My Friend Dahmer: The Unspeakable Horror of Life in the 1970s

An award-winning cartoonist pens a graphic novel about his high school classmate, a shy teenager who would become a monster.

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It’s a great thing when you feel that you recognize yourself, deeply and movingly, in a work of literature. It’s kind of unnerving when that work of literature is a graphic novel called My Friend Dahmer.

I should explain.

The guy who wrote and drew My Friend Dahmer, Derf Backderf, grew up in a small, rural town in Ohio called Bath in the 1970s. One of his high school classmates was Jeffrey Dahmer, who went on to kill 17 people. (According to Wikipedia, Bath has one other famous son: Lebron James. What are the odds?)

After Dahmer was arrested in 1991, Backderf began working on a comic about him, which he eventually self-published in 2002. It became a cult classic: fans include R. Crumb, Alison Bechdel, James Ellroy and Chuck Klosterman. It’s now being re-published in expanded form, and I’m here to tell you, it’s astounding.

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And yeah, I opened it just for the creepiness factor. I wanted to read stories about Dahmer being a creepy creep in high school so I could think, oh my God, how could they be so blind, why didn’t somebody stop him, etc. But as I kept reading (and I read the book in a single sitting, even though I was on deadline for something totally unrelated) a very different kind of horror began to dawn on me. Because it turns out that My Friend Dahmer is the most devastatingly accurate fictional evocation of my childhood since Freaks & Geeks.

It starts with the art: The psychedelic wavy highlights Backderf draws on glass are like Proust’s madeleine to anybody who was alive in the 1970’s, and the way Backderf draws people owes a lot to Mad magazine’s Don Martin, who everybody tried to copy in their notebooks back when I was in grade school: His characters all have those long, angular heads and exaggeratedly articulated joints.

Backderf met Dahmer in junior high, where Dahmer occupied the lowest social rung available — he was a nerd, a spaz, a non-person. “He was,” Backderf writes, “the loneliest kid I’d ever met.” But in high school Dahmer changed — some. He developed a comic routine consisting of “fake epileptic fits and…the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy.” This didn’t make him popular, but it elevated him slightly above the status of nonentity. He became a running gag with Backderf and his gang, not so much a friend as a kind of freak-show mascot. They actually had a Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club.

What Backderf and his friends didn’t realize was that Dahmer was going slowly insane. Dahmer’s home life, while superficially functional, was a toxic echo chamber of neglect and alienation; his parents would eventually split up. (His seizure act was in fact a parody of his own mother, who suffered from fits.) But it went much deeper than that. Dahmer was beginning to realize that he was gay, which was scary enough in the closeted world of the 1970s, but more to the point he was a necrophiliac. He was sexually obsessed with the bodies of dead men.

Dahmer collected roadkill and the bodies of small animals and hid them in the woods. He stalked a jogger who regularly ran past his house. To try to subdue his horrifying fantasies, he began drinking early in the morning and stayed drunk all day. Nobody noticed. “Where,” Backderf asks, “were the damn adults?” A good question. It’s hard not to feel like the tragedy that followed was avoidable. But there was nothing and nobody there to check Dahmer’s slide.

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As you get deeper into the book, My Friend Dahmer gets darker and darker and more and more airless, until it feels like you’re watching the action deep underwater — but you can’t stop watching. Slowly, by inches, a person is dying and a monster is being born, in plain sight, and nobody’s doing anything about it. In a scene that’s typical of My Friend Dahmer’s strange blend of horror and pathos, Dahmer lures a local dog into the woods, intending to kill and dismember it, but he can’t quite do it, and he sets the dog free instead. It’s the last look we get at Dahmer as a human being.

Dahmer and Backderf graduated from high school in 1978. The same day Backderf left for college, Dahmer picked up a hitchhiker named Steven Hicks, took him back to his house, and killed him. Hicks was Dahmer’s first human victim.

How far do you go in asking readers to empathize with a serial killer who lacked any empathy whatsoever? It’s a tough assignment, but Backderf knows exactly what he’s doing; he has performed the necessary moral calculus. As a teenager Dahmer was a victim of his toxic home life and a faulty educational system and above all his own horrifically freakish brain chemistry, but by the end of the book he is simply evil. “The premise of this book is that Dahmer was a tragic figure,” Backderf writes in an endnote, “but that only applies up until the moment he kills.” The overwhelming emotion that My Friend Dahmer evokes isn’t horror, it’s a deep, crushing, sadness. But the sadness is not for Dahmer. It’s for a world that has Dahmers in it.

I’m younger than Backderf. I graduated high school in 1987, so my childhood was as much 1980s as 1970s. And I grew up in suburban Massachusetts, not rural Ohio. But the world of My Friend Dahmer, and Dahmer himself, are still unmistakably, uncannily recognizable to me.

It took me a little while to figure out why. It’s not just the culture — the sun-kissed party-culture of the 1970s, which gave lip service to freedom and self-expression but was actually subtly, brutally conformist. (Klosterman describes My Friend Dahmer as being about, among other things, “the institutionalized weirdness of the suburban seventies,” and that’s exactly right.) If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say the difference was that back then there was no Internet and no cell phones. Back then you could actually be alone, truly, deeply alone and isolated in a way that’s almost impossible now. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no global network of electronic confidences and confessions open 24/7. Whatever was going wrong in your house, and in your head, you dealt with it, or not, by yourself in your room, and there was nobody tell you that you weren’t some kind of twisted freak for feeling the way you felt.

Don’t get me wrong. Dahmer actually was a twisted freak, a monster, and my friends and I weren’t. But sometimes, we felt like monsters. I’d forgotten what that was like, till My Friend Dahmer reminded me.

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