An American TragedyPosted: March 12, 2012
Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer was an American serial killer and sex offender. He murdered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His horrific crimes involved child molestation, rape, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism.
And once upon a time, he was a high school boy.
In My Friend Dahmer, graphic novelist Derf Backderf recounts his personal experiences with Dahmer as high schoolers growing up in the leafy suburbs of 1970s Ohio. Backderf shares tales of juvenile pranks, monotonous classes, car rides, and school dances. He gives a searingly honest portrayal of the American middle class with its unhappy marriages, alcoholism, isolation, and repression. All this is backdrop for an in-depth, nuanced portrait of a fragile, disturbed, and lonely teenage boy before he would become a notorious serial killer.
Backderf masterfully uses the graphic novel as a medium to tell this fascinating and tragic story. He employs a grotesque, exaggerated style of drawing that mirrors the turmoil of adolescence, when one’s body just doesn’t look or feel quite right. The juxtaposition of his detailed and deliberate ink work with the stylized nature of his drawings heightens the emotional tension seething in the panels; it’s discomforting to read, as it should be, but the reader can’t put the book down. The composition of Backderf’s pages is excellent, as is his use of chiaroscuro. He occasionally intersperses actual sketches and photographs from high school to great effect, these artifacts momentarily shattering the illusion of an artificial pen-and-ink world and reminding the reader that, yes, this did indeed happen, these people are real. Structurally the book is broken into five roughly chronological parts that follow Dahmer’s descent into depravity.
Backderf’s only misstep is when he deviates from his strength in the graphic novel medium and relies on his prose, as he does in the book’s preface and epilogue. In those sections, he takes on an overly defensive tone, as if he is afraid that he will be seen as being too sympathetic toward his friend Dahmer. He needs to trust in his work, and all the detail and nuance he’s poured into it, ink drop by ink drop, and he needs to trust that his readers will come away from his book feeling the emotional weight and heft of the story. His book tells the tale of an American tragedy, and it does so without making Jeffrey Dahmer a tragic hero.
My Friend Dahmer is a haunting and devastating book about an adolescent boy struggling with the volatile cocktail of familial mental illness, repressed sexuality, alcoholism, ostracism, and parental abandonment. It stirs in the reader a surprising sympathy for a serial killer. May that sympathy spur us toward compassion and kindness for the isolated, lonely, and invisible around us who silently cry for help.