My name is Marisa. I am a fiction writer, a blogger, and a freelance journalist.
Published October 13th 2018
A chilling look into the origins of a serial killer
Derf Backderf. Abrams Comic Arts.
Jeffrey Dahmer was an American serial killer, known as the Milwaukee Cannibal or the Milwaukee Monster, who raped, murdered and dismembered a total of 17 men and boys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the U.S between 1978 and 1991. Dahmer's crimes were particularly horrific. He committed necrophilia and cannibalism and liked to keep body parts of his victims in his apartment as mementoes, from heads in his fridge to entire skeletons in his closet.
He was caught and arrested in 1991 after a man escaped from his apartment and went to the authorities. He was convicted to 16 terms of life imprisonment. He was killed in prison by another inmate on November 28 1994. Jeffrey Dahmer's crimes shocked many and left a lasting aftermath. He continues to be an object of curiosity and is listed as one of the most notorious serial killers of all time.
My Friend Dahmer is a graphic novel and memoir of one of Dahmer's classmates John "Derf" Backderf. Backderf went to school with Dahmer and was friends with him when they were teenagers. My Friend Dahmer is written from the point of view of Backderf. The book explores Dahmer's origin story and explains how Backderf thinks why he did the things he did.
Backderf started working on My Friend Dahmer not long after Dahmer was caught and his crimes made public in 1991. Backderf spoke to old friends and teachers, poured over old sketchpads of his from high school, watched the news religiously and read as many interviews and reports about his old friend as he could.
The result was a graphic novel that explores the weird world of the seventies and shines a spotlight on a young man who desperately needed help but was failed by every adult and authority figure in his life. Backderf is very clear in the opening pages of his book that while he does have sympathy for Dahmer and what he went through as a kid, his sympathy for him goes away the moment he kills his first victim. He could have turned himself in after that, but he didn't. He chose to become a monster and that is unforgivable.
The thing that makes My Friend Dahmer such a good read is Backderf asks the question 'What would have happened if all of the adults in Dahmer's life hadn't failed him and had noticed that he had mental health issues and needed help? Could the trajectory of his life have been radically altered?'
It's an interesting question. Dahmer lived in a household with two parents who were miserable in their marriage and spent so much time caught up in their own problems they barely noticed that their son was battling some dark impulses.
His teachers were no better. By the time he was in high school, Dahmer knew that he was gay, but that didn't trouble him. What troubled him was the disturbed sexual fantasies he was having about young men. To try and silence his urges, Dahmer took up drinking heavily, and would often reek of booze at school and walk around sipping alcohol out of a Styrofoam cup. His teachers for the most part barely noticed his drinking, which just caused him to spiral deeper into despair.
After his parents broke up, his father moved into a motel and his mother took his younger brother and left Dahmer, who was eighteen at the time, alone in the family house in the middle of the woods. This was extremely distressing to Dahmer. He feared that if he were to be left alone that he would finally give in to the dark impulses that had been haunting him for so long. He was right. He murdered his first victim not that long after his family abandoned him.
My Friend Dahmer is a brutally honest and sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man who never got the help he needed to deal with his mental health issues. The book was a national bestseller, was nominated for an Eisner Award, was awarded a number of prestigious awards and was named one of the top five non-fiction books of 2012 by Time Magazine.
My Friend Dahmer was a gripping read and well deserving of the praise and awards it has received. If you enjoy true crime stories I recommend this book.