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Jeffrey Dahmer, Redux – My Friend Dahmer

July 23, 2014

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Several years ago this blog looked at a brief, 24-page comic that dealt with aspects of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s teenage years. Entitled My Friend Dahmer, it was told from the perspective of a childhood acquaintance of his, writer/illustrator John Backderf, better known by his pen name, Derf. The comic was thin but searing, a haunting window into a tormented soul, one twisted and warped in an excruciatingly isolated adolescence. One day Dahmer’s name would become synonymous with necrophilia and cannibalism, but there was a time he was simply Jeff. A loner. A kid. Despite the grim subject matter, that slim book was superb, an exemplar of all that unshackled independent comics can be.

Two years ago Derf published a refined and vastly expanded version of this story (which itself built upon brief strips published over the years), once again entitled My Friend Dahmer. And its nigh-unbelievable level of quality demands that we finally take a look at this second tome. Like Derf, we can’t stop grappling with the infinite waste and what ifs of a deranged murderer’s teenage forge.

We won’t relitigate and rehash Dahmer’s crimes here. Suffice to say they were as grisly as any others committed by one solitary human being, evincing a sexual depravity that continues to boggle the mind more than twenty years after they were uncovered. And while our sympathies always go first and foremost to his victims and the families left behind, there’s always been something about Dahmer that has drawn a degree of pity. A great deal of this springs from how forthright he was after his arrest and trial, when he was convicted multiple times over and buried under a mountain of life sentences that would keep him behind bars for life, even in he had the genetics of Methuselah. He was open with law enforcement, psychologists and the media about all the things that went into his bizarre perversion — a sexual connection to carving up dead things, thereby obtaining mastery and control over them. Perhaps too open at times. To go back and watch his infamous NBC interview with Stone Phillips, as he described it all with his father sitting stoically beside him, is to understand the term “jaw-dropper.”

Yet he wasn’t an isolated, deranged farmer like Ed Gein. He wasn’t a ranting, manipulative outsider like Charles Manson. He wasn’t Bundy. He wasn’t Gacy. He never fit into any sexual sadist mold. There’s something indescribable that happens the more you learn about this suburban kid from an Akron suburb who went indescribably insane, something that touches strings of empathy that no serial killer ever should. He’s no folk anti-hero, to be sure. Yet…. As the lead investigator on the Dahmer case has said: “I felt bad for him. And I felt bad that I felt bad for him.”

All this is why someone who knew Dahmer growing up is still trying to process the enormity of it. The second My Friend Dahmer is just as much therapeutic venting as it is illuminating memoir.

The same general beats of its brief predecessor are covered: Derf and his friends, intelligent “nerds,” formed their own “Dahmer Fan Club,” which adopted socially awkward Jeff and his spastic antics as a mascot of sorts. This time, however, Derf has incorporated more extensive research to bolster his story (annotated, From Hell-style, in an appendix). Added to recollections of friends and family are bits culled from investigative files, interviews with Dahmer conducted by the FBI, mental health experts and news outlets, as well as recollections from a memoir, A Father’s Story, written by Dahmer’s father Lionel. Thus the excruciating details remain — the acute isolation, the heavy drinking that was self-medication to tame growing demons, the fracturing of a family life — but with more depth.

One character to play a greater role here is Dahmer’s mother, Joyce. In her one major media interview, the infamous Dateline special on Dahmer, she didn’t come across well, somehow managing to make her son’s crimes all about her and contesting things in a way that, upon close examination, painted her as less than truthful. (The interview was conducted alongside her co-author for a book that was never published. Its title, An Assault on Motherhood, says it all about her gravitational neediness pulling all things back to her sufferings.) Derf’s handling of her isn’t unsympathetic, rightfully noting that she was a clearly emotionally troubled woman, trapped as a 1970s housewife in a marriage she no longer wanted any part of. But he — and we — can’t resist the supposition that it was her abrupt departure during the messy divorce, which left Jeff alone in a house with only his sinister urges for company, that was a substantial trigger for what was to come:

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Perhaps no new sequence better summarizes the utter waste of a life than the following two pages, which recount a week-long school trip to Washington, DC, and how the briefly carefree, sober and normal Dahmer had the audacity and guts to finagle his way into the presence of Walter Mondale, then Vice-President of the United States:

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Of course, as Derf points out, that same personality skill set was the one he used to conceal his dark double life. Indeed, this bag of tools was what allowed him a decade later to con his way out of his closest call before his ultimate capture: when police found a dazed, naked boy with a hole drilled in his head, bleeding from his rectal area, and Dahmer somehow convinced them that the boy was his lover and simply drunk. And the cops let Dahmer take him back to his apartment, where he promptly killed him.

Derf has been outspoken against the serial-killer aficionados who want to talk to pick his brain about young Dahmer. Some might claim a degree of hypocrisy in this, seeing as it comes from a man who’s now gone back to this well multiple times in his career. That doesn’t seem fair. Yes, it’s a bit incongruous, especially in light of Derf himself interviewing a horde pf average people who knew Dahmer, so that he could flesh out (…) the 200 pages of this opus. But, as stated above, this book is just as much about Derf coming to grips with a close encounter with real-life horror as anything else. And he does it so — forgive the descriptor — artfully. He has a story to tell, and he doesn’t wallow in the utterly horrific crimes that took place after his relatively brief period of acquaintance. It’s a story well told, with a deft touch and great humanity that stretches beyond the typical underground style. Perhaps the finest moment in the entire book has nothing to do with Dahmer. It comes in the Backderf household, at the dinner table, as the family is discussing plans for an upcoming college visit. In one panel Derf depicts his father sternly peering over a newspaper, saying that they’ll have to be up early and on the road. It’s a crystal clear transcription of what’s obviously an enduring image from his upbringing, and it’s charmingly personal — just as it’s also an example of the profound biographical detailing at play throughout.

My Friend Dahmer can stand as Derf’s last word on this subject, as he claims it is. But in the unlikely event that he decides to redo it all again, expanding the narrative to some Cerebus-like phone book of a tome, many would eagerly dive into it. And for the story, not mere salacious titillation. I’d be one.

This is a fantastic book. Read it if you get the chance.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. docvoltage permalink
    July 23, 2014 2:58 pm

    Joyce Carol Oates’ ZOMBIE is a fascinating companion book, exploring the inner workings of a Dahmer-like individual. It’s troubling and realistic enough that I had to put it down partway through, despite it being a slim volume one can read in an afternoon.

    These things frighten me.

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