Many of those who nurture a true crime habit—and judging by the current boom in the genre, that's a lot of us—are well aware of how morally murky it is to use our leisure time to entertain ourselves with stories of the the worst moments in other people's lives. And for every respectful, thoughtfully handled piece of true crime media, there are far more examples that are tasteless and exploitative.
Writer Michelle McNamara nimbly navigated this challenging genre. "She didn't flinch from evoking key elements of the horror and yet avoided lurid overindulgence in grisly details," Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen write in her book, I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, "as well as sidestepping self-righteous justice crusading or victim hagiography." Though she died before she was able to finish the work, the book was completed and became a best-seller—and now it's been adapted as an HBO docuseries. Here's what you should know about the woman who made it all possible.
Who was Michelle McNamara?
McNamara was born in 1970, and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, as the youngest of six kids. Her interest in true crime was sparked by a murder that occurred in her community when she was 14 years old. Less than a mile from McNamara's home, 24-year-old Kathleen Lombardo was dragged into an ally and slashed to death while on a jog. The McNamara family knew the Lombardos from church, and two days after the murder, teenaged Michelle visited the scene of the crime and picked up pieces of the victim's broken Walkman. "What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer's face should be," she wrote in I'll Be Gone in the Dark. "I need to see his face. He loses his power when we know his face."
McNamara attended college at the University of Notre Dame, before earning a master's in creative writing at the University of Minnesota. In 2003, she was working as a writer in Los Angeles when she met actor Patton Oswalt. They married in 2005, and their daughter, Alice, was born in 2009.
McNamara started her website, True Crime Diary, in 2006. "I realized there was so much information online available about these unsolved cases that wasn’t making it to the news," she said in a 2007 interview. After Oswalt saw her yelling in frustration at TV crime coverage, he suggested she start a website. "So I kind of just did it almost as a lark at first," said McNamara, "not figuring it would become such a regular thing." On her blog, she gravitated towards lesser-known cases, and didn't just catalog stories, but mounted her own investigations as well.
She first wrote about the criminal known variously as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker, on the website in 2011. In 2013, she wrote a feature for Los Angeles Magazine about the serial killer, and gave the then-unknown perpetrator his definitive nickname: The Golden State Killer. The article earned McNamara a book deal, and she began work on the project that would become I'll Be Gone in the Dark. But tragically, at 46 years old, McNamara died in her sleep of an accidental overdose. The book was only half-finished.
How was I'll Be Gone in the Dark completed?
After McNamara's death, Oswalt, her researcher Paul Haynes, and journalist Billy Jensen worked to finish the book, using her notes, research, and existing writing for her website and Los Angeles Magazine. They had a lot of material—McNamara had gathered 3,500 files on her hard drives, filled dozens of notebooks and legal pads, and had 37 boxes full of files from a California prosecutor's office.
In February 2018, two years after McNamara's death, the book was published, with an introduction by Gone Girl author and True Crime Diary reader Gillian Flynn, and an afterward by Oswalt. Less than two months later, authorities announced that Joseph DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer, had been arrested and charged with eight murders. McNamara's book became a bestseller, and was adapted by documentarian Liz Garbus into the HBO docuseries of the same name.
"This book had to be finished," Oswalt told the New York Times that year. "Knowing how horrible this guy was, there was this feeling of, you’re not going to silence another victim. Michelle died, but her testimony is going to get out there."
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