of their voices in telling this story. That’s a rarer element than it seems: The true-crime genre (and really, journalism in general) tends to focus heavily on the strange pathologies that separate monsters like the Golden State Killer from the rest of humanity. And when they’re not doing that, they shift to procedural mode, following all the little bread crumbs that eventually lead back to the perpetrator. That’s the draw of the genre, which has the power to turn people into macabre tourists, rubbernecking their way through a tragedy that’s not theirs.
Over six episodes, this series has had the real estate to check all the expected boxes of the true-crime format. The evidence, the red herrings, the patterns of behavior, the grim excavation of past atrocities — all have been thoroughly and satisfyingly explored. But the show has taken a step back and gotten a much larger perspective than expected. There’s been insight into Michelle McNamara and her personal life, but the chorus of survivors have told an important story about the culture that allowed rapists like the Golden State Killer to operate, and about the longstanding damage his actions have done to the survivors, who have had to live with the dual trauma of remembering what happened to them and knowing that he was likely still out there.
The arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo changed their lives, and it also didn’t. They no longer had to feel unsafe, at least in the very specific sense that the man who violated them — and would sometimes terrorize them by phone later on — was behind bars. But almost to a person, all of them describe painful memories flooding back to the surface, even after 40-plus years in some cases. Gay Hardwick talks about feeling better in some ways and in some ways worse, and how the aftermath of DeAngelo’s arrest had allowed her to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Paris, and also brought her to therapy to work through some dredged-up feelings. The survivors are emphatic about not wanting DeAngelo to take more of a piece of their lives than he already has, but achieving a sense of peaceful normalcy takes some effort — and a little help sometimes, too.
In the wake of DeAngelo’s arrest, many of the survivors took solace in each other, since only they truly understand what they’ve experienced. This leads to some awkwardness in the filmmaking, like a “garden party” at Kris Pedretti’s home that feels like one of those moments when documentaries and reality television collide. The series needs closure and so this event feels engineered to provide it — all the talking heads that have been speaking up at various points in the series gathered in a single location, sharing stories and expressing solidarity. This is not to say that the insights and emotions that surface at the party are themselves inauthentic — quite the contrary — but it’s one of the few instances where I’ll Be Gone in the Dark feels antiseptic in its staging. The narrative needs a wind-down, and the party serves the purpose.
The most fascinating stretches of this final episode pick through DeAngelo’s past, filling in blanks in the timeline and collecting interviews with some of the people who knew him. It opens with an interview with his ex-fiancée, Bonnie Jean Colwell, who’d met him when she was 18 and he was studying law enforcement. “The rules were never for him,” she says of behavior like hunting without a license, illegal spearfishing, and crossing into “No Trespassing” territory at night. Particularly chilling is her recollection of a reckless motorcycle ride where he kicked a German Shepherd in the head, breaking its neck. Her last memory with him, after she broke off their engagement, was DeAngelo tapping on her window at night, pointing a gun at her, and demanding they go to Reno that night to get hitched.
Beyond the obvious psychosis of a mass rapist and murderer like DeAngelo, there’s a garden-variety sense of entitlement embedded in Colwell’s stories about him. Hunting without a license is not a slippery slope to monstrousness on this scale, but “the rules were never for him” describes a larger species of white male, especially when tied to his job in law enforcement. It’s hard to learn about DeAngelo’s line of work at this time in our history without understanding how some enter the police with an ambition to insulate themselves from the law rather than serve and protect. DeAngelo was eventually fired from his post on shoplifting charges, but how clean could his record as a cop have been before then? Is there an occupation better suited to someone intent on flouting rules and abusing power?
Of those who knew DeAngelo, his nephew, Wes Ryland, stands out as the one who has absorbed the implications of his crimes the deepest. Ryland talks about how his mother, DeAngelo’s sister, was raped as a small child by two military officers in Germany and that “Uncle Joe” witnessed it. “The very thing that happened to my mother is the very thing that my uncle went and did to other women,” says Ryland. “How sickening is that?” Worse still for Ryland is a memory of seeing a figure in a mask outside his window in 1975, telling him through clenched teeth to go back to sleep. Given the crimes that DeAngelo committed in the surrounding area, he concludes that Uncle Joe may have used his house as a base of operations, a safe place from which to attack women in the neighborhood.
The image of DeAngelo in the courthouse, old and frail and diminished, is a cold comfort. He’s not a threat anymore, but the residue of his crimes lingers in the lives he’s altered and ruined. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark strikes the right balance between acknowledging that fact and celebrating the survivors who refuse to have their pursuit of happiness dictated by him. Gay Hardwick talks about visiting the Louvre in Paris and being thunderstruck by Paul Delaroche’s painting “The Young Martyr,” which depicts a woman on the surface of dark waters with her hands bound, looking serenely resigned to her fate. “It summed up how I felt during the event and sometimes after,” she says. But it doesn’t have to sum up how she feels now.
• One remarkable moment is the footage of Patton Oswalt and the writers who helped finish the book, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, watching the Sacramento DA’s press conference as it unfolded that DeAngelo was also the Visalia Ransacker. McNamara had been skeptical about that connection before she died.
• Fiona Williams (EAR victim #22) remembers her rage over seeing how DeAngelo was living when he was finally caught. His suburban ranch home, with a three-car garage, obscenely models the domestic scene that his actions destroyed for so many.
• Lovely words from McNamara about unsolved murders: “If you commit a brutal murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn’t just pain but absence, a great supreme blankness that triumphs, obscenely it seems to me, over everything else.” She did her part to make sure the blankness would triumph no longer.