Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer is that book. You know what I mean, the book you mention in conversation with friends that makes them stop and say, “You’re reading what book? Seriously? Why?” Exactly. It’s that book.

That book is the incredibly true story of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer, and the author’s pseudo-friendship with him in high school. In the preface, Backderf explains how he knew his unusual perspective was a story that must be told. As someone who is not intrigued by serial killer stories, I have to say the idea of learning more about what motivated this horribly sick man was fascinating. In light of all the recent stories of bullying and school shootings, maybe some insight could be derived from looking at how he became such an incredibly damaged person.

The story begins with Dahmer as a lonely young boy obsessed with dead animals and follows him through his high school career as the weirdo outsider. Through the author’s drawings, we see Dahmer as more than just an awkward teenager. He is struggling with his identity and the realization that he is gay, as well as the nasty divorce of his parents. To top it all off, he is also dealing with terrifying thoughts of mutilation, necrophilia, and an overall fascination with death. The reader can sympathize with the fact of his sad life yet easily remain repulsed by him.

The artwork reminds me of Comix legend, R. Crumb (fitting as his review is featured on the cover), and the elongated and slightly grotesque bodies suit the subject and give the reader some distance from the subject by their exaggerated nature. The inclusion of drawings of Dahmer the author did in high school adds to the bizarre realism of the book.

The drawings of Dahmer’s eyes fascinated me. Backderf makes the choice to show the eyes as bespectacled, numb, sunken, almost as if nothing can reach through to him and no one can read his thoughts. In other frames, the glasses hide the eyes or show a dark grey, blank reflection. In both cases, one can only think this is a character that cannot be reached and has become completely disengaged from those around him.

A constant theme in young adult novels is the idea of fitting in, being part of the crowd. This book is not so much about fitting in, but about the need for human connection. Dahmer’s thoughts are so dark and ugly, there is no way he can connect with the “regular” teens around him (the drawings of the glasses help show the disconnect with the world around him), and yet one wonders if someone had tried would that have made a difference. Would he have become the depraved killer that he did, if he had had a group of friends, or at least one caring parent, or a concerned teacher or counselor that could have reached out to him.

Check out Goodreads for more info on this book.

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