"My Friend Dahmer"
by Derf Backderf (Abrams)
Powerful and honest, there's no way that a graphic novel memoir of high school years spent with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer isn't going to be disturbing, but it could have also been gratuitous, self-serving and exploitative. Derf Backderf's memoir is none of those things, and it shines as a paean to that moment in young adulthood where we gain our freedom and it seems anything can happen, but how forces beyond our control can sometimes wire us for the worst.
Dahmer and Backderf attended Revere High School in the Akron, Ohio, area in the 1970s. Along with several other friends who called themselves the Dahmer Fan Club, Backderf's friendship with Dahmer was not a close one- more like Dahmer was the weird kid adopted by a group of merely quirky ones, who found acceptance through his odd sense of humor and lack of shame in displaying it. And though Backderf and buddies recognized more as time went on that there was something clearly messed up about Dahmer, experience and history did not suggest what he would eventually become, despite some darker behavior involving dead animals and alcohol, and revelations about his unstable family situation.
If anything, Backderf's memoir reads as a typical tale of growing up in a rural area in the 1970s, except with this dark mark manifested in the story that functions like a reminder of what horrors lie in the outside adult world.
Dahmer's story is wellknown now, but Backderf doesn't rely on that portion of the tale to get his point across. Instead, he brings the emotional level to one where any reader can understand how Dahmer became Dahmer. In some ways, Backderf fashions the book so that we, the reader, are getting inside Dahmer's skin, if not his mind, and partaking in intimate moments of not horror, but sadness.
As rendered by Backderf, Dahmer's tale is a disturbingly American one set against the backdrop of our cultural push for self-reliance and refusing to accept the worst imaginable outcome of a strange situation. There are always losers in the pursuit of the American Dream, but some of them never had a chance to begin with, and Jeffrey Dahmer is the worst case scenario of the unfittest attempting to survive in such a world.