This is not a book many of you should read. I would only recommend it to you if you are thirteen years or above, and even then you should talk to a responsible adult about whether you should read it or not. So why am I even writing about it in this column?
I’m glad you asked.
In this day and age it’s probably impossible to reach your teens without having heard about serial killers, people who perpetrate a string of murders, seemingly for no motive other than the thrill of it, or some dark compulsion. There are TV serials and movies focusing on such people and no shortage of books and websites that cater to a morbid interest in these human monsters.
But who are these people, really? What sets them apart from the rest of us?
Consider the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the worst serial killers ever, with about 17 victims. He isn’t especially different from the rest of his kind — I know some people see a mystique around serial killers, but the truth is they are generally pathetic, dysfunctional people, leading lives of deep misery and frustration with few outlets or abilities to lift themselves out of their own horrors. But can you easily detect the difference between them and the rest of humanity without knowing what they are capable of doing?
Derf Backderf didn’t.
He went to high school with Dahmer, and while Dahmer was such a weird kid that he and his friends became a little obsessed with him, as a sort of running joke, he really didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in his classmate, for the most part. After all, there are always a few strange kids in class, especially in high school. Backderf captures his strange experiences going to school with a future serial killer in a gripping, sensitive graphic novel called My Friend Dahmer.
He paints a picture of a disturbed, isolated boy, someone whose home life was unhappy — his parents fought all the time and divorced by the time his high school days were over. Socially inept, he took to clowning around in a very disruptive way, pretending to have epileptic fits, to win some notice and approval from his classmates. He became something of a mascot to Backderf and his friends — nerds who were fairly low on the high school social order too — and just found Dahmer bizarre and amusing.
But it would be a stretch to call them his friends – there was just something about him that didn’t inspire people to call him along to movies and other friendly hang-outs.
Backderf shows us Dahmer’s obsession with dismembering the bodies of animals found killed on the mountain road outside his house, his increasing descent into alcoholism — in high school mind you — and it is a portrait of a very troubled young man. There were so many things wrong with him that Backderf wonders why no one really suspected something was going awry with Dahmer.
Most of all, he asks why the adults ignored the warning signs — why his parents had no time to notice how disturbed their boy was and why the teachers did not at least respond to his obvious problems with alcohol. Had anyone raised a flag, Dahmer may have been sent to a psychiatrist, may have had to live the rest of his life on strong medication, probably sedated much of the time. It would still have been a life he might have preferred to the nightmare of killing that he descended into. Certainly, 17 men would still be alive.
What does this tell us? That high school is a time when personalities are being shaped, when people are going through adjustments to adult life and some find themselves unable to make the shift. That monsters are often not very different from regular people. That we all need to be more vigilant, show a little more interest in the people around us and their problems. It is easy to label people as evil — and certainly, Dahmer became a truly evil individual — but this quietly eloquent graphic novel, with its combination of economical narrative and subdued but expressive art, makes the case that his becoming evil may not have been inevitable. If only the people around him weren’t too busy with their own problems, their own self-image and their own lives to notice that the boy next door was going quietly insane.