My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel written by John (or Derf) Backderf, is a conglomeration of the author’s experiences as a classmate of the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer and the facts, as we know them now, about Dahmer’s life.
The novel is riddled with haunting events that foreshadow what was to come, from the dark depths of a lost boy who never seemed to fit in anywhere, even in childhood. Backderf does an excellent job not only in relating his point of view throughout, but also by sprinkling intricate details that work to paint a complete picture of one of the most notorious killers of our time.
My Friend Dahmer is a well thought-out graphic novel with a clever storytelling technique that frequently switches between Backderf’s life and Dahmer’s tortured existence. An intense dichotomy is established between Backderf’s All American Family, typical during the 1970s, and the unstable Dahmer household that was defined by emotional neglect, frequent fights between parents, and substance abuse.
Backderf takes some of these parallels even further by sharing a memory of something Dahmer did, subsequently revealing the disturbing reasons behind his actions. For example, in Revere High School Dahmer was quite a character, known for being quirky and the source of a quick laugh. He would speak in an odd voice while shamelessly pretending to have seizures and move his appendages in jerky movement.
Backderf explains that, at the time, the Dahmer family had an interior decorator who actually had cerebral palsy, so classmates thought that Dahmer was being an asshole kid, imitating the decorator for laughs. However, it is later revealed that this tasteless impersonation was not of the interior decorator, but was of Dahmer’s own mother, who would have seizure/stroke like symptoms upon consuming various pills to feed her addiction to them. She would seize up on the couch making horrific noises and would speak in a weird way until her high was over. Young Jeffrey apparently came home to this spectacle from school almost every day. His odd acting seemed to be how he was dealing with the horrific sight without ever really disclosing to anyone what was going on.
Furthermore, Backderf, does not shy away from any of the more uncomfortable topics in My Friend Dahmer, he instead tackles them head-on while presenting them in a tasteful way, no pun intended. For instance, one of Dahmer’s first warnings about his impending dark nature that was growing inside him, was his increasing fantasies about having homosexual intercourse with dead men. Sexuality is a subject that any teenager has difficulty grappling with, but Dahmer was faced with desires that were driven by the lust to sodomize the corpses of men. There is a particularly tense moment in My Friend Dahmer, where Dahmer’s necrophiliac fantasizes about a jogger that frequents his neighborhood reaches a climax as Dahmer waits for the man along his usual route, baseball bat in tow. Thankfully the jogger, for whatever reason, did not complete his route that day, but it was a terrible revelation to Jeffrey that he was actually willing to go that far.
However, one of the most haunting aspects of My Friend Dahmer is when Backderf describes how he and the other yearbook staff put Dahmer in group pictures that he didn’t belong in. He appeared in photos of sports teams and after school clubs he never attended, which was funny to Backderf and his friends, but naturally the teachers did not find it amusing. Most just clicked their tongues and shook their heads, but one teacher went as far as to blot Dahmer’s face out on the photos with a permanent black marker. A copy of this photograph is actually included in My Friend Dahmer and it sends serious chills down the spine. Not only is the picture creepy, it reaffirms that while Dahmer did not feel he belonged, others in fact reinforced that he didn’t.
Backderf’s masterful graphic novel was rightly nominated for Ignatz, Harvey, Eisner, and Rueben Awards, received an Angoulême Award and Time magazine named it as one of the top five non-fiction books of 2012. My Friend Dahmer is what Green River Killer: A True Detective Story should have been. A thrilling page turner that provides background details relevant to Dahmer’s later crimes, while also accurately giving us a glimpse into his torturous existence before he was a serial killer, it’s a must-read for true crime enthusiasts.
As one myself, I was overjoyed at the accuracy, but as a reader I was enthralled with Backderf’s amazing storytelling. Where Green River Killer: A True Detective Story failed in providing a coherent portrait of an American serial killer, My Friend Dahmer provides a true crime reading experience anyone can enjoy.