I first heard about this graphic novel/memoir hybrid when it was first released a few years ago, and while I thought it seemed interesting, I’d no serious inclination to track it down. It’s funny how sometimes these things end up finding me. I’m on a book binge recently was browsing through the local library yesterday when I happened upon My Friend Dahmer. I checked it, came home, and binged on it. At about halfway through, I realized My Friend Dahmer was having a negative affect on my psychological well-being. I had to put it down. I woke up unable to sleep around 3 am today and finished this book over a cup of coffee.
John “Derf” Beckdorf, an Eisner winning cartoonist who was quasi friends with Dahmer during their high school days (hence the title) wrote My Friend Dahmer using personal recollections as well as information and interviews about/from Dahmer to paint a time line of his high school years. The story starts off with Dahmer making his way into Derf’s social circle by making fun of a family acquaintance with cerebral palsy. Derf’s friends think this is hilarious, and Dahmer becomes somewhat of a mascot for Derf and his friends. The clique dubs themselves “The Jeffery Dahmer Fan Club”. The comic goes on to contrast Derf’s life with Dahmers; Derf has a normal home where as Dahmer’s home life is a battle ground between his unstable mother and normal father. After his parents divorce, Dahmer is left alone with his crazy mom and the turmoil of his inner demons. While the story itself is disturbing enough, the off-kilter Mad Magazine style artwork really make My Friend Dahmer all the more uncomfortable. Derf originally recounted some of this tale in the brief, but highly acclaimed, Young Jeffery Dahmer (which you can read here.) My Friend Dahmer was created by Derf’s desire for a more complete account of this time period.
The most disturbing thing about this book is that all the warning signs that Dahmer needed help were there; but no adults were paying attention. The obsession with dead animals, odd social behavior, and coming to school drunk through the entire duration of his senior year should have clued someone to take action. Derf makes a point of Dahmer’s drinking being what made him end the friendship. He makes the statement that he saw it as Dahmer wanting to become “numb”. It’s hard to tell if this is Derf saying that with the perspective of what he eventually learned of Dahmer or if he recognized it for what it was at the time. Derf has a great amount of sympathy for Dahmer’s plight, up until he became a killer. Although the author never gets into if he had any regrets about not helping his “friend”, he definitely has no qualms blaming the adults for not taking any notice of the warning signs that were quite obvious. Derf also laments what could have happened if Dahmer had been able to get help. Dahmer was exceptionally bright (if troubled), and Derf recounts a funny and surreal story where Dahmer is able to bluff his way into meeting Vice President Walter Mondale during a school trip to Washington D.C.!
What I liked most about this book is Derf’s sense of remorse and sadness, as though he wishes he could turn back the time and do something. My Friend Dahmer is a very depressing piece of work that serves as a warning that we should be more involved and caring towards those who are different instead of making fun of them before kicking them out of our lives entirely, as The Dahmer Fan Club did to their “beloved” mascot.