When Jeffrey Dahmer was a teenager he became obsessed with a runner who would go past his house most days. He grew progressively more invested in his fantasy of knocking the man out, of having power over him – and this desire grew and grew, until Dahmer could no longer stand it. So, one day, baseball bat in hand, he hid along the running track and waited for the man to appear.
For whatever reason, that day the runner didn’t show up. Maybe he was taking a break; perhaps he was trying a new route. Thwarted, Dahmer eventually trudged home and gave up on the idea completely. The desire to injure and kill remained, but following that day’s failure he wouldn’t act on it for another few years – not until he turned eighteen.
By the time he was caught in 1991, Dahmer had murdered seventeen boys and men, keeping ‘trophies’ from the bodies of most of his victims. He was surprisingly open about his crimes and intentions, telling police and interviewers about things that had happened in his youth; of the fantasies that had plagued him for years, on the time he nearly killed a neighbourhood dog – and his plan to attack the runner. He later said that had he been arrested six months later, he would have completed his plan of building an altar made of (among other things) his victims’ heads, bookended by two complete skeletons.
Dahmer lived in a small town; his horrific crimes dominated the news for months. It’s not a stretch, then, to think that the runner that Dahmer nearly attacked that day would have heard the story, figured out the role he almost played, and been haunted by the idea of ‘what if’.
We all know crime surrounds us, and we are reminded of its proximity by the ‘near misses’ that happen with almost surprising regularity, chipping away at our veneer of safety.
We all know crime surrounds us, and we are reminded of its proximity by the ‘near misses’ that happen with almost surprising regularity, chipping away at our veneer of safety. You witness a car accident on your regular route home. There’s a mugging in your neighbourhood. A restaurant you went to one time catches fire. We weren’t there but we could have been, and the one degree of separation makes us feel both safe yet involved.
We all have ‘what ifs’ gnawing away at our cores. It’s what makes us cross the road when we spot someone vaguely shifty looking. It’s what makes us grumpily trudge along the well-lit ‘long way’ rather than the shadowy shortcut.
It’s also what fuels our appetite for crime in entertainment; the closeness we all feel to the darker side of the human experience needs an outlet. The result is four CSIs, two NCISs, six Law and Orders and enough Agatha Christie books in the world that we could build our own St. Mary Mead out of pulp and references to Poirot’s moustache.
Despite the fact that we are fully aware of the realities, most of us find it difficult to believe that the really bad stuff could ever truly intersect with our own lives. Yes, these things happen, but not to us. Yes, monsters hide in plain sight, but not within our field of vision. Subconsciously, we believe in the flimsy layer of glass that protects us. This is not to say we need to amp up the paranoia; it’s just a fact. It’s hard to imagine something from outside our realm of experience until it actually happens.
My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel by journalist and illustrator John ‘Derf’ Backderf, explores what happens to someone when the glass shatters and they have a direct line into the kind of horror we always think of as stories that happen to someone else. The graphic novel has now been turned into a film directed by Marc Meyers, which is currently doing the festival circuit – its second screening at MIFF has been selling fast.
Backderf went to school with Dahmer in the 1970s and, in the aftermath of his classmate’s crimes, did what we all would do in that situation – scoured his memory for any signs, any telling incidents, any possibility that he or the others around him might have made a difference.
The author walks a difficult line as he tries to make sense of the person he knew without valorising a serial killer. It would have been impossible to write a book like this without sympathising with its subject. Backderf doesn’t hide the pity he feels for his classmate, but: ‘Once Dahmer kills, however – and I can‘t stress this enough – my sympathy for him ends…he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people.’
The final version of the graphic novel – which comes in at over 200 pages – takes us through the years that Backderf’s life intersected with Dahmer’s. It touches on what is to come, but remains firm in its purpose: to look at the small window of time, as well as the myriad contributing and confounding factors, as Dahmer grew more and more consumed by the monster within.
