Book Review

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

a dark, engaging, affecting read

TW: sexual violence, gory violence

Derf Backderf is an American cartoonist and graphic novelist, and My Friend Dahmer is his 2012 graphic novel about the childhood and youth of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who murdered 17 young men and boys (some as young as 14) between the late 1970s and his final apprehension, following a botched attempt at an 18th murder, in 1991. Dahmer murdered men and boys, he dismembered them, he had sex with their corpses, he ate parts of them, he had sex with parts of their corpses, he destroyed and mangled and hid bodies and parts of bodies and he would have carried on doing more and more of this horror had he not been caught. Dahmer was found guilty – after confessing to everything he was believed to have done and a few other things that seemed to check out as actually him – and was sent to jail for the rest of his life. That rest of his life, though, wasn’t very long, as he was murdered by another inmate within three or four years of his arrest, though this had given him plenty of time to find God, seek forgiveness and – crucially – do some very high profile TV interviews, which I believe are available on YouTube. (I’m not going to look them up.) Why, then, is Derf Backderf, writing a comic book about this awful man? This man who ended almost twenty lives and whose actions, definitely, will have had direct repercussions upon the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of grieving friends and family members? Was Derf being sensationalist, seeking attention by being graphic and disgusting and looking at someone unpleasant? Well, maybe, kinda, but what he was also doing was being reflective, writing memoir, telling his own version of a truth, because the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer not only went to the same school as Backderf, but they were in the same school year and often in the same class. My Friend Dahmer is about the interactions the teenage Derf had with this – even then – visibly troubled young man, how Dahmer never fitted in, how his home life affected his behaviour and how – to the kids at school – this man was someone to be wary of. My Friend Dahmer isn’t a sensationalist piece about an “evil” bogeyman, it  is a nuanced and reflective piece of memoir questioning the responsibilities of a society towards those it allows to be pushed beyond the recoverable bounds of what it means to be a functional outsider…

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I started listening to a weird podcast a few months ago, called All Killa No Filla. In the podcast, two comedians (Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard-McLean) discuss a different serial killer each episode, interspersed with increasingly personal insights into their lives as youngish (i.e. about my age) women on the comedy circuit and in modern Britain. I’m not quite certain why I started listening to it, but I certainly continued because the presenters are both engaging and very funny, and the confusing shift of tone is something I very much enjoy. Though, to be honest, I’m not excited by violent or gory narratives, I am interested in psychological decline, in isolation, in “difference”, in exclusion. I’m also, formally, into texts that blend the serious and the casual, the deep and the shallow, the funny and the dark, the depressing and bleak with the optimistic and hopeful…

All Killa No Filla explores the relationship these two women have with serial killer narratives, rooting their mutual interest in a self-conscious sense of unease: knowing about the worst possible things that people (usually men) can do to people (usually women) allows them to feel more comfortable in life. This is their jokey justification: if you’re psychologically prepared for the absolute worst, whatever else life throws at you can’t be too bad, can it?

It was on this podcast where I first learnt about Jeffrey Dahmer in any detail. He’s not someone who I knew anything about, though his name – and his name as a serial killer – was something I was familiar with. As a revelation that may surprise some recurring readers of TriumphoftheNow.com, I never had a “killers” phase when I was younger, I never read through memoirs and non-fiction books about violent crime, I never watched documentaries and reenactments, I never saw the creepy YouTube interviews you can find with this horrible people (mostly men), so I suppose – aged 29 – I’m coming into this a bit late. Or – alas – a bit early, if a casual interest in serial killers is a hobby associated with middle age. Dahmer was a cannibal, a necrophiliac, a paedophile, an abuser, a dismemberer… he did all the worst things it is possible to do to other human beings, however he didn’t do this from the day he was born.

My Friend Dahmer seeks to kinda humanise this awful man, while also showing the public, and gradual, psychological and social decline that led him to the state he ended up in. Derf draws and writes about Dahmer being an unpopular outsider at school, who slowly began to gain popularity by doing cruel impressions of disabled people, until eventually his constant day drinking and other obnoxious behaviours – such as cutting a fish to pieces on a fishing trip, revealing the place where he stripped the bones off roadkill – scared his peers away. Dahmer was an outsider, and as his parents’ marriage fell apart and his violent tendencies became closer to the surface and the other kids at school avoided him out of a clear understanding that something wasn’t right with him, nobody stepped in. He committed his first murder within weeks of the end of high school, alone, isolated, unhelped. Derf doesn’t excuse or justify or explain away Dahmer’s violence and his cruelty, nor does he try and diminish Dahmer’s culpability in his actions just because he was a seriously psychologically unwell man who received no treatment. But there is a clear, clear, judgement from Derf of Dahmer’s parents, of their teachers, of his [Derf’s] parents and the parents of his friends, all of whom saw this boy becoming a terrifying man and did nothing nothing nothing to stop him.

In the epilogue, Derf sketches a reunion between him and schoolfriends a couple of years before Dahmer’s arrest, where Derf says, of Dahmer, “I bet he’s a serial killer by now”, and the – now grown men – laugh, unaware of the accuracy of the statement. In extensive prose annotations at the end, Derf offers sources for his assertions and dramatisations, and – rather bleakly – admits the truth of what he drew here (he did say this) and also reminds readers of exactly what it was Dahmer would go on to do.

It’s bleak and it’s fucking horrible, and the final four pages of the book – after the epilogue and the prose notes – show Derf, as an adult, as himself, receiving a phone call revealing to him the identity of the – by that point – infamous local serial killer. He is horrified and disgusted and the last words of My Friend Dahmer are: ‘”Oh my god, Dahmer… What have you done?”

An apt ending to a compelling and moving piece that contains enough self-awareness and self-criticism to justify the horror on the edges of the piece. A human portrait of someone becoming inhumane, and a bleak depiction of a society that did nothing to stop him. Well, not until after he’d killed and killed and killed and killed.

Dark, depressing, engaging, great.

If it sounds like you wouldn’t like it, then you won’t.

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