Last year, artist Derf Backderf published a graphic novel that was long in the making. My Friend Dahmer is Backderf’s thoughtful recollection of a guy he knew in high school, the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer. I didn’t think it was a book I would want to read. Why would I care what a serial killer was like in high school?
Last week at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Chicago, I attended the presentation of the 2013 Alex Award winners. The Alex Award is presented to adult books with appeal for teen readers. I had been surprised that Backderf’s book had been chosen, and was interested to hear him speak about his motivation. He spoke simply, humbly, of the pressing need to tell the story of Dahmer’s tortuous high school days. Backderf is no apologist; Dahmer’s crimes have shocked him as deeply as anyone else. But…there was a story to tell.
Dahmer was the weird kid. The other guys would encourage his strange outbursts, particularly his imitation of an interior decorator with a speech impediment. We can probably all remember some seriously disturbed kids that showed up in class after class at our own high schools. I was in high school around the same time as Backderf, and I remember a girl who wore garden gloves all the time. She would freak out if someone tried to touch her, what to speak of remove her gloves. How far from normal was that?
Reading Backderf’s book, there seem to be so many red flags. There were incidents with animals. By junior year, Dahmer was drinking heavily. As Backderf wonders, couldn’t anyone smell the alcohol? Dahmer’s parents split up in his senior year of high school, and he was left alone in the house. Alone, with his terrible desires.
In this interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer tries to explain the horrific obsessions that created a serial killer.
Lionel Dahmer, Jeffrey’s father, wrote A Father’s Story, an intensely personal examination of his role in raising his disturbed son. How did he not see? After all, Jeffrey Dahmer killed his first victim at age eighteen. Lionel has no excuses. But he writes, ”In the eyes of parents I think children always seem just a blink away from redemption. No matter to what depths we watch them sink, we believe they need only grasp the lifeline and we can pull them safely to shore.”
- My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (50books1summer.wordpress.com)