Letter To An Old Man: Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

From 1968 to 1989 the western world was overrun with ghouls.

Crime was rampant, and not just the petty kind. Between 1980 to 1989 alone, some 600 active serial killers roamed. It was madness. The movie theaters filled their seats with slashers and methodical, cannibalistic swoll men, wearing masks, wielding axes, stitched into black gloves. People were scared. Single women made plans so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. Each Halloween, Jasons showed up, in gaggles on the front steps of houses holding pillowcases aloft, caroling “Trick or Treat!”

By the 90’s, a cool down occurred; the shadows began to slither back into the cracks. The masks got peeled back. The gloves put away. We caught some, and the ones we didn’t got sleepy. By the 2000’s, the Era of the Serial Killer was deemed over. Now we have the Rampage Killers, with their trench coats and guns. Columbine changed everything. The forensic scientists came, garbed in their angel white robes.

Some of us are obsessed with those times. Some of us would rather bury it in the deep dark earth. Some could care less, but we all know the stories, and some of us know the checklist: 1.) Always park your car under a streetlight. 2.) Don’t wear a ponytail if you jog in the early morning. 3.) Always keep your blinds closed at night. 4.) Don’t be sympathetic to men in the dark.

Men in the dark; that’s how they get away. Sink into the oil pits and vanish like ghosts. In such foul, pathetically twisted minds we can’t breathe, but some of us dive in anyway. Some of us wade into the slosh, and try to feel out the skeletons laid at the bottom with our toes.

I’ve been reading True Crime since I was young. My mother always had mystery books and crime novels scattered about the house like autumn leaves. Patterson, Grisham, Garwood, Sandford, Johansen, Higgins Clark. Sometime in the 90’s the general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nominee Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt showed up. I gobbled it like chocolate. I was hooked. I read True Crime on my back porch rooftop by flashlight, in my bed with the crank of the snake light; in my closet, when the sun set I’d climb into my haven and turn the switch and illuminate the bulb with a click. I developed a studious, unabashed love. The names of vile men and women stacked high in my brain; the tools they used, the odd ticks that inhabited them, the men and women they killed, the men and women who survived—those who had outsmarted them.

Contrary to the pop culture, the lump of serial killers aren’t meticulous geniuses. In the US, their average IQ runs below the national average, at about 94.5. They get away not because of their mountainous intellects, but rather because what they do is so chaotic and beyond reason, they simply fall out of sight.

But a slim few of us have eagle eyes. Some of us are dogs that get something in their mouths and refuse to let go. Bloodhounds with noses that continue hunting over the hills long after the trail has gone cold. One of those individuals lived in Los Angeles, with a famous husband and a little girl. Her name? Michelle McNamara. And her True Crime tour de force I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is destined to be a classic, and has shaken up the investigation world.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark_jacket“Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? […]’

“Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.”

In the decades of the ghouls, the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker) was one of the most infamous. In the state of California, in a span of about ten years, the diabolical GSK committed fifty sexual assaults, terrorizing Sacramento and the neighboring counties before moving down south, where he murdered ten people, targeting male/female couples in their beds. He was an absolute plague. Whole towns filled their streets with floodlights. Worried and tortured men patrolled in their cars when night fell. Women couldn’t sleep, their minds buzzing like bees. GSK played with his prey, like a cat with a spider; hog tying victims, muttering incoherent nothing’s as he ransacked their homes, placing teacups on husbands backs as he raped their wives, leaving out milk and cookies, phone calls to the police. Behind him was a littered trail of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He ducked, dived, slithered, and got lucky. The Golden State Killer was never caught. His sadistic legacy oozed through the 1990’s and 2000’s like molasses. But through that time, under the radar, armed with a laptop and a fierce, determined mind was Michelle McNamara. She believed that the case was crackable. That EAR-ONS was catchable. McNamara knew he had a face, and she worked tirelessly to drag that face into the light.

michelle&patton
Great picture of Michelle McNamara and her husband Patton Oswalt. Image Credit/Taken from: Bustle

A book of conflicting feelings, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a victory and a tragedy: A victory because Michelle McNamara’s stalwart resolve and keen brain has lit a fire; a tragedy, because the brilliant McNamara died before the work was finished. Lovingly and painstakingly put together by her husband, well known comedian Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s unfinished novel hangs in nebulousness, much like the Golden State Killer himself, who she hunted obsessively. Yet the book stands strong nonetheless, which is perhaps the greatest testament to McNamara’s deft, enthralling pen. Even released too soon, the arrow still hits its mark. The writing is clean, crisp; the visuals and sensations leap off the pages, and I was turning and turning them late into the night, my heart hammering.

Many times reading True Crime one can not help but be engrossed by the wicked killers and their sadistic actions; however, what is wonderful about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is that the most engrossing, captivating character on this dark wending road is McNamara herself. McNamara is fascinating, brave, intelligent—she feels like a secret weapon. Through all the blood, fear, and darkness, McNamara holds out a lantern, and by her little flame we all find our way out of the rumpus night. Bringing organization to chaos, hope to despair, McNamara doesn’t give up, and through her diligent collecting of the pieces, and her preening of the muck, a picture, a truth, starts to take shape. In the epilogue – Letter To An Old Man – she writes:

“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me.’

