True crime books are a dime a dozen (no shade – I love reading them), but “My Friend Dahmer” by Derf Backderf is one-in-a-million. It’s a graphic memoir, the final version of which was published in 2012, about John “Derf” Backderf’s high school friendship with future serial killer and isolated teenager Jeffrey Dahmer. He describes the surreal experience of going to school with an infamous murderer that most people, thankfully, will never know.
(Quick background: for those unfamiliar with Dahmer and the details of his killings, he is also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal. Dahmer’s known victims are 17 men between the ages of 14-32, killed in the window of 1978 – 1991. In addition to murder, he engaged in rape, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism. He was eventually sentenced to 16 terms of life imprisonment and was murdered in prison in 1994. More here and here.)
Backderf recalls he and his friends bringing Dahmer into their circle and includes drawings from his actual high school sketchbook of Dahmer. Dahmer was actually a prominent figure in Backderf’s early art, including fliers for student government and the yearbook. However, Derf does mention being cautious of spending time with Dahmer outside of school and getting an odd vibe from him. They had similar lives on the surface, Backderf notes – but only on the surface. Derf had a typical suburban life with “comically trivial” worries. Dahmer and Backderf had nearly opposite home lives.
It is rare we get a glimpse into such a horrific human being. Backderf paints – draws, actually – a picture of a “tragic figure, but not a sympathetic one.” The Dahmer Backderf knew was tormented, had a tumultuous family life (Backderf had little contact with his parents but suspected neither had a close bond with Dahmer and the parents did have a nasty divorce) and engaged in heavy binge drinking. He seemed to completely lack empathy but was also an intelligent kid with a lot of potential.
Backderf includes an anecdote of a class field trip to Washington, D.C. during which Dahmer somehow got himself and a few others students on a private tour of Vice President Walter Mondale’s office. It is clear that Dahmer’s descent wasn’t, as Backderf puts it, “a straight line down,” but rather many contributing factors going poorly at just the wrong time. He had brains, he was clever and he could be charming when he wanted to. But his demons were stronger than all of that.
The graphic memoir includes many revelations into Dahmer’s late childhood and teenage years. He struggled with being homosexual and the feelings of shame it brought upon him, as well as urges to have sex with corpses. He dealt with his emerging sexuality and homicidal urges by becoming an alcoholic, since he had no one to turn to for help or support.
At one point, Backderf addresses that people often ask him why he didn’t say something about Dahmer or try to get him help. He wrote, “You have to remember, it was 1976. You never “narced” on a classmate. It simply wasn’t done. Besides, my friends I and, we were just clueless small-town kids, wrapped up in our own lives. And none of us really had a hint about what was really going on in his head. A better question is… where were all the damn adults?”
Backderf speculates that if just one adult at their school had done anything about Dahmer’s odd behavior, he might not have ended up killing people. He would probably have still had a fairly lonely life, but nothing as horrifying as what ended up happening.
One of the most disturbing elements to Dahmer’s young personality was a set of mannerisms and gestures he cultivated by imitating someone with cerebral palsy. He faked slurred speech, spasms and epileptic fits. The story Backderf and his friends were told by a classmate was that Dahmer’s mother had an interior decorator with cerebral palsy or a similar disease. Dahmer echoed that sentiment at one point, but later on, Backderf learned that the act was actually derived from Dahmer’s mother.
Joyce Dahmer had many mental health problems and had spent several period of time in mental hospitals. She took multiple prescriptions, sometimes twenty at a time, and would plunge into a deep, pill-fueled depression. The drugs would also cause her to go into shaking fits that Dahmer would then imitate among his classmates.
When I read about Dahmer, my main question is always why he never sought psychological help, especially with his family history. I suspect that Dahmer felt the stigma of therapy and didn’t want to be even more of a “freak” and his parents might not have paid enough attention to him to realize that something was seriously off and he wasn’t just acting like a typical teenage jerk.
In his author’s note, Backderf eloquently writes, “The premise of this book is that Dahmer was a tragic figure, but that only applies up until the moment he was killed… More than anything, he was a coward… Dahmer was also driven by selfishness and didn’t care about anything other than his own obsessive needs. His perverse sexuality was constructed entirely of dominance and total control… Cowardice and selfishness – these were to the two main themes of Jeff Dahmer’s life. We can excuse those things, perhaps, in a fifteen-year-old kid, but these were central parts of adult Dahmer as well. And because of his fear and selfish sexual hunger, this perverse wretch spread his misery to dozens of people who still mourn the loss of his seventeen victims.”
Backderf has a comprehensive list of sources at the end of his novel, including FBI files requested through the Freedom of Information Act. Not all of the stories in the book are firsthand accounts from Backderf, but they are all accurate, with the exception of a few rumors that were widely known in their hometown. “My Friend Dahmer” is not only a work of art and a memoir, it is also a piece of heavily researched journalism. The journalist in me has a special appreciation for that facet of this story.
The upcoming film adaptation of the same name stars Ross Lynch, a likeable Disney star, as Jeffrey Dahmer. This casting received an enthusiastic thumbs up from Backderf in Rolling Stone magazine last July: “”You’re uncomfortable because it’s so familiar,” says Backderf on the phone from San Diego Comic-Con where he’s promoting his new graphic novel Trashed. “What I hear over and over is ‘Oh, I knew a guy just like Dahmer.'””
What are your thoughts and feelings on Jeffrey Dahmer? Will you be seeing the film?