Home Theatre: I'll Be Gone in the Dark - On the trail of evil
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's I'll Be Gone in the Dark, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
True Crime as a genre can be somewhat problematic. It can easily slip into voyeurism or end up romanticising the criminal. Liz Garbus' I'll Be Gone in the Dark (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar) avoids these pitfalls by training its focus firmly on the victims and the investigators — both official and informal — when looking at the case of the Golden State Killer. At its centre is Michelle McNamara, the crime writer on whose book of the same name the documentary series is based. McNamara brought public attention to the case of one of the worst serial offenders in US history (he committed over 50 rapes and more than a dozen murders), who had remained largely unknown until then. Before she dubbed him Golden State Killer, he was known by the clunky title East Area Rapist / Original Night Stalker or EAR/ONS — the dual name resulting from the different regions in California where he operated. McNamara was instrumental in tying the two series of crimes together in public consciousness and reviving interest in the 40-year-old case, leading to his eventual arrest.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark is just as much the story of Michelle McNamara and her obsession with the GSK case as it is about the case itself. We learn about McNamara's early life, her troubled relationship with her mother, how she met and married stand-up comedian and actor Patton Oswalt (who is credited as an executive producer and features extensively in the series), what got her interested in true crime, how she came to write this book, and so on. The series also does not shy away from showing how her obsession with this case may have precipitated her untimely demise in 2016, two years before the publication of her book, which was completed posthumously. A notable feature of the series is the way McNamara's voice pervades it. Garbus and her team have done a brilliant job of using extensive audio recordings of McNamara's interviews, passages of her writing read out by a similar sounding actor, as well as showing us her text messages and emails, to make her presence felt throughout.
And it is perhaps thanks to McNamara's influence that the series treats the victims with so much respect and puts them at the forefront. Hearing them tell the story in their own words takes the power away from the criminal and empowers the victims. This point of view makes a big difference. It helps us truly understand the human cost of such crimes. Something that's easy to lose sight of particularly when dealing with such a large number of crimes. Hearing from half a dozen of the survivors makes a number like '50 rapes' really sink in.
One thing I found particularly striking was how much the description of the US in the 70s vis-a-vis the way rape victims were treated applies to our country even today. We hear of the victim shaming and blaming they were subject to and they talk of it as something of the past. I couldn't help but think how that is still the case here — we have courts passing judgements based on the way judges think the victims ought to have behaved, for crying out loud. A survivor, one of the youngest victims, talks about how her family wanted to bury the incident and how she was not allowed to talk about it. Decades later, she finally found the strength to deal with what happened to her by reading out the police report to her husband and her sister. "That was a real moment for me in kind of owning my own story and sharing it," she says, and wonders how her life would have been different if she had had the chance to do so much earlier. Later in the series, another survivor talks about how she wants to be strong and show strength for other women, for young girls. "If it happens to a young girl, report it, don't be ashamed of it, own it, and move on. Get help if you need it," she asserts and it made me want to cheer like no mass movie scene ever has.
McNamara believed that unmasking the killer would rob him of his power. This happens in the final episode of the series. We find out the name of the killer and we see him in restraints being brought to the court to answer for his crimes. We also hear from his friends and family and learn a bit about his troubled past. This last I was a bit concerned about at first. I was worried there was going to be an attempt made to humanise the killer and perhaps make excuses for him. But the makers tread a fine line here and it was a relief to hear one of the killer's own family members say, "It is just sickening." Patton Oswalt, after meeting the victims, later lays it out clearer: "They had every right to become horrible monsters like Joseph DeAngelo (the killer) and they didn't. So them, and the way they are living, is such a f**k you to him."
The climax of the series is not the capture of the criminal. Fittingly, that belongs again to the victims. The finale of the series is a get-together of these women and their families, a year after DeAngelo's arrest. Talking about the past year and what it has meant to them in terms of finding closure, one woman says, "Something else happened this year, and that is us. We're a survivor family. For the very first time, I feel like I'm on the road to becoming myself again." It is an extraordinarily powerful moment and one that made me glad to have watched this series.