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My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

This entry is part 23 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book back in April, wrote up this post, and then… never go around to editing it. So it’s going up now. 

This book was given to me by by friend M.R. (@ageekinkorea) Thanks!

My Friend Dahmer is a weird and uncomfortable read, for a few reasons. It’s sympathetic (to a point) with the twisted figure of Jeffrey Dahmer as a serial-killer-to-be, unflinching in its depiction of the strange and bizarre cruelty of high school in the late 70s, and  blunt about the role of adult neglect in the ruination of young people’s lives. Backderf makes it clear that his sympathy for Dahmer ends where Dahmer’s murdering begins, but he also makes it clear that Dahmer didn’t just spring into being as a murderer: he was, at first, a weird and awkward, socially isolated, bullied, deeply lonely, and screwed-up mess of a kid who grew up into a serial killer. 

Backderf makes it clear that the one thing in no way justifies the other, but he also clearly insists that there needs to be room to acknowledge both of these things at once. He’s honest enough to own his own friend group’s role in Dahmer’s life—they were not a source of comfort or relief for Dahmer, but maybe they couldn’t have been even if they’d tried. He is incredulous at the things a lot of the adults in Dahmer’s young life say: never having seen anything unusual about him, not knowing that he was a binge drinker, and so on. The claims clearly are evidence of something: either people are full of self-justifying bullshit and will say anything to escape the pain of hindsight, or else adults really didn’t give a crap about young people and failed to pay attention… which is to say, they failed Dahmer (and, in failing him, failed all his victims too). 

Three things came to mind as I read this.

The first was how the gravity of Dahmer’s actions warped the story people were willing to tell about him as a younger man. Teachers insisting they never saw anything out of the ordinary about him are almost certainly lying: I’ve been a teacher for decades now and, if you’re paying any attention at all, you can pick out the disturbed students over time. Maybe a few teachers didn’t see the warning signs, but some of them certainly must have. You notice the kids with social problems, with serious emotional or psychological issues. Not always right away, but eventually most of them just reveal their condition in some way… and even if they don’t do it themselves, others do it for them. 

When Cho Seung-Hee committed mass murder at Virginia Tech, the media was all over his life story, searching for signs, asking teachers whether they had seen warning signals. Some commented about unusual behavior, others said they’d seen nothing. Classmates of his claimed they hadn’t mocked him or treated him badly. I have my doubts about such claims: I’ve seen bullies change their tune, and even selectively forget the fact they were bullies. (On the night before I left town for grad school, I ran into one of my high school’s worst bullies and was baffled to find him talking to me as if we’d been friends, as if he’d never done anything awful to me or any of my friends. Some—or maybe many—people simply choose to remember what suits them, and suppress the rest. 

Dahmer’s mother might be the most obvious example: in the notes at the end of the book, Backderf cites enough of her claims to make it look that way, anyway. But ironically the account of every adult involved is dubious: nobody wants to be blamed, nobody wants to be seen as responsible, nobody wants to consider whether doing something differently might have helped things go in a better direction. (Even the chief of police argued that, when his officers pulled Dahmer over for suspected drunk driving at three in the morning, and didn’t investigate the horrific smell of decaying flesh in trash bags visible in the back of Dahmer’s car, that they’d “done nothing wrong.”) In a funny way, Backderf’s account is more believable because, callous and crude as he and his friends were toward Dahmer, he’s willing to admit to being something other than completely innocent. Backderf doesn’t blame himself, of course: Dahmer was an outsider in their cohort, not someone he and his friends felt responsible for (and not someone they really cared about). The thing is that it’s easier to tell the truth about someone and about your relationship with them when you aren’t second guessing whether you’ve failed them in some way, I guess. 

The second thing that comes to mind was John Taylor Gatto’s observation, in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, that increasingly communities have been replaced by “networks” in modern, Western people’s lives. What he means by this is that communities are groups of people who—even when there’s animosity between them—have some shared stake in something real. Neighbors may, for example, disagree about how to keep their neighborhood safe—but they at least agree that they all want it to be safe, and they can work from there, compromising and negotiating difference and fighting when necessary without losing sight of that shared priority. Networks, on the other hand, are artificial: people are thrown together in them, have no real stake in anything shared, and as a result it’s much easier for them to turn (and stay) toxic and abusive. 

For Gatto, public schools are a prime example of this, and I have to confess that’s what schools were in my experience, too. Adults weren’t mentors: they were tired, underpaid, glorified babysitters whose main job was to occupy our time in one-hour clumps. The education we received was less about the content—we could have learned that much more quickly and more engagingly in a very different structure—than it was an education in resignation, compliance, and boredom.  

None of this is to suggest that Dahmer became what he did because schools are institutional failures masquerading as meaningful communities. Even if that is true of schools, it seems likely he had some heritable issues from his mother, a lot of childhood trauma, some emotional problems related to his sexuality and the widespread hatred for (and ridicule of) it. But mentally ill, bullied, sexually-repressed people don’t all become serial killers, and Backderf isn’t trying to trace a 1:1 line here. His point is more that Dahmer was a person, and the story that preceded his worst actions was very sad, extremely lonely, and characterized by neglect and the failure of any adult in his life—or for that matter, any peer—to recognize the crisis in which he spent apparently most of his youth. The fact is that many of the adults in his life were teachers, and that none of them seem to have done anything about problems that seem to in fact have been obvious to everyone who was paying any attention to Dahmer. That’s not to say teachers could have known he’d become a murderer: but teachers should have known he needed help, and maybe if he’d gotten it, he wouldn’t have become one. Maybe.    

School, incidentally, are very different now, but I don’t believe they’re less prone to this kind of situation. (Arguably, they’re likely more so, going by the rise in polarizing thought among young men, the rise in school shootings in the US, the way bullying has gone online, and more.)

The third thing Backderf’s book made me think about is how Dahmer’s story is not actually simple. Decrying his crimes is, of course: they were awful and unforgiveable. But there’s more to Dahmer’s story than that. For every person who is discovered to have done something terrible, narratives emerge: some of them are explanatory, some are the result of a quest to find a blameworthy other, some just focus on the crimes—it all depends on what narrative serves the needs and desires of the audience.

Backderf cannot have missed the parallel here with how he describes Dahmer’s attitude toward his victims: just as they were not “real people” to him, Dahmer was not a “real person” to most of us. Backderf seems to be somewhat pushing back against this, by depicting Dahmer as a “real” person in this text. That’s unusual, and challenging, and sad (because Backderf manages to illuminate some of what seem to have been Dahmer’s worst sufferings as a boy). There’s compassion here, a kind of proverbial sympathy for a… devil? No, for a person. That’s what is difficult for us to admit when we’re faced with a Dahmer: that he’s a person. A profoundly broken, ill, destructive person who has done awful things, but a person all the same. We don’t recognize the humanity of people like Dahmer for their benefit, so much as we fight to retain our ability to recognize it  in others. We need that in order to avoid replicating their mode of being in lesser ways, even when media and culture push us to do so.  

Which is why this book isn’t a light read, or a comfortable one, even if it is a very worthwhile one.  

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