In April 2016, US crime writer Michelle McNamara tragically died in her sleep at the age of 46.
With no known medical conditions or prior warning signs that her health was at risk, McNamara’s death came as “a complete shock to her family and friends, who loved her dearly” – not least of all to her husband, San Francisco-based comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, and their seven-year-old daughter, Alice.
Now, five months after his wife’s unexpected passing, Oswalt has penned an emotional open letter about the realities of living with all-consuming grief – and his new life as a widower and a single parent.
“I was half of an amazing parenting team, except we weren't equals,” he writes. “Michelle was the point person, researcher, planner, and expediter. I was the grunt, office assistant, instruction follower, and urban Sherpa.
“[Michelle’s] super-mom skills were one brilliant facet of the dark jewel she was—true-crime journalist, online sleuth, tireless finder of half-remembered facts, and crafter of devastating murder prose.
“I was looking forward to spending my life with the single most original mind I'd ever encountered. And now? Gone. All gone.”
Oswalt’s letter continues in the same beautifully honest fashion, as he admits: “I can't do it. I can't do it. I can't do it. I want to tune out the world and hide under the covers and never leave my house again and send our daughter, Alice, off to live with her cousins in Chicago, because they won't screw her up the way I know I will. Somebody help me! I can't. I can't. I can't.
“But then I think back to when I became a father—to when Michelle and I became parents together. I felt the same terror. I longed for the same retreat… [because] you will never be prepared for anything you do, ever. Not the first time. Training and practice are out the window the second they meet experience. But you'll get better.”
Oswalt goes on to explain that he has been struggling to handle all the responsibilities of life as a “first time” single parent, noting that he has “missed forms for school”, “forgotten to stock the fridge with food she likes”, “run out of socks for her”, and “run out of socks for me”.
“It sucked and it was a hassle every time,” he says, “but the world kept turning”.
The comedian has learned that John Donne was well and truly correct; no man is an island, and nobody can ever hope to do everything by themselves.
It is for this reason that he has sought help – not just from friends and family, but from the parents of other children at his daughter’s school.
“Now I know where to buy the socks she likes,” he says. “I asked two parents at her school to help me with forms and scheduling. I'm getting good at sniffing out weekend activities and scheduling playdates and navigating time and the city to get her and myself where we need to go every day… if I can persuade a comedy club full of indifferent drunks to like me, I can have my daughter ready for soccer on a Saturday morning.”
Oswalt offers some words of advice for single parents everywhere, saying: “I don't know what kind of single father you are, if you are one or ever will be one. If you're widowed or divorced, adopter or elder sibling.
“If you're feeling any fear or self-doubt, reassure yourself with the fact that I'm doing this. Me. Spend an hour with me sometime. I can't drive stick. I can't scramble an egg. I can't ice-skate. But I'm doing this. Being a father. I'm in charge of another human being. So you can do this. I promise.”
The comedian finishes by admitting that he has a very important reason to keep striving to better himself as a parent; he’s doing it for his little girl.
“I'm moving forward—clumsily, stupidly, blindly—because of the kind of person Alice is,” explains Oswalt. “She's got so much of Michelle in her. And Michelle was living her life moving forward. And she took me forward with her. Just like I know Alice will.
“So I'm going to keep moving forward. So I can be there with you if you need me, Alice. Because I'll need you.”
McNamara attended the University of Notre Dame and earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. She later went on to found her website, True Crime Diary, after becoming interested in cold cases.
“I kind of just did it almost as a lark at first, not figuring it would become such a regular thing but that was sort of the impetus for it,” she said in a 2007 interview.
“I wanted to get more involved in the cases than fuelling my own curiosity.”
She covered both breaking stories and cold cases, but, as a writer, she made a conscious effort to steer away from famous murders.
Instead, McNamara focused on mysteries that had been overlooked, or had not gained public attention.
Writing on her own website, McNamara explained: “True Crime Diary is not interested in looking back at notorious criminals and saying, wow. We're interested in looking at unfolding cases and asking, who?”
At the time of her death, the celebrated crime writer had been working on a book about the Golden State Killer – a name she had coined for a prolific serial killer who raped and murdered dozens of victims in the 1970s and ‘80s.
To this day, the Golden State Killer’s true identity remains unknown – although, after years of investigative journalism, McNamara believed that she was very close to unmasking him.
Oswalt has committed himself to finishing his wife’s book, working with a researcher and another journalist. “We can finish the book, but it was tangential to the work, which was: She was going to solve this crime,” he told the NY Times.
“She didn’t want credit for it. She wanted him to be locked up. She was close to figuring it out. It would give her bad nightmares.”
He added that, while many comic books fail to show the impact of a death in the family (“If Bruce Wayne watched his parents murdered at 9, he wouldn’t become this cut hero… [he would] just get fat and angry and confused.”), he believes his wife was the ultimate superhero.
“In comic-book terms, I was married to a great crime fighter,” he said.