My Friend Dahmer (a.k.a. Young Jeffrey Dahmer)

A Double-Edged Sword

“There are lessons to be learned in Dahmer’s story. It’s my belief that he COULD have been saved … that his victims could have been spared their horrible fate. If only some adult in his life interceded while there was still hope. Just one is all it would have taken. It’s the same thing Columbine teaches. Vigilance. Perception.”
— — John “Derf” Backderf, My Friend Dahmer, introduction.

Mass murderers and serial killers: we like to think they’re monsters, freaks of nature created by a bump on the head as a child, bad genetics, or some random fluke. Never do we think of them as lonely children starving for friends and attention. They’re isolated from the world around them, growing even more cold and distant from their peers as hormones take over and the teenage years set in. It’s kinda like looking at our parents’ yearbook photographs: even though we see that they were once young, we can’t accept it. We shake our heads, grunting, “Uh-uh!” We don’t want to believe it because we can’t accept the truth. The truth being that we might have been able to prevent these monsters from ever being, but societal rules, overworked teachers, and our own hormones, troubles and lives put the kibosh on that.

Case in point, John “Derf” Backderf. At the tender age of 12 Derf befriended Jeffrey Dahmer. Yes, the Jeffrey Dahmer that would go on to rape, maim, kill and ingest numerous young men. Derf was there. He witnessed firsthand the downward spiral that created the monster we all know Dahmer to be. And, through the magic that is the realm of comic books, we too witness it in Derf’s (auto)biographical My Friend Dahmer.

As Derf says in his intro,

“It’s a painful story for me to tell. Believe it or not, I consider Dahmer a tragic figure. But remember … my memories of him are of the tormented kid spiraling into madness, not the monster who later committed those horrific crimes. I remember him as bullied and shunned, much as I was. A quiet young boy who devolved helplessly into a twisted soul.”

Truth be told, it’s painful to read, because we’ve all been there. At some point in our lives we’ve met (or been) the kid that everyone looked sideways at because… well, they didn’t fit in, no matter how hard they tried. It’s painful because, now as an adult (or what passes for one), I look back and think about all the kids I tormented (not that there were a lot, but enough) and I wonder/worry how my actions changed them for the worse. Did I scar someone so horribly that they’ll one day suck the life from another person’s heart? This is what I worry about now, but back then, when my actions seemed funny, I thought nothing of it. And I’m willing to bet neither did you.

In Dahmer’s case, before anyone knew the true horror that bubbled over in his head, Derf saw the warning signs. You know, the flashing red lights that scream, “Something’s not right!” But he was a teenager, what was he do to? If the adults that were being paid to monitor stuff like this weren’t doing anything, then who was he to say anything? Besides that, we all should remember the number one rule of the playground: you don’t rat out a friend … ever!

Back then, maybe that was the mentality, but today… today, in this post-Columbine world, we’re extra sensitive to the kids that constantly ditch class, show up to school drunk, walk down the halls mimicking those suffering through cerebral palsy, dress in black, brood, write bleak poetry and prose, play first person shoot-em-up computer games in their dank basements, listen to anything but those oh-so-catchy and overly annoying pop songs, and/or do anything outside the norm.

Now in no way, shape or form am I knocking vigilance. What’s merely being pointed out is that anyone with a different opinion, look, or attitude from the rest of the flock is being tracked like a shipment of plutonium throughout the four years of hell we call high school.

Columbine taught us the exact opposite of what it should have. We should have learned that being different is okay; that just because others are different than the masses doesn’t mean they’re worthless and, in turn, should be teased. Instead, what we seem to have taken away is ultra-fear of those who aren’t smiling all the time.

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and millions of others in the ‘60s brought equality to the forefront of our lives. They forced our parents to look in the eyes of those we had oppressed for years on end, and accept them as the equals that they always should have been seen as. No, peace wasn’t achieved overnight nor is it here now, but it’s closer than it was half a century ago … or so I’d like to think.

So why hasn’t this same level of acceptance transferred into our high schools? If the ’60s taught us anything at all, we should embrace individuality. But My Friend Dahmer proves that nothing has really changed. Jeffrey, like an untold number of teenagers, was dying to fit in, but what did he get for his troubles? Ignored by the teachers, abandoned by his parents, and taunted by his peers. Ultimately, isn’t that what happened to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the two boys who went on a rampage, killing and wounding over 30 classmates and teachers at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado)?

What we’re left with are two possibilities:

1. We let the oftentimes vicious cycle of high school taunting continue, which could lead to the creation of other Dahmers and/or Columbines…; or…

2. We become hyper-vigilant, thus squashing everything that is different.

It’s a double-edged sword, but ultimately we’ll continue on with #1 simply because we’re too lazy to stick with the second choice. And before we know it, another serial killer or mass murderer will pop up, and we’ll all ask, “Where were the warning signs?” Well, look no further than My Friend Dahmer to find the answers.