There is a subculture of Americans who have watched the recent arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer, with an intensity that the less perverse reserve for the NBA playoffs. I’m part of this subculture and, let me tell you, we all know the details of the Golden State Killer’s 12 murders, 50-plus rapes, and 100 plus burglaries. We desperately want to know how the killer eluded police for so long. We are hungry for a motive or, sparring that, any detail really. It’s a morbid thing and maybe the ultimate rubberneck, but I think that maybe all this obsessing over gore makes me a better husband and father.
I wasn’t always this way. When my wife was pregnant, she would binge on true crime television while she folded laundry and placidly gestated. At the time, I didn’t really get it. As she watched Deadly Women and Nightmare Next Door, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was calculating ways to bump me off. It was easier to think about my impending doom than to reconcile the gentle expecting mother with this woman fascinated by the murder.
It wasn’t until she was pregnant with our second child that I finally joined her. It was a rough time in our lives. Her mother and grandmother had died and both of my grandmothers had died. We were living a thousand miles from our friends in a town of 500 souls in the middle of nowhere and we felt hemmed in by death we could neither explain or control. We needed each other. And we needed to believe mortality could be investigated and unlocked. We needed to believe death could be understood. And to be her husband and supporter meant joining her for a parade of television homicides — each of them known quantities with tidy endings. It stuck.
Our favorite past-time became binging episodes of Forensic Files after our firstborn was snuggled into his crib. We would watch and comment and theorize together. We would cheer the investigative triumphs, mourn the victims and jeer the criminals who, no matter how careful, were always brought down by the evidence.
Soon, I was hooked. My reading list, which was largely non-fiction anyway, was just true crime books. Since then, my media consumption has become a sharp contrast to my daily life. I’ll take walks on perfect bright mornings while listening to audiobooks about FBI profilers and their debased serial killer prey. I’ll lay in the hammock while my kids play in the yard, absorbed by a book of bloody crimes. And when a child comes to me for a hug or for help, I put down books fully of stabbings and assassination to offer them comfort and assure them that the world is a very good place indeed.
My obsession with true crime eventually brought me to the late crime journalist Michelle McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer (a sobriquet she coined) I’ll be Gone in the Dark. Her amazing voice, sharp research, and blunt discussion of her own obsession with violent crime was utterly compelling.
McNamara, who was married to Patton Oswalt before her tragic death, was raising a little girl as she wrote the book. And I think a lot of parents (myself included) can recognize a bit of themselves in her. She writes of pouring over graphic police reports while surrounded by saccharine stuffed animals and of giving her daughter cookies before turning her attention to another heinous rape.
Those of us who are parents and are drawn to these dark stories have to hold two distinct worlds in balance. One is stalked by men (and they are almost always men) like the Golden State Killer, who don’t just kill and maim but terrorize and utterly destroy. The other is filled with our smiling families and presumably safe homes — lives full of friends and jobs we complete daily with quiet resolve. But the trick is that they are the same world, just amplified differently into a person’s life depending on place, time, and luck.
Steeping myself in stories of violence has, I think, allowed me to see my time with my kids in a different light. I see that it’s not guaranteed. It can be snuffed out quickly and easily — even randomly. Our lives are ultimately fragile things.
With enough luck and skill, the good guys will catch the monsters. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the monsters just disappear and leave uncertainty in their wake. So when my kids are frightened at night, I feel the sharp hypocrisy of telling them everything will be alright. I know that’s not necessarily true. But what I can say is that I am here and that I love them. And in understanding the darkness I believe I tell them I love them more than those who may take life for granted.
The danger is that my obsession would make me overprotective and neurotic. But I’m actually at ease. I understand that when it comes to danger from murder and mayhem, there is very little I can do, aside from staying alert, and building relationships with my community so that we can protect one another. I don’t let fear of monsters dictate where and how my children can play. I give them the tools they need to be as safe as they can and I let them live their lives.
And as they play, I absorb the details of another monster and I pray.