My Friend Dahmer has evolved from a 1997 short story, to a short story collection, to a graphic novel with fluctuating pages and detail before Backderf arrived at the 2012 version which he describes as the final, completed work. Backderf’s own memories of this time period provide the scaffolding, but the story is reinforced by the context that Backderf could only gain though research and hindsight.
The author details the ‘Dahmer Fan Club’, of which he was a member. It was a group of boys who enjoyed Dahmer’s ‘antics’, his willingness to play the weirdo. High school Dahmer wasn’t popular, but for a time he was celebrated for his oddness. The boys snuck Dahmer into yearbook photos he didn’t belong in. They adopted ‘Dahmerisms’, catchphrases coined by the future serial killer. They pooled their money to get him to act up in a shopping mall.
We see Dahmer amusing kids at school with fake epileptic fits, watching the way he ‘mimicked the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy’ to get laughs. Then we (but not his contemporaries) discover that in reality he is imitating his mother, who in the lead up to her divorce was battling her own demons. Eventually she would abandon Dahmer, leaving him alone in the gap between school and college, when he would commit his first murder.
The narration ebbs and flows, Backderf’s voice telling us what was going on behind the scenes. We see Dahmer’s family dissolve. We watch him being bullied. We see him turn to alcohol to escape. We see his desire to connect and belong.
The narration ebbs and flows, Backderf’s voice telling us what was going on behind the scenes.
Sympathy is a funny thing, and Backderf is cautious to keep a tight rein on things. ‘It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster… if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensively clueless and/or indifferent.’
The Dahmer of the book is undeniably tragic, but he is not portrayed as a victim. His circumstances are presented frankly, but we also see him grow progressively more sinister as he becomes more isolated and his urges grow. Most of the time we can’t even see his eyes – they’re obscured by thick glasses which further cut him off from the world.
‘There are a surprising number out there who view Jeffrey Dahmer as some kind of antihero, a bullied kid who lashed back at the society that rejected him.’ Backderf explains in the preface. ‘This is nonsense. Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathise with him.’
The people of My Friend Dahmer are all drawn squarely, angularly. The characters, alongside anything man-made, look harder still when set against the gentle curves of the idyllic Ohio backdrop. Dotted throughout the text, however, are real-life drawings that Backderf has dug up from high school. Crowd scenes. Flyers for a fake student campaign. Joke drawings of Dahmer himself – as a bag of groceries, as a telephone pole. Artistic styles evolve, but the people of Backderf’s early images are softer, gentler, untainted by what was to come.
The characters, alongside anything man-made, look harder still when set against the gentle curves of the idyllic Ohio backdrop.
By the time he completed My Friend Dahmer, Backderf had had twenty years to think things through, to process his own response. It’s a book that raises many ‘what ifs’. What if Dahmer’s parents had noticed what their son was becoming, instead of being caught up in the carnage of their own relationship? What if teachers had picked up on some of Dahmer’s more worrying traits? What if the kids around him had shared their stories of seeing him kill animals, of laughing at other people’s injuries, at the time?
The graphic novel, in all its incarnations, has been a cult hit – and it’s no wonder. Backderf’s experience could be anyone’s experience. It’s more proof of our proximity to horror and crime, and a story like this takes us one step closer than usual, without making things ‘unsafe’. But it’s odd – even though this story makes it clear, with no punches pulled, that those around us can devolve into monsters, we still feel the safety of distance, of the flimsy glass protection. We can put down a book. We can leave a cinema. It doesn’t matter if the story is true. We’re close, but also completely removed. It’s most likely a protection mechanism, and it’s hard to shake.
In a graphic novel filled with horror and uncomfortable truths, it is strange then that perhaps the most chilling frame appears as a postscript. It’s on the last page, after the epilogue, after the detailed description of sources. It’s set thirteen years after graduation, when Backderf receives a phone call from his wife, a reporter, telling him about the necrophiliac serial killer who had just been caught. ‘He was in your class!’ she exclaims. She asks him to guess who it was, and he names another, even more violent, outsider from his year level. Dahmer is only his second guess.
The film is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival tomorrow, 18 August at 9:15pm.