My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Publisher: Abrams Books
Publication date: 01 March 2012
Genre: Nonfiction graphic novel
Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This review is spoiler-free.
I love true crime, but I tend to get my true crime fix from podcasts rather than books. I want to amend this and have recently been keeping an eye out for interesting titles. I have heard great things about My Friend Dahmer, which has recently been made into a film, and decided to pick it up. While I wouldn’t call it true crime, it offers fascinating insight into the early life of one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
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.
I think the most important thing about My Friend Dahmer is that it doesn’t turn Dahmer into a sympathetic figure. In the prologue, Backderf makes it clear that he has empathy for his former acquaintance up until the first murder — he feels that until that point, Dahmer could have been saved or redeemed. He does, however, empathise with the terrible situation Dahmer faced at home and the role he himself may have played in Dahmer’s turmoil.
It’s so rare to get a glimpse into the lives of these notorious killers from their peers rather than teachers or parents. Backderf provides some speculations, but also puts Dahmer’s upbringing into context and allows us to understand him a little better. Dark and disturbing, Backderf doesn’t let up from the more gruesome aspects of his friend’s activities — particularly his fascination with dead animals that eventually escalated to animal abuse.
One thing I would warn some readers about is that this is set in the 70’s, which was obviously a very different time with very different attitudes. One of the ways Dahmer got attention and praise from his classmate, Backderf included, was his impersonation of a man with Cerebral Palsy and his own mother’s fits of anxiety. Backderf goes out of his way to say that this was something he and his friends found funny at the time and deeply regrets, but it’s really uncomfortable how he and his friends laughed and reacted.
TW: off-screen killing of animals, allusions to murder (obviously)
Want to read My Friend Dahmer? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):