Patton Oswalt Tours His Late Wife's Book Searching For The Golden State Killer
Patton Oswalt has written two well-received books on personal and pop culture topics, “Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film” and “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” and has gone on reading tours to promote them.
But the standup comic and actor has never done anything like his current tour that comes to Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday, March 1. He will be speaking about “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” an investigative true-crime book written by his late wife, Michelle McNamara. Her book is about the pursuit of an illusive rapist-turned-murderer whose crimes date back to 1976.
McNamara, who had scads of written notes and extensive material on computer hard drives, was about two-thirds finished with her first book when she died at the age of 46 in April 2016. Her death, Oswalt later confirmed, was caused by an undiagnosed condition, combined with a mix of Adderall, Xanax and fentanyl in her system.
"I’ll Be Gone in the Dark" — the title comes from a phrase the rapist told his victims — was completed by McNamara’s lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and her friend, investigative journalist Billy Jensen. Popular crime novelist Gillian Flynn penned the introduction; Oswalt wrote the afterward.
At the Coolidge, Oswalt, 49, will share the stage with NPR and WBUR's Here & Now host Robin Young for a “conversation” format. How that might unfold, Oswalt does not know.
“I’m trying not to anticipate anything,” Oswalt says, by phone late last week from his Los Angeles home. “I’m just showing up and talking to Robin and we’ll see. I’ve done two other book tours before so I just tend to keep my mind clear, show up and see where it goes.”
This, though, is a different animal. McNamara wrote it; Oswalt’s promoting it.
On his Facebook page, Oswalt writes about this eight-city tour thus: “I'm going to speak glibly and clearly and INADEQUATELY about this dark, brilliant gem of a book. Because that's who she was as a person — a dark, brilliant gem, and she let every facet of her surface experience the world and, ultimately, this black hole of a crime.”
At the Coolidge, dark humor may enter the mix — it did in places during Oswalt’s latest standup special on Netflix, “Annihilation,” when he discussed McNamara’s death — but Oswalt says, assuredly, “I am not doing a comedy set.”
His return to standup last year wasn’t "a specific decision," he says. "I was trying to process my grief. I didn’t know if I was going to talk about it, but it came about organically as I was starting to do sets months after her passing and in the months leading up to doing my special. It was a very organic thing.
“I had trepidation about everything. I had trepidation about going on stage again. I had trepidation about waking up in the morning, quite frankly. It was all of a piece. It was all terror and trepidation for a long time there. I couldn’t really separate that for a while. I didn’t know how it was going to come out until I actually got on stage. It was very nerve-wracking. It was a little rough.”
Oswalt and McNamara were married in 2005. In the book’s afterward, Oswalt writes about one of the early bonds he and McNamara shared: a fascination with serial killers. For him, “Stockpiling serial killer lore is a rite of passage for guys in their twenties who want to seem dark and edgy … And I was there through the flannel nineties, rattling off minutiae about Henry Lee Lucas, Carl Panzram and Edmund Kemper. Michelle knew those facts and trivia as well. But for her, it was background noise, as unimportant and ultimately uninteresting as poured cement.
“What interested her, what sparked her mind and torqued every neuron and receptor, were people," Oswalt wrote. "Specifically, detectives and investigators. Men and women who … could build traps to catch monsters.”
McNamara had launched a blog called True Crime Diary, which dealt with a variety of unsolved crimes. Her pursuit of this cold-case of the California rapist-turned-killer was an obsession that took shape as an article for Los Angeles Magazine in 2013 before morphing into the book project.
Descriptions and accounts of the killer varied, but he began operating around Sacramento, where he was called the East Area Rapist before migrating south to Orange County and Los Angeles and being dubbed the Original Night Stalker. In 1979, he escalated from break-ins and rape to break-ins, rape and murder, killing not just women but couples. His crimes took place in the pre-DNA-as-evidence era. Once DNA was able to be used in criminology, there were new tantalizing leads, but none — as of yet, anyway — panned out.
