Inside Michelle McNamara’s Obsessive Hunt for the Golden State Killer
Liz Garbus opens up about her new HBO true-crime docuseries “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” chronicling the late writer Michelle McNamara’s investigation into the Golden State Killer.
HBO’s six-part docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark concerns the most prolific fiend you’ve probably never heard of: the Golden State Killer, who from 1974 to 1986 committed 50 rapes and at least 13 murders. Those crimes were originally attributed to different suspects (known as the Visalia Ransacker, East Area Rapist, and Original Night Stalker) until they were all pinned on the same individual thanks to the investigative work of Michelle McNamara.
A true-crime blogger, McNamara’s sleuthing and reporting brought the villain’s reign of terror to national light, first in a 2013 Los Angeles magazine article and then with her 2018 book that gives this series its name. Unfortunately, McNamara didn’t live to see her bestseller completed, or published—or to witness the identification and apprehension of the individual she’d long hunted, Joseph James DeAngelo, a Navy veteran and ex-cop—because on April 21, 2016, she passed away in her sleep due to a combination of heart problems and prescription pills.
In the face of that tragedy, McNamara’s husband Patton Oswalt enlisted the aid of writers Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes to finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. HBO’s true-crime series thus serves as both the story of the Golden State Killer and, just as importantly, of McNamara herself, who through copious archival videos, interviews, audio recordings and journal entries becomes the show’s narrator and protagonist. Directed by Liz Garbus along with co-helmers Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane and Josh Koury, it’s a gripping and moving saga of obsession, monstrousness, and the cultural and institutional sexism that allowed the Golden State Killer to not only get away with his crimes for so long, but to remain a somewhat under-the-radar evildoer compared to his more notorious ‘70s/’80s counterparts like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and the Zodiac.
As a tale about women being preyed upon by a vicious man, and then further devalued by a system that viewed rape as a minor offense, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a spiritual companion piece to Garbus’ other 2020 effort, Lost Girls, a based-on-real-events thriller about the murder of female Long Island sex workers. Placing intense focus on McNamara, as well as the victims and survivors of the Golden State Killer, the documentarian’s latest—also arriving on the heels of her great 2019 doc Who Killed Garrett Phillips?—is at once intimate and expansive, providing up-close-and-personal perspectives on the madman’s traumatizing brutality, and delivering a larger critique of a ‘70s and ‘80s society that, in a manner not so dissimilar from today, routinely minimized the horror of sexual assault.
Ahead of the series’ premiere this Sunday, June 28, we spoke with Garbus about bringing McNamara’s life’s work (and story) to the small screen, the enduring appeal of the true-crime genre, and the fundamental mystery of individuals like DeAngelo, who is set to plead guilty to 13 counts of murder.
You’ve completed 17 projects in the past 10 years. How do you find the time?
On this series, I had three amazing directors working alongside me—Josh Koury, Elizabeth Wolff and Myles Kane—as well as great producers, researchers and associate producers. So this is an entirely collaborative effort, and that’s how it came together. I certainly am not doing these things alone. Who Killed Garrett Phillips? was a much smaller team, and a very intimate film. They didn’t overlap much in terms of schedules, but I don’t know—I guess I’m a compulsive worker. What can I say? [Laughs]
Like Lost Girls, this is a story about a cold case involving the rape and murder of young women. Was it a conscious decision to continue investigating similar subject matter and themes, or was it just a fortuitous coincidence?
It’s definitely more fortuitous than pre-planned. Obviously, I’m a person who’s interested in certain stories. Lost Girls was an incredible book and a script that came to me three to four years before I read Michelle McNamara’s book, so they were on different timelines. But cases that examine systemic inequities, and have strong female protagonists and badass voices, certainly appeal to me. HBO gave me I’ll Be Gone in the Dark; I didn’t actually know about the case and Michelle’s book before they sent it to me. But I gravitate towards that kind of material—although I also gravitate to very different stories as well, like Nina Simone [2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone?]. I’m not solely focused on crime and women, but I am certainly interested in it.
There are tons of true-crime stories. Was Michelle McNamara herself the differentiating element that made this one stand out for you?
I didn’t know about the case of the Golden State Killer, and 50 rapes and 13 murders being attributed to one perpetrator that was still at large—because when I started this, we didn’t know who did it. The sheer swath of that, and devastation, was something that made me feel it was worth continuing Michelle’s legacy of shining a spotlight on this case, especially through the stories of the survivors. Something that I was really interested in that Michelle was also interested in was: 50 rapes. That is a level of destruction that is unimaginable, and you think about how rape was dealt with in the ‘70s—that it was a misdemeanor in many jurisdictions. It just felt like, in a similar way that Lost Girls looked at the devaluing of the victims as a reason that the case never got solved, I think that was at play here.
Are those factors why the Golden State Killer—compared to many other notorious serial killers of the ‘70s and ‘80s—isn’t better known?
