19 April 2018

I'll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

This book has a lot of pieces that I look for when choosing what to read next. As you know, we are big fans of true crime on this blog, but I think more than that I'm interested in anything an author pursues obsessively. And this fascination is reflected in Michelle McNamara's book I'll Be Gone In the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. McNamara penned the name Golden State Killer for the ruthless, serial murderer who tormented Sacramento in the 1970s, but her digging came to an abrupt stop when she unexpectedly died in her sleep two years ago.

Some other things I got excited about were the introduction by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn (review here) who writes violent fiction, and the afterward by actor/comedian Patton Oswalt (McNamara's husband). The afterword was particularly eye catching in the wake of her death.

I want to address the death of the author before starting the actual review:

McNamara acknowledges who her husband is about ~30 pages into the book. You hear about her attending premiere parties and going to screenings of his work. What's upsetting about these stories is how she is (obviously) unaware of her own imminent death, but that in contrast, this is something we are hyper-aware of, and it makes everything that much more sad.

For example, McNamara talks about her daughter Matilda (~7 years old at the time of her mother's death) and how she is a troubled sleeper. Matilda would often tell her mother before going to sleep "I don't want to have a dream." This would seem normal, maybe even cute, if we didn't know what happens to Michelle, but we do know... and this makes it heartbreaking:

'You are not going to have a dream,' I tell her, with crisp, confident enunciation. Her body releases its tension, and she goes to sleep. 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. I'll look out for you."

This passage is obviously sad because this little girl's mom is no longer around to reassure her of these things. But it also really makes you want to scream at everyone who criticizes Oswalt for remarrying so soon after McNamara's death. I felt sad when I read this, but then remembered Matilda has a mother figure back in her life, and that's a relief.

The last thing I'll say before we get into the actual details of the book is that I really enjoyed Oswalt's afterword. He excused himself from gushing too much by saying "it's impossible to speak of her without hyperbole," which is fitting considering what happened. Anyways, it's a sad, present-day story that kind of hangs over the 352-paged horrific, true crime one.

Patton Oswalt and Michelle McNamara at a movie premiere

Aaaaaaand now for the book:

As far as true crime goes, this was a good read. I like that you actually get a little bit of back story on the author and why they've become so obsessed with this one case/killer:

Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life - long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths; a boy's BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl's back."

You find out that there was a violent homicide in McNamara's childhood neighbourhood in Chicago. A young girl was brutally murdered and left in an alley not far from where McNamara and her friends would play. The crime was never solved and it stayed in McNamara's mind ever since.

The thing is, once you learn about how horrific the rapes and murders, and more importantly, how many there were, the Golden State Killer is difficult to get out of your own head. It's been almost three weeks since I finished this book and still every time I get up to go to the bathroom at night or turn a dark corner I can't help but think of this masked man waiting for me.

And then there is the real cause behind most obsessions: the unknown. The Golden State Killer is still a free man. No one knows who he is. He committed close to 50 rapes, and murdered 12. He's made phone calls to his victims decades later, saying things like "remember when we played?" I mean the book was named after a creepy threat he uttered to one of his tied up victims: 

He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: 'Make one move and you'll be silent forever and I'll be gone in the dark.'"

He's a fucking psychopath and he's still out there. Nothing chills us / excites us quite like an unsolved crime.

Drawings of what the Golden State Killer potentially looks like
Again, I feel like I am more interested in the obsessiveness that surrounds the killer than I am in the actual crimes/deaths. The entire time I read this book I couldn't help but think about David Fincher's Zodiac, one of the best serial killer dramas out there. The Washington Post did a 20-year-anniversary write up about the movie and said this: 

Zodiac is a movie about how uncertainty and institutional failure will drive you mad, and as a result, it's more relevant than ever." 

The same rings true for the Golden State Killer.

You learn a lot of technical language in this book, and this is something that always sparks attention from me or Meg. We love feeling like experts on stuff, so when I get to learn what "overkill" means to a cop, I'm definitely interested:

'Overkill' is a popular but sometimes misused term in criminal investigations and crime stories. Even seasoned homicide investigators occasionally misinterpret an offender's behaviour when he uses a great deal of force. It's common to assume that a murder involving overkill means there was a relationship between offender and victim, an unleashing of pent-up rage borne of familiarity. 'This was personal,' goes the cliche."

It's also just the incredible amout of detail McNamara has collected through police reports, interviews, and revisiting crime scenes 40 years later. You find out how he often stalked his victims for weeks, plotting out when they would be home and what was the best point of entry. One of the things that will definitely stick in my mind for years was how he would leave his victims tied up, and when they believed he was gone they would finally go limp and start trying to untie themselves... then suddenly out of no where they would feel a knife pressed against their backs or heavy breathing by their ear, letting them know he hasn't left yet.

I mean obviously this is terrifying on its own. But what makes it stick in my mind is McNamara letting you know that this was a very specific tactic. That he would do this so that the victims would wait even longer before trying to free themselves, giving him more time to escape.

Then there is all the detail about how terrified Sacramento was. How so many people were raped or killed inside their own homes. That even the presence of their significant other wouldn't stop him. That no lock could keep him out. McNamara talks a lot about neighbour relations, and while she doesn't mention it by name, you can't help but think more and more about the bystander effect - that even if you see something and know it's not right, you often assume someone else will deal with it:

It was a power play, a signal of ubiquity. I am both nowhere and everywhere. You may not think you have something in common with your neighbour, but you do: me. I'm the barely spotted presence, the dark-haired, blond-haired, stocky, slight, seen from the back, glimpsed in half-light thread that will continue to connect you even as you fail to look out for each other."

Then of course there is the shit I'm REALLY interested in. Like obsessions that lead to ruined marriages, careers, and friendships. She spends a lot of time with an investigator who was on the case, and who still knows every single detail imaginable. These passages are near the end of the book and were some of my favourite. Their shared obsession with the Golden State Killer is interesting to hear about, and McNamara is constantly shooting him ideas about the case.

The Golden State Killer haunts their dreams. He's ruined their marriages. He's burrowed so deeply inside their heads that they want to, or have to, believe that if they locked eyes with him, they'd know. 'It's kind of like a bloodhound thing,' a detective said to me. 'I believe if I were at a mall and he passed by me, I'd know."

I was going away for a week for work and would be sleeping alone in a hotel room in Nova Scotia. I remember racing through this book so I wouldn't have to read it alone in bed, a recipe for a nightmare. But still, I can't stop thinking about it.

The only solace I get is from my friend Eric who once told me that there's no point worrying about serial killers. "If a serial killer wants you, he's going to get you. There's nothing you can do about that," he said. So in a way, this comforts me ... it feels out of my hands. Hopefully this will give you some peace of mine too after reading I'll Be Gone in the Dark.

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