HBO’s Michelle McNamara documentary series does for true crime series what In Cold Blood did for the books.


In the third episode of the Liz Garbus miniseries I’ll be gone in the dark, based on the life and work of late crime writer Michelle McNamara, McNamara editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Barth, makes that inevitable comparison book that people turn to by citing true crime writings that “transcend gender “: Truman Capote’s In cold blood. While the authors have produced many genuinely literary books on real crimes since Capote published his celebrated 1966 “nonfiction novel”, the docuseries format on real crimes has been less blessed with outstanding genius. I’ll be gone in the dark, which bears the same title as McNamara’s book published posthumously in 2018 of the same title, shows that it can be done.

I’ll be gone in the dark (the book) recounts McNamara’s stubborn investigation of a series of unsolved crimes that terrorized California communities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Starting with loitering, spying, and robbery in the city of Visalia, the perpetrator then went on to commit dozens of home invasion rapes, primarily in and around Sacramento, and then 12 murders in the south. It was not until 2001 that DNA evidence revealed that the rapes and murders had been committed by the same person. And it was only this week, on Monday, that the man finally arrested for those crimes, Joseph DeAngelo, pleaded guilty to 13 murder charges and confirmed that he was also responsible for the Visalia crimes.

McNamara herself never lived to see him trapped. She died of heart failure while sleeping in 2016. Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, collaborated with McNamara investigative partner Paul Haynes and crime writer Billy Jensen to complete I’ll be gone in the dark, his only book. It is a melancholic and complex work built around a lagoon, what McNamara called “an absolute void”, which he felt gave the man he called the Golden State Assassin an almost mythical power. But that absence also gave McNamara a chance to focus on the victims of his crimes and the communities he tormented. It brilliantly captured the mix of idyll and isolation that defined California’s suburbs after the 1960s, an environment in which the killer was deeply embedded. At Barth’s insistence, McNamara wove his own story through the book, from his childhood fascination with the unsolved murder of a neighbor to his own experiences of sexual harassment.

Garbus does not recreate as much as it expands the twilight power of McNamara’s book. In a particularly effective motif, the miniseries features short cuts to clips from the 1954 horror movie Creature from the black lagoon, a McNamara’s and Oswalt’s favorite. Sometimes the stalking and spying creature appears as a voiceover describes the killer stalking potential victims, and other times it represents something less material: the way the case possessed McNamara, luring her away from happy times with her husband and daughter, sucking her into vortices of nightmares and paranoia. Both became particularly bad after she and Haynes managed to obtain “the Motherlode,” a huge cache of investigative documentation, from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which included horrific photos from the crime scene. An autopsy revealed that McNamara died as a result of complications from the use of prescription drugs, to the extent that no one knew but herself. “There must have been days,” says Oswalt in an interview on the documentary, “where she thought, ‘I’m going to take Adderall in the morning and take Xanax or Vicodin to sleep, because this is for a bigger purpose than me . ‘”

Garbus doesn’t recreate as much as it expands McNamara’s twilight power book.

As in his heartbreaking dramatic adaptation of Robert Kolker Lost girls, an account of the unsuccessful search for the Long Island serial killer, who killed 10 to 16 people and hid their bodies on the island’s south coast, Garbus focuses on waves of damage that were spread by a single violent event . The series (whose episodes were directed by Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury, as well as Garbus), interviews several survivors of DeAngelo’s more than 50 rapes. One, attacked at the age of 15 while playing the piano at home, was scolded by his father for even discussing the attack with a friend; In addition to the trauma of the assault, this opened a gap between herself and her parents. The husband of a murdered woman lived under a cloud of suspicion for 20 years until DNA analysis revealed that his wife had been killed by a serial killer. The daughter of another murder victim must live with the fact that her last interaction with her mother was a terrible argument.

All rape victims suffered unpredictable and lasting damage. One remembers his own reluctance to cry during interviews with the police. (The text of the crime report describes her as “great.”) Then she burst into tears over the death of Elvis Presley and then, 40 years later, over the announcement of DeAngelo’s arrest. In a particularly penetrating series of interviews with Gay and Bob Hardwick, who were targeted during the Sacramento phase of the killer’s criminal history, Gay recalls the callousness of investigators, who treated his desire to cover himself up as an intrusive meddling with the evidence. During this period, the killer would break into a house where a couple was sleeping, force the woman to tie her male partner, then place a pile of dishes on the man’s body, threatening to kill the woman if she heard the dishes shake. . As Gay calmly recounts the assault, the camera often cuts Bob’s face, where his pain and fear of not being able to help her seems as raw as it would be if the attack had happened the week before. Later, at a survivors gathering, the Hardwicks realize that, of all the people present, they are the only couple that remains together after being attacked. It seems like a minor miracle.

There are also occasional moments of lightness. The day Haynes and McNamara rented two black SUVs to pick up the Motherlode from the sheriff’s office, well aware that officials might change their minds about allowing civilians access to this treasure trove of information, it is recreated as a scene from a heist movie, with Haynes in aviator tones and black tops. Documentalists use voicemail and text messages between Oswalt and McNamara superimposed on tracking shots along suburban hallways or through moving car windows to convey a sense of the mundane but indispensable teamwork of a contemporary marriage. As the deadline for his book approaches, he sends her a text message telling her that he finds her involved in some of the same procrastination habits that she found herself resorting to while writing her own book. “I keep the gas tanks full. My eye is on the laundry, “he writes. “Shower and bedtime at night, soccer on weekends. It will be done, everything. These next 54 hours? All you need to do is get up in the morning, grab your coffee and cereal, and write your pages. “These details may seem superfluous, but as many of the interviewees in the series note, the killer seemed possessed by the desire to desecrate and ruin the domestic solidarity of couples like Oswalt and McNamara.

DeAngelo’s arrest came just after the first day of filming the miniseries, Nancy Abraham, co-director of HBO’s documentary and family programming, told the New York Times.. The filmmakers were able to secure interviews that will fascinate close followers of the case. DeAngelo’s fiancée, several victims, remember him shouting her name during strange sobs, describing the controlling and finally terrifying behavior that led her to break up with him. DeAngelo’s nephew tells stories his mother told him about the abuse DeAngelo and his siblings suffered as children. A cousin, a much younger woman, professed complete bewilderment and a “broken” heart after learning that her kind “Uncle Joe”, who welcomed her for two years after suffering her own sexual trauma and attempted suicide, had inflicted this. unimaginable pain in so many strangers.

DeAngelo’s name was not on McNamara’s suspect list or anyone else’s. It was tracked using a public DNA database. Arguably, the attention McNamara’s high-profile coverage brought to the case spurred the ongoing investigation, and she made some cunning assumptions about the author’s background, such as the likelihood that he came from a military family. But most of her efforts, while creative and insightful, played no role in DeAngelo’s apprehension. This is a realization of punishment that casts a shadow on the personal cost that “citizen detectives” (as the documentary identifies them) like McNamara have paid by hunting the Golden State Killer where it could never have been found. McNamara herself sometimes wrote about the disturbing similarities between her zeal to capture the killer and the killer’s lurking behavior. But as evidenced by the sensitive and intelligent six hours of this miniseries, McNamara was motivated by a desire for justice and an appreciation for ordinary happiness that DeAngelo only wanted to destroy. There is no comparison

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