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.