nonfiction · true crime

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer- Michelle McNamara

So, according to Goodreads, I’m the last person on Earth to read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (Harper, 2018). I read maybe a handful of true crime books every year; it’s not usually a section I wander through at the library, but if a case interests me for a particular reason or someone I know recommends something from this genre, I’ll pick it up. A ton of my friends read this last year; I finally picked it up based on a prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with gold, silver, or bronze in the title (this being an Olympic year and all…if the Olympics still happen, what with mass events like that getting cancelled due to coronavirus). Not being a huge true crime person, I went into this book almost entirely cold, which made for an interesting read.

Michelle McNamara was the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She passed away unexpectedly in her sleep from an accidental overdose in 2016, but in life she was a true crime writer and obsessively searched for the man she dubbed The Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized Southern California throughout the seventies and eighties. He was responsible for at least thirteen murders and more than fifty rapes (and who knows what other crimes haven’t been tied to him). Despite massive effort to pin him down, he always seemed able to slip through the fingers of law enforcement, to blend into the background and remain unnoticed.

Finding him was Michelle’s obsession. She dug through old evidence, interviewed witnesses, befriended investigators. From what it sounded like, she was as much a part of the investigation team as some of the officers and retired officers still at work on the case. She passed away before her book was finished, a heartbreaking ending to her story, and a devastating blow to her family.

SPOILER ALERT- not for the book, but for what came after:

I *thought* I remembered hearing things about this on the news recently, but I didn’t look it up while I was reading (and I wasn’t entirely sure if what I saw related to the case itself or to the book). It was only this morning, after I finished the book, that I allowed myself to Google, and sure enough, they found him, just as Michelle had so desperately hoped. His time had indeed run out, thanks to a DNA match that investigators were finally able to run through an ancestry site. With the help of a genealogist, suspects were narrowed down and a match was secured. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, will go on trial at some point for being the Golden State Killer. Science is amazing, you guys. Back when he was terrorizing the people of Southern California, he was nearly unstoppable, but science hunted him down. I’ve seen articles purporting that the age of the serial killer is over, or at least greatly slowed down thanks to DNA testing, and I pray that’s the case.

Two major emotions settled in as I read Ms. McNamara’s work. First off, fear. It’s nigh impossible to read real-life accounts of home invasion, rape, murder, and the type of terror that this man evoked and not feel at least somewhat vulnerable. Even in this age of heavy locks, security systems, doorbell cameras, and the like, do any of us ever feel entirely safe? This book definitely creeped me out (and made me thankful for my cats, who would never greet me at the door like they did this morning if there were a stranger in the house, as they’re kind of terrified of strangers and scurry off to hide under the bed if someone they’re not familiar with enters the house) and made me a little more aware of my surroundings and my safety during the time I was reading.

And second, sadness. It’s hard to read the master work of someone who passed away so young, not only before she had a chance to finish the book but before she had a chance to see the case come to fruition the way it has. Reading the scenes where she talked about her husband and young daughter were heartbreaking, because I read them with the obvious knowledge that they’re still here and she’s not. Life is so very, very unfair in so many different ways. I wish Ms. McNamara were here to see this monster finally caught and celebrate his capture with her investigator friends. I wish she were here to watch her daughter grow up and to live out her natural life with her husband. I wish she could have finished the book with its rightful conclusion.

If you’re into true crime, you’ve probably already read this, but if you’re like me and only read the genre now and then, it’s a worthy pick despite the aura of sadness surrounding the untimely demise of its author. Lots of information on investigations and police procedures, what happens when a case goes cold, and the history and growth of DNA testing in here, and that alone makes it a great read, as does Ms. McNamara’s own history and her explanation of her involvement with the case.

Now that the suspect is caught, my thoughts go not only to his victims, but his family members. His ex-wife, his children, his grandchildren. They never asked for this, they never asked for the publicity or to be related to this monster. My heart breaks for the family members because he turned them into victims as well. I so hope they’re getting support from their friends and community, because this has nothing to do with them as people.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is probably the most in-depth true crime study I’ve ever read, and I’ll definitely be following the trial much more closely than if I hadn’t read this.

