MY FRIEND DAHMER
By Derf Backderf
Being a large, affluent, suburban nation (at least for most of the second half of the twentieth century), the U.S. is in love with its roads. Going “on the road” is the preferred way to discover the country, and oneself, while roads not taken are seen as life choices of metaphysical impact. Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage for many, though one may wonder if this is changing for today’s young Americans.
“All we did was drive. There was nothing else to do,” John “Derf” Backderf writes of his final year of high school. The road is a dominant motif in his brutally honest true-crime memoir My Friend Dahmer. It (the road) is literally totemic, standing upright in several crucial full-page illustrations, never reading from left to right but composed like a monolith with no obvious side roads or turn-offs. There are no roads less traveled by but only a single, solid metaphor for fate that grows darker as the book progresses.
And at the end of the road? Well, we all know how Dahmer’s story ends. There’s no direction to his upright road. It stands squat like a tombstone, which is an effect reinforced by the repeating crosses of power lines. The perspective is flattened so that there’s no vanishing point in the distance so much as just a hill we have to climb, with only darkness at the top.
Such an image lends itself to a feeling of inevitability, which in turn addresses one of the main concerns of all such serial-killer studies. Did Jeffrey Dahmer have to end up the way he did? Was his road his fate? And what was it that made him the monster he became?
That Backderf has no final answers shouldn’t be surprising. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth psychological analysis. Backderf observed Dahmer while they were in high school together in the 1970s, but they don’t seem to have been terribly close friends. And finally he seems just as mystified as anyone at what went into the making of the murderer. At one point he calls out Dahmer’s parents and his teachers for their obliviousness or indifference – “Where were the damn adults?” – but while Dahmer had an unhappy childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family so did lots of kids, and many of them in far worse situations. Furthermore, Dahmer didn’t stand out all that much at school. “If just one adult had stepped up and said ‘Whoa this kid needs help . . . ’ ” Yes, but the fact is that every high school has problem kids like this who are simply passed along. In an epilogue Backderf even confesses that Dahmer wasn’t the most likely candidate at Revere High to become a serial killer. What made Dahmer truly exceptional remained hidden, and probably would have been hidden from his closest friends, if he had any.
Backderf’s art shows the influence of Robert Crumb, effectively using twitching bodies and sweaty faces to evoke anxiety and emotional fragility. But where My Friend Dahmer really stands out is in its depiction of the everyday misery of high school: the in-groups and out-groups, the mockery even performed by the weak on the weaker, the bullying, the failure of authority. Backderf himself doesn’t come out of the story as any kind of hero, and indeed may have contributed to Dahmer’s alienation, but nobody who experienced high school at the time can blame him. Not that I think things are any better now.
“Pity him, but don’t empathize with him,” is how Backderf sums up how we should feel about Dahmer. But in this haunting account I didn’t find much even to pity. Dahmer was a lonely, repressed mess, to be sure, but he was also sadistic and cruel, and it’s not clear that much could have been done for him aside from lifelong medication: “A sad, lonely life that Dahmer would have gladly accepted over the hellish future that awaited him.” He didn’t get that help though, and in any event, by high school I think it was already too late to fix what was wrong.
Review first published online June 12, 2021.