Not all murders are created equal, or equally entertaining.
This series primarily serves as an examination of the life of Michelle McNamara, a true crime blogger who spent years investigating and chronicling the crimes of a man known under many names, including the East Area Rapist, the Oakland Night Stalker and the Visalia Ransacker. Between 1973 and 1986, the man she would eventually name The Golden State Killer would commit at least thirteen murders, fifty rapes, and 120 burglaries across California (thank you, Wikipedia).
Born in Illinois, McNamara became fascinated with an unsolved murder in her neighborhood. As an adult, her fascination with true crime grew into a full-time obsession. She created a popular true crime blog named True Crime Diary and appeared on the My Favorite Murder podcast. The Golden State Killer (GSK) proved to be her greatest obsession, the source of her biggest professional achievements and ultimately led to her unexpected death at 46.
Like the book she was writing before her death, the series splits time detailing the crimes of the Golden State Killer and examining Michelle McNamara’s personal life. The concept that sold publishers on her book was that of a dueling narrative, one that would contrast McNamara’s life as an amateur detective who happens to be the wife of Patton Oswalt and mother of a young daughter, with that of a serial rapist and murderer, was the hook that her book publishers thought would make her book stand out in the crowded field of true crime non-fiction.
There were several red flags about the project that McNamara was undertaking that (as always) seem obvious in hindsight. McNamara had only two previously published investigative articles in Los Angeles magazine. She had never undertaken a project the size of a novel before, with its requisite deadlines, high expectations and substantial monetary enticements. What began for her as a personal hobby, writing articles on her blog at night while her young daughter slept, suddenly became a professional obligation, requiring daily dedication and commitment.
While she was researching and writing her book, the case of the Golden State Killer was unsolved. As the series points out, McNamara was writing a novel about a case (or cases) where evidence was still coming together decades after the crimes abruptly stopped (in 1986). McNamara, in effect, was personally invested in a case that would not yield a satisfying ending for her novel. She placed herself under a lot of pressure writing a narrative built on the historical evidence of the cases, while also attempting to resolve the case. McNamara’s publisher should have assigned a ghost writer or an assistant to the project, to help ease the pressure on her. This is just one area where the blame for McNamara’s demise could easily be placed, but not the only one.
The series makes liberal use of video and audio interviews McNamara gave in the years before her death. In them, she describes several elements of her life that armchair psychologists could say lead to her obsession with the Golden State Killer. McNamara had a strained relationship with her mother. Her mother needled McNamara as a child and a young adult. McNamara thought this was because she was essentially a change-of-life baby, the youngest of six children. Did her mom take her frustration at having to raise yet another child out on Michelle? Michelle McNamara describes at length at how her mom’s constant cutting remarks negatively affected her self esteem. At one point, McNamara’s mom rhetorically questions a friend at Michelle’s wedding, isn’t she a bit old to start writing a book? In hindsight, her mom may have been right.
McNamara spent the last two-and-a-half years of her life writing her novel. When she passed away, her daughter was seven. While the series mentions that Michelle and Patton had a nanny to care for their daughter while they spent time on their careers, I suspect that Michelle harbored some guilt at not spending much time with her daughter. Years ago, one of my English professors mentioned during class that most successful writers do their best work when they are young, before they get married and have a family. Being a writer, an activity that requires solitude and quiet, while having a family and children around you, can be extremely difficult. For myself, maintaining a hobby of writing reviews like these, while taking care of a son with special needs, is definitely a challenge. So I can relate to the pressure McNamara put on herself to be productive whenever she had the time, whether it was at night while her child slept, or when she deliberately secluded herself in her home office.
Another aspect of McNamara’s life that may have fueled her obsession with the Golden State Killer involved the time she spent in Ireland working as an intern. While there, she had an affair with her supervisor. In notes found on her computer after her death, she writes how the affair was the result of a night spent drinking with her supervisor. After the encounter, she returns home and tells no one about what happened. Years later, she agonized on whether the encounter was consensual, or was she raped. She herself conjectures that this event could have led to her obsession with uncovering the East Area Rapist; bringing him to justice could somehow bring closure to a troubling event in her past that she could never come to terms with.
In terms of the structure of the series itself, I was impressed with the volume of personal information revealed. McNamara had been deceased for four years before this series aired, but she is effectively brought to life through her digital footprint. We hear her on podcasts, read her emails and text messages, and see her speak at home during an interview, while her daughter looks to grab the spotlight. Ultimately, I did not like the actor Amy Ryan’s voice narration for McNamara’s work. It came off as false to me, too mannered and not conversational.
