Spring Arts 2018
Michelle McNamara was writing a book about the Northern California serial rapist and murderer she’d named the Golden State Killer when she died suddenly at the age of 46. She left behind her family—her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, and their daughter—and her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was completed by her lead researcher, with a foreword by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and an afterword by Oswalt. In the wake of McNamara’s death, Oswalt has been a champion of her work—he’s appearing at the Portland tour stop for the book at Powell’s in March, and has given interviews about McNamara and her writings ahead of the book’s publication.
But I wanted to hear McNamara in her own words, so I went back to her now-archived investigative blog, True Crime Diary, which developed alongside I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. It’s an odd, almost uncanny read, with very Web 2.0 magenta and brown formatting left untouched. Any true crime project is basically a reckoning with death, but in this case, it’s a reckoning that is no longer theoretical. McNamara is gone. And what’s especially sad about her absence is just how good she was.
Too often, true crime accounts are riddled with shallow analysis—if not outright misinformation—and convey a simplistic message that a bad guy getting caught and killed is somehow a panacea that will save us all. Too often, I suspect we read true crime to feel safer—to tell ourselves we’re the girls who made it home, not the ones in that awful story, as if choosing not to identify with victims will protect us. Add to this a pervading, squicky voyeurism and a hungry, consuming desire to look at terrible things that aren’t our business, and it can be hard to justify a true-crime habit.
In a post called “Origin Story,” McNamara addressed this herself. “I think the narcotic pull for me is what I think of as the powerful absence that haunts an unsolved crime,” she wrote. “Murderers lose power the moment we know them. We see their unkempt shirts, the uncertain fear tightening their faces as they’re led into a courtroom. You know their names now, and it’s often just... Dave. But if you commit a brutal murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn’t just pain but absence, a great, supreme blankness that triumphs, obscenely it seems to me, over everything else.”
McNamara’s interest in crime, it seems, lies in filling in those absences, to the extent that it’s possible. Her work emerges not from banal voyeurism, but is rooted in a desire to help, to answer lingering questions, to piece together narrative, to find the names of people who are missing. “True Crime Diary is not interested in looking back at notorious criminals and saying, ‘Wow,’” McNamara wrote on her site. “We’re interested in looking at unfolding cases and asking, ‘Who?’”
The author emerging through this archive of questions is almost compulsively curious, thorough in her research, and steadily compassionate. She does not indulge in grotesque stories about infamous serial killers. Nor does she waste much ink on the 24-hour news cycle’s hubbub around beautiful murdered girls. She’s instead focused on unsolved, underreported, or mishandled cases—a little boy’s body found off I-88 in Illinois and never identified; a Jane Doe discovered off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles in 1969, with possible links to the Manson murders; the botched police work in the Riley Fox case, also in Illinois, that cast aspersions on the wrong man before the true perpetrator was identified through DNA evidence.
McNamara conducted her own sleuthing, and she was good at it. She used online missing persons directories to match details in cold cases. When she ran out of leads, she would crowdsource her questions. In the instance of the Los Angeles Jane Doe, McNamara opted to include an image of the victim—not to sensationalize her case, but in the hopes of solving it. “It’s my feeling that the best hope for identifying Jane Doe is to get her image out there,” McNamara wrote. “That’s why I’m including a post-mortem facial photo below, carefully Photoshopped to make her more presentable. I apologize if the image is upsetting to some people. I weighed the discomfort it might cause against the possibility that someone might recognize her, and decided to post it. Someone must wonder about her. Someone must know her name.”
This is the thing about Michelle McNamara’s approach to true crime: She apologized for sharing sensitive images, she understood the weight of what she was doing, and she always held out hope that every victim, no matter how anonymous they might seem, was remembered and missed by someone, somewhere. Like many true crime buffs, McNamara betrayed a constant curiosity, a need to discover the truth. But she didn’t want to know in order to be entertained. She wanted to know so that others could heal.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
by Michelle McNamara