Backderf, John. My Friend Dahmer.

NY: Abrams, 2012.

Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t the only serial killer America produced in the late 20th century but he was one of the most disturbing ones, if only because, after he was caught in 1991, he was candid and forthright about what he had done. Unlike Gacy and others who come to mind, he didn’t make excuses or try to shift the blame. But he really didn’t know why he had killed sixteen men, either.

Backderf, who was a schoolmate of his in the late ’70s in a suburban high school near Akron, struggled with the story for years, with trying to understand the young Dahmer in retrospect, and with attempting to identify the causes of his (let’s face it) insanity. His first brief, tentative attempts weren’t very good, as he admits himself, but then he decided to do it right, researching Dahmer’s background and studying all the police and FBI documents. The result is an amazing, and very unsettling, picture. Backderf is, first and always, an artist, and the fact that this is a graphic “novel” gives the story a much greater impact than if it were only a block of text.

Dahmer was at the very bottom of the social ladder in school, below even the band and art nerds like Backderf and his friends, and they all knew he was a very strange kid. The adults in their world, for some reason, never noticed a thing, and he has some pointed things to say about that generational blindness. Dahmer’s parents didn’t help any, either. His father was a chemist in Akron’s automotive rubber industry, as was Backderf’s, but his mother was extremely unstable, both physically and mentally, and they both ignored their son while pursuing an extremely contentious divorce. They, too, never noticed his hobby of collecting and slicing up roadkill. Or his increasingly extreme consumption of alcohol, which was his attempt to suppress the urges he could feel bubbling up inside himself. His high school friends, who created the Dahmer Fan Club as a lark, encouraged his acting-out, especially his mimicking of his mother’s “fits” — he was a “spazz freak” — and the author admits they were badly lacking in good sense. Like most teenagers.

It’s a very honest book, and a very unsettling one. Backderf doesn’t spare himself or his buddies in their own misdeeds, but he only feels empathy for Dahmer up until the moment he takes his first opportunistic victim, a young hitchhiker. None of his peers expected him to become a serial killer, of course — but none of them were very surprised, either. As the author asks several times, “Where were the adults?” This is the kind of book that, when you finish it, you’ll sit and think awhile about what you’ve read. And then you’ll go back to the beginning and read it straight through again.


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