Another issue I had with the series is its over-reliance on visual metaphors. To signify the Golden State Killer stalking and claiming another female victim, the series shows scenes from The Creature from The Black Lagoon. To represent the turbulent relationship between McNamara and her mother, we see the crashing waves from the family’s summer house on Lake Michigan. To represent McNamara’s underlying depression and anxiety, we see computer-generated shadows enveloping suburban houses where the Golden State Killer claimed another victim. For each of these, one time was effective. Twice, I get the point. By the sixth time I saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I had enough. As Ginsburgh said, the directors needed to “kill their darlings”.
As for the Golden State Killer himself, he is definitely terrifying. McNamara laments how a serial rapist and killer like GSK, who had more victims over a longer period of time than Zodiac or the Son of Sam, gets no attention. While that statement seems glib on the surface, it is accurate. The segments where several of the victims relate what happened to them are riveting. At one point GSK hears via the media how he never attacks women who are living with a boyfriend or husband. When subsequent victims described how GSK attacked them while a man was in the house, I admit, it scared me. There were several nights where I found myself lying awake in the dark wondering what the source of the creaking noise in the house was, and how soon I should get motion sensing lights installed in the backyard.
When confronted with the volume of crimes committed by GSK, the obvious question is, how was he able to get away with it for so long? He was a member of the Navy and a former police officer, both of which helped him to stalk his victims undetected and likely use nearby rivers to leave the crime scenes undetected. One unwitting accomplice was the booming real estate market in California in the late seventies and early eighties. Concerned that media publicity over GSK would deter young couples from moving into new subdivisions, the media heeded the advice of local government leaders and real estate agents to downplay the crimes. If you ever wondered which is more important to your local government, your lives or the taxes you pay, well, here is an answer that will disgust you.
The series does a narrative sleight-of-hand. The series doesn’t fully acknowledge that McNamara is deceased until the fifth episode. Since I was familiar with McNamara’s story prior to watching the series, I knew that she had died several years before her book was published. But I think the producers are guilty of some deliberate deception in not dealing with that fact openly at the outset.
The series does delve into McNamara’s drug abuse, which likely did contribute to her death. She also had heart disease, but the autopsy states that she died of an accidental overdose. She had a mix of Adderall, Xanax and Fentanyl in her system. Review of the 200+ boxes of evidence was causing her sleepless nights, so she took Xanax to fall asleep. To fully wake up in the morning, she took Adderall. I can’t remember why she was taking painkillers. On the one hand, it is easy to lay the blame of her overdose on Patton Oswalt. He was aware of her prescriptions, the dual stresses of writing a book while concurrently trying to solve the case her book is based on. Certainly he should have noticed she was becoming an addict, that he should have intervened somehow. To that I would state that in 2016 alone, there were 42,000 deaths linked to opioids, 40% involving a synthetic opioid. Heath Ledger and Prince died due to opioid overdoses. Certainly that didn’t intend to kill themselves. Many are still grieving family members who died due to drug addictions nobody knew they had. In the end, GSK had unknowingly claimed another victim.
Several of GSK’s surviving victims appear on camera, describing their attacks in detail. Curiously, when they all get together to toast GSK’s apprehension, they refer to each other by the chronological number of their attack, as in “I’m 10”, or “I’m 22”. The stories they recount throughout the series are devastating. One couple who weren’t married when they were attacked stayed together, got married and had four children. The attack always affected them; they just didn’t let it define the rest of their lives. They were the only couple that stayed together. That is one element about true crime that is typically overlooked or downplayed, but not in this series: the long-term devastating effects felt by the victims and their families.
While the series does spend time explaining how genealogy site GEDMatch was used to track down the Golden State Killer, it does not dive into the backlash this use of data caused the DNA research industry. Over public outcry, GEDMatch modified their public use policy so that people whose DNA is in their repository must explicitly opt-in to make their DNA available to law enforcement. This has severely reduced GEDMatch’s effectiveness by law enforcement. McNamara was a proponent of using DNA data to locate GSK, and predicted that it may ultimately reveal GSK’s identity. It is a cruel irony that in using DNA data to locate, apprehend and ultimately send GSK to jail, GSK may end up being the last high-profile case solved by DNA and genetic matching technology.