A Father's Story Paperback – June 1, 1995
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Most of us never stop to say to ourselves: "I hope I am never informed that my child is a serial killer."
While, across the world, millions of parents have had to face the unspeakable grief of being informed their child is dead/killed, Lionel Dahmer is an extremely rare, one-in-a-billion case: he was informed that his own child, who he brought into the world, had killed other peoples' children. Not one, not two, but seventeen of them.
I remember in the '90's watching watching A&E's Biography of Jeffrey Dahmer (known only to a few people as Jeff Dahmer until his international notoriety) with my mom. I asked her at the end: "If I committed crimes like that, would you stop loving me?" She responded: "I would, yes!" She also said would most likely commit suicide, because the reality would be too monstrous to confront.
Yet others, were they to be in Lionel Dahmer's shoes, would go into hiding; they would change their name and move to another part of the country, or leave the country altogether. (This is in fact the road Jeffrey's younger brother David took. Understandably; he was still a young man in his 20's; why should his life be forever ruined?)
Lionel Dahmer deserves enormous respect for having done none of these things; he kept his name. He did this largely to defend the honor and dignity of the many previous generations of good Dahmers; on Larry King Live he stressed that despite everything, he's proud of the family name. He privately and publicly confronted the monstrous reality that has become the noose around his neck for the remainder of his life, and even continued to love (if not forgive) his son despite his crimes. If one goes to YouTube, one can find the unedited video of NBC's Stone Phillips interviewing Jeff and his father, and at the beginning of this video, as father and son are temporarily reunited within the confines of the Columbia Correctional Facility, they approach each other and Lionel initiates an embrace with Jeff. How many fathers would have the courage to hug their son after knowing that son committed such grisly crimes?
This memoir is as sobering as it is haunting. We see a father who, despite any mistakes he made (all parents make mistakes), tried to do the right thing. Nothing he did seemed to have any effect, he saw his son drift from quiet and shy boy, to an alcoholic lost soul, and finally, the unspeakable truth for which Jeff is known around the world. He reflects upon each event in Jeff's childhood which, at the time seemed innocuous, but in retrospect is viewed with a sinister cloud, particularly Jeff's fascination with the clanking noise of bones being dropped into a metal pale. Lionel reflects upon his own sexual fantasies he felt as a child, fantasies which included violence and killing. Lionel stresses, however, that with him, as with most people who fantasize about sexual acts which would be highly wrong and illegal in actuality, everything stayed completely within his mind; he never once crossed that great divide whereby he intended to make those fantasies real. He searches his mind and soul to ask how Jeff could in fact cross that divide, to go beyond the line that almost all other human beings will not allow themselves to cross.
A tragic, sobering, haunting memoir of a good man who happened to be the father of one of history's most notorious murders.
The result is an anguished examination of the private festering that might have given rise to Jeffrey Dahmer's crimes. In the process of looking for early signs, early inklings, Lionel Dahmer traces many of the tendrils of the mad imaginings that he eventually found had ruled his son's life - back to himself. He says that in some ways, he believes his own obsessions might have been the shadowy precursors of his son's full-blown madness. Lionel Dahmer recounts how he was obsessed with fire, with bombs, with exercising mesmerizing control over others when he was a child.
He also discusses the medical conditions his wife suffered from around the time of her difficult pregnancy with Jeffrey. While he does consider that some twisted genetic inheritance might have dictated Jeffrey's behavior, he is still left with a benumbing sense of blame and shame.
There is a generally spare, somber, weighted tone to the writing in this book, although there are some very literate, almost poetic passages, as for example when Lionel admits that he buried himself so much in his work in the chemical analysis laboratory, that he saw Jeffrey only "in glimpses... felt him in snatches." Lionel describes how he played the role of dutiful father and husband, but didn't vitally experience either the joys or loves or sorrows that most people seem to get out of these relationships.
I had criticized a low-budget independent movie that was made based on this book, because the actors in it seemed so emotionless. The actor who played the father especially gave the appearance of sleepwalking through his performance. But this book suggests that that's how life was really lived for much of the time in this household. The father took the son fishing - played soccer with him. There were all the seeming normalcies - from Halloween parties - to a college enrolment. But if Lionel's self-criticisms are accurate, in truth all these Norman Rockwell tableaus took place as the aftermath of "The Invasion of the BodySnatchers." Everyone was actually a walking simulacrum, an emptiness posing as a real person.
Well, that is probably the case in many families, but hardly any children grow up to be cannibalistic serial killers. So the mystery of "Why?" remains. But this account goes farther than almost any other book on serial killers I've read in plumbing to the undertow of trouble that can flow in even the "best" families.
Top international reviews
On a personal level this book has given me empathy and compassion towards Jeff and some understanding on why he did what he did. Obviously it can never be justified but I believe it should be known.
Easy book to read, a real tradedgy for all involved. I hope Lionel and Shari's quality of life has improved.
Thank you for sharing.