[theme from Mr. Rodger's Neighborhood]
Anne Strainchamps: So, maybe, Mr Rodger's was right and every neighbor is a potential friend. Someone worth inviting over, getting to know. On the other hand, maybe the weird guy next door will turn out to be Jeffery Dahmer. That's what actually happened to the artist and alternative cartoonist, Derf Backderf. He grew up in the 1970's, in the small town of Richfield, Ohio, and among his circle of friends was a kid everyond knew as Jeff. Jeff Dahmer. Not a serial killer or a cannibal, yet. Just a weird kid with some problems. Backderf writes about his former neighbor in a graphic novel called, "My Friend, Dahmer". Steve Paulsen asked him to take us back to July 22nd, 1991, the day we all found out about Jeffery Dahmer's crimes.
Derf Backderf: Put yourself in my place. You know, you go through your adolescence. I can't say that I enjoyed it, but it was a very typical kind of goofball adolescence. Nothing that was really too horrible and then, with the flick of a switch, suddenly that entire era is completely redefined in a utterly chilling, sinister way. As you realize that you had this fiend, emerging fiend, winding his way through your personal history. So, I had a lot of things going on to deal with. Psychologically, I suppose, is the best way to put it.
Steve Paulsen: Your book is called "My Friend, Dahmer". How close a friend were you?
Backderf: Well, that's what the book is about. He wasn't what I would call part of my inner circle, but we were, me and my friends, were probably as close to friends as he had. I mean this was a kid who was missing chunks of his humanity from a from a very early age.
Paulsen: Did did you realize that, at the time?
Backderf: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Paulsen: So there's something just really odd about him. Weird.
Backderf: Yeah. Right from the beginning. Yeah. Absolutely. And we're talk. I mean, I met him when we were twelve. So. And and continued our friendship up until we were eighteen. And two weeks after our high school graduation, he killed his first victim here in Ohio.
Paulsen: But that didn't come to light until years later.
Backderf: Until years later, right. But we were very, very close to that. I mean, you know, within a couple hundred yards of that really. That's it's it's it's things like that are are the things that I really had the most trouble dealing with.
Paulsen: So you said it was it was always obvious that that this guy was really strange. What what did he do that so different?
Backderf: Well, he didn't relate to people the way other people would. You know, from the very beginning, he was probably the lonliest kid that I'd ever met. Later on, he began to act out. I assumed it was a way to interact with people, because he started to get attention for it. And, you know, it sort of steam rolled from there. He would he would fake epileptic fits in the mall or in in school. He would pretend he had cerebal palsy. He bleated like a sheep in class. It sounds terrible, but keep in mind we were fifteen years old and bored to death and anything out of the ordinary was both fascinating and amusing.
Paulsen: So he was going for laughs. He was trying to get a rise out of the the kids around him.
Backderf: Absolutely. And then, later, and this I reflect in the book. The book becomes darker and darker and more claustrophobic as it as it unfolds. His behavior became darker and particularly the drinking. He was a heavy drinker. Mainly, he was self-medicating. Trying to quell these hideous urges that were just taking him over.
Paulsen: The way you depict this in your book. I mean, it's shocking how much he drank. I mean, apparently, he came in to school totally plastered.
Backderf: Yeah. He would walk around the halls of the school with a styrofoam coffee cup from the coffee machine in the cafeteria. It was full of scotch or whiskey. You know, some dark liquid that looked coffee. Walking right through the halls of the school. Now, keep in mind, this is a very different era. And I'm I try to get that across in the book, that you know it was not 2012. I mean, it was 1978-1977. It was a completely different society. Completely different era, but still that's a little that's a little hard to to explain away.
Paulsen: Yeah, it's a it's a little unbelievable when you say there were times when he was passed out, literally on the school grounds. I mean, how could no adult actually see this?
Backderf: Right. Yeah. I have no explanation for it. Either they didn't care or, you know, they didn't want to be bothered. By the time that it got really bad, he was already a senior and they figured, "Well, you know, in a couple months he'll be somebody else's problem.". Well, he was somebody else's problem and it is a very tragic and troubling element of this story. And and one of the reasons I find it so fascinating and and wanted to get it down, is that it's really unbelievable that he got away with what he got away with. Now, he had a skill for that. Which he employed with very lethal effect in this later in life, as you well know.
Paulsen: Why do you think he was drinking so much?
Backderf: I believe that he was self-medicating. And this is what Jeff, himself, says. I mean, he didn't feel that he could approach anyone else about what was going on in his head. I mean, how do you go up to someone and say, "Hey, you know, I'm fantasizing about dead bodies". You know, that's not going to happen. And he was trying to anyway just just to, you know, tamp down these these horrible urges that were in his head and and virtually taking threatening to him over body and soul. And this was what he came up with. And for a while, I mean, in the book, you know, I think he. It was almost a heroic struggle. I know that people have trouble attaching that word to Jeffery Dahmer, but remember the Dahmer that I knew had committed no crime. He was just this horribly troubled kid marching inexerably toward the abyss as the adults in his life failed to intercede and um. I mean, put yourself in his shoes. Where would he go? That's what he came up with.
Paulsen: You mentioned that you were part of something called "The Dahmer Fan Club". What was that?
Backderf: Right. It was this small group of band nerds. My inner-circle. There was maybe five or six of us and uh we, for a while, pulled him into our circle and encouraged him to act up and and act out. Of course, it was all meant in jest. You know, I've been criticized periodically that, you know, we were cruel or or dismissive of him and that's not really the case. I mean, Dahmer himself remembered that time very fondly. It was very likely the happiest time of his life, because he had friends and he was the center of attention in a good way. I mean, as good as it got for him anyways.
