My Friend Dahmer
Have you ever thought about what a notorious killer was like before they snapped – before they become a figure of the media, and a face in the paper? They had lives; surely they did, before something went wrong.
In John “Derf” Backderf’s graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer, the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, notorious serial killer, is chronicled through vivid black-and-white rectangles that explore the depths of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mind and life before the snap. Backderf displays a frame-by-frame portrayal of Dahmer’s life in junior high and high school in the mid-1970s in rural Ohio. My Friend Dahmer is a pictorial journey of a boy who starts out lost in the world, but in the end, finds himself completely lost in his own mind.
At Eastview Junior High, Backderf quickly made a clique of close friends. This group knew of Dahmer, but did not socialize with him until seventh grade. Dahmer did not have any friends before Backderf and friends took him on. Backderf recalls when he was sixteen and at Revere High School: “Some instinct warned me off. I was always wary of Dahmer. I was willing to hang out with him at school, but there was no way I was going to forge a closer friendship.”
Dahmer had an obsession with roadkill and would steal fetal pigs from the science room at school. His twisted necrophilia behavior was dulled with alcohol at a young age.
Dahmer used bizarre humor as a way to form relationships and friends. He would fake epileptic fits and talk as if he had cerebral palsy. To his 15-year old hormonal male friends, he was hilarious. It was not until later that Backderf learned the fits Dahmer mimicked were his own mother’s. Because he was such a riot, the boys formed a “Dahmer Fan Club.” Boys in Dahmer’s class pooled money together and brought him to the mall where he walked around pranking mall-goers with his fits and fake voice, the boys egging him on all the while. On the way to the mall in the car, Dahmer chugged an entire six-pack in the back seat.
Backderf repeatedly asks questions throughout My Friend Dahmer, such as: “Why wasn’t Dahmer ever stopped?” and “Why hadn’t his destructive teenage angst-ridden behavior mediated by an adult?” Dahmer would drink at school and on campus grounds all day and night. No teachers said a word to him. His parents never questioned him. Dahmer’s disdain and resentment towards his mother is evident, and she is shown as a sad woman, so engulfed in her own world of problems she does not even see her son.
After his parents’ divorce at the end of Dahmer’s senior year of high school, his mother moved back home to Wisconsin and took Dahmer’s younger brother with her. Dahmer is left alone in the house. Upon leaving, his mother asks him not to tell his father, Lionel, of his mother’s departure. Backderf questions whether Dahmer would have murdered his first victim that summer had he never been left alone.
David, Dahmer’s brother, is never spoken about in detail, but mentioned briefly and frankly. Backderf, as an honest author, stated he had no experiences with David, so he will not write about him. This small mention gives Backderf validity as an author, and allows the reader to trust him further as the story unravels. Both as an adolescent distraught and troubled by a creepy friend, and as an adult recollecting events, with “what could have been” Backderf’s insecurities about Dahmer never waver. Backderf wonders several times throughout this memoir, whether he and his friends were ever in danger.
Backderf’s voice in My Friend Dahmer is honest. A first hand telling of the personal life of a notorious serial killer is hard to come by. The reader knows Backderf is telling him or her things he has seen and heard himself. This makes My Friend Dahmer such an intriguing and amazing book.
My Friend Dahmer outlines the path Jeffrey Dahmer takes from puberty to insanity, as Backderf relays all the details of what happened in between. Executed beautifully as a graphic novel, you see the physical shift and aura change in Dahmer as he creeps closer and closer to the point of no return. My Friend Dahmer shows the readers how Jeffrey Dahmer chose to release his inner demons.
My Friend Dahmer is Backderf’s second attempt at writing this story; it was originally a comic book project that began in 1994 shortly after Dahmer’s death in prison.