In researching the book, McNamara gave him a new sobriquet: the Golden State Killer. What struck McNamara as especially strange was despite the number of victims — perhaps 50 rapes and 10 murders — very little substantive material had been written about him. His crimes were news back in the day, but they had been forgotten or were on some very distant back burner for the police before McNamara started poking around.
McNamara did a lot of field work and met with numerous detectives and investigators in various police departments, earning their trust and respect. That, Oswalt says, is “because she had a lot of the cop instincts in her to investigate stuff and how to go about that. She was very professional.”
While McNamara clearly dealt with grisly material, her prose was not lurid — rather, it was more inquisitive and matter-of-fact -- and the depiction of the carnage not excessive. She wasn’t going for shock value.
“She certainly wasn’t doing anything gratuitous,” Oswalt says. “The writing is so solid and so respectful. I think that’s why a lot of the survivors and victims’ families were able to talk with her and open up.”
McNamara wove a labyrinthine tale. During the process, Oswalt says he would often find his wife on the bed, computer on her lap, banging away at all hours. “We talked about [the book] whenever she needed to talk about it,” he says, “but it wasn’t a regular thing. I knew there were times that she needed to just go and brood on it and not have me firing questions at her.”
Aside from Flynn’s introduction, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” has gotten a boost from book-jacket blurbs written by A-list novelists Stephen King and Michael Connelly. “It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disorganized, the other intelligent and determined,” wrote King. Connelly assessed: “Michelle McNamara has not only successfully resuscitated the fascinating case of the Golden State Killer, but done so with humanity, insight and grace.”
“I was definitely gratified,” says Oswalt of the praise. “My publisher sent them copies and asked if they wanted to read them and their reaction was amazing. They had known what I had gone through and what happened to Michelle, so there was intrigue. On top of that, it’s a really well-written book so things came together perfectly.”
In trying to put his life back together, Oswalt says in “Annihilation” that his wife’s death was the second worst day of his life. The first was breaking the news to his young daughter, Alice: “I looked at my daughter and destroyed her world.”
“If one more person wishes me strength on my ‘healing journey,’” he fumes in “Annihilation,” “I’m gonna throw a balloon of piss in the window of every candle store on the planet.” Rather than a “healing journey,” Oswalt prefers to call it a “numb slog.”
But Oswalt found love last year with actress Meredith Salenger and married in November. He also landed a co-starring role, as the put-upon principal Ralph Durbin in the edgy new NBC school-set comedy, “A.P. Bio.”
One of the things Oswalt reflected on learning from McNamara during his marriage to was her side of the fence when it comes to the dueling philosophies of everything-happens-for-a-reason vs. it’s-all-chaos. McNamara was all about the chaos — and in “Annihilation” Oswalt says, “she won the argument in the s-------- way yet.” But, he adds, her core belief was: “It’s chaos; be kind.”
“I definitely have adopted that in my life, too,” Oswalt says. “I was on my way to that because of her influence.” Before “I didn’t really have a guiding philosophy, but like I said in the special, I did think there must be some overall order to the universe.”
In terms of the Golden State Killer — who he may be, where he might be — there are theories that he may be in prison or dead. After all, the crimes attributed to him stopped in 1986.
McNamara's collaborators, Haynes and Jensen, close the book promising to determine his identify someday. McNamara penned an epilogue called “Letter to an Old Man,” a fantasy projection about his future capture.
Asked how much knowing the killer’s identity or bringing him to justice matters to Oswalt, he says, “It matters to me, but I’m not the one that’s going to be able to do that. It’s up to her investigators that she was working with that can hopefully have those skills. We’ll see where that goes.”
He had envisioned “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” as the launch of a new mid-life career for McNamara: “I thought that she would have been writing books and investigating cases and consulting with people. She was amazing that way.”
Patton Oswalt will discuss Michelle McNamara's "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" in a Brookline Booksmith event at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday, March 1.