I had no particular interest in crime aside from reading the occasional Nancy Drew book growing up. Yet two days after the killing, without telling anyone, I walked to the spot near our house where Kathleen had been attacked. On the ground I saw pieces of her Walkman. I picked them up. I felt no fear, just an electric curiosity, a current of such unexpected, searching force that I can recall every detail about the moment—the smell of newly cut grass, the chipped brown paint on the garage door. What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be. The hollow gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me.McNamara, Michelle. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (p. 45). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.
The Golden State Killer would have never been caught in 2018 if it wasn’t for the murder of Kathleen Lombardo in 1984. Her murder, which turned into a cold case, caught the attention of a young Michelle McNamara at the age of 14, who lived in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, where the crime took place. From then on, Michelle would be determined to write about unjust crimes and try to solve their cold cases. The one that she was determined to solve towards the end of her life centered on the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR/ONS. In 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes of the Golden State Killer, and recently sentenced to the full extent of the law for his crimes. The Golden State Killer’s name was coined by Michelle McNamara through her article in Los Angeles Magazine ( “In the Footsteps of a Killer” ), which led to her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Michelle would pass away in April 2016 because of an accidental overdose, and would not be able to see the killer finally get brought into the light.
I have been fascinated with the story of Michelle McNamara ever since I saw her documentary earlier this year, with the same name as her book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (Created by Liz Garbus and produced by Elizabeth Wolff). I felt a kinship with her through her determination in her work. After the series ended I was looking for more on the doc and her story. Enter Nancy Miller who I remembered from the documentary, as she was the editor of the Los Angeles Magazine article that Michelle wrote about the Golden State Killer. I found the companion podcast to “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” documentary, and to my pleasure I learned Nancy was the host.
Nancy has a gift with her interview skills with the survivors of the Golden State Killer, like Kris Pedretti, and with those who were involved with the case, like Detective Carol Daly. She has a way of bringing up delicate subjects and elevating female stories with such ease. I knew that I needed to talk to her about her work with Michelle, her involvement in the doc and with the podcast. What was exciting to me, when we reached the end of the interview, I learned that we shared the same passion for elevating female stories that have been underrepresented and unheard. In my interview with Nancy, we also discussed her road to working with Michelle as a Magazine Editor, through Might, Cosmo, Entertainment Weekly, Wired, and Los Angeles Magazine. I could learn a lot from this woman, she is inspiring, and so glad she took the time to speak with me.
Stay tuned for an upcoming bonus episode of the “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” podcast, coming soon. Listen here.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to the magazine world, and your work with Michelle McNamara?
NANCY MILLER: I guess this is a testimony to a great internship. I grew up in Connecticut, and went to college in San Francisco. While in college, I got an internship at a ‘zine. At that time, it was a ‘zine era. It was the 90s, before blogs. Dave Eggers had a magazine called Might, and I worked there as an intern. There were about 5 of us who worked at the ‘zine, and Dave Eggers was one of the founding members. That’s where I got started.
Might became this kind of cultural touchstone. People just started to know it. Dave Eggers would go on to write A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius not long after he catapulted to be famous. Might became like The Velvet Underground. Only 10,000 people bought that album, but 10,000 people started a band because of it. It became this very influential ‘zine, so much so that I moved to New York not long after. The fact I had included my past work at Might on my resume was attractive to a small group of editors. My first real publishing job was at Cosmo. Back then, the way that the magazine world worked was really gendered. What still holds true now, as it did then, is that women’s magazines make so much more money that they have funded the other magazines. Like Glamour funded The New Yorker. Women’s magazines play a really important role, at least they did.
At Cosmo I was just an assistant, like “The Devil Wears Prada” style. What I learned at Cosmo, and this is related to what I had learned working with Michelle, was how to think about reader and audience in a way that would serve me well not long after. I briefly worked at Maxim, the men’s magazine. I worked there for a very short time before somebody invited me to work at Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly at the time was “the shit”. It was a huge magazine, I worshipped it, I read it every week.
