Michelle McNamara was a famous crime writer best known for her powerful book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a true crime dive into the world of the Golden State Killer. The book intertwines the crimes and mystery surrounding the serial rapist and killer who haunted California in the 1970s and 1980s with McNamara’s obsessive hunt for his identity alongside stories of her life and childhood.
McNamara died in her sleep on April 21, 2016, just a week after her 46th birthday. Her death was sudden and tragic, as she left behind not only her family, her husband and young daughter, but her work hunting for the Golden State Killer and her work on a book about him came to a screeching halt with her passing.
Here’s what you need to know about Michelle McNamara’s death:
1. McNamara Died at the Age of 46 in Her Sleep on April 21, 2016
On the morning of April 21, 2016, McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt, told People that he woke up early to get their daughter Alice to school. He got back to the house at around 9:40 a.m., he said, and left a coffee on the bedside table for his wife. A few hours later, he looked in on her again and found that she wasn’t breathing. McNamara was declared dead at the scene by paramedics.
Oswalt said that the worst moment for him wasn’t the death of his wife, but afterward, when he had to tell their daughter:
The second worst day of my life was the day that my wife passed away, that was the second worst day of my life. The worst day of my life was the day after when I had to tell our daughter.
He said because McNamara died while Alice was at school, he called the principal and told her what happened, “In between screaming and vomiting and freaking out.” He said the principal told him: “She can’t come home from school and then you tell her and then she has to go to bed. You can’t send her off into sleep and that trauma just hit her. Tomorrow is Friday. Keep her out of school, have a fun daddy/daughter morning and then at noon tell her and be there with her while she works through it.” Oswalt said she added, “It’s going to be horrible but just be there. Tell her in the sunshine.”
2. An Autopsy Concluded That McNamara’s Death Was Due to the Effects of Multiple Drugs & a Heart Condition
The autopsy was released in February 2017, nearly a year after her death. It indicated that she died due to the effects of multiple drugs in her system, including Adderall, Xanax and fentanyl. A pre-existing heart condition that the couple was unaware of, which caused blocked arteries, was listed as a contributing factor.
McNamara was consumed by her work researching the Golden State Killer and trying to meet the deadlines for her book. She had trouble sleeping, Oswalt told The New York Times after her death, and she had anxiety and nightmares about what she was investigating. Oswalt told her she should take Xanax without realizing she was already taking a lot of different medications.
3. She Left Behind Her 7-Year-Old Daughter & Husband Patton Oswalt
When McNamara died, she left behind her husband of over 10 years, comedian Patton Oswalt, and her 7-year-old daughter Alice. Oswalt told People that he met McNamara on May 20, 2003, after one of his sets at the Largo club in Los Angeles. By September, they were living together and they married two years later, on September 24, 2005. Alice was born on April 15, 2009, four years later.
He shared how difficult the year after McNamara’s death was for him, becoming a single father. He wrote in a GQ essay, “I was looking forward to spending my life with the single most original mind I’d ever encountered. And now? Gone. All gone.” He continued, “It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen.”
He told The New York Times that every night after McNamara’s death, he would sit with Alice and they would write down three things they remembered about her, so his daughter could keep her memory alive.
4. Her Book Was Two-Thirds Completed & It Was Later Finished By Other Writers
McNamara had only finished two-thirds of her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when she passed away and had put writing it on the backburner in her final months to dive into case files that she had received about the killer and to track down leads. McNamara called these case files “the motherlode,” about 40 boxes of case files from Orange County.
Oswalt told The New York Times that he wanted her book to be finished and recruited Paul Haynes, McNamara’s researcher, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen to finish the book. The two of them combed through her harddrive, including to-do lists and leads and mountains of evidence she’d gathered.
Instead of finishing the book by imitating McNamara’s writing style or trying to figure out how she would have written it, they acknowledged the holes in the book, adding pieces of her thoughts or trails she hadn’t finished exploring. The book was released on February 27, 2018, nearly two years after her death, and it reached the top of The New York Times Best Seller list for non-fiction.
5. McNamara Grew Up in a Large Family of Six Kids Just Outside Chicago
McNamara came from a large family of six kids who grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Her father, Thomas W. McNamara, was a trial lawyer, and her mother, Rita McNamara, was a stay-at-home mom. McNamara was the youngest of her four sisters and brother, and there was a six-year age gap between her and the next-youngest sibling and a 14-year age gap between her and the eldest.
McNamara often said that when she was born, it felt like she’d arrived at a party that was already ending, her friend wrote. McNamara’s sister, Mary Rita McNamara Skrine, said that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was a “really big deal.” She said:
It meant so much to [McNamara]. I remember Patton pulled me aside and said, ‘She has no idea that her life is gonna change when it’s published. All these writers in that genre, she just stands out — beyond.’