Non-Fiction, Reviews

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

IMG_4278This is one of those books that I have no memory of first discovering – but somehow it made its way on to my radar, and my GoodReads TBR. I am fascinated by the true crime genre, and so my interest in My Friend Dahmer came from that. I’m the kind of person who has heard of a lot of serial killers, with a mixed amount of knowledge, and I already knew plenty about Jeffrey Dahmer when I picked up this graphic novel (if you don’t, you’re lucky).

The author, John ‘Derf’ Backderf, went to school with Dahmer and this book recounts his memories of him at that time, supplemented with material from interviews, news coverage, and the memoir written by Dahmer’s father. This last especially helped the author to depict a broader view of Dahmer’s teenage life both at school and with his family. This is all explained in the notes section at the end of the book – Backderf talks about his sources, as well as why he wrote the book, and what he really thinks of Dahmer, both in school and later on. It turns out he wrote a few short stories about Dahmer once his crimes became public, a few gained attention, and he eventually put his memories together in this book.

My Friend Dahmer is short and stark. Backderf’s black and white style makes the uneasiness that underlies everything even more palpable, and the exaggerated features of both people and surroundings really lift the story from the page and make it seem more real. You get a sense of the claustrophobia of 1970s small town life, and the routine of school and home; you see how limited their world was, and that there was no outlet or relief for Dahmer’s increasingly disturbed mind. More than once Backderf states his opinion that if the adults in Dahmer’s life had paid more attention to his behaviour, and had intervened, he might not have grown up to be a serial killer. He was clearly different, with his propensity for collecting and dissecting roadkill, and his burgeoning alcoholism, among other things.

But as Backderf shows, his mother was increasingly fragile and unwell, and due to his parents’ deteriorating relationship and subsequent divorce, his father was largely absent. In Backderf’s notes he writes about how once Dahmer’s father, Lionel, realised that his son was drinking so much, he did try to help, and he did support him, but it was too little and too late. This would have been in the summer after Dahmer graduated from high school, after he had been left alone in the family home for a few weeks – at which point he had already committed his first murder. Once his parents’ divorce was initiated, Dahmer’s mother moved away with his younger brother, leaving him to wait at home for his father to move back in. A perfect example of how the adults in his life left him to his own devices far too much.

Given the subject matter, My Friend Dahmer is pretty heavy going, even though it never goes into the nature of his crimes beyond the fact of murder. But the dread of what we know comes later hangs over the whole story, creating an oppressive atmosphere. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that this troubled teenager will become what he becomes. His experience throughout this story is miserable and lonely, and more than anything the whole thing is incredibly sad. There is an unsettling inevitability to Dahmer’s giving in to his fantasies and abandoning any attempt at normalcy. Backderf draws excellent and jarring comparisons between his own happy teenage life with his loving family, and the misery of Dahmer’s experience. He acknowledges that he and his friends sometmes excluded Dahmer, and made fun of him, and played along with his cruel impressions of what turned out to be his mother’s drug-induced fits (at the time they thought he was impersonating a mutual acquaintance with cerebral palsy, and Backderf later learned it was really about his mother – though neither is excusable). He knows that they were clueless teenagers, never really thinking about their actions, or what was really going on with this strange guy they knew. They never spoke to him about his obvious drinking, or how unhappy he seemed. Like the adults in Dahmer’s life, it was easier for them to keep their distance. At one point Backderf states that most people figured he could just become someone else’s problem – and then he was.

Despite how dark it is, I really enjoyed reading My Friend Dahmer. It is brilliantly constructed and Backderf’s style is perfect for such a multi-layered and deceptively simple story. Once you reach the end you are left to think about what came next – the years in the military where Dahmer allegedly abused and raped two separate men, and was eventually discharged because of his drinking (not because of the abuse, even though it was reported); and then the later rape and murder of 17 men and teenage boys. Even when you consider his later statements that he didn’t want to do any of it, that he wished someone had stopped him, the fact is that he still did these things, and he didn’t turn himself in. Backderf states that he has sympathy with Dahmer up until the point he commits his first murder at the age of 18, and I agree. He had a miserable and damaging adolescence, but that doesn’t excuse anything. It depresses me how easy it could have been for someone in his teenage years to step in and try harder to help him. He might not have had a normal happy life (he was clearly very disturbed) but he wouldn’t have become a rapist and murderer.

So, My Friend Dahmer is not the easiest book to read. But then I like weird stories about weird people, and I’m fascinated by this kind of stuff. I plan to watch the movie adaptation that came out recently, which looks like it’ll be good. I’ll have to write about that once I’ve watched it.

Would you read My Friend Dahmer, or watch the movie? Or have you already read it? 

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Published in 2012 by Abrams Books (paperback edition pictured above).

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