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My Friend Dahmer Paperback – March 1, 2012
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But this book is almost precisely the opposite of what Klosterman described:
* "A means for feeling sympathy toward those who don't seem to deserve it": The author outwardly contradicts this as early as the third page, saying that Dahmer was a "monster" (the classic term to dismiss someone as inhuman) and a "twisted wretch." "Pity him," Derf says, "but don't empathize with him." Forget sympathy, the author doesn't even want us to *empathize.*
* "A cogent explanation as to why terrible things happen": No cogent explanation exists. Most of this book is a flailing attempt to fight that uncomfortable truth. There is a complex reality to Dahmer's case that cannot be explained with a sentence or with a diagnosis. Dahmer was weird, but not even the weirdest kid at his rural Ohio high school. He witnessed some disturbing things, but not anything more disturbing than his parents' heated arguments or his mother having a seizure. The author grapples for explanations and evidence, but the uncomfortable truth is that the same piecemeal evidence could be thrown together in a book about almost any of us. The truth is complex, and the truth is uncomfortable precisely because of how "normal" and "human" Dahmer was, but Backderf desperately wants to find a simple, comfortable story that makes Dahmer appear inhuman and monstrous.
* "What it means to be friends with someone you don't really like": The author admits that Dahmer was not a friend but a mascot. Backderf was amused by Dahmer's "spaz freak" performances, but had no interest in him as a human being. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe Backderf as a bully than a friend. Backderf served as president of the "Dahmer Fan Club," which was less a fan club than a group of guys who exploited Dahmer's goofy qualities for their own amusement.
Backderf's account suggests that Dahmer was perfectly incapable of normal human conversation, that he was clinging to a faint thread of sanity, and that his only means of engaging in social activity was to put on a spaz freak show. But if you look up any of the interviews with Dahmer, you will find that he was almost precisely the opposite of what Backderf describes. Dahmer was articulate, sensitive, and intelligent. He was, in short, a human. That seems to be a truth too uncomfortable for Backderf to acknowledge.
For something that delivers what Chuck Klosterman describes, see Into the Abyss or Standard Operating Procedure.
Derf really captures the essence of high school of that era. I was an early 80s student, myself, and little had changed by that point. I knew plenty of people much like the ones shown here. As a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, I too was near the bottom of the social ladder, much like Derf and Dahmer were. I can attest to the authenticity of Derf's portrayal of high school life of 30-odd years ago. As I read, I found myself wondering about the whereabouts of marginal characters I knew in my own school, like "Einerschteiner", "Squiddy" and the infamous "Onion". I'm just glad I haven't read about them in the newspapers.
Derf himself had a ringside seat to the genesis of notorious serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer's psychosis as a teen in 1970s small town Ohio. Derf was the leader of a group of self-described "band nerds" who associated with Dahmer in a strange blend of hero worship, fascination, pity, and disgust. Derf and his friends based a whole quasi-mythology and much of their banter and social interactions on Dahmer's desperate and bizarre attempts to gain peer acceptance through sick humor. Dahmer seems to have deeply infiltrated almost every aspect of Derf and friends' high school life. One is reminded of Alfred Jarry's creation of his absurdist play, Ubu Roi, based on stories he and his school friends made up about their strange and eccentric physics teacher.
Derf generally treats Dahmer as sympathetically as possible, noting how his disturbed behavior and alcoholism, while blatantly obvious to his peers, was overlooked by every single adult in Dahmer's life. Derf even shows how he and his friends egged Dahmer on to ever greater lengths of weirdness and unacceptable behavior, culminating in an unforgettable trip to a local mall where they paid Dahmer $35 to run amok for two hours. Ironically, this episode was the 'last straw' that resulted in their disassociation from him due to discomfort with his ever-worsening freakish persona.
I cannot give this any less than five stars, however one area that I think Derf held back on was the central character of Dahmer. I'm not saying he should have showed his killings or grotesque fantasies, I just think Derf consciously or unconsciously tended to dehumanize Dahmer, rendering him more as a caricature of a lunatic than an actual human being. The scenes of Dahmer alone or with his parents do not have this problem, just the scenes of his interactions with others in his peer group. I do understand that Dahmer had this crazed persona he hid behind at school, but I am sure he was a little more articulate than presented here, especially with the members of Derf's "Dahmer Fan Club". Clues in the end notes to Derf's book reinforce this, as well as the articulate nature of the interviews with Dahmer that I have seen in documentaries.
In the book, Dahmer's dialogue is mainly restricted to loud exclamations of "THMAAAA!" and "BAAAAA!". (This is a depiction of Dahmer's cruel mockery of a handicapped man who was employed by his mother.) However, in an actual 70s high school year book cartoon done by Derf and included in the text, many quoted "Dahmerisms" are included that prove that Dahmer was in fact possessed of an eccentric and somewhat obscure sense of humor, rather than being a non-stop bellowing lunatic. Unfortunately Derf only allows Dahmer to act as a real human in a couple of scenes; notably, one where he manages to maneuver himself and several classmates into a meeting with Vice President Mondale during a trip to Washington DC.
Understandably, Derf must have wanted to distance himself from Dahmer as much as possible in the making of this book. He had the unenviable task of telling the story of his boyhood friendship with one of the most horrible serial killers of modern times while at the same time avoiding being tarred with the same brush, so to speak. Derf constantly throws in little anecdotes to emphasize the normalcy of his own life as he recounts the bizarreness of Dahmer's. Perhaps Derf was reluctant to show himself and his friends interacting with Dahmer on any level deeper than a "bemused observer" capacity. Certainly, Dahmer was a real weirdo, but it would have been fascinating if Derf had added one or two scenes where Dahmer actually interacted a little with his peers. Undoubtedly there must have been incidents like that, as I doubt someone of Derf's imagination and intellect would have been so thoroughly captivated by a guy whose sole schtick was a loud, ugly impression of a cerebral palsy sufferer.
All in all, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It would have been interesting to see at least one or two of Dahmer's more lucid interactions with classmates, and to find out a bit about how he functioned academically (I understand his IQ was about 145), but these are very small complaints indeed given the general exceptional quality of this book. We may still not know the whole explanation behind the descent into horrific madness of an intelligent, pleasant looking boy with a well-to-do family and a caring father, but Derf's graphic novel does as much or more to explain it as any of the other literature on this all-around tragic subject. Five Stars.
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