The death that tells the story of a generation

Book Review: Gone at Midnight

Jake Anderson, Kensington Books, 368 pages

Gone at Midnight by Jake Anderson is a beautifully written account of the horrible events surrounding the death of Elisa Lam, the young woman whose corpse was recovered from a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on February 19, 2013.

Elisa had been reported missing at the beginning of that month, but interest in her case increased when the Los Angeles Police Department released video of the last time Elisa was known to have been seen, on the day of her disappearance, by an elevator security camera.

Employees at the hotel discovered Elisa’s body five days after the footage became public as they investigated guest complaints about the color and odor of the water supply.

In the video, Elisa is seen exiting and re-entering the elevator, talking and gesturing in the hallway, and sometimes seeming to hide inside the elevator, which itself appears to be malfunctioning. The video went viral on the Internet, with many viewers reporting that they found it disturbing. Explanations for Elisa’s death ranged from claims of paranormal involvement to bipolar disorder from which she suffered; it also has been argued that the video was altered prior to its release.

These facts related to the case were taken from Wikipedia. Anderson’s narrative covers them and more, providing a sweeping and compelling view of Elisa’s passionate and thoughtful life (much of which she herself chronicled online), the bizarre circumstances of her demise, and the peculiar context and history related to her stay in Los Angeles, where her mysterious story reached its tragic conclusion.

At the time Anderson was investigating the case, he himself was undergoing significant trauma and growing pains related to the destruction of his engagement with his fiance and acknowledgement of his own struggles with mental illness. All the while, and perhaps because of this, Elisa’s death burned brightly in his mind, and thus I believe fans of true crime will find not only an impressive breadth of reporting in Gone at Midnight, but a sensitive voice on the subject.

After all, Anderson’s narrative not only provides in-depth perspective on a young woman’s plight, but also serves as a cautionary tale about the author’s and countless other people’s challenges coping with neural imbalance, which often seems at odds with society’s bright, unyielding, and perhaps sometimes unrealistic notion of ‘success.’

Thus, Gone at Midnight strikes me as a reflective tome on a series of terrible events that may never be fully understood but echo a chilling call for empathy as we attempt to make sense of the strange forces that impact our lives.

Ryan Hyatt, Jan. 12, 2020



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