There are two mysteries in the fifth episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and only one is definitively solved — and it’s not the one you’d expect. At the end of the episode, a combination of renewed public interest in the Golden State Killer case and a winnowing of DNA evidence leads to the capture of Joseph James DeAngelo after a search that lasted over four decades. The case that had obsessed Michelle McNamara — not to mention her collaborators, the survivors, and the many others with a stake in the outcome — finally achieved the outcome that she had predicted and described so eloquently at the end of her book. (“Take one of your hyper-gulping breaths, clench your teeth, inch timidly toward the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you.”)
The unsolvable mystery is the death of McNamara herself. Granted, her autopsy details a cocktail of prescription medications (Adderall, Xanax, and fentanyl), combined with blockages in her arteries. But there’s no one answer to account for why McNamara was driven to self-medicate, and so we’re left with a cocktail of stressors — some immediate, some longstanding, all converging at the same time. The immediate stressors are easy enough to identify: a looming deadline on a book that’s receding into an evidentiary abyss; an immersion into the psyche of a killer whose pathology is snapping more and more into focus; a cycle of insomnia and mania. The longstanding stressors are less obvious: her possible sexual assault in Northern Ireland; a family with a history of addiction and depression; and an abiding feeling that the moments of lightness in her life were not enough to chase away the darkness.
“Monsters Recede But Never Vanish” is an episode title that applies to both mysteries. In terms of the GSK case, it accounts for his long period of inactivity since his last crime, when he raped and murdered Janelle Cruz in May 1986. In McNamara’s case, it was more like a storm cloud that followed her around, broken up by the blessings in her life but never dissipating. (“It’s not any one thing,” she wrote. “It never had been. It’s a darkness that covers everything I see, do, or touch, with moments of light and happiness.”) It’s a terrible cosmic injustice that McNamara didn’t live to see the GSK get taken into custody — it would have, at a minimum, given her book a clear path forward — but the episode does credit her for making his capture possible. She put her health on the line to find justice for his victims and their families. It’s a bittersweet triumph.
The immediate aftermath of McNamara’s death was worked into Patton Oswalt’s Netflix comedy special Annihilation, excerpts of which are sampled here. (The whole hour is excellent, as Oswalt’s stand-up generally is, but the relevant section starts at the 42-minute mark.) Coping with the sudden loss of a partner is hard enough on its own, but a small child losing her mother is another challenge altogether, with long-lasting implications. Oswalt has been candid on Twitter and in public appearances about the grieving process and about moving forward, too, with another partner, the actress Meredith Salenger, who has brought them stability and happiness. For him, marinating in grief would only give it power; speaking openly about his feelings, he told Stephen Colbert, was “a way for the darkness to feel uncomfortable with itself for a little bit.”
With McNamara’s work incomplete, a chunk of the episode is given over to the effort to finish the book, which fell to Oswalt, her research partner Paul Haynes, and the true-crime specialist Billy Jensen. The editor had 150 finished manuscript pages, which left the rest to be hemmed together from the pieces of writing and notes on McNamara’s hard drive — a process that took four or five months to complete. It was a painful act of excavation for Oswalt, who had to immerse himself in his wife’s voice and headspace in the middle of grieving her and rebuilding his life as a single father. Her death gave the book an ending, in that she couldn’t continue to take an active role in the investigation.
And yet, “Monsters Recede But Never Vanish” asserts that she did take an active role by raising awareness of the case and pointing to how it ultimately would be solved. McNamara’s interest in 23andMe, one of those sites that traces family genealogy through DNA testing, turned out to be a model for how the GSW would be caught. It turns out there was no shortage of the GSW’s DNA, even though his saliva wasn’t available, and building out various family trees based on his genetic blueprint was a puzzle that narrowed the field to just a handful of suspects. One of the suspects, Joseph DeAngelo, was a police officer fired for shoplifting a hammer and a can of dog repellent from a Pay N Save store in Sacramento County in the summer of 1979. (Several articles about the incident, his firing, and his failed appeals bid can be found here.) The items themselves have harrowing implications, and they also speak to a criminal recklessness that undermines his fastidious scouting and preparation. He was a cop who thought himself above the law.
So now, the rest is a postscript that McNamara may have predicted, but didn’t live to write. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has one more episode, fully adapted from events outside the pages of her book. But, the show argues, that story would not have been told without her.
• Oswalt’s recollection of the days after McNamara’s death, when he had to break the news to their daughter, Alice, and try to find some path forward for their family is so heartbreaking and insightful. Alice’s self-possession is a tribute to the resiliency of children, but it’s a tricky balance to try to confront this terrible loss while, in Oswalt’s words, “pathologically trying to bring normalcy to any minute of my life.” It’s a wound that both father and daughter will have to build around — and occasionally nurse — their entire lives.
• Being a new parent has a way of forcing perspective on how your own parents raised you, even if their decisions were imperfect. McNamara was able to reconcile with her mother before she died, and being able to identify with her was part of it: “I got the love that guts you, the sense of responsibility that narrows the world to a pair of needy eyes.”
• The process of building family trees to connect the GSK with third or fourth cousins sounds like impossible work, since those connections have to go back nearly two centuries to find a common ancestor. But it’s a fascinating exercise in 21st-century crime-solving.
• “When your mom dies, you’re the best memory of her. Everything you do is a memory of her.”
• In late June, Joseph James DeAngelo confessed to killing more than a dozen people as part of a plea agreement to spare him the death penalty. He apparently blamed the crimes on an inner personality named “Jerry.”