Stories That Grip Us

I have a habit of locking my front door behind me every time I use it. Same with the back door. The garage door. Shut, lock. This is a habit I’ve had my entire adult life. When my partner Mick and I first shared a house, this habit caught him by surprise as I tended to lock him out of the house when he was out working in the yard. It took me a while to break the habit of mindlessly turning the lock when there was someone else who was going to use that door behind me. But I didn’t stop locking doors; I just became more aware of when to do so.

When I was in high school, my parents constantly worried about me. They seldom left me home alone and, when they did, I was admonished to lock the door and keep it locked. The lesson was burned into my head. It was the 1970s and the world must have seemed to them to be getting scarier. Charles Manson was in jail, but there were others to be feared in places like California. Who knew when that could happen in Minnesota? Who knew when someone might enter our home uninvited and do us harm? Would young women ever be safe when alone? Would any of us?

My first apartment where I lived alone probably sent my parents’ blood pressure soaring. It was a garden-level place with sliding windows – just the sort of place that was easy for a determined criminal to break into. I was advised to close the windows when I slept at night, make sure there was a stick in the window track to keep it from being forced open. My landlord offered to put a window air conditioner in my bedroom so I wouldn’t swelter in the summer. Unfortunately, the window then leaked when it rained, so I asked him to take it back out. I learned that there was a cop who lived in my building and that seemed to make us all feel a little safer.

I watched cop shows all the time back then. I loved mysteries. If I hadn’t been an asthmatic klutz with a pretty big bleeding heart, perhaps I would have chosen a career in law enforcement rather than writing. I thought my parents were over-protective, but here I am many years later and those lessons are still with me. My doors, as I write this, are securely locked. And my dog, an indomitable dachshund, would bark and bite until she died if anyone who did not live in this house tried to open the door while I am working or sleeping. Nothing like double security.

I still love cop shows. And mysteries. And true crime. So, it’s no surprise that the story that gripped me these past few weeks is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (New York: HarperCollins, 2018). The true story of the Golden State Killer (aka East Area Rapist, aka Original Night Stalker), who terrorized California between 1976 and 1986 and was recently apprehended thanks to DNA analysis, is a deftly-written tale of horrific crimes, shattered lives, obsession on both the part of the criminal and those who tried to find him. He preyed on single women at first, tended to go for one-level homes that he could see into easily as he prowled around outside. He later moved on to attacking couples, then escalated to murder. This book got my attention after the news of the arrest of a suspect at long last and the coincidence of the book’s publication just two months prior to that. That the author did not live to see either the publication of her book or the arrest of this man is incredibly sad, but her work did inspire renewed interest in solving this case. 

One of the things that struck me as a side story in this book is the existence of a large pool of people who are obsessed with trying to solve cold cases. Like the author herself, these people cannot let go of the mystery, cannot release the grip of these true stories that need answers. The desire to see justice served is enormous. 

That made me wonder how many murders go unsolved every year in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, only 62% of the murders in 2015 were solved (see That leaves a lot of mystery for those who are inclined to search for answers. 

It also made me think about how many times we’ve brushed against someone who has done something horrific and kept it a secret. I think about those people who lived near the man who is now considered the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, in Citrus Heights, California. What is it that creates people who not only destroy other human beings, but hide their deeds so well? That might be an even larger mystery than the unsolved crimes themselves.

If my parents were still alive, I am quite sure they would still be worrying about their daughter. And their granddaughter. They must have listened to the news stories of the 1970s with dread for what the future held. But I believe it’s pure chance who appears in our lives. Most people are not going to do harm – that’s why these stories have such a grip on us. Killers are outliers. And locking the door is an easy deterrent.



  1. This post is especially relevant for me today as a level 3 predatory sex offender moves into my neighborhood. Today. I just attended a community notification meeting last evening, about the sixth I’ve attended. There’s a landlord a block away willing to rent to these offenders (some at level 3, others not). At least we are aware of this felon/repeat offender in our neighborhood. But that does not make me feel any better. You can bet I lock my doors. Not as obsessively as you. But diligently.


    1. It does make us all more aware when we are reminded that some of our neighbors have done awful things. One of the points of McNamara’s book is that we don’t always get notice, though – yes, you are aware of these offenders. And they are unlikely to do something awful so close to their own homes if they do reoffend. It’s an interesting thing having the community meetings about sex offenders moving into a neighborhood – they’ve paid for their crimes and who knows how those crime originally happened, whether the accused was intent on doing harm or they misread social cues or they were just stupid. How does anyone know which category fits? Do you get a lot of information at those meetings? I’ve never been to one.

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  2. Being from NY, I’m horrified people in WY never seem to lock their doors. I even lock my car door as soon as I get in the car. The other day, my coworker had a little boy with autism walk into her house 11:00 at night while they were sleeping, looking for his mother. Freaked everyone out, and the dogs did nothing because hey, it’s a little kid. We like little kids. The unlocked door served well this time, because they got the boy home safe. But I still lock my doors religiously. Old habits are hard to break. And I see no need to break this one. Better safe than dead.


    1. Your story reminds me of a time not too long ago when one of our neighbor’s clients (she threads eyebrows in her home) mistook our house for the place to go and walked right up to the front door and tried to open it. I was so grateful it was locked because our dog flew down the stairs and would have bitten her had it been unlocked. I went down there and picked up the dog, opened the door, and talked to a very frightened young woman. At least I was able to direct her to the right house. But, in this case, the locked door protected someone from outside!


  3. Growing up in Northern MN we almost never locked the farmhouse doors. But, that changed for my parents after the Porter girl was killed in Moose Lake. Over the last several years there have been similar types of issues in Carlton County and now my parents are now always locking doors even if they know I am coming by the house. It feels a bit strange as when I use to go to their place I could just walk in and feel at home…not so much anymore. But, in today’s world it is safer.


    1. I think I remember that case – was it Porter or Poirier? Anyway, that event shocked a lot of people. I bet it did change how your family lived in their house. I can’t remember not being aware that we lived in a city where others might not be as nice as we would hope. Even when I was a little kid, that was just part of the deal. Unlocked doors are what surprises me.


      1. Sorry, I think you are right with the spelling of the name. It surprises me a bit now too as I have lived in so many other places since leaving MN that I never leave things unlocked anymore for any amount of time.


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