My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
The best books elicit emotions from its readers. Truly great books give rise to conflicted feelings. My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, falls firmly within that second category.
Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio, attending Eastview Junior High and Revere High School in the 70s, which would all seem innocuous enough had it not been for a certain classmate, convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dahmer went largely unnoticed — even when he was drinking heavily throughout the school, reeking of alcohol — but Backderf and his group befriended the odd character, laughing at his impressions of a physically challenged interior decorator and egging him on for public disturbances. Throughout this time, Backderf drew sketches of Dahmer, recording his antics, both humorous and disturbing — all of which aided his memory when recalling details for the book.
From time to time the group was privy to the darker side of Dahmer’s antisocial behavior — his taxidermy experiments with roadkill (he liked to dissolve already dead animals in acid) and his aforementioned drinking problem (pounding a six pack in the back of a car in under 10 minutes). Once, while picking him up at home, they met his mentally ill mother (who ultimately left Dahmer alone in his childhood home when his life was in the most danger of going off the rails).
Most people will remember, if not the details, the horror they felt when they learned of Dahmer’s arrest — a young serial killer who not only murdered his victims but ate them as well. It was the first time I’d heard of an actual cannibal living among us — not just some desperate exploratory group in a history book.
The copy of My Friend Dahmer that we see on shelves today grew out of Backderf’s self-published comic, first drawn and written after Dahmer’s death in 1994. With his R. Crumb-like stylings, detailed and at times grotesque, Backderf went back and fleshed out his story using not only his memory and interviews with former classmates, but also interviews Dahmer conducted after his arrest, legal documents, news accounts, and Dahmer’s father’s memoir; all of which is well documented in the back of the book.
Backderf makes it very clear that he loses all sympathy for Dahmer as soon as he kills his first human but, at the same time, he does a great job of showing what a tragedy this was, not just for Dahmer’s victims but for Dahmer as well. At times in the book it seems as if Dahmer knew he was deeply troubled and had few resources to cope with his urges. The reader, now having seen the teenage life of a future serial killer, is left wondering, like Backderf, if all of this could have turned out differently. Had the school acknowledged his alcoholism, had his parents not been dysfunctional, had his taxidermy experiments been brought to light, would Dahmer’s murderous tendencies have manifested or could they have been controlled? This is where the inner conflict kicks into overdrive.
My Friend Dahmer is an engrossing read, one that lingers in your bones, and will make you think twice about talking to strangers.