You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides.
In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. He became infamous after his 1991 arrest and 1992 conviction, when he received 15 life terms, only to be murdered by a fellow inmate in 1994. Dahmer has become part of America’s serial-killer history and infamy, in part because of the gory horror of the murders which included rape, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism.
But before he was the ‘The Milwaukee Cannibal’ and ‘The Milwaukee Monster’, Jeffrey Dahmer attended Eastview Junior High and later Revere High School, with John Backderf (who illustrates under the pseudonym Derf and Derf Backderf). In fact, Backderf while not close friends with Dahmer, was part of the ‘Dahmer Fan Club’; a group of self-proclaimed ‘nerds’ who were fringe-friends of Dahmer’s, and in 1991 would be interviewed by detectives about Dahmer’s first murder of a hitchhiker called Stephen Hicks.
It was John Backderf’s bizarre pseudo-friendship with the man who would go on to become one of America’s most infamous serial-killers that prompted him to first write a short comic anthology about growing up with Dahmer, published in 1997. From there, Berkderf explains in the preface to ‘My Friend Dahmer’, that he continued to muse on his high school memories of the boy, to the point that he released a self-published comic book version of what would later become the graphic novel ‘My Friend Dahmer’, published this year by Abrams ComicArts.
The novel follows Dhamer's schooling from the moment that Backderf actually remembers noticing him in Junior High. Through to the days before graduation and his last encounters with the now adult Dhamer who would go on to commit his first murder shortly thereafter. In the novel Backderf shines light on a loner teenager, struggling with a crumbling home life and frightening impulses; and when we wasn't fading into the background at school, he was being bullied by the jocks or relegated to a cafeteria table with the other 'freaks'.
Reading Backderf’s preface you get the impression that he has a small obsession with Dahmer, which is entirely understandable. For one thing, it’s not many people who can claim they went to school with one of the nation’s most famous serial-killers. And, in fact, in a chilling recount towards the end of the novel, Backderf shares the story of his high school friend, Mike, the last of their gang to interact with Dahmer when he saw him walking on the side of the road one night and offered him a lift home. Later, as the timeline of Dahmer’s murders was constructed (he first killed at the age of 18) Mike would come to realize that as he sat in the Dahmer driveway, there was a dismembered body either stuffed in a drainage pipe beside the driveway, or in the back of Dahmer’s car “which was parked just a few yards away.” Such thoughts would no doubt swirl in a person’s mind, and you’d think back to all those classes in which you sat next to a man who would one day commit such heinous acts. . .
For another, Backderf and his small, nerdy clique were probably the closest thing Dahmer ever had to a real friendship, and may well be who he spoke of in a 1993 interview with Nancy Glass for ‘Inside Edition’, when he said: “I had normal friendships in high school. . . and really never had any close friendships after high school.”
This is an unsettling thought while reading ‘My Friend Dahmer’, and I simultaneously praise and raise my eyebrow at John Backderf’s honesty. Because you soon discover that the measly crumbs Jeffrey Dahmer probably mistook for friendship from Backderf and his gang was really quite awful. The ‘Dahmer Fan Club’ to which Backderf and his three close friends were part of was an inside-joke, of sorts, praising Jeffrey Dahmer’s bizarre impersonations of a cerebral palsy sufferer (thought to be imitating a local interior decorator, who suffered from the condition, but in his research Backderf would discover was actually Dahmer imitating his own mother who was a depressive and on some 20 different prescriptive medications that made her twitch and lurch).
‘My Friend Dahmer’ proves to be a collection of Backderf’s unsettling accounts of his personal interactions with Dahmer, and more thorough back-story he gathered from local residents, past classmates and teachers and then deeper diggings through FBI and television transcripts, interviews with lawyers and reporters from the time. Some recounts of Jeffrey Dahmer have clearly gone down in Revere High School history – such as the opening panels depicting Jeffrey showing a group of boys his ‘hut’, where he kept road-kill he stuffed into jars of acid (to study the bones, he said.) Residents who lived near the tucked-away Dahmer residence would later confess to finding dead animals hammered to various telephone poles and trees, not thinking anything of it until much later, with Dahmer’s 1991 arrest.
But much of Backderf’s back-story to Dahmer’s formative years is gathered, directly and indirectly, from the man himself. This surprised me; I confess to knowing very little of the Jeffrey Dahmer case before I started reading ‘My Friend Dahmer’, but even finer details like Dahmer struggling with his homosexuality and dark thoughts of necrophilia seemed to be too much a shot in the dark. But, as it turns out, part of the reason for Dahmer’s later notoriety is thanks to his awful honesty. As Backderf says in his notes; “Jeff was remarkably forthright with the police, unlike most serial killers, who are either pathological liars, like Henry Lee Lucas, or manipulative psychopaths, like Charles Manson. Dahmer was truthful and coherent.” Indeed he was. Dahmer spoke candidly about his sexual impulses, his struggle with alcoholism (he was an alcoholic by the time he was a senior in high school, trying to numb his dark impulses) and the negative impact his parent’s fighting, and later divorce, had on him growing up.
‘My Friend Dahmer’ is in many ways a dark, depressing read. Particularly when Backderf starts asking why adults never gave a damn about Dahmer’s spiralling decline – his alcoholism, crumbling home life and ostracism in particular. In his preface, Backderf says: “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 adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent.” This thought is maybe distilled in a small window of Dahmer’s life, a week-long school trip to Washington D.C. when Dahmer’s ability to lie creatively and astoundingly scored him and two classmates a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale. A mind that could pull that off, on the spur of the moment, and later be capable of molesting children and killing 17 people, as Backderf says; “. . . what a waste.”
But Backderf makes it very clear that his sympathy for Dhamer ended the moment he killed; “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.”
‘My Friend Dhamer’ is an unsettling read. And for me, newly initiated into the graphic novel form, it is a confusingly sad, impacting, disturbing and brilliant read that highlights what can be gained from the graphic medium. Backderf’s artwork is sinister and detailed, often mixing his old high-school drawings of Dhamer with class photos (one in which a teacher blacked out Dhamer’s face with a marker) – these images are much like the narrative story itself, with Backderf’s personal recollections interspersed with hard facts gathered from various sources. I’m convinced that if Backderf hadn’t been an artist, if he’d just written his high school memories of Dhamer mixed with his fact-finding then he would not have had a story worth telling. But it’s Backderf’s artwork that disarms you and draws you into the heinously sad and frightening life of Jeffrey Dahmer – this lumbering, solitary drawn boy who seems to haunt the page, much the way that his memory obviously still haunts Jeffrey Backderf.