I know I regularly inveigh against the proliferation of memoirs, but I’m going to praise a memoir today. In fact, I’m even going to say I hope budding memoirists follow Derf Backderf’s example. If we must have all these memoirs, we might as well have ones that know their place.
In My Friend Dahmer Backderf keeps himself squarely in the background. He’s telling the story of his high-school years, yes, but he knows that the only reason readers might care about those years is that he went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer. He keeps his focus on Dahmer, therefore, even following him into solo scenes, reconstructing his habits and home life from later interviews Dahmer gave. He himself—Backderf—only appears when his life intersects Dahmer’s.
This may seem like a simple thing, but imagine how easy it would have been for a memoirist to do it the other way around, to stick to his own perspective and only describe the moments of Dahmer’s life that touched on his. Not just easy, common. I’d wager that 90 percent of memoirists would have gone that way, and their decision might be defended as a form of journalistic integrity, but really it would come across as narcissism and a lack of imagination. What Backderf has done instead is much more respectful of the reader, and much more compelling.
Partly that’s because even in high school, Jeffrey Dahmer was fascinatingly fucked up. His parents were in the midst of a bitter divorce, his mother suffered from some kind of paranoid delusional thing and was heavily medicated, and he’d already started the serial killer pattern of hacking up roadkill to see what was inside. In school he mimicked the tics and slurred speech of a person with cerebral palsy, and his weird behavior made him a sort of mascot for Backderf and his friends. To keep a lid on his necrophiliac urges he kept himself permanently drunk, including at school, and Backderf asks how all the adults in his life could have ignored his obviously nutty behavior and failed to get him psychiatric attention.
I think that’s probably an unfair question. I’m perfectly willing to let Backderf and his friends off the hook when he points out that:
You never ‘narced’ on a classmate. It simply wasn’t done. Besides, my friends and I, we were just clueless small-town kids wrapped up in our own lives.
I think he should let the adults off the hook a bit too. They should have noticed and tried to do something about Dahmer’s alcoholism, sure, but I can’t believe that getting him attention for that would have been very likely to uncover his deeper problems. Maybe it would have. In any case, Backderf certainly makes it easy to understand how people can ignore and rationalize weird behavior—and frankly much of the time, the 90 percent of the time you’re not dealing with someone dangerous, that might be the right way to react.
But in asking “Where were the adults?” Backderf is at least following through on the best thing about My Friend Dahmer: he treats Jeffrey Dahmer as a human being. Which doesn’t mean he excuses him, of course. Treating him like a human being means treating him as a being at least theoretically capable of moral judgment. He writes in the preface:
This is a tragic tale… 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. Once Dahmer kills however … my sympathy for him ends. He could have turned himself in after that first murder. He could have put a gun to his head. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people.
Up to that moment when Dahmer kills, Backderf tries to understand him. He shows Dahmer struggling with desires he doesn’t want to have, and slowly losing the struggle. I’m not sure there’s a deeper lesson to that. It’s probably just rubbernecking. But Backderf gives us a hell of a car crash to stare at.