I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Compassionate, Culturally Relevant True Crime

Unqualified Analysis / Sunday, May 6th, 2018

Last week, a co-worker bounded into my office and said, “Hey! You like books! Wanna not sleep for like two weeks? Read this.” On it she’d stuck a bright pink post-it note: “Here’s some nightmare fuel.”

It took me a few minutes to connect the book I was holding with Michelle McNamara. A few more minutes to connect it to Patton Oswalt, a comedian I admire. And then finally all the synapses lit up: I recalled the recent media storm surrounding Joseph DeAngelo, the individual held as the prime suspect for a series of terrible rapes and murders that terrorized California in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.

Most of the time, I read alone in a cultural sense. Because I don’t have a lot of extra money, I tend to wait until books are available in the library. By then, they’re way past their immediate relevance and I’m just sort of running after everyone waving my copy going, “Hey guys, this was great wasn’t it? Guys?”

I remember being a kid, waiting in line at midnight at our local bookstore for the newest Harry Potter book. It was exhilarating, knowing I’d be taking home the same story as everyone else, that I’d be staying up all night reading concurrently with those other dressed-up weirdos, our collective brain-power thrumming in the ether.

Since then, I’ve mostly read books as standalone works, forming my own opinions and trying very hard not to let outside sources influence my reading. That’s why my current situation with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, feels so strange and unfamiliar to me. I’m impacted by a variety of outside influences: articles and essays on the Golden State Killer,  McNamara’s True Crime Diary blog, and even Patton Oswalt’s stand-up routines. I don’t feel like I’m reading it alone.

I remember when Michelle McNamara died because I remember her husband Patton Oswalt’s response. I remember the way he described grief in one of his Facebook posts, the depth and breadth of it: “Grief makes depression cower behind you and apologize for being such a dick.”

In his latest stand-up special, aptly named Annihilation, he broached the topics of grief, horror, and chaos towards the end of the set:

“My wife was a true-crime writer and researcher, and the phrase she hated the most was, ‘You know, everything happens for a reason.’ She’s like, ‘No, it fuckin’ doesn’t. It’s chaos. It’s all random. And it’s horrifying. And if you want to try to reduce the horror and reduce the chaos, be kind, that’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.’ She would just say that all the time… ‘It’s chaos. Be kind.'”

It’s profound in retrospect, watching Oswalt’s stand-up routine, because it’s highly relevant to my reading of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.  His words highlight McNamara’s intention: to craft something compassionate from chaos, to restore subjecthood to victims, to bring a serial killer into the light. And not into the light of fame and notoriety, but into the light of justice.

The book itself is miraculously well-written, considering much of it was pieced together from notes after she died. I’m still in the first half of the book, and I’m deep in admiration of McNamara’s ability to tackle true crime with grace and thoughtfulness. Sometimes, whatever “true crime” is can feel overly sensationalized, like writers and producers are capitalizing off victims’ pain. Whenever there’s a tragedy in this country (which, unfortunately, is not infrequent), many outlets focus more on the perpetrator than the victims. Journalists do these awful, gut-wrenching stories about killers, trying to piece together murderers’ “back stories” and “motivations” for the sake of clicks. 

In our current climate, this happens more frequently with mass shootings than with serial killers. Media coverage focuses overmuch on the perpetrators, setting up a sick cycle of admiration and focus, turning killers into household names. (If you’re interested in this topic, this article discusses the No Notoriety campaign, based on the idea that perpetrators of atrocities shouldn’t get so much press time.)

Informed by this pattern in press, I found myself super impressed by McNamara’s style in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. She creates empathy for the victims of evil, rather than surreptitiously worshipping the perp. There’s a decided difference in her language when describing victims versus describing the Golden State Killer. And it’s clear that her purpose is to expose him, not idealize him:

“If you commit murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn’t just pain but absence, a supreme blankness that triumphs over everything else. The unidentified murderer is always twisting a doorknob behind a door that never opens. But his power evaporates the moment we know him. We learn his banal secrets. We watch as he’s led, shackled and sweaty, into a brightly lit courtroom as someone seated several feet higher peers down unsmiling, raps a gavel, and speaks, at long last, every syllable of his birth name.”

