I spent twenty years of my life in a small suburb of Northern California, about half an hour from Sacramento. My town was boring and confining to me, but to my parents it was a bastion of safety. A place where their disabled daughter could go down to the grocery store or movie theater on her own with the only real worry maybe being a car accident. I also lived 20 minutes away from where Joseph James DeAngelo, otherwise known as the Golden State Killer and the East Area Rapist, lived and terrorized women throughout the 1970s.
And like Michelle McNamara, the writer turned amateur sleuth whose investigative work renewed interest in the EAR case and, by proxy, cracked the case itself, I also had a weird obsession with crime. It’s unclear why, as I’d never lost anyone close to me through a traumatic incident, and yet I consumed everything associated with the true crime genre. As director Liz Garbus lays out in HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” I’m like many women, like McNamara, like the women affected by the East Area Rapist, who need to know the face behind the horror.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” does many things. On its surface, it’s the story of DeAngelo’s criminal activities and how he was eventually captured. But what Garbus does is skillfully weave in the story of McNamara’s obsession with bringing the man she only knew as EAR/ONS (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker) to justice, coupling that with the nature of being a victim of assault. What feels like disparate elements, or the subjects of their own individual documentaries, are masterfully integrated to form a complete picture not strictly of one writer’s life, or a crime itself, but how crime changes women and what it meant to be the victim of rape in the 1970s.
Really, most people wouldn’t know about the EAR/ONS case without McNamara. It is through her eyes, her voice, and her writing that we learn about the East Area Rapist and, more importantly, the victims whose lives he changed. McNamara was fascinated by crime early on, and, as Garbus unveils throughout the documentary, struggled with demons of her own. The insight into who McNamara was and why this case gripped her so is compelling, not strictly for writers, but for anyone with a drive they don’t fully understand.
Text messages between the late McNamara — who died in 2016 before EAR/ONS was captured — and her husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, showcase a relationship built on mutual respect and an awareness for that writer’s spirit. McNamara grapples throughout, as the documentary shows, with her compulsion to solve the case, and the professional pressure of having to write a whole book on the subject. On top of that, she was also a mother and wife. And yet, to read the couple’s text messages, where Oswalt supports her and urges her to take the time to write, is unforgettable. Many praised McNamara for getting at the humanity of a person’s life, especially when dealing with victims, and Garbus achieves the same goal. Even when McNamara was struggling with addictions of her own, that humanity is always there.
Running parallel to McNamara’s story is that of the numerous — over 50 — victims of the East Area Rapist and what comes across is, like McNamara’s personal struggles, a cone of silence that women are forced to endure. One victim, raped by EAR/ONS when she was a teen, tells the story of her father yelling at her for disclosing her assault to a friend. One couple, the only one to stay together after being assaulted, discusses their own struggles to stay together and how the husband grapples with feeling helpless, failing to save his wife. Rape, in the 1970s and 1980s, was perceived as a taboo subject unspoken of by everyone, including the victims. Women were perceived as damaged goods and it’s only now, when therapy and the #MeToo movement have brought sexual assault painfully into the light, that these women are feeling supported and able to talk about their trauma.
McNamara’s own trauma is also discussed amongst this. A key section of Episode 4 looks at McNamara’s time in Ireland and the sexual harassment she endured by her boss. Later on, her writings question whether she was raped. As read by actress Amy Ryan, the words shown on-screen, it’s a painful moment that many women will feel so deeply. It isn’t just that DeAngelo took away a piece of so many people’s souls; nearly every woman has a story about a man who destroyed a piece of them in some way. It’s why McNamara’s passing feels so bittersweet; not just because DeAngelo was arrested, but that she never felt that sense of catharsis, of healing in her own life.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is more than a true crime documentary, although it succeeds in a terrifyingly brilliant way. What Garbus achieves is telling the story of a group of women dealing with victimization, with regrets, with fears. McNamara was a brilliant woman and this is a beautifully fitting tribute to all the things she held dear. It also reminds me that the safe, bucolic world I grew up in held all manner of horrors I’m thankful I couldn’t fathom at the time.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” premieres Sunday, June 28 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.