"The struggle is the story": "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" sequel director reexamines McNamara's work

“Wait, they want me to tell this story, and the last woman to go this deep died?”

Published June 21, 2021 6:23PM (EDT)

Michelle McNamara in "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" (HBO)
Michelle McNamara in "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" (HBO)

Nearly one year ago, former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, known as the infamous Golden State Killer, stood trial and was sentenced to life in prison for the 50 home-invasion rapes and 13 murders he committed during the 1970s and '80s. At the same time as DeAngelo's trial, the six-part documentary series, "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," aired on HBO last summer, chronicling not just the notorious killer's attacks across the state, but also giving voice to his victims who lived, and telling the story of the woman who had dedicated her life to trying to find DeAngelo and win justice.

Directed by Elizabeth Wolff, a new follow-up episode of "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" airs Monday that marks the one-year anniversary of DeAngelo's guilty plea, along with revisiting the case from the victims' ongoing stories to the efforts of true crime investigator Michelle McNamara. The author of the book that inspired the name for the series became known in her own right, partly because of her work and partly for being the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, with whom she had a daughter. McNamara had struggled with mental illness and addiction, especially as she became more and more obsessed with her search for the Golden State Killer. She died in 2016 of a fatal overdose, before DeAngelo was identified, and before he was sentenced.

"[McNamara's] struggles to balance all of this — the investigation part with the writing part with the being a mom part — all of that," Wolff said in an interview with Salon. "I don't know what the story would be if we glamorized it. The struggle is the story."

While the special episode revisits the Golden State Killer's case and features equal parts devastating and empowering victim impact statements of the women he harmed, it also takes us back to the tragedy that sparked McNamara's passion for solving cold cases, and seeking justice for victims: the unsolved, 1984 killing of Kathy Lombardo in McNamara's hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. 

The special episode features interviews with Lombardo's family, as well as McNamara's own research into the rape and murder, and her discoveries of inconsistencies in the police work. But as Lombardo's case remains unsolved to this day, the special commemorative episode is also a reflection on the trauma that persists when killings go unsolved, and a celebration of citizen sleuths like McNamara herself. 

Salon talked to Wolff about the revelations of the new episode, directing during a pandemic (and while pregnant), the ongoing fascination with true crime among female audiences, and the importance of telling true crime stories that give victims a voice.

It's so impressive that you were pregnant while working on this project. What was that like? Did being pregnant make the project any more personal for you?

I wouldn't say being pregnant while working on this made it more emotional, but I think something that was very present through the course of working on this series was the fact that Michelle herself, like so many women, really struggled to find a balance between the pressures of wanting to advance her career, and the pressures of trying to be the best mom she could be. I learned a lot from her, and also from researching the culture of this. In the course of doing the series — we started back in 2018 — I had read "Perfect Madness" by Judith Warner, which explores the culture of motherhood and the pressure to do it all, and that it's specifically American. It really gave me a better understanding of what Michelle was going through. 

Doing this special episode while being pregnant, I was so well-prepared because of that research I had done on the series to know how to find that balance, and ask for it. I credit Liz Garbus, who's a mother of two, and her production company, and HBO, for completely understanding what I was going through, and also understanding that I could do the job, that they could create systems so they could work around me and my pregnancy. I don't find that's often the case, especially with freelancing and the production world. It's like, "Can you do the job? No you can't." The first deadline was a week after my due date, and Liz from the get-go said, "Don't worry, we'll create a system so you don't feel under pressure and it doesn't all fall on you, and you can go do the things you need to do while being pregnant and a new mom, and we'll work around you." 

That was incredible, and it also allowed me to do the thing that I love, which is storytelling, and being really invested in my work, while knowing it was still OK to have a doctor's appointment, or put my pregnancy and my daughter first. I have a great appreciation for that — I think in part because of what I got to learn and experience in telling Michelle's story about her struggles with how to balance work and motherhood. It was incredibly gratifying to be able to do the thing that was creatively fulfilling, and having this personal transformation at the same time.

There's a sort of mystique around why the true crime genre is so appealing to female audiences, as well as an ongoing debate of whether female victims' suffering is being exploited by the genre. As a female director, and with McNamara, a female reporter, at the center of much of your storytelling, how did you approach the complexities of gender and true crime?

As a female filmmaker and learning from Michelle as a female journalist, one of those things we're particularly attuned to is the ways traditional true crime tells the story from the perspective of the perpetrator. It was important to Michelle and important to us in making the film that we really flipped the script, and made this an empowering story, an opportunity for survivors to own their story, to tell their story from their own perspective, and for us to honor their story. 

Very early on, many of the survivors said, "Every time I see these shows, or every time I do the interview, people just talk about the moment of the assault. But actually, the assault continues because of everything we have to deal with, with law enforcement, with the culture, with the lack of resolution when your case isn't solved." Those experiences are as important as this heinous crime itself, and we want them to be heard. We were able to deliver on that. That was a hugely important part of the creative work we did — to give survivors and women a platform and the ability to tell their story.

In terms of women's fascination with true crime, this is something we debated a lot in the series, and talked to a lot of people about this. Michelle really thought a lot about it. We interviewed the "My Favorite Murder" podcast. There's not any one answer to why women are particularly drawn to this. Everyone has their own answer and their own reasons. In some instances, I think looking at dark material like this allows people to connect their own darkness to something that's externalized. There's a process in true crime; it's very neat and tidy, where real life is really messy. A lot of the true crime we consume has an ending. A lot of the complexities and darkness and demons in our own lives are not as neat and tidy as a procedural crime story. Sometimes, it's easier to focus on other people's demons and darkness than it is to focus on our own. It's easier to avoid our lives by focusing on these things. 

