Review: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Backderf - My Friend DahmerYou Only Think You Know This Story. 

Thus reads the book jacket’s dramatic intro, a single sentence in ominous red type. Here graphic novelist Derf Backderf, a highschool acquaintance of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, offers a point of view most have never entertained. With extraordinary artistic skill, laudable sensitivity, and a certain lightness to temper the necessary gravity, the graphic memoir/biography tells the dark story of a brilliant young man’s descent into isolation, madness, and unimaginable violence.

While Backderfer does not ask readers to sympathize, or even empathize, with the character of Jeffrey Dahmer, he raises uncomfortable questions about the circumstances which create real-life monsters of the kind Dahmer became. We immediately recognize some age old questions: To what extent can we blame society, familial circumstance, and/or individual predisposition for the creation of someone like Dahmer? How do complicated, multiple causes come together to such evil effect? Backderfer seems to say that, in a sense, we are all to blame. At some point, we’ve all been the bully, we’ve all turned a blind eye to someone in need, we’ve all ignored or failed to read the signs. The narrator doesn’t even let himself off the hook, portraying himself as a distant, sometime-acquaintance and always complicit in Dahmer’s social exclusion and ostracism.

But, Backderfer does not completely refrain from fingerpointing. He emphasizes Dahmer’s abandonment by his parents and repeatedly asks “Where were the adults?” at this pivotal point in a troubled young man’s life. Clearly, Backderfer believes Dahmer’s fate wasn’t sealed. Things could have been different. We may only be able to imagine how, but Backderfer asks us to believe that underneath it all, Dahmer’s trajectory, unusual though it was, still represents a human story. Short of recognizing this, we refuse to look beyond the cartoonish character Dahmer and similarly monstrous figures take on in our collective imaginations and dismiss, rather than try to understand, what they might have to tell about the darker corners of the human experience. Recommended for grade 9 and up.

Possible text pairings:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, thematic units investigating barbarism, monsters, villains, etc.

Backderf, Derf. My Friend Dahmer. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2012. Print.

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