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Customer Review

on October 13, 2012
On the back of the book, Chuck Klosterman described My Friend Dahmer as "not just a heavy story about a disturbing teenager to quench your dark little desires. It is about a lot of other things that matter much, much more: the institutionalized weirdness of the suburban seventies, what it means to be friends with someone you don't really like, a cogent explanation as to why terrible things happen, and a means for feeling sympathy toward those who don't seem to deserve it."

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.
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