Paulsen: You write about one episode when you you basically egged him on to to act out. To to do his thing in a shopping mall.
Backderf: Right. We payed him like thirty-five bucks to put on a command performance, we called it. And it was it was an epic uh legendary afternoon. Yeah. But by then, as his behavior got so dark that eventually we just one-by-one just pushed him away.
Paulsen: What what. Just to follow up on that one incident. What happend that afternoon?
Backderf: Uh. He walked around the mall throwing various epileptic fits. You know, bleating at people. He knocked over glasses of water at a restaurant and pretended he was uh having fits. That sort of thing. As we followed him around in a large pack of ten or twelve teenagers, laughing and cackling. And he got away with it. And that was pretty much all that that happened that day. Uh. You know, looking back on it, even at that time, by the end of the day I was pretty creeped out. And that was actually, kind of, end of my time with him because after that I I distanced myself from him.
Paulsen: What was it that uh creeped you out about him?
Backderf: Well, the drinking first of all. Which I saw first hand, he downed an entire six pack of beer on the way to the mall in the space of about uh six or seven minutes.
Paulsen: He drank six six cans of beer in six minutes?
Backderf: Yeah. Yeah. It just made my skin crawl watching it in the rear view mirror. And that was the first it really came into focus for me just how troubled this kid was at that point. And so I pushed him away. And, you know, I people have called me out on that and and there were no heroes in my story. I mean, everybody fails. Including, of course, Jeff himself. But I'm not going to apologize for pushing him away, because instinctively that was a pretty darn good instinct to have. It could have well been me cut up in the trunk of his car a couple weeks later. So I I'm not going to apologize for that, but uh it certainly was the last kind of shove toward what awaited him.
Paulsen: Yeah. So, on the one hand, you could say well he was dealt a really back deck of cards and and as we said his home life was a mess, uh he couldn't connect with people, he was uh the people around him the society around him failed him. And yet, when you look at the crimes, I mean later. Rape, dismemberment, necrophilia, cannibalism. I mean, that sounds like insanity.
Backderf: Sure. Well, it sure does. My view, I thin I lay this out pretty clearly, is that once he starts to to kill I lose all sympathy for him. I mean, to some degree, he chose to give in to these urges and become the monster that we all know. And, at that point, the only tragedy is that he just didn't have the courage to put a gun to his head and end it. Because, I mean, what did have to live for? The the book itself does not portray a sympathic portrait of Dahmer the monster. This is Jeff the kid that I knew. This is the story before that story and it it, you know, it's important to clarify that.
Paulsen: There are some very chilling scenes in your book. One of them is uh you talk about a friend. Your friend Mike. Who had given Dahmer a ride home in his car and apparently, based on the timeline that you reconstructed, you figured out that the body of Dahmer's first victim uh was probably buried just yards away from from.
Backderf: Not buried. Uh. In garbage bags just yards away.
Paulsen: Yeah. Garbage bags.
Backderf: Unburied. Yeah.
Paulsen: When you think back on that. I mean, were you in danger?
Backderf: Well, we've talked about that. I I take comfort, somewhat, in knowing that that he never killed people that he knew. Only strangers. Um. Like most serial killers. But, you know, who knows? I mean, if he had snapped. Especially that first murder. That was just total impulse. You know, he didn't plan anything. It wasn't like that other murders where he stalked people. This was just some kid he picked up near the mall who was trying to hitch his way home. And it's, you know, just the randomness of it is just so uh troubling and it, you know, it's the old. It's the old warning from your mother. Don't hitchhike. You'll be picked up by a serial killer. Well, this kid was. Dahmer just lost control for a second and and within minutes he was a monster. He had killed. And could that have happened to any of us? Well, you know, who knows. I'm glad uh I didn't have a chance to find out.
Paulsen: In 1994, uh a few years after Dahmer was arrested he was beaten to death by an inmate in prison.
Paulsen: How did you feel when you heard about that?
Backderf: You know, I was uh actually kind of surprisingly upset by that. I had not been in contact with Jeff. I I never made an attempt to reach out to him. But, at that time, he was only the second high school friend that I had lost. So I guess that's somewhat understandable and then, you know, I was kind of upset that I was upset and that why am I mourning this guy in any way? But uh, you know.Personal relationships are hard to uh are hard to explain away easily sometimes.
Paulsen: You said that once Darhmer killed, once he claimed his first victim, then your sympathy totally goes out the window. I mean, you know, he's crossed the line. He's beyond the pale.
Paulsen: But before that. Were you were you trying to sympathize with him? I I guess that question is, what were you trying to do with this book? Were you trying to humanize Jeffery Dahmer?
Backderf: Oh, absolutely. As I said, the Jeff that I knew had committed no crime. He was not an inhuman monster. He was a person who had inhuman urges, but he certainly was not a monster. And I think that there are lessons there to be learned about, maybe not lessons, but it certainly is a cautionary tale. And I don't think we do ourselves any favor when just write these people off as monsters, because there's a certain inevitability that comes with that, you know. "Oh, he was a monster. It was inevitable that it happend". Well, I don't think it was inevitable. I think if somebody had acted. If somebody, particularly an adult, had gotten this kid uh red flagged this kid gotten him some help. Then maybe some of this could have been stopped. Maybe not. Maybe it was inevitable, but it sure would have been nice if somebody had tried.
Strainchamps: Derf Backderf talking with Steve Paulsen about his graphic novel "My Friend Dahmer".