My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Published: March 1st 2012 by Abrams Books
Source: local library
Synopsis (Goodreads): You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides.
In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
I never would have picked this up if it hadn’t gotten a lot of buzz for being on three YALSA award lists: Alex Award, Quick Picks for Young Adults, and Great Graphic Novels. I’m very glad I did.
I have a bit of taste for the macabre and grotesque, especially when it’s lurking underneath a boring, accessible facade. My Friend Dahmer is a terrible, dark story, and is even more horrifying because it is so accessible, even familiar, to those who grew up in a small town with one weird kid in your class. What makes this story scary isn’t what happens, so much as where. It’s unsettling that a place as seemingly peaceful as this town, as your town, could produce a serial killer.
It was all too familiar for me. Granted, none of my classmates have grown up to be serial killers, but I could relate to the disgust Backderf feels for the adults in Dahmer’s life who didn’t see the warning signs or do anything to help the boy who in retrospect was very obviously troubled. Though on a different scale, I witnessed plenty of bullying and behavior of obviously disturbed children, and was sickened by the ability of adults to turn a blind eye. It’s far too common.
What makes this all the more poignant is that Backderf doesn’t try to sugar-coat his own complacency. He’s very frank about his own relationship with Dahmer. They weren’t exactly friends, because it was impossible to connect with Dahmer. This story very simply explains the complicated social hierarchies that exist in high schools. Even decades later, the landscape doesn’t look all that different.
The story very obviously addresses bullying, teenage alcoholism, animal cruelty/abuse, homosexuality, and mental illness, but the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about the extent these factors contributed to his dark deeds. Through his own memories and meticulous research, Backderf presents the facts but doesn’t assign causality. It’s a tragic and insightful if disturbing portrait of a person that captures the reader’s imagination, even if the subject matter is distasteful.
I don’t have much experience with graphic novels. I usually find it disorienting to try and read the text and interpret the photos. I found Backderf’s style easy to read and engaging, for what it’s worth, but I don’t have much of a frame of reference for comparison.
I’d recommend this to fans of I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, which I reviewed here, or Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, reviewed here. Both of these young adult novels are not only about serial killers, they also have a similarly contemplative tone.
The Radical Librarian: “From beginning to end, My Friend Dahmer keeps the reader interested. It pulls you into Dahmer’s whitebread, suburban hell, like an unforgiving imp, and doesn’t let go.”
The Comic Journal: “he move towards objectivity also affords Derf the chance to turn a wacky, messed up anecdote (“you know, I went to high school with Dahmer”) into the definitive piece of literature on the notorious murderer.”