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August 19, 2017

Book Review: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

Growing up in Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, I heard a lot about serial killers and mass murderers. John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck were from Chicago, and they were both executed for their horrendous crimes. We were also affected by another bizarre killer at that time. He wasn't from Chicago, but he often traveled there, and some of his victims were part of the Chicago gay scene. I am speaking of Milwaukee's cannibal killer, Jeffrey Dahmer.

Dahmer was a strange case. When an intended victim escaped and led police to his apartment, what was discovered was a nightmare that Wes Craven couldn't imagine. A refrigerator full of human remains was only the tip of the iceberg. Dahmer had a long and unnerving history. My Friend Dahmer dips into the early part, up until his first killing. How do we know it's accurate? It's written by one of his high school friends.

Friend is a tough word to use here. Derf Backderf was a classmate of Dahmer's. He was one of many that were amused by Jeffrey's unusual antics and personality. He makes certain at the start of the book that you understand his intentions. This is the story of the making of a monster. It is told from his own memory as well as stories and interviews with Dahmer and his parents. Backderf wrote the book as a coping mechanism. It's a way to understand what happened and why. He does not want you to have sympathy for Dahmer. I'll be honest, it was hard to avoid that feeling at times.

We start early on, with Jeffrey's upbringing in rural Ohio. He lived in a house in the woods. His fascination with death was apparent, as he kept jars filled with decaying roadkill in a shed. It's a very uncomfortable way to start. We travel forward into high school science class, where Backderf first met this oddball classmate. Jeffery was only a school friend. They did not hang out outside of campus. He was just that weird guy Backderf and his small crew kept around for their amusement. As time goes on, we see Jeffrey developing in his interests, hiding his homosexuality and maintaining himself with alcohol.

The book is fascinating without being sensationalistic. It's a sad look at a guy who tried his best to hold it together, but eventually gave in to his terrible urges. Backderf included real artwork from the time, as he used to draw caricatures of Jeffrey acting out. I'm really looking forward to the movie adaptation. Ross Lynch has been cast to play Dahmer. He has the right look. We'll have to see if he pulls off the character. Until then, pick up this graphic novel. It's a quick read. Anyone with a couple hours can breeze through it. It's intriguing from start to finish, and I feel like I know the real Dahmer a little better than I ever hoped to.

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