Separating Man From Monster

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So can we empathize with people who become monsters? Derf Backderf — whose teenage self appears in Meyers' film — certainly thinks so. When his graphic novel first came out, I spoke with Backderf about how he separated Jeff — the boy he knew — from Dahmer the serial killer.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

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 Paulson: Your book is called "My Friend, Dahmer". How close a friend were you?

DB: 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.

SP: Did did you realize that, at the time? There was something just really odd about him?

DB: Yeah. Right from the beginning, absolutely. I met him when we were twelve. 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.

SP: But that didn't come to light until years later.

DB: 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 the things that I really had the most trouble dealing with.

SP: So you said it was it was always obvious that that this guy was really strange. What what did he do that so different?

DB: Well, he didn't relate to people the way other people would. You know, from the very beginning, he was probably the loneliest 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.

SP: So he was going for laughs. He was trying to get a rise out of the the kids around him.

DB: 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 taking him over.

SP: 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.

DB: 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. Some dark liquid that looked coffee. Walking right through the halls of the school. Now, keep in mind, this is a very different era, 1977 or 1978. It's still a little that's a little hard to to explain away.

SP: 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?

DB: 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.

SP: Why do you think he was drinking so much?

DB: 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 inexorably 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.

SP: You mentioned that you were part of something called "The Dahmer Fan Club." What was that?

DB: It was this small group of band nerds, my inner-circle. There was maybe five or six of us and 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, anyway.

SP: 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.

DB: 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.

He walked around the mall throwing various epileptic fits. Bleating at people [like a goat]. He knocked over glasses of water at a restaurant and pretended he was having fits, 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.

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 — after that I distanced myself from him.

SP: What was it that creeped you out about him?

DB: 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. 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. People have called me out on that.

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 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 it certainly was the last kind of shove toward what awaited him.

SP: Yeah. So, on the one hand, you could say well he was dealt a really back deck of cards: his home life was a mess, he couldn't connect with people, society around him failed him. And yet, when you look at the crimes: rape, dismemberment, necrophilia, cannibalism. I mean, that sounds like insanity.

DB: It sure does. My view, and I think 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.

I mean, what did have to live for? The book itself does not portray a sympathetic portrait of Dahmer the monster. This is Jeff, the kid that I knew. This is the story before that story, and it's important to clarify that.

SP: There are some very chilling scenes in your book, including one about your friend Mike, who had given Dahmer a ride home in his car. Based on the timeline that you reconstructed, you figured out that the body of Dahmer's first victim was probably buried just yards away from them.

DB: Not buried. In garbage bags just yards away. Unburied.

SP: Um.

DB: Yeah.

SP: When you think back on that. I mean, were you in danger?

DB: Well, we've talked about that. I I take comfort, somewhat, in knowing that that he never killed people that he knew. Only strangers, like most serial killers. But 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 the randomness of it that's so troubling. 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, who knows. I'm glad uh I didn't have a chance to find out.

SP: In 1994, a few years after Dahmer was arrested, he was beaten to death by an inmate in prison. How did you feel when you heard about that?

DB: You know, I was 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 at the time, I was kind of upset that I was upset. Why am I mourning this guy in any way? But personal relationships are hard to explain away easily sometimes.

SP: You said that once Darhmer killed, once he claimed his first victim, then your sympathy totally goes out the window. He's crossed the line. He's beyond the pale. 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?

DB: 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 to be learned, or that this is certainly is a cautionary tale.

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 happened." Well, I don't think it was inevitable. I think somebody could have acted, particularly an adult, to get this kid 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.