Michelle McNamara passed away in 2016.

nonfiction

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult- Susan Ashline

Cult books! Cult books everywhere!

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.

Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.

While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.

I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.

Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.

I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).

Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Visit Susan Ashline’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI- David Grann

2019 has been a year of often reading outside my regular genres, and it’s really been an enjoyable experience overall. It’s really pushed me to explore new topics, forgotten favorites, and expand my understanding and appreciation for marginalized voices and little-known stories, and I suppose this book fits into that category, too.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017) isn’t something I’d normally pick up. Although I do enjoy history, I’m not hugely into reading about murder, and writing about police or government organizations such as the FBI don’t normally interest me (unless the topic is undercover investigation; I’ve read a few books by people who engaged in that and they’re pretty wild). But I’m fortunate enough to live in an amazing community that chooses great books for community reads and then invites the authors to come speak. Last year, I was lucky enough to read The Things They Carried and then hear author Tim O’Brien speak about it a few weeks later; the year before that, I listened to David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, speak about his life and work. David Grann is visiting our community in September, so I wanted to prepare for his visit by reading this, as Killers of the Flower Moon is our community read.

After being ousted from their original tribal territory and dumped onto what the government assumed was a barren wasteland of a reserve, the Osage grew rich- ridiculously rich- when their land was actually discovered to be brimming with oil. And of course, instead of letting it go and pretending like they weren’t all jealous dicks, the government refused to leave well enough alone and instead began treating the adult Osage like incompetent children, assigning them white guardians who were in control of the Osages’ bank accounts, often limiting the amount of money each Osage could withdraw to several thousand dollars per year, max (no exceptions, not even for a child’s school or medical bills or ANYTHING). Lest you begin to wonder if this was for any reason other than racism and jealousy, read this quote from a figure who helped set this entire filthy system in place:

“The day has come when we must begin our restriction of these moneys or dismiss from our hearts and conscience any hope we have of building the Osage Indian into a true citizen.”

A true citizen. He’s speaking of the original inhabitants of this country, but sure, a true citizen. I have zero kind words for the man who said this.

Anyhoodle, the white people couldn’t stand to see Native Americans doing well, and over a period of thirteen years (and most likely longer), at least sixty and possibly hundreds of Osage were murdered, via gunshot, poison, and explosion. The Osage had to fight to even get these murders investigated, first because the police weren’t quite taking them seriously, then because anyone investigating the murders ended up dead themselves. Even the county sheriff ended an investigation out of fear. That’s when the organization that would eventually become the FBI, headed then by J. Edgar Hoover, stepped in.

The book begins with its focus on Mollie Burkhart, whose three sisters and mother are murdered. She’s not the only one affected in such a manner; entire families are wiped out, and it was almost by sheer luck that Mollie remained alive, as she was also being poisoned. The amount of death in this book is, frankly, staggering, and it’s all intentional. Given that this was less than one hundred years ago, I’m thinking that nostalgia-fueled attitude about how we were so much better and so much more moral in the past is a bigger pile than you’ll find in any barnyard.

Killers of the Flower Moon is an information-dense book, but Mr. Grann writes in a style that keeps the story moving and keeps the reader wondering what the hell is going on. This is a story of pure, evil racism, plain and simple. Racism, jealousy, and filthy, filthy greed. So many times while reading this, I had to suppress a scream and wonder if we as a species have learned anything at all over our time here on the planet, because far too many of the attitudes that caused these murders are far too prevalent today (friendly reminder to never read those comments on news websites or social media. Yikes). The conclusion of this book is beyond horrifying, and I’m not entirely unconvinced that something similar won’t happen again in the future, especially given all the nightmares that are happening now.

Despite this being outside my usual genres, I’m glad I read it. The Osage’s story is one that needs to be heard, to be known, to be remembered. So much unnecessary anguish and destruction of life due to baseless hatred and envy. It’s a good reminder to always check our own attitudes, to always be working towards better understanding and acceptance, and to demand that of others as well. Because hearing these stories play out over and over and over again, in history and still in the news today, shouldn’t be happening. We owe each other that, at the very least.