“I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves.’

You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”

Michelle McNamara, from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Although now gone, McNamara’s hunt continues. GSK  may still lurk, but now, thanks to McNamara, the world is awake, and watching.

Michelle_McNamara Portrait
Portrait of Michelle McNamara. Image Credit: Robin Von Swank

Five out of five stars.

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The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori – Chris Hedges Deftly Defines WAR.

“The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bellies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.”

Erich Maria Remarque, from All Quiet on the Western Front

In my sophomore year of high school I read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of war, and it changed me.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a book that captivated my mind, laden in the grotesque horrors of violence and the unblinking, unflinching nature of modern warfare. Young and angry when I read it, the refracted nihilism that scorches Remarque’s words created slow burns of thought inside me, and I was so in love with it, I stole a copy from the school library one evening. It was late 2002, and 9/11 had already struck. The cogs and pistons that would turn the engine of the Iraq War were being built; my country was wounded, and vengeful. I still have that mass market paperback, its spine riddled with crags, its corners dogeared and torn. The many hours I spent with Remarque’s novel, began to shape questions I wouldn’t be able to put answers to for years. What war was or wasn’t. What violence meant or did not mean. What victory or shame lied in mass murder and death.

In Chris Hedges descriptive and moving work, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was hearkened back to that time; that time of upheaval and new thought, and the challenges of examination into the unmanageable, unimaginable aspects of murky human action. For me, the book is a vindication. My study and thinking has always led me to understand Violence and Power exist not in parallel to each other, but in polarity. The same deep-cut axis runs through them, but their motives and roles play in opposition to one another, with Violence as the perversion of Power. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that validated and echoed these long held feelings and thoughts of mine, and Chris Hedges accurately and elegantly, with harrowing prose and lived experience, explains war by explaining the continental clashes of Violence and Power.

WAR_Hedges“We are humiliated in combat. The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. The abstract rhetoric of patriotism is obliterated, exposed as the empty handmaiden of myth. Fear brings us all back down to earth.

Once in conflict, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. When this move takes place we have nothing to do with a world not at war. When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic. […]”

It should be understood that War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not about combat, but is a novel about the mechanisms that drive war into being. Cultural and governmental mechanisms like propaganda and mythos, pedantry and jingoism, and the destruction and perversion of tangible and intangible heritage. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent, having spent large portions of his life as an observer in warzones and combat scenarios; from the Croat-Bosniak War of the early 1990’s, to surviving imprisonment in Sudan, to escaping ambushes in Central America, Hedges has witnessed firsthand the brutality, and emptiness, that is war. Hedges openly speaks of such painful and disturbing memories, and through the keen pen of a journalist is able to bring clarity and compassion to horrid scenes often never seen by citizens back home. Bit by bit, Hedges picks apart war, eradicating the radiant myths and elaborately ornamented slogans, and so strips it raw to reveal it butt naked. What is left is a disturbing portrait of addiction and denialism, corruption and greed, and of course, violence.

Living in this time of an unprecedented refugee crisis, and the inexhaustible rise of quibbling dogmatism and hate, Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a balm of rationality, analysis, and humility. The book does more than provide a window for the reader to peer into violent conflict, but provides a mirror into our darker, deeper selves. Hedges, in his heart, is a psychologist, and through his words performs a sort of logotherapy on us; we are caught off-guard by his undeniable authenticity and intuitive mind. The bite of the statistical, and emotional truths presented through him leaves one stranded on a very small island, and we are forced into a reckoning with the cold, hard realities of war, and our own individual parts within it.

Hedges does acknowledge that sometimes war is unavoidable. With maturity, it is acknowledged that human folly and power grabs are inevitable and that diplomacy will sometimes fail; yet, through this acknowledgement Hedges takes us out of this often overused excuse, and brings us back down to earth. War in its foundations is sinister, unrepentant, and destructive. In what Hedges calls “a collapse of the moral universe”, war turns right and wrong upside down, and all things are liquidated to “the cause”. People, men and women and children, are transmogrified into objects. War diversifies nothing and coagulates everything, stuffing the veins and preventing blood flow to the heart and mind. In essence, war is a collective stroke. In what Hannah Arendt coined “nihilistic relativism”, all loathful deeds are canceled out by other loathful deeds, each horrible act justified by each other horrible act; by dispelling the existence of moral truth, the parties of war create a vacuum in which no light can get in. War sits in this void, and after it is over, this void does not evaporate but persists, and is more often buried, rather than confessed. This demolishment of truth perpetuates the myth of war, and therefore war becomes not a teacher, but an invalid, dumb and deaf. No lessons are learned, no honest accounts are passed down. The hollowness hangs in the graves.

In the first pages, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” is shared. Though at the front of the book, for this review, I believe the poem works best for closing. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is required reading, not because it is heavily anti-war, but because of the unfiltered reflection of all ourselves that exists within its pages. The old Lie, is at last, swept away.

Owen I think would be proud.

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori.

Wilfred Owen Portrait
Portrait of Wilfred Owen, beloved WWI poet and soldier. Image Credit BBC – Thank You.

The featured image is a screen shot taken from the 1930 movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.