I picked up my copy of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) the summer before my senior year of college, in a homey, close-packed bookstore in the college town where I worked in June and July. I don’t remember how long it took me to read it, but I know I went too fast, mainlining the information and not taking the time to appreciate Michelle McNamara’s precise prose. I put it down feeling obscurely dissatisfied. Joseph James DeAngelo was charged with a series of rapes and murders that span twelve years and the state of California shortly after the book’s publication, which came two years after McNamara’s death. As a result, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is silent on the killer’s identity, and its pages, full of masterful reporting, investigation, and self-awareness, are checkered with editor’s notes attesting to the work McNamara had hoped to do. What’s the point? I asked myself when I put the book down. It includes no answers, and certainly no closure. A few years later, however, I reread it, and realized that this absence is the point.
In a way, my journey as a reader mirrors the book’s journey from true crime innocence to experience. It begins chock-a-block with clues, leads, and theories, but while the stream of information never abates, the answer doesn’t get closer. McNamara makes use of many cutting-edge investigative techniques that would prove instrumental in identifying DeAngelo after her death, including familial DNA, but is unable to see these paths come to fruition (because of this gap in knowledge, I will refer to the perpetrator as McNamara describes him—the Golden State Killer—rather than referring to him as DeAngelo). This authorial absence mirrors the lack of emotional closure in the case both in the historical moment when the book was being composed and the perpetrator was still unidentified, and post-conviction, when comprehension still remains out of reach.
“Make one move,” the killer told one of the women he raped, “and you’ll be silent forever.” This silence—of victims, perpetrator, and author—haunts the book, revealing the essential unknowableness of people by the parallels McNamara draws between herself and the killer, showing the elusiveness of actions and motivations, both to others and ourselves. In her introduction to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, author Gillian Flynn writes about wanting to know more about McNamara, not the man she hunted: “Who was the woman whom I trusted enough to follow into this nightmare?…What made her this way?” The answers the book provides to Flynn’s questions are both instructive and opaque: an early brush with crime when a neighbor was murdered, an instinct for stories, and a thorny but loving relationship with her mother. These insights are helpful, but there is still a gap between them and the “curiosity turned to clawing hunger,” the “click-fever” and “dopamine rush[es]” McNamara describes as she investigates. Many people love true crime and writing, and many people have fraught relationships with their parents. Not everyone turns these energies to the solving of a decades-old cold case. Readers can’t fully grasp what drives McNamara, and I suspect she didn’t fully understand it either. There are corners of ourselves that remain unknown to us.
The dark twin to McNamara’s mystique is the terrifying haze surrounding the Golden State Killer, his identity, and his motivations. Before escalating to murder, he breaks into dozens of homes, wreaking devastation. Husbands are tied up while their wives are raped in another room, plates stacked on their backs to make even the smallest move impossible. A child is invited into the room where he is “playing tricks with [her] mom and dad.” The scraps of information he reveals about himself—including grief or glee over a mother figure he calls for, and a hatred of the police—are paper-thin, and wholly inadequate to explain his destructive rage. McNamara writes around these gaps, creating in the process a testament to the emotions evoked by the unknown. One of the pulls of the true crime genre is seeing how ordinary people bear up under tragedy, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark showcases acts of both callousness and solidarity. After the murder of her mother, Debbi Domingo hears her grandmother telling her aunt, “I’m so glad it wasn’t you. I don’t know what I would do if it had been you.” The husbands of two of the rape victims drive around their neighborhood together in the early morning hours, searching for the man who imprisoned them in their own homes, “the action of moving forward, their hands unrestrained”—the only thing they can do. The mundanity of their drives isn’t futile, but a push against despair and a trauma that can’t be quantified.
Seemingly small actions like these bridge the holes between the Golden State Killer, the effect he had on his victims and their families, and McNamara’s work of piecing the case together years later. Making headway translates into minutiae, like tracking down a pair of cufflinks, trawling through yearbooks for possible suspects, and hitting dead end after dead end. It was patient, painstaking work like this that eventually caught DeAngelo, but McNamara’s absence from this final act and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s missing resolution embody true crime’s final, aching silence. Readers can never fully understand McNamara or the Golden State Killer—not because there is something abnormal or extraordinary in them, but because to be human is to accept that there are corners of our personalities that can never be known.
McNamara amassed over three thousand files worth of evidence on the case, but in “Letter to An Old Man,” in which she addresses the killer directly, very little attention is given to what motivated him. Instead, she focuses on his actions, and her belief that the traces he left will catch up to him. “Your heyday prowess has no value anymore,” she writes. “Your skill set has been phased out.” Her belief in the sleuths—official and armchair—powering the technology that would catch DeAngelo is heartening, even as her book bears testament to an emotional void beyond the reach of modern forensics.
“Letter to An Old Man” ends with a command, or perhaps a plea, for the Golden State Killer to “Walk into the light.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark mines its clarity from acknowledging darkness. The unknowableness McNamara explores is not exclusive to serial killers: it is an intrinsic feature of the people we are and will become. The Golden State Killer’s crimes are so brutal and wide-ranging it would be easy to turn the story into an archetypal fairy tale, complete with a dragon and dragon-killer. McNamara doesn’t spare herself anymore than she spares the killer, baring the unknowable parts of herself.
These absences at the heart of the book build a kind of empathy for the killer that is instructive rather than sympathetic. There is no attempt to excuse his action. Instead, an understanding of the gaps in self-knowledge and a tacit acknowledgment that the deeper driving force may be a mystery to him as well prompts readers to stop searching for the meaning in his crimes. A complete understanding of the motivations behind the man and the emotional fallout his actions created for victims, investigators, and the general public is impossible. By acknowledging the futility of attempting to comprehend his actions, readers can move forward and instead focus on the capture and conviction McNamara predicted. This is a victory that may be more meaningful than a complete understanding of the killer could ever be because, unlike complete understanding, it lies within our grasp.