Visit David Grann’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming- Kerri Rawson

I’m not hugely into true crime, but I’ll pick up a book from that genre now and then. I am interested, however, in unique experiences and the people behind them, and the second I heard about A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming by Kerri Rawson (Thomas Nelson, 2019), I added it to my TBR. Kerri Rawson is the daughter of Dennis Rader, the serial killer known as BTK who terrorized the people of Wichita for seventeen years.

The memoir begins on the day when an FBI agent knocks at Kerri’s door to inform her that her father has been arrested under suspicion of being the serial killer who called himself BTK, short for Bind, Torture, Kill. Between 1974 through 1991, Rader murdered ten people. By the time Kerri was born, her father had already murdered seven of those people (as far as I can calculate, not having the book in front of me). He was a moody man who, Rawson later realized, emotionally abused his family and physically abused Rawson’s brother, but there were many good times together as a family as well, hiking and fishing in both Kansas and vacation destinations such as the Grand Canyon. Her father being a serial killer certainly wasn’t what she expected to learn when she opened the door that day.

The news is almost unbearable to Kerri, who feels a mixture of helplessness, revulsion, anger, panic, grief, and more; there’s no manual on how to deal with news like this, no instructions on how to heal or dodge the public’s accusations that you must’ve known all along or were party to it. Along with developing a terrible case of PTSD, Kerri both clams up about who her father is (no longer living in Kansas and having taken her husband’s last name, anonymity isn’t difficult) and finds what strength she can in her Christian faith. There’s no major breakthrough for her, no moment where suddenly, everything is okay; what Kerri realizes is that her grief and anger and survivor’s guilt will be ongoing, but she can learn to manage it and live alongside it, thanks to therapy, the support of her husband, and her faith.

Ms. Rawson’s PTSD plays a massive part in this book; she constantly relives the agonizing moments in which she learned her father is a serial killer. Her justified anguish over her entire childhood being a lie overflows each page and is at times painful to read, so if you’re not in the mindset to stand there with her and carry some of her pain, maybe wait a little while until you’re ready for this book.

She writes of her father occasionally getting moody and everyone else in the family learning to walk on eggshells until he calmed down; while he absolutely strayed into emotionally abusive territory, I don’t think his behavior was all that uncommon for men of that era who had no outlet for their emotions, no way to discuss how they were feeling, and instead took out their stress and anger on their families. It’s not at all healthy, but not indicative of a serial killer, and Kerri was utterly stunned, as was everyone else in her family, to find out that the man who had taken her camping and always checked to make sure her car was safe had orphaned a few children and murdered others.

Books published by Thomas Nelson tend to vary wildly on how heavily Christian their content is, and this is one of their heavier books. Kerri attended church as a young girl, but didn’t truly become serious about her faith until a nearly disastrous hiking trip to the Grand Canyon. It helps to pull her through some extremely dark times after the news breaks about her father, but in terms of this book, the amount of real estate that it takes up in the pages bogs the book down more than a bit. I wasn’t in love with the writing style to begin with, and while I’m glad Ms. Rawson’s faith carried her through such a life-shattering tragedy, I felt there was too much repetition of similar content when it came to her beliefs.

I found it intriguing that she does come to forgive her father for what he did to her and her family. I understand that her faith helped her come to that decision, and that she did it in order to move on with her life (while she does occasionally write to her father, she no longer speaks to him and does not visit him in prison). I…am honestly not sure I could have done that; that may make her a better person than me, and I’m okay with that! I’m glad she’s found what she needed to move forward; I assume that whatever that is would be different for everyone, and there’s no simple solution to how to live with this kind of knowledge about a parent or close family member.

If you’re looking for insight on serial killers in general or on Dennis Rader, this probably isn’t the book you’re looking for. I didn’t feel as though it offered anything of particular interest in those areas, but it does highlight the struggle that family members go through when one of their own turns out to be a monster. While Ms. Rawson wasn’t the kind of victim most people think of when they hear the words ‘serial killer,’ she and family absolutely are victims of his behavior; their trauma deserves to be heard as well. My heart goes out to them, and to the families of the people Dennis Rader murdered. May they all find peace and healing.

