Essays · TV

‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ Honors Michelle McNamara’s Memory and Work

Liz Garbus’ docuseries showcases what Michelle McNamara achieved while she was alive and the impact she’s had since her death.
Michelle Mcnamara
Photograph by Robyn Von Swank/HBO
By  · Published on June 28th, 2020

Michelle McNamara stunned readers and transformed true crime forever with her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, which was published posthumously in 2018. Now that its subject has been identified and arrested, filmmaker Liz Garbus tells McNamara’s story in a six-part documentary series for HBO that beyond just the groundbreaking investigation of a serial killer. 

The late author spent much of her adult life researching a slew of unsolved rapes and murders she believed had the same perpetrator, a man she dubbed the Golden State Killer. Her True Crime Diary blog and 2013 article in Los Angeles Magazine brought attention to a cold case that most people outside of central California in the ’70s and ’80s had never heard of. Garbus’ series documents how she came to her obsession with this mystery and how she was able to lead investigators in the right direction.

Since the book’s publication and the subsequent solving of the case, the Golden State Killer story is now one that every true crime fan knows about. However, the crimes and investigation make up only half of why I’ll Be Gone in the Dark became a bestseller. McNamara is the key to what makes the story so innovative for the genre, and now the documentary gives her the attention and credit she deserves.

Her writing, as captivating as it is on the page, made the mystery interesting long before there was ever an indication that it would be solved. She wasn’t afraid to place the reader and herself in the victim’s shoes in order to draw people in. She understood what captivated true crime fans and knew how to give them what they wanted.

Garbus knows that McNamara’s words are essential in depicting this story. Actress Amy Ryan reads excerpts from the book in voiceover accompanied by gruesome images of the crimes McNamara describes. Audio recordings of the author thinking out loud about the case reveal the evolution of her investigation and her brilliant thought process in writing the book. McNamara’s private diary entries give an insight into her life that fans have never seen before. She describes her own trauma, further connecting her to the Golden State Killer victims.

In several instances, McNamara’s chilling words alone end an episode better than any image could. It’s hard to explain McNamara’s allure without showing the exact words she used. After all, no one else possesses the talent she had. Including her own words helps audiences who haven’t read the book still get a sense of just how great a writer McNamara was, which is essential for a documentary about her. 

In the book, McNamara is unafraid to insert herself into the narrative in order to connect with her readers. She openly discusses the irony of researching such horrid acts of violence while she’s in her daughter’s nursery. McNamara gave readers a glimpse of her own life, but there is much more to be found in the series.

McNamara was able to relate to everyone she talked to, and that is how she got so many people to open up to her even though she was not in law enforcement. She also used her personal experiences to better relate to her readers, who, like her, gravitated towards grim stories of violence. McNamara struggled with the idea of prying into someone’s life in their weakest moment. That includes the death of a loved one or their traumatic sexual assault.

Her description of her relationship with true crime appears in the show:

“I love reading true crime, but I’ve always been aware of the fact that, as a reader, I am actively choosing to be a consumer of someone else’s tragedy. So, like any responsible consumer, I try to be careful in the choices I make. I read only the best: writers who are dogged, insightful, and humane.”

Often throughout the book, McNamara questions her own morality in her love for true crime. She questions the purpose of the genre as a whole and urges her readers to do the same. Opening herself up to the world in her writing makes I’ll Be Gone in the Dark so miraculous. It’s much more than just a true crime book. And her vulnerability makes the adaptation much more than just a true crime docuseries as well.

Presenting what McNamara was going through at the time makes her work even more enigmatic. Her texts to her husband at her lowest point while writing the book shows what a huge toll it took on her. And her father dying just before her deadline meant she knew the sort of loss that she was describing. She worked so hard on the book and investigation while battling bouts of depression that affected her family. The struggle she had in getting as far she did with her investigation makes her premature death all the more tragic.

In its incorporation of McNamara’s words and what was going on in her life, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark covers so much more than just cold cases and true crime. The series brilliantly connects McNamara to the investigation or to the victims’ stories. Very few stories of this genre can bring the author into the narrative without seeming trite or indulgent. McNamara pulled it off in her book, so it is only right that the same is done in the documentary.

With I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Garbus has created a vulnerable, unafraid portrait of a woman who never got to see her hard work come to fruition. The series honors McNamara’s memory by showing the world her work and also including an accurate picture of who she was. In bringing her talent to a new medium and extending the reach of her legacy, it far exceeds the expectations set for the adaptation, which is what McNamara deserves.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday, June 28th at 10 PM EST.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_