I knew the bylines, all the people that worked there, and I’d study it for interviews. The magazine covered pop-culture in this really smart way. It’s funny because there was kind of this graduating class of Entertainment Weekly writers, Gillian Flynn, Scott Brown – we all worked there around the same time. To get to the interview part of it, despite being an entertainment magazine, they had incredible rigor when it came to interviewing people, and finding out what was a good story. I was a reporter at Entertainment Weekly, and back then you had to find out how a celebrity died by calling the coroner, or the sheriff’s department. You couldn’t say things like “reportedly”, we were never to use the word “reportedly”, we had to get it directly from the source. Nobody could die from natural causes, because death is a natural cause. You had to find out how somebody died, like was it a stroke, was it a heart attack?
After Entertainment Weekly, I worked at Wired as an editor. And that’s how I met Patton Oswalt, who I edited first. I was in LA as Wired’s Bureau Chief. I always wanted to work at Los Angeles Magazine, for the very reason that they did incredible long form pieces. I remember reading some of their true crime pieces from 10 years before. They did the kind of reporting that could maybe help solve a case. There’s a piece that they did on Mitrice Richardson (“What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?”). She is a black woman who ended up in a Malibu restaurant and was arrested for not paying the bill. It was very complicated and racially tinged, you might say. After her release, Mitrice disappeared, and her body was found a year later. That was the story that inspired me to go to Los Angeles Magazine. Michelle’s piece (“In the Footsteps of a Killer”) was probably the first meaty true crime story that I worked on.
I had certainly worked on true crime features, but I was mostly covering culture, politics, and technology or civic issues. I wanted to do a true crime story. I was intrigued by them, like many people are, but I wanted it to have a literary aspect to it. I just didn’t know exactly what that story would be, and then I got the mother of all true crime stories.
MARTIN: How did you get introduced to Michelle and her work? Were you aware of her true crime blog as well?
MILLER: This is how I remember it. I interviewed Patton for a piece in 2010, while I was still at Wired. He said, “Oh my wife is a really amazing writer. She’s got this blog called True Crime Diary.” At the time I was working at Wired, the angle was crowdsourcing, which was this emerging way of creating all kinds of content. I pitched Michelle as this example of someone who was doing this new thing, like “citizen journalism”, in trying to solve murders through crowd sourced information, and using the vastness of the internet to have tools that law enforcement didn’t have.
The story didn’t take flight at Wired for a few different reasons, but I just remembered her and that true crime was her passion. When I went to Los Angeles Magazine much later, I remembered connecting with Patton again, and I asked if there was anything he’d like to write for LA Mag, and he said, “Speaking of, you should work with my wife, Michelle McNamara.” He reminded me. He’s an extremely generous person and is also exceedingly modest, where he’s just like, “If you want to meet a great writer…” She and I met and we emailed for quite awhile before we met in person. When we met, it was in that first meeting we talked about the EAR/ONS case.
MARTIN: How did you lay out a story like this one? To me, Michelle seems so unique as a writer, I see her first as a detective, but also as eloquent as a poet. When you started the story, she still had a lot of detective work to do to flesh out some of the details, right?
MILLER: Oh man, it was almost like science fiction with multiple storylines and multiple universes. There are very few stories like hers. People have compared her work similar to Truman Capote and his novel In Cold Blood.I have two thoughts about that, one, the murder had already happened and they had already caught the killers, and two, he, Truman Capote, was able to embellish certain things, like in his time and style. Michelle didn’t ever embellish anything. It was the hardest story that I have ever worked on. My editor in chief, Mary Milton, was very influential to the framing of the story, she suggested we change the name of EAR/ONS, because it was so difficult to understand. This helped get the structure of the piece.
What I didn’t know about Michelle, which might be interesting, is that I liked her blog, and I looked at it, but I wasn’t following it all the time. What surprised me about that first draft when it came in was how great of a stylist and a writer she was. She could have written about any number of subjects, but she happened to have this mind that was able to wrap her brain around these incredibly dense and complicated cold cases, which she knew with this kind of recall that was almost like a computer. You could ask her about any case and she would just know all of these things. Michelle had that rare combination of someone who is a great reporter, getting all of the facts, but was also an incredible stylist.
This was Michelle’s first long-form piece, and was to be posted at 7,000 words. She had only written blog posts that were maybe 1,200 words. We became friendly over time, but we certainly had a deeper editor/writer relationship because of that journey of having to figure this story out.
MARTIN: I love how she makes it personal. I think that’s what drew me to her writing the most. Like how she talks about Kathleen Lombardo. Was that a direction you were encouraging her to move towards, to take more of her own story into the story of The Golden State Killer?
