Well, it’s that time again. Summer’s coming to a close and soon it’s back to school for all our younger readers out there.
…which made this both the best and worst possible time for me to roll out this recommendation.
There’s a lot that’s been said for the friendships people have in school. Some of them are people who stick with you forever. Others are gone as soon as you graduate. Others still vanish from your life for years before returning in unexpected manners.
This is ultimately the crux of My Friend Dahmer – political cartoonist Derf Backderf’s biographical/autobiographical memoir about growing up in a high school class with someone who would turn into one of the most notorious murderers in American history.
Despite what possible ideas you may be getting from the title of this book, chances are it’s not quite what you’re expecting. The infamous aspects of Dahmer – murder, cannibalism, keeping body parts around – are only ever addressed in passing. As far as this book is concerned, that’s all a matter of public knowledge already, so there’s no need for it to be addressed beyond notes at the end.
Instead, the Jeffrey Dahmer that is recalled here was, as far as Backderf and his friends knew, just another kid in high school. About the one thing that really distinguished him, and part of how Backderf first came to know him, was his tendency to outbursts of feigned seizures and imitations of cerebral palsy. Not surprisingly, that act gained him a strange sort of celebrity among his classmates, albeit one that rendered him more a mascot than a friend to many.
This is the person Backderf attempts to reconcile with the image of the murderer whose name has become among the list of those who are shorthand for psychopaths. It’s a daunting undertaking, given how much the shadow of the latter dwarfs the former, but one Backderf proves adept at handling – providing a nuanced look at an ultimately troubled person.
Said trouble is also a big part of the narrative here; particularly how little of it went actually noticed at the time. Drawing parallels with his own fairly normal high school life, Backderf presents us (supplemented with FBI records, interviews, and other sources) with a look at the Dahmer no one knew until it was too late to be able to help him – a troubled loner locked in a losing battle with impulses he knew weren’t right and slowly driving away what friends he had the further he fell.
It’s a sympathetic view to a point – the story, and Backderf’s pity, both end with the night Dahmer killed his first victim. As a result of that pity, he’s also willing to look back at the parts other people played in Dahmer’s downfall – more accurately, the parts that weren’t played. Probably one of the single most damning questions the entire book raises, between Dahmer’s bickering parents and the seemingly oblivious teachers and authority figures of the era is simply “where were the adults?”
It’s the questions like this, among many others, that hang in the air even after the book is over and everything is laid out in hindsight. The end result is a story that manages to be tragic, grim, and downright haunting at times (the final two pages, a seven panel epilogue years later, are a genuinely chilling example of this).
Alongside the compelling narrative, Backderf’s art style accents the book very effectively. The sometimes exaggerated, cartoonish look of some characters, rather than detracting from the narrative, actually enhances the emotions of certain scenes at times. His renditions of his titular friend in particular are striking – one strong point here being the use of Dahmer’s glasses, allowing us to see his eyes at times (particularly effective during some of his inner crises), while only seeing the blank lenses during moments when he’s indulging his darker nature or being particularly tempted by it.
It’s certainly not a happy story by any means, but it’s one well worth reading – an eye-opening look at a figure whose pop culture image has all but dominated the genuinely disturbed individual who it grew from. At a fairly brisk 200+ pages, it’s a genuinely unsettling read, but one well worth the time.