Content Warning: as the title suggests, this book discusses Jeffrey Dahmer. It includes sensitive topics such as murder, sexual assault, pedophilia, cannibalism, and necrophilia. Also, this book deals with the cruel and hurtful mocking of people with disabilities.
“Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.” John “Derf” Backderf says in the introduction to his 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. Backderf was in the same high school graduating class with Jeffrey Dahmer. He knew Dahmer and even called him a friend. He was the self-proclaimed Minister of Propaganda for the “Dahmer Fan Club”. Backderf uses a combination of his original art and contemporary images in My Friend Dahmer. For example, there is a sketch that he submitted to the Revere High School yearbook committee. It included the teenage Milwaukee Cannibal stylized as a revolutionary war drummer. If he had his way, it would have been on the cover of that year’s yearbook.
I don’t specify what year’s yearbook because Backderf isn’t that clear. To be fair, he’s recalling things that happened a long time before he started working on My Friend Dahmer. It was a long project, but not started for at least thirteen years after he graduated high school. He tries to place events as solid a timeline as possible. Still, it’s sometimes unclear exactly when something happened.
Backderf makes it clear that the last thing he wants to do is justify or excuse any of Dahmer’s actions. Backderf’s sympathy for Dahmer ended as soon as he hit Steven Hicks over the head with a dumbbell. Nothing justifies cold-blooded murder, not to mention the rest of Dahmer’s actions. and Backderf says that Dahmer should have put a gun to his head after that. Still, Backderf had an unwitting front row seat to Dahmer’s spiral into a killer. He had no idea what he would learn about his friend in 1991.
Backderf doesn’t talk about Dahmer’s crimes much in the book. He focused what he himself saw and heard from first-hand accounts. There’s plenty of information already available about what Dahmer did. My Friend Dahmer is about what happened before that. I wonder how much hindsight colors of Backderf’s recollection. I also wonder if he’s more able to see the red flags now that he knows what would happen. Either way, My Friend Dahmer goes into what Backderf believes led to Dahmer’s descent.
Backderf raises a simple but poignant question in My Friend Dahmer. “Where were the damn adults?” Why hadn’t he said anything about his friend’s behavior? He asks, why didn’t any of the adults do so? Dahmer is an unsympathetic but tragic character in this book. His antics were funny to the teens around him, even when they were cruel. Often, Dahmer would imitate a person with cerebral palsy. Backderf acknowledges that he partook in this joke. He encouraged Dahmer’s mocking. He prank called a local interior designer, on whom Dahmer based his impersonation. He drew Jeffrey Dahmer doing his impersonation in his cartoons.
Backderf was a teenager at the time, but that doesn’t completely wipe him of any complicity. Still, he’s right to point out the many ways in which Dahmer fell through the cracks and could have gotten help. Backderf raises a few interesting questions in My Friend Dahmer. What if teachers had taken action after finding that he was showing up to school every day drunk? What if Dahmer had a way to get help with the dark thoughts that plagued him? What if his parents realized how much their fighting affected him? Backderf tells the story of someone for whom every failsafe failed. And that failure led to an unimaginable tragedy.
Backderf creates an insightful look into Dahmer’s past in My Friend Dahmer. He looks back at the red flags that he and others missed. He sets up the tragedy of a bullied, miserable, damaged boy. A boy who grew into a man that made the worst choices a human can make. It humanizes Dahmer without minimizing how horrific his actions were. It goes to show that people do terrible things, but they don’t come from nowhere. Perhaps it’s possible to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. We have a better idea of what can drive a person to commit atrocities. We know the circumstances that affected them, though they made their own decisions. Backderf says this before his book even begins: “Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.”