MILLER: I think that was something Michelle struggled with the most, as you probably saw in the documentary. She didn’t like putting herself in her work. This was a recommendation made to her to make the story have a narrative, because we did not have one at that time. We had this serial killer and the case still had to be solved. We weren’t going to be able to solve it in time for the piece. And to your point, she is a really important part of the driving narrative. But she wasn’t that keen on putting herself out there. At that time, she was a very private person. Part of what I think was a big challenge for the magazine article, and later for the book, for her, is where she situated herself, in digging deep into the story, and making herself vulnerable to those details, which is always so difficult.
MARTIN: How long did it take to do the story? Was it about a year?
MILLER: Yes, about a year.
MARTIN: Was there a lot of pressure during that time to gather facts, and more details to deepen the narrative?
MILLER: I think what’s so interesting, and I think this is what is reflected in the documentary as well, is Michelle’s determination to find out more about this case and this guy, and it becomes this obsession. And everyone who worked with her on this story, or this person, or tried to follow this case, got obsessed too. It’s true crime fever. You get this thing, like “oh my god, cufflinks, cufflinks, we’re going to catch the guy” and then that doesn’t work out, and you go on to the next thing. And what an emotional roller coaster that can be. I had other stuff to work on. I was working on other stories, I covered all kinds of things, like culture, aspects of food, LA, this emerging 21st century city. So I had little release valves where I wasn’t thinking about this story all of the time.
MARTIN: That’s healthy.
MILLER: Yes, also I don’t know if people understand what unfiltered true crime content looks like. Because it’s processed through the Brita filter of a writer, an editor, a publication, or a series, or a podcast. So I saw things, and I read things particularly about sexual assault, about the treatment of women, with crime photos, and the details of what he did, that I just kind of cooled on thinking true crime would be some aspect of my vocation. After that I worked at a magazine called Good, and working on a publication with the ACLU.
MARTIN: When Michelle went through that “motherload” of case files that Melanie Barbeau, the Citizen Detective connected her to, and you see all of those photos and testimonials, I don’t know how she and you processed all of that. That’s the kind of stuff you really can’t unsee.
MILLER: That’s something you don’t really think about as a reader. By the time it makes it to your eyes and ears, there have been decisions that were made to protect the reader and viewer.
MARTIN: This piece was a huge success. It really moved and brought the topic of The Golden State Killer into the mainstream. How was that for you, to be a part of a story that has made such an impact culturally?
MILLER: Yeah, I was really happy for Michelle. She got a book deal from this piece, and she got all of the things as an editor you want a writer to get. As an editor, and I remember this, when I shifted from being a writer to a full time editor when I was at Wired, you live behind the scenes. You’re supposed to play a really supportive role for the writer, and you’ve done your job really well if the writer succeeds. I always thought that Los Angeles Magazine got a lot of credit. I think I was surprised about how the name Golden State Killer took off. We didn’t know if it was going to be, trying to make “fetch” happen, you know like in “Mean Girls”, where you try to make something stick. I wasn’t sure if that was going to work or not, and it did.
Having Michelle’s influence, like her relationships with the police, the FBI, also the relationships she had with celebrities on her own, but also through Patton, really helped to bring the story attention. I think I was surprised how people were unclear of how Michelle might have helped save the case, but it is without question that she was the person who knew the most, and put all of this information together. I was really pleased that the work that she contributed accelerated the possibility of catching this guy. She was right about almost everything that she said about who he was: suburban guy, possible law enforcement, maybe a veteran. A lot of what she said turned out to be true, and it’s gutting that she wasn’t here to see it.
MARTIN: I’d love to talk what happened after the article and how you’ve returned to this story, and how your relationship with Michelle has come full circle. Through your podcast, you’ve been elevating the women of this story, from the survivors to the filmmakers of the doc. Can you talk to me about that journey?