I think there are many factors. I can’t escape the idea that the fact that rape was, in many cases and jurisdictions, a misdemeanor, or the cops would kind of say, “Oh, you picked the pretty one”—the way in which it was trivialized as a crime—had to influence how many resources were thrown at it. Now again, we met law-enforcement individuals like Richard Shelby and Larry Crompton, and those guys are haunted; they wanted to solve this case. I’m not pointing a finger at them in particular, the guys who were involved in our show. But it’s a systemic issue, about how rape was treated then. And I’m not trying to say that we solved those problems, because in fact we have not. Many sexual-assault survivors today don’t report, because they don’t trust the way the system will handle it. We have a long way to go.
The series is told through Michelle’s videos, writing and interviews. At what point did you realize you both wanted her front and center, and that such material was available?
When I read the manuscript and met Patton, he said, “I’ll give you everything.” I thought, well, I have this incredible writer and her voice in this manuscript, and then there are going to be the survivors in this case. So I know there’s a story here. But it wasn’t until we really got into Michelle’s materials—her videotapes, her recordings, her interviews—that we could figure out the storytelling technique. What was exciting to us as storytellers was constructing it like you were on this obsessive investigative journey along with Michelle, as opposed to it being completely past-tense. That became the format, the structure, the point of view of the show.
What was it like working with Patton, and Michelle’s sisters, given the relative rawness of their loss?
It’s very raw. When Michelle died, Patton felt like this book has to get finished. So he called two people he knew who he thought could finish it, and that was Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes. They took that on and did it beautifully. I think similarly, with the documentary, it was like, OK, who can do this? I think for Patton, he knew he couldn’t do it; it was way too raw and emotional. But he wanted it done for Michelle. I think that was how he dealt with it. The book reached a really large audience, and hopefully with this doc, it will continue to reach new people. It’s an act of love, I think, to want to continue to get her story out there.
Did you feel you were, in a sense, helping finish her work—especially since she passed away before the book was completed, and Joseph James DeAngelo wasn’t caught until after it was published?
I didn’t feel that we were completing for her. I wouldn’t assume that mantle. We started this project before we knew the name Joseph DeAngelo—and after the first day of shooting, we found out there was a suspect arrested. We approached the series very much in the spirit of the book, in that you were on this investigative journey; you don’t hear the name Joseph DeAngelo until episode five. I have no idea how Michelle would have approached the book, or approached this, if she’d known this man, and how that would have changed it. I hope she would be proud of how we did it, but I certainly couldn’t predict how she would have finished it.
Like Michelle’s book, you place tremendous focus on the victims. Was it difficult to get these women to speak about their ordeals—and relive their traumas—on camera?
I had a terrific team of folks working with me who were in touch with the survivors. I think that, yes, a lot of these women hadn’t spoken before, and it was a huge leap of faith. But I think also, once they caught DeAngelo, they knew there would be a media frenzy around him, and I think it was important for them to have their stories presented in a thorough way, and not just have them be a flash on the news of a soundbite of the worst thing that ever happened to them in their lives. In some ways, the fact that we were also interested in what happens after—how does life go on? How do you talk about this with your family? How do you heal?—probably added a level of comfort for them. I don’t want to speak for them, but that’s my assumption.
Michelle wrote, “When I’m puzzling over the details of an unsolved case, I’m like a rat in a maze given a task.” Do you find yourself similarly gripped by the stories you choose to tell?
Absolutely. I completely relate to her sleepless nights of searching, and finding that three hours are gone because you’ve gone down a rabbit hole, and the adrenaline rush of thinking you’re close to nailing something, and the letdown when you find out you haven’t. I completely relate to all that. I also relate to the struggle to maintain balance when you have children and you have a partner, and both of you are working. There were so many levels of intersection that I found between my own life and Michelle’s, for sure.
There’s talk throughout the series about the underlying appeal of true-crime stories. What do you think the attraction is for yourself, and Michelle, and Paul, and Billy…
And you! [Laughs]
Yes, as a true-crime junkie, definitely me too.
I think a lot about this, and I know Michelle did too. And I don’t have the answer. I think people—not just me—are certainly interested in extreme forms of human behavior; the extreme edges of what people are capable of. The transgression of social norm is just fascinating to us as we all strive to live in this world with each other. I think it’s examining those extremes. And for women, who are often victims of crimes or domestic violence, it can also be a way of externalizing that very real threat and anxiety in a form that you can turn off, or close the book. It feels like it provides a level of control, and it also allows you to release some of those anxieties that you feel as a person, through experiencing it.
The whole idea of, “What is true crime?” is interesting. I’ve made films inside the prison system, and nobody called those true crime. What do we call true crime, and what do we not call true crime? I’m certainly trying to figure that out with my own work, which has taken place throughout the criminal justice system from many angles. I don’t know why certain things are called true crime and some aren’t. I think it’s an interesting discussion.
Given that Joseph James DeAngelo’s story isn’t quite over yet, were there things you wish you’d been able to get into the series that you didn’t?
As we were talking about before, the show is not about DeAngelo. Yes, episode six explores what we know about DeAngelo, but it’s also very clear that you’ll never understand why; there’s no understanding this. We can look at his trauma, we can look at what happened to him, but it still doesn’t make sense. There are so many people who went through trauma who become society’s healers, and essential workers. So there’s no understanding it. In many ways, I don’t need to know more about him. What’s important is that the victims and survivors get—I don’t know if closure’s ever possible—some sense of justice. But I don’t think there’s more that we need to say right now about him.