Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

In the preface of My Friend Dahmer, author/illustrator Derf Backderf explains, "It's my belief that Dahmer didn't have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn't have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn't been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent." By the end of the graphic novel, however, I found myself blaming Backderf and his friends for their own unforgivable, clueless behavior.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer abducted, tortured, raped, murdered, and in some cases, ate, seventeen young men between 1978 and 1991. He committed his first murder at the age of 18, just months after graduating from Revere High School, where the novel takes place. 

Backderf explains that Dahmer was a "nobody" in high school. Most people didn't even notice him, and those who did "had little but contempt for him." Sophomore year, Dahmer began imitating his mother's interior decorator, a man with cerebral palsy, at school, drawing the attention of Backderf and his friends. The group would never truly include Dahmer (in fact, they would often make plans in front of Dahmer, but fail to invite him), but would become fascinated with him, eventually forming the Dahmer Fan Club. Encouraged by his peers, Dahmer would spend hours at the local shopping mall, performing his cerebral palsy act, until the group suddenly dropped him, leaving him "alone with only the voices in his head."

The novel was truly spellbinding, and I could barely put it down. The illustrations really captured the emotion of the characters in a way I have not seen a graphic novel do before. Watching him getting shoved into a locker by his classmates, or crying himself to sleep at night, really made me think of Dahmer as a person, and not a monster.

Once I started thinking of Dahmer in that way, however, I became angry with Backderf, claiming to be this Dahmer's friend when he was really anything but. I feel as though Backderf has exploited a non-relationship with Dahmer for the sake of making money. It upset me that he blamed the adults for not doing anything to help/stop Dahmer, when he very clearly noticed peculiar and alarming behavior himself, and didn't act either. (You can watch an interview of Backderf talking about the book and Dahmer's behavior here.)

Anger aside, I do feel as though I could use this book in a classroom and engage my students in some truly fascinating discussions. In addition to discussing the why behind Dahmer's crimes, I think the book lends itself to discussion about the way graphic novels present factual information, and whether they are the appropriate vehicle for books based on actual people or events. While Backderf researched the subject considerably, he does make inferences as to Dahmer's emotions and actions outside of school, and those inferences come through in his drawings.

I think older high school students (grades 11-12) would find this book interesting, but would likely need some kind of introduction to Jeffrey Dahmer, as the book offers no overview (I myself had to go to Wikipedia to refresh my memory).

 I also think this would be a great book for an American history classroom, as it provides another look at the 1970s (and the book does a wonderful job presenting what the 1970s looked like, felt like, and sounded like to teenagers at the time), one that is sharply different from scene typically presented in history classes (the ending of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the energy crisis, etc.).


Nickolas Armstrong said...

When I saw this book on the list earlier in the term I was very curious about it, I am grateful that you posted such a detailed and well written review. As a psych major I have to admit that I find him fascinating, and after reading what you have to say about the book I might buy it myself. It seems like a great book from what you descirbed, the idea of seeing the monster as the man gives depth to his story, and weaving the current 70s culture into the book gives perspective, and more to learn. I'm sure that this book was a great read, and again I really appreciate your review.

Tom Philion said...

I'm wondering if Dahmer is mentioned in Columbine....I will have to go back and look. If he was pathological, like Eric Harris, then I doubt much could have been done to prevent what happened (although I do suspect that once things started happening, interventions could have happened sooner--).

Great review Leslie, thanks.

PS: Love the link to the "fictional" novel in Fault In the Stars.

Renee Thornton said...

I too was fascinated when I saw this title on the list. From what you have described I could see myself reacting the same way to the boys who taunted Dahmer, and it is somewhat weird to feel sympathy for such a monster but proves that he was human once.
And it doesn't seem like he was a psychopath (like Eric Harris in Columbine) if he were he would not have been bothered by anything that was done to him, and probably would not have been bullied in the first place. It is interesting to consider how much of his mental problems were innate and how much was brought out by outside factors.