Michelle McNamara (April 14, 1970- April 21, 2016): writer, mother, wife, and above all else crime fighting investigator/warrior badass. Michelle was fourteen years old when her twenty- four-year-old neighbor went out for a run and never returned home again. She was fatally stabbed in the alley close to Michelle’s childhood home. This tragedy would lead her into a life writing about crime. First came her True Crime Diary blog which grew hundreds of thousands of followers both unknown and famous. Crime junkies obsessed with true crime, looking forward to her next post. In 2011 an obsession grew within her. One that tortured her every night while in her daughter’s playroom searching the web for a face to a killer. But you don’t have to be a crime junkie to read her recently published novel, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. This passion of hers, ultimately, may have contributed to her death in 2016.
Many crime investigators and criminalists believe that if it wasn’t for Michelle McNamara’s work, we might never know who the Golden State Killer is. A name she coined in her article, “Footsteps of a Killer” for L.A Magazine. A 7000-word masterpiece of prose. She chronicled the 50 known rapes by DeAngelo from 1976-79, and the 13 known murders from 79-86. Her article and book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, are the reason that when I hear a noise in my house, I jump. Reading her book haunted me and left me sleepless many nights, checking if the house alarm was on, if the doors were locked, and yet I read on. I read on for her. She hooks you. She graciously draws you into her world. She allows you to be vulnerable, because she was vulnerable. This author appeared cool, calm, heroic and brave. In reality she was tortured by anxiety and a racing mind searching for a killer.
“You’ll be silent forever and ’ll be gone in the dark,” was a statement that the rapist once whispered in the ear of a teenager. That chilling horrific comment, at the time of this book being written, continued to haunt his victims. McNamara’s life’s goal was to unmask this super predator who crouched below windows in the night. Her effort to demasculinize DeAngelo empowered the women and men he tortured before sunrise. She gave the reader enough detail that would lead you to imagine the horror that occurred in the dark. But she was careful not to glorify that horror. Eerie images of DeAngelo crying in the corner, “mommy,” while his victim laid bound before him, sends chills down my spine. She writes of him standing at the edge of his victims’ beds waiting to pounce on his prey, like a cat on the hunt, led me to sleep with a light on.
McNamara not only searched for a killer, but also gave a voice to the voiceless. She shed light on past, and often present, problematic procedures conducted by police officers. Police that are most often men, especially in the 70’s and 80’s. She wrote the survival stories of women who suffered unnecessarily at the hands of male police officers. She put on paper what could not be found in police reports. She wrote of how these women were found bound and undressed. They were ordered to sit on their couches, without underwear, for hours while a police force investigated their home as a crime scene. They asked the rape victims questions, while sitting there, violating them yet again. One detective going so far as to suggest that one of the women liked it. The victim blaming was rampant. She made sure her reader knew that.
McNamara’s writing has a way of connecting you with her on a personal level. She lets you feel familiar with her. She allows you in to catch a glimpse of her happiness, her heartaches, her fears, hopes and dreams. The way she tells a story is reminiscent of how a cup of coffee feels with an old friend. She is down to earth, relatable, trustworthy. Everyone trusted her. Detectives gave her access to privileged information. She had 60+ boxes of police reports containing confidential information on the cold cases of what was then labeled as EAR (East Area Rapist), EARONS (East Area Rapist/ Original Night Stalker) and who eventually became known as the Golden State Killer. Michelle McNamara was not just writing a book, she was solving a crime while simultaneously writing a memoir. A crime that would lead her to the survivors. A crime that would lead her to have millions of followers, there with her, in the dark.
On April 21, 2016, Michelle McNamara died in her sleep of cardiac arrest. Although she is gone, she left behind a legacy of details. She left behind a closed chapter in the lives of the victims he tortured. She brought together women who thought they were alone. She built a community where it was once taken away. Finally, she helped catch a killer who was simply an old man. A coward in the light.
(Postscript: Michelle McNamara died before completing her book. It was finished by her husband, Patton Oswalt, crime writer Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen)
Michelle Cruz Hine is an educator, a writer and an avid reader. She dabbles in a little bit of everything. Her favorite place to be is at home curled up with a good story or writing one. She has interviewed the iconic lesbian pulp fiction writer Ann Bannon and takes joy in writing personal essays.