MILLER: It’s been a very strange joy to return to this. Liz Garbus is a total boss. When I found out she was making this documentary and they asked if I’d participate in it, I was like “absolutely 1000 percent”, because it was Liz Garbus and her producer Elizabeth Wolff. I was relieved to have the opportunity to just share more about Michelle and who she was and the work she did. I felt that her death was so unexpected and would be potentially mischaracterized if her legacy was she overdosed. It’s this big tragedy. People read the book, and for them, that’s the end of the story. The documentary explores who she was, and there was a lot in it that I didn’t know. I didn’t know about the sexual assault in Ireland, I was devastated. That leads to me having the desire to connect with the survivors of GSK (Golden State Killer). The producers of Pineapple, who make the podcast, do a ton of work in figuring out the who and what. But it worked out where some of the relationships that I had–I had already worked with Patton, I know Gillian Flynn–enabled me to connect with them.
As for the survivors themselves, we interviewed Kris Pedretti, you heard the victim statements, and the survivor impact statements that we played in the episode as the follow up of the documentary episode with Gay Hardwick. That was probably the least expected but the most rewarding part of it. The part of Michelle’s legacy, her work speaks for itself, but hearing these women is, for me, a game changer. I would like to have an opportunity to do more and hear more, because getting those stories out there, at least for the women from what I understand, heals them in a way. I believe hearing these stories can help change the culture, the insanity of how much violence there is against women that nobody talks about.
MARTIN: Carol Daly seems like an amazing woman. As a detective of many of the cases of EAR, she was there for those women from the beginning, and still is to this day. She is a superhero for sure. How exciting you got to talk to her.
MILLER: Because she did that work, right? She was the one who took a rape victim to McDonalds to get food before she was going to have to tell her story over and over to a bunch of men who would ask stupid questions, and traumatize them all over again. Or men who would depict rape as a matter of attractiveness and opportunity. In the 70s and 80s, I guess now still, they put the burden of responsibility on the woman and are skeptical if she changes her story. A lot of the work that Carol Daly did helped create a policy that would at least make an effort to make women who were victims of rape able to tell their story and not be re-traumatized multiple times. And think about the environment that was Carol in, where women were not allowed to go on patrol. It’s just bananas. I’m a huge fan of hers, and I feel like if I had any type of script writing ability, I would make a show starring Carol Daly.
MARTIN: I appreciated the conversations you had with the filmmakers, especially about the way they wanted the survivors to be shown as “real” women, with real stories, and not to sugar coat what happened.
MILLER: I seriously think that this documentary is completely groundbreaking in how they depict that it’s the empty room. I’ve never seen a chronicling like this about violence against women, in a way that has been somehow so true, being from a survivor’s perspective, or a truly neutral storytelling, which I feel is super critical for a documentarian. I think right now, the shows “I May Destroy You” and “The Morning Show” are dealing with sexual assault from a perspective that I’ve never seen before and that I find to be momentous, in a bigger picture way.
Sexual assault is the truest true crime there is. Sexual assault and the treatment of women is sadly the most inclusive crime there is. I don’t know a single person, forget man or woman, who has not been somehow, whether you know it or not, been affected by rape and sexual assault, and the impact of that intergenerationally. You think about the children of the women who were affected by the Golden State Killer, who were raised by a mother who had to somehow emotionally bisect herself from the assault, or the partners who felt enormous pain and powerlessness in those marriages, and their marriages dissolved. Even finding out about Michelle, I was like, “oh my god, her too”.
Patton said this really well, the world is angry when they see young beautiful, smart, vivacious women living independently. And there is this compulsion to want to steal that from them. And that is profound misogyny. You see it, whether it’s black trans women, right now, or white women in a collegiate space. It is unfortunately a full spectrum epidemic. And I can’t think of another epidemic where half of the population has been affected by it directly, and no one is fucking saying anything. I’m going to sound like a zealot, but I don’t know, I haven’t seen this yet, where somebody is talking about this like a true crime story because it’s not funny. Like “My Favorite Murder” doesn’t want to do explorations of sexual trauma, true crime isn’t seen as that.
MARTIN: There is a thirst for this, there is an awakening. I’m starting to think differently about my past sexual experiences, like “was that normal?”, “should I have said something?” My conversations with female filmmakers who’ve covered this subject have made me realize this conversation is so important. That’s another reason why I was really drawn to Michelle’s story, and your podcast.
MILLER: I appreciate that because I was nervous, I suppose, in wanting to make sure you do things right. There’s no model for me to follow. We see interviews about trauma and the self help space, we see the reportage of true crime. In my interview with Kris, I was just so moved by her, and how honest she was. And she just had this realization a few years ago.