Jeffrey Dahmer: The misfit who became a monster
Finding out a former friend had become a notorious serial killer changed John Backderf's life for ever
Jeffrey Dahmer raped and killed 17 men in crimes that escalated into crossing even greater taboos, including cannibalism and necrophilia. But before he committed any crime Dahmer was a schoolboy, albeit a strange and isolated one.
For a time in high school he felt like he belonged when a group of friends were so fascinated by his strangeness that they formed the Dahmer Fan Club. John 'Derf' Backderf was one of that group of friends, and although the friendship with Dahmer ended as his strangeness went unchecked, Derf, like all of the others in the group, was shocked when Dahmer was revealed as a serial killer. Derf's best-selling graphic novel My Friend Dahmer is now a film, the story focusing on the last months before the boy became a monster.
The Dahmer Fan Club was all in the name of fun but as Dahmer got stranger and took to drinking heavily they began to feel that there was something darker driving him. The Fan Club waned and its members distanced themselves from Dahmer, never seeing or hearing from him again until 13 years later, in 1991, when Derf got a phone call from his wife to say that Dahmer had been arrested. Finding out the exact nature of the strangeness they had sensed proved deeply disturbing for Derf and the others in the Dahmer Fan Club.
"With the snap of a finger my entire personal history changed," Derf explains. "That's a very disorienting thing and it took me many years to come to terms with that and work it out. All of those goofball antics which were strange but seemed silly and insignificant suddenly became very chilling. We realised: 'Holy shit, that's what that guy was thinking when we were doing this stuff!'"
The book was, if not exactly a catharsis, a way to try to make sense of events. Hollywood was always interested in the story but it was indie filmmaker Marc Meyers that Derf chose to make the film. The result he feels is very true to the spirit of the book, the laying out of facts, the telling of a story without going too much into morality or blame.
"From my perspective I didn't feel that that was important to get across because everybody knows what he did. There's no debate that, certainly in the United States, he is one of the most iconic monsters of the 20th Century. So I was saying 'Yeah OK, he was a monster, but not always. This is the kid that I knew, who had committed no crime and mistakes were made'." For Derf it is not useful to dehumanise criminals, "Because when you just write somebody off as a monster, in my head you write off all responsibility for what happened. Mistakes were made, some breathtaking mistakes, especially on the part of the adults. If just one person had said 'Whoa, something is wrong with this kid', maybe someone could have interceded. The fact that nobody tried made what Dahmer became inevitable." He describes it as a story about failure: "To a certain point Jeff is a tragic figure, up until the moment he kills. Once he kills, no, then he's just a fiend but up until that moment he's just this lonely teenager struggling against these horrific compulsions, alone, isolated. That to me is tragic."
There was a progression in Dahmer's behaviour. "In junior high, before the fan club, he still had friends. He was an odd kid but he was not really scary. It was only really in high school, with each passing year he got worse and worse. You see it in the photos, he's letting his physical appearance go and it's obviously someone going insane. He'd show up at school at 7.30 in the morning with a Styrofoam cup of booze. It's very sad, though again we cannot lose sight of the fact of the misery he inflicted, not just on 17 people, but on the thousands who mourn those 17 people. That's the real tragedy and I never lose sight of it."
The film was shot on location in Bath, Ohio, where they all grew up. With the exception of the high school all of the locations are the real ones, including the Dahmer home. Derf visited the set on occasion and says it was a more sombre set than most, "There was none of the usual onset clowning around because they could literally feel the power of it, especially in the house." He remembers the Dahmer parents. The father Lionel initially encouraged his son's scientific interest providing the acid in which young Jeffrey dissolved the flesh of roadkill. His mother Joyce had some mental health issues and was also very frustrated by the role of homemaker. The friction led to divorce, after which Dahmer lived for a time alone in the family home. It was there that he killed for the first time, a hitchhiker called Steven Hicks.
Lionel Dahmer wrote his own book after his son was convicted, one in which Derf believes he somewhat demonised his ex-wife. "She was a difficult woman, no question, but in his book Lionel basically did a lot of score settling and really portrayed her badly. I have always had a problem with that because there were two parents in that house and Lionel bears as much blame as she does." But is it a question of blame? People can have appalling childhoods and not end up serial killers. "Absolutely! I knew a dozen kids who came from broken homes and none of them ended up killing 17 people. It kept him progressing toward the edge of the abyss, but it wasn't the cause of it, that came from somewhere deep inside him. His younger brother grew up perfectly normal in the same environment. Sometimes monsters just happen."
Disney star Ross Lynch was an unusual choice to play Dahmer and is very convincing to those of us who didn't know him. Is he convincing for those who did? "Oh God yes! Right down to his walk, it was kind of spooky. We all agreed it was just like seeing Jeff. He wasn't able to get as dark as the real Dahmer did, because who can? But it's really an amazing performance."
Alex Wolff plays teenage Derf, "He is cooler than I was, which he probably can't help," he says with a laugh. "The film makes me a little meaner than I was. I don't shy away from my role in this story, but I was not mean and my friends were not mean."
Derf does not shy away either from saying that Dahmer, who was bludgeoned to death in Wisconsin Prison in 1994, was lost when the members of the Fan Club pulled away from him. "When we pushed him away then he was completely cut off and he didn't have friends any more. He would follow us around in the distance trying to sort of hang on to that camaraderie even when we didn't want anything to do with him." Why did they do that? "Because there were alarm bells going off in my head right and left. Get away from this guy. I was pretty young and naive but you could just smell the doom coming off him and it was repellent. I make no apologies for that because that was a pretty good instinct. It could have been one of us chopped up in a car." It was only weeks after the end of school before Dahmer committed his first murder. "I think it's no surprise that when high school ended that he lost control," Derf reflects. "At least high school offered him some interaction with other people and it wasn't just him in his house, alone with those thoughts throbbing in his head."
Yet despite all of the years of wondering ultimately John Backderf says no-one can ever really know. "It's hard to really judge where his mind was after killing and butchering 17 people, I think he was almost operating on memory of what it was like to be human at that point. I think he did regret that his family was hurt as much as they were but really, I have no explanation for what he became."
'My Friend Dahmer' is showing now
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