Review: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. Abrams Comic Arts. 2012. Personal copy. Graphic Novel. Alex Award Winner.

It’s About: A graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. This is not the story of a serial killer; it is a look at the childhood and teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, before his first murder. (Note: nothing graphic is shown in My Friend Dahmer.)

What was Dahmer like, then? Were there signs of the serial killer he would become? And if there were, why did no one do anything?

The Good: Of course, I had heard of My Friend Dahmer. Read the reviews. And, as some of you who follow me on my Twitter feed know, I watch TV shows about real and fictitious serial killers. And yet — despite the Alex Award — I was still hesitant.

Then I heard Backderf speak at ALA (both at the YALSA Coffee Klatch and the Alex Awards program) and I changed my mind.

My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, and Backderf didn’t rely solely on his memories in writing this. He also did extensive research, showing the reader more about Dahmer than what the teen Backderf knew or suspected. (This is part of what intrigued me: the extensive research for the book).

But, My Friend Dahmer is also about a time and a place, the late seventies, that is a different world than the world that today’s teens would know. The fathers went to work, the mothers stayed home. A combination of baby boomer teens and the seventies recession meant overcrowded schools. While I’m a good eight or so years younger than Backderf and his classmates, there was still something so familiar about the setting and time he describes, down to schools having designated smoking areas for both students and teachers. And that also made me quite interested in My Friend Dahmer.

Teenage Dahmer “was the loneliest kid I’d ever met,” Backderf explains. Backderf proceeds to be brutally honest about himself and his friends, in a way that time allows. Backderf has real friends (Neil, Kent, Mike) and together they are fascinated by the eccentricities of Dahmer. Dahmer is a loner but he also does strange things: he “threw fake epileptic fits and mimicked the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy.” Backderf and his friends are amused by this (at one point Backderf also observes they were bored in the suburbs with little to do).

Later on, Dahmer also comes to school drunk and drinks continuously at school.

Do Backderf and his friends say anything? No; they had no idea that Dahmer was already being haunted by dark sadistic fantasies. (The author is clear that for any pity he feels for Jeff, that ended with the first murder.) Because of Backderf’s research, the reader (and the adult Backderf) knows what is going on in Dahmer’s head. It’s a bit jarring, the contrast between watching Dahmer lay in wait to kill someone and then being in the classroom with his friends who think he’s just being different.

Backderf’s defense, and it’s a good one, is that they were typical teenagers and self-absorbed and had no idea. Actually, it’s more than a defense: it’s a clear eyed look at how teens thought, how he as a teen thought. I appreciated that he neither downplayed nor exaggerated the time period. (Note to people writing memoirs or stories told about their teen years: yes, sometimes time must pass to be truly honest about that time period.) But where were the adults? Why did his antics go uncommented on at school? How did he get away with being drunk for about two years of school? I wondered — what could be excused by the time period, and what by adults ignoring the obvious because it’s easier?

Other reviews: Wrapped Up In Books; The Hub Interview with Derf Backderf; Bookshelves of Doom.


5 thoughts on “Review: My Friend Dahmer

  1. This is a very perceptive review, Elizabeth. Your points are indeed ones I pondered as I wrote this book.

    I can’t gripe about the critical reception MFD has received, but when I do get a shot, usually on amateur review sites like Goodreads, they always air the same beef. How could I not have spoken up? How could I have been so uncaring and self-involved to write him off and leave him behind? The answer to that, of course, which you recognize, was that I was 17! Sure, I was uncaring and self-involved! Isn’t every 17 year old? I thought my rather brutal honesty about this would be lauded, and it has been in most circles. Hey, I could have made myself more heroic. Who, after all, would have known? A handful of high school friends? But I thought I owed it to the story to lay it all out. That honesty is what gives this book it’s emotional power, I think. So it irks me when someone misses that point. I also suspect most of these people have their own agenda which they bring to the book. There are a depressing number of, for lack of a better label, “Dahmer fans” out there who have constructed a rather bizarre urban legend around the guy. Many are, strangely, young women.

    These are also people who weren’t as close to this as I. It’s one thing to be on the other side of a computer screen and pronounce how someone should or should not behave in a situation. It’s another thing entirely to be within a few yards of a dismembered corpse, as I was. That could well have been me, chopped up and stashed in those garbage bags. I won’t apologize for the instinctual alarm bells clanging in my head, warning me to get as far away from Dahmer as I could. Because those were pretty damn good instincts!

    And, after all, it’s Goodreads, where Huckleberry Finn only gets 3.7 out of 5 stars overall! So My Friend Dahmer’s 3.8 rating (yeah, I just looked it up) is pretty good.

    You very correctly note that this is a period piece. There are some who miss that entirely. The events of this book took place 35-40 years ago, not 3 to 4 years ago. It’s, I suppose, a common mistake to read history and apply the mores and standards of today to events that happened many years ago. Especially when you’re a young reader and the current time is all you’ve known. I spent a great deal of the book explaining what the Seventies were like and how they differed dramatically from today, and in many ways, allowed Dahmer to become a monster. Frankly, I worried I was hammering on this too much. But in retrospect, maybe I should have driven it home even harder. No, his friends didn’t call out Jeff for his “substance abuse.” Probably because that term, five years before the War on Drugs was declared, wasn’t even coined yet!


    1. Derf, thank you for the comment! For this blog & work I read a lot of teen books & reviews of teen books, and I’ve seen in reviews of fiction a lot of judgment towards characters for not being “perfect” in an all knowing way. So, I’m not surprised that some people would also turn that to a work a nonfiction. (I put perfect in quotes because I’m not even sure that is the right word for the level of judgment/expectation that gets heaped on certain characters for what they do and don’t do.)

      And excellent point that gut instinct was also protecting you.

      As a child of the 70s, I sometimes laugh at the over involvement of helicopter parents, but people today don’t get what growing up was like then. Arranged play dates? No, you went out, looked to see who was also home, and at dinner time your mom called your name and you came home. And yes, there was also a different attitude towards drug and alcohol use. Many states had a legal drinking age of under 21, for instance, so of course that would also factor into how teens looked at a peer drinking. Not to mention that if the adults don’t say anything, as a teen one sees that and believes, somehow, well, if the adults aren’t doing anything, it means it’s Ok or it’s not something that should be talked about, or if they can’t do anything how can i.

      Thanks again for the comment; and thank you for the book. It gives a lot to the reader to think about.


  2. What has your experience been in terms of kids knowing who Dahmer is? I recently recommended this to someone in their early 20s, someone who likes horror and the like, and she had no idea who he was. It has made me wonder how many teens actually recognize the name.


  3. Katy, I’m not sure. That is probably part of why this was published adult. Also, I think the book can be appreciated without knowing who Dahmer is. “Imagine finding out someone you went to high school with became a serial killer” is enough of a booktalk for most teens, I think.

    Now, of course, I’m wondering just which serial killers most teens would be know by name? Unless the kid liked true crime, I’m thinking Jack the Ripper and the Manson murders (tho, technically, Manson family wasn’t serial killers but spree killers, if I remember my definitions).


  4. Oh, I agree that people can still enjoy it. It’s just something I’m curious about. I liked gruesome stuff when I was a kid, so I knew about Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy, the Nightstalker, the Zodiac Killer, and the Boston Strangler (I grew up during Ted Bundy’s years). But, I was a strange child. I really think My Friend Dahmer is a great book for a certain subset of reluctant readers (and others, too, of course) who will be attracted to the subject.


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