Something that sets Michelle apart is that she really was motivated to find justice for the survivors, and to really solve these cases. A lot of the true crime we consume and that is greenlit are stories that have an ending. She never worked on stories that had an ending, she worked on cold cases. She was haunted by the lack of resolution that so many victims and survivors experienced when their cases go unsolved. What was so satisfying about doing this episode is that Michelle wrote the book not knowing the Golden State Killer was going to be caught. She was constantly grappling with, "How do you finish a book about a killer and a case that has no ending?" 

We had an ending — the killer was caught. There was something very poetic for us to have this bonus episode, to reexplore the lack of resolution, the undealt with traumas that survivors and victims' families feel when their cases go unsolved. Much like how Michelle's book ends, ours ends with a call to action — how can law enforcement devote more energy, and how can citizen sleuths pick up Michelle's torch and continue to help find justice and resolution by solving these cold cases.

Many true crime documentaries lionize the detectives at the heart of their stories, but "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" is unique in that it doesn't glamorize the  emotionally exhausting work of trying to solve these cases — especially for McNamara, as a woman with mental health struggles. Why has it been so important to tell McNamara's story in an authentic way?

As a documentary filmmaker, I only want to do things in an authentic way. The complexities of her life, and her work, the portrait of an artist as a young mom — those are the things that attracted me to telling this story. If it wasn't about Michelle's investigation of this case, I probably wouldn't be here. 

I wanted to tell the real story about how these things pull you in competing directions, and how relatable it is, because we know Michelle is a writer and she's writing a book. She's investigating a case and over the course of writing the book, the investigation kind of took over. This is something that I can empathize with, because when I'm a filmmaker and I'm telling a story, my job is to be a filmmaker and tell a story — run a production, run edits, deliver a compelling story. But sometimes you get so sucked in, and with the Lombardo case, I had fellow producers say to me, "You're not an investigator, you're not going to solve Kathy's case. Your job is to bring attention to it and tell the story accurately." I was lucky enough to have those reminders. The open-endedness of Michelle's deadlines that constantly kept getting pushed was such that she could kind of lose herself in the investigation. That had some deleterious effects.

This new episode seems to show holes and patchiness in the police work around Lombardo's murder, which was very personal to McNamara. What has it been like to tell these stories, at this time of increased discourse around distrust of the police?

This story isn't necessarily about the current cultural moment, and I think insofar as it has some parallels, it certainly depicts a history of the ways law enforcement did not bring attention to or devote enough resources to crimes against women. What the Kathy Lombardo case and the attitude of the police at the time show is how it was easier, and there was a community that benefited from perpetuating the myth that there was not a lot of crime going on, and not a lot of crime against women. 

It was easier to tell the story of a peaceful suburban neighborhood than it was to reveal all of the complexities of a changing world. There are a lot of really good detectives out there and this is not an indictment of any one detective. This episode is more an exploration of a culture within law enforcement that doesn't like to look backwards, doesn't like to look at missteps, doesn't devote resources to cold cases, and perhaps doesn't devote enough resources to the investigation of sexual assault crime. That's what we're really bringing attention to.

McNamara's story and her struggles show the intensity of how digging into stories like the Golden State Killer can impact someone. How important was it for you and your team to take care of yourselves through telling these stories?

It was critically important, and I remember talking to Liz about this project early on, before the Golden State Killer had been caught, and on the first days of me coming on board. I remember thinking, "Wait, they want to bring me on board to tell this story of a really, really dark serial rapist murderer, and the last woman to go this deep in the story died in the process of telling the story? Do I really want to take this on?" 

From the beginning, the production was very open and devoted to making sure that everyone had the support they needed, and took their weekends, got therapy if they needed therapy, or could take a day if they needed a day. This was really, really dark material, and I saw a therapist during the whole production. There were a lot of times where we would be working on something, like in working on the episode where Michelle dies, it was really painful. And certainly not as painful as what Patton went through, and her family's pain is unimaginable. There is also something very real about secondary trauma, when you're working on such dark material and telling it in such an intimate way, and we had access to Michelle's text messages, and emails — it was very, very hard. 

One of the very important lessons that came out of the last three years of work for me was how important it is for yourself but also as a leader on a team of young women and men who are working on this, to really prioritize your mental health, and be able to talk about your feelings, be able to have an open space to cry or share,. So much of that is also a lesson from the survivors and the series overall, which is, if you keep something bottled up, if you bury something, it comes out in different ways. You need to let your emotions and your darkness and your demons into the light, so they can't take hold of you. That's something Patton speaks so eloquently about as he dealt with his own grieving process. I learned a lot from him.

What was it like to direct and film this episode during the pandemic?

The fact we did this seventh episode during the pandemic allowed for everyone to think of creative new ways for pregnant women and new moms to continue to do their work. I didn't travel during the seventh episode; I was able to do a lot of interviews via Zoom, and to direct a lot of the shoots we were doing in Chicago via Zoom. I worked remotely, which I don't think would have been possible had the pandemic not forced people to think of new ways to work. I think there's a lesson here for how we can still do that work while also going through a seismic shift in our personal lives. It starts with employers being flexible.

The special episode of "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" premieres on Monday, June 21 at 10 p.m. and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Elizabeth Wolff Golden State Killer Hbo I'll Be Gone In The Dark Interview True Crime Tv