My journey into becoming a film journalist started with my love and obsession with films, and the making of these films. That followed with me becoming more aware of the filmmakers behind the films I loved. I noticed that there was a shortage of female filmmakers that were on my radar, and I became driven to finding these female filmmakers, and telling their stories.
Michelle McNamara was not on my radar. She’s not a filmmaker, but a writer, a true crime writer that inspired the HBO series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”, named after her book about The Golden State Killer. The series was produced and co-directed by Liz Garbus (“What Happened to Miss Simone?”). Like myself, Liz Garbus elevates female stories. We saw this earlier this year through “Lost Girls”. Through her work in this series, I was introduced to Michelle, and her story is now blinking red in my solar system. I felt a connection to Michelle, a kinship even, mainly through her drive and approach to her work. Sadly I never had the opportunity to interview Michelle before her passing in 2016, so I am now writing this personal essay about her and about what her story means to me.
As a true crime writer, Michelle McNamara was more like a detective who had a way with words. She would seek out these cold cases, investigate the scene, and write about them, starting out with her blog, True Crime Diary. When she came across the EAR/ONS, aka “Golden State Killer”, cold case through watching a Dateline special, she met her muse that dominated her work until the end.
The title of her book and the series is chilling, because this is what the Golden State Killer would say to his victims and survivors when he left them, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”. The Golden State Killer would lurk around at night and sneak into peoples’ homes to rape and/or kill them. All of the acts of violence were done mostly in Northern California, but would end in Santa Barbara county. He would go on to rape 50 women, murdering 13 of them. In the first episode of the series, Michelle’s words about the killer are juxtaposed with a scene from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, a film that she loved to watch with her husband Patton Oswalt. It was eerie to watch the scene where the water monster swims below the woman, who is unaware that he exists.
Michelle was committed to exploring absence and pursuing truth. The absence was the unanswered questions that a cold case brings. In this space, there is a curiosity of looking at the beauty of what’s not there. Beauty may not be the best word, a more appropriate one would be fascination. People like Michelle could look at the absence straight in the face, all the terrifying bits of it. “I had a murder habit, and it was bad, I’d need to feed it for the rest of my life”, Michelle was quoted in the series. The quote is prophetic with her passing in 2016, but I don’t feel this is what killed her. What killed her was the cocktail of pills, the fentanyl. The feed is what excites, and brings life, not death. I can relate to that through my work as a film journalist. I understand that need to feed your passion, and sometimes that means looking right at it. Writer Gillian Flynn said in an interview “There are two types of people, those who have to look underneath the rock, and those who don’t.” Michelle and Gillian are women who must look under the rock. Once you look underneath it, you can start to make sense of it for the people who don’t, which I’m grateful for.
Another connection I felt with Michelle, besides the fact that we’re both from the Chicago suburbs, is the ability to channel heartbreak and difficult past experiences into our work. We learn in the series that Michelle, during her younger years, was assaulted by a man she worked for in Northern Ireland. What happened here, I feel, is reflected in the sensitivity of her record about the stories of the survivors of the rapes, and the vemenant emotion against the Golden State Killer. The book ends with her “Epilogue to an Old Man”, asking him to come into the light following her biting words, dismantling him of his power. At the end of the series, the killer (Joseph James DeAngelo) is caught. He is brought into the light for everyone to see, and he cannot hide any longer.
I was fortunate to have never been sexually harassed or assaulted in my past, but I’ve had my difficulty with manic depression, as I reflected upon in “Not just Gilda, but Rita too”. Our circumstances are akin to apples and oranges, but the common thread is that writing has enabled me to put words on paper that I never thought were there, bringing out pieces of euphoria that can only materialize through the pain. Beyond the assault, Michelle also dealt with depression, which further drove her work. By helping find The Golden State Killer, it brought her outside of her darkness.
Another thing that I love in the series is Michelle McNamara’s relationship with Citizen Detective Melanie Barbeau. There is a day Michelle and Melanie are together and she shares some of her case files. There are thousands of them, and the detective gives them to her for a 24-hour period. There is such an innate trust there. It shows what can happen when you get two women together with a common goal, and desire to make a wrong right. Without Melanie, Michelle would have not gotten access to all the files that helped her write her piece on the Golden State Killer for Los Angeles Magazine, which then led to her book, which then led to catching the killer. To me, the HBO series is not just a story about Michelle and her work, it’s about the women that have elevated her and her work, through the film and the case.
To conclude, I have to admit, I’ve been itching to fill that empty space . . . Michelle goes to true crime, and I go to the elevating the stories of women in film. I just finished a film festival, and now I will continue to interview. But there’s something there, still there, that is waiting for me to look at it in the face, and make sense of the ooze beneath the rock.