I’m finding that reading McNamara’s book is changing the way I perceive news stories about killers and their victims. It’s changing the way I relate to media coverage. McNamara is an extraordinarily compassionate writer. She not only covers the lives of the victims in these cases, but she allows us glimpses into her own life, a life lived in obsessive service to the truth. She has this amazing ability to draw not only on her own experiences to enrichen the reading experience, but also shines the light of her perception on the other players in the story, law enforcement:

“The job inflicts lacerations. In turn, the cop becomes lacerating. At his most lacerating, when the darkness has gone through him like dye through water, he’ll be called upon to comfort the parents of a dead girl. For some cops, the pivot from chaos to comfort becomes harder and harder to do, and they abandon the compassion part altogether.”

I read that paragraph over and over again, then analyzed it in terms of Patton Oswalt’s words in his stand-up: “Life is Chaos, Be Kind.”

Like I said, those words informed my reading of the book, and increased my sensitivity to McNamara’s intention as a writer. She has this way of giving voice to victims. When a serial killer murders someone, they’re turning a human into an object. This is the antithesis of kindness: it’s cruelty and depravity. There’s nothing anyone can do to give victims their lives back, but McNamara softly reestablishes their personhood, their subjectivity: the thing that the Golden State Killer lived to strip from them.

It’s been strange, reading a book that relates so strongly to the cultural moment in which I’m reading it. It brings this strange intertextuality to bear: I’m not reading this book as its own, distinct work of art (which it indubitably is), I’m reading it as part of a greater moment in time. I can’t read it without thinking of current atrocities unfolding in America. Without thinking of media coverage. Without getting distracted by news of Patton Oswalt remarrying (even though – who cares?). Without looking up images of the Golden State Killer so that I can match his old twisted face to the horror-show in the book I’m reading. Without thinking about the fine line between exposing evil and encouraging it.

It changes the entire book-reading experiences. It sharpens the edges. It both distracts me and pulls me in further. It takes my breath away at some moments. Just now, in fact, reading the transcript for Annihilation, which I’d watched months ago when it first came out, I came across Oswalt’s bit about 23andMe, which is a company that analyzes your DNA then lays out your genetic identity. This was a peculiar detail for me because that’s exactly how investigators eventually caught the Golden State Killer suspect: through making a genetic profile with a similar company.

Usually I read in relative secrecy. I don’t Google the books I read until I’m done, so that I can come to my own conclusions. It’s an entirely different experience to dip into the collective consciousness to read a book.

Reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark through that lens makes it an absolutely unique experience. There are so many alternate texts, stories, interviews, stand-ups, and articles informing my reading of the book. I can’t read without Patton Oswalt’s words in my head. I can’t read it without peeking into Michelle McNamara’s True Crime Diary Blog. I can’t read it without analyzing my relationship to news and media.

Have you ever had this experience? Reading a book so informed by outside cultural influences that it’s impossible to read it on its own? How did it impact your reading experience?

**Though I highly recommend I’ll be Gone in the Dark, in the interest of full disclosure I will say that last night I made my partner get out of bed two (2) times last night to search all 500 square feet of our top floor apartment for some vague premonition of “murderers.” This shit is scaryyyy.**

2 Replies to “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: Compassionate, Culturally Relevant True Crime”

  1. Wonderful post! I really like the sound of this book and I absolutely loved how you talked about the intertextuality of the book and you’ve made me fascinated about how it connects with a larger cultural context.

  2. Thank you! It’s been a unique reading experience, for sure. I definitely recommend it, although my biggest complaint is that it’s disorganized in parts since the author didn’t get the chance to do her own edits before she passed.

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