There is a niche type of book that I would call my favorite genre. Biographies of infamous people by the people that were the closest to them. Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer is one such biography that I recently reviewed. There is one more, but it took much more effort to track the book down. Unlike Backderf’s book, there are no digital copies that I could find (legally). The physical book isn’t in print anymore as far as I know. Physical copies of the book also go for prices beyond my comfortable budget. Through the power of online sleuthing and inter-library loans, I was finally able to get my hands on Lionel Dahmer’s biography of his son: A Father’s Story.
Jeffrey Dahmer died in 1994, the year that A Father’s Story hit shelves. So Lionel Dahmer couldn’t have written his book as a postmortem project, as some people have said it was. Still, it reads like a confession. Lionel Dahmer wanted to explain what mistakes he made, what red flags he missed, and how he failed to save his son.
It’s difficult to look back and see exactly what was a red flag. Lionel described a toddler Jeffrey who liked to play with animal bones. Knowing that now, more than half a century later, it seems like something suspicious. But a fascination with the macabre does not equal later atrocities. I don’t think I can fault Lionel Dahmer for not being able to predict what his son would be capable of.
Lionel Dahmer doesn’t try to excuse his son’s action. Nobody can find a good reason to excuse what he did. He has sympathy for the lives that his son cut short. In fact, he dedicated the book to each victim by name. While the book was in print, he also wanted to donate some of the money from sales to the families.
It’s difficult to look at this book like I do other books. It wasn’t a deep dive into his son’s psychology, but Lionel Dahmer isn’t a psychologist. It has a lot of sympathy for Jeffrey, but this is from a parent’s perspective. It’s a genuine, emotional, and intimate account of what led up to his son’s descent. It’s hard to make a judgement on a book like this.
I think that it’s a great book for people to read who are into true crime. This type of book in general is great to keep true crime enthusiasts grounded. It’s easy to think about these crimes in an objective, almost clinical way. Here the humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator are bared to the reader. A Father’s Story is an emotional and vulnerable story about mistakes and failures that build up over years. It’s impossible to say that something or someone could have stopped Dahmer, but it’s hard not to wonder. It’s not a question of excusing or sympathizing with him. However, maybe understanding these things can help prevent future tragedies.
Of all the things that Lionel Dahmer could have finished this book on, he chose to talk about himself. He admits to some violent intrusive thoughts and actions in his own childhood. He wondered if his hand was “shaking at the doorknob” that his son later opened. What about Jeffrey’s upbringing pushed him off the edge that his father stood on? A Father’s Story raises that question, but does not answer it. I doubt that Lionel Dahmer himself knows the answer himself.