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At a writer’s pitch recently, a literary agent cautioned that the market for memoirs had become flooded, and publishers were only interested in gripping, unique stories. I flashed back on that when I heard about Derf Backderf’s book My Friend Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts)– you can’t beat “I went to high school with a gay serial killer, and I want to do a graphic novel about it” when you’re talking gripping, unique memoir.
And yet, for all the inherent sensationalism in this description, what Backderf’s book delivers proves to be just the opposite: a thought-provoking look at how society, the education system and human nature all failed to recognize how one student was dangerously floundering. Backderf’s done much research to back up his memories both of personal experiences and the larger picture of Dahmer’s life. The book’s span actually encompasses only the first murder Dahmer committed – a hitchhiker Dahmer killed the summer after graduation. The palpable feeling of menace that lurks in these pages rises not from visible violence, but through the reader’s observations of the cumulative warning signs foretelling what’s to come. These include Dahmer’s fascinations with roadkill and skeletons, his mother’s mental illness, his binge drinking and his increasing isolation, compounded by the total lack of response – of anyone – to stop it, or to note it as a symptom of a larger problem. Small, dead animals nailed to trees in the woods behind the Dahmers’ house? People went as far to worry that it might be a cult; but no one was bothered enough to investigate a sociopath in their midst.
Backderf is sympathetic to Dahmer, up until the point where he commits murder:
It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn’t have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and /or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills – and I can’t stress this enough – my sympathy for him ends. He could have turned himself in after that first murder. He could have put a gun to his head. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people. There are a surprising number of people out there who view Jeffrey Dahmer as some kind of anti-hero, a bullied kid who lashed back at society for rejecting him. This is nonsense. Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.
Backderf is also sensitive to what it must have been like to be gay in such a closeted community, with unsympathetic, crazed parents. And he admits the role that he and other students played in their relationship with Dahmer ranged from friendship to bullyism to avoidance. As Dahmer’s behavior becomes more erratic, Backderf and friends form a “Dahmer Fan Club” and draw cartoons based on “Dahmerisms” – odd things that Dahmer would say.
While Backderf calls out adults for failing to take action, he’s also careful to note that the seventies were different times. Still, if most kids were aware that Dahmer was showing up to school drunk, reeking of alcohol, it’s incomprehensible that his teachers and parents were blind to his binge drinking. And yes, while some things have changed, reading this story only reiterates elements of violence from today’s news, be it the Arizona shooting of congresswoman Gifford, or the repeated Columbine type killings perpetrated by other “odd loners” in schools around the world.
Then, as now, it boils down to that quirk of democracy – “innocent until proven guilty.” One can only hope that as sociopathic behavior becomes more well documented, preventative treatment and protective action will also increase. It would be interesting to compare this book to another recent graphic novel Yummy; the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, by G. Neri, which chronicles the 1994 shooting of a girl by an 11 year old boy, and raises similar but different questions about whether childhood killers are victims or monsters.
Backderf’s art works well for this book, as it did for his previous book Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. His style, though more realistic, has some characteristics similar to Mad Magazine’s Don Martin, which somehow works well for this tale that turns twisted, set in Cleveland of the seventies “the mistake on the lake.”
My Friend Dahmer
By Derf Backderf
Paperback,9781419702167, 224 pp.