Visit Kerri Rawson’s Facebook page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World- Sarah Weinman

I think it was around 2008 that I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, maybe 2007. I’d been going through a classics streak and trying to get through all those books I should have read but never got around too, and I plowed through the book during the last days of a run of the flu (actual influenza, with fever and body aches, the whole nine yards. YUCK. Also, don’t judge my reading choices when I’m ill…). It was…a creeptastic book, that was for sure. Humbert Humbert is a jarring narrator and Nabokov did an amazing job at absolutely making my skin crawl with how awful Humbert is. And at the time, I had absolutely no idea that much of the story parallels a real life case, one that Nabokov absolutely knew of, because it’s referenced right there in his novel. I learned of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman from an episode of All the Books! the other night, and I actually sat up out of bed to put in on my Goodreads TBR list, thinking it sounded fascinating and figured I’d get to it sometime in the murky, distant future. Imagine my surprise when I came across this at the library the next evening before book group! I literally gasped and marched it right to the checkout.

Sally Horner was 11 years old, in the midst of stealing a five-cent notebook from a drugstore in 1948, when Frank La Salle, pretending to be an FBI agent, stopped her and told her he wouldn’t turn her in and send her to a reformatory school if she would report to him. Fearful of her single, overworked mother finding out she’d been stealing to impress some girls at school, Sally agreed. She didn’t see him again for months, but when he reappeared, he meant business. Before Elizabeth Smart, before Jaycee Dugard, before the scores of women and children that have made headlines for the horrors they’ve suffered, there was Sally Horner, abducted at age 11 by Frank La Salle, who held her captive and raped her for twenty-one months.

There are obvious content warnings in this book for rape and child molestation (and not just Sally), along with a description of a mass shooting. Just like in Lolita, Frank takes Sally on a cross-country journey, far from her native Camden, New Jersey; from Atlantic City to Baltimore, onward to Dallas, and finally San Jose, he forces her to pose as his daughter. It’s not until she trusts a neighbor enough to answer her questions truthfully that she’s able to ask for help. Sally returns home just shy of her thirteenth birthday, having spent close to two years being held by her rapist. Unfortunately, the tragedy doesn’t end there. After her return, Sally lives for only two more years.

Mingled with the recounting of Sally Horner’s far too short life is the story of how Nabokov wrote Lolita, how older male predators were a theme he explored throughout his literary career, how he struggled to tell the story he wanted. Sally wasn’t his inspiration; he’d been working on the novel for years before her disappearance and eventual return made headline news across the country, but the details of what happened to her did seem to inspire him to be able to pull the whole story together. Even in the screenplays he wrote (which were ultimately mostly rewritten by director Stanley Kubrick, although Nabokov still received credit, along with the Oscar nomination) made allusions to the case, making his denials of shaping the story around the Horner case seem facetious at best.

This is one of those stories that I can’t believe hasn’t been better known until now (and it makes me wonder what other books exist that are heavily based on real-life cases and the general public isn’t aware of it. Can that even be done anymore?) Although far too many people misinterpret it, Lolita is a cultural phenomenon at this point; even if you haven’t read it, odds are you’ve at least heard of it and have a vague idea of what it’s about. That this could stay so far out of the mainstream that even Sally Horner’s family had no idea of the connection until a family member read the brief Wikipedia entry on Sally is utterly flooring to me.

Ms. Weinman mentions several times throughout the book how difficult this story was to research: practically everyone connected to the story has since passed away, records, both official and non-, weren’t saved or maintained. and even the places where the story took place (such as Sally’s hometown of Camden, NJ) have disappeared or undergone such great changes that they would be unrecognizable to someone from Sally’s day. Hearing something like that from the author made me enjoy the book all the more, because I’ve often thought that researching a nonfiction book must be an incredibly daunting task. It was kind of cool to hear that, at least in this case, my suspicions were correct.

The Real Lolita is the book where the literary biography meets true crime. Even if you’ve never read Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known work, this would still be a great read, and if you’re into true crime, this is definitely right up your alley. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!

Check out Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.