On the eve of Halloween, let’s start with what may be one of the darkest, most talked about, written about, and filmed about serial killers of the 20th Century: Jeffrey Dahmer. In fact, this weekend the movie My Friend Dahmer premiers, based on the excellent graphic novel by Derf Backderf.
I’m not going to rehash all the details of his crimes – everyone has access to Wikipedia – but rather, try to decipher what is so morbidly fascinating about this man. While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I have a few thoughts about why that is.
He fascinates me because he doesn’t fit the pattern.
First, he wasn’t the victim of abuse or trauma as a child. We know his home life was less than idyllic – by most accounts, his mother suffered from mental health issues, and probably problems stemming from the medications she was prescribed. His parents’ marriage was contentious and ended in a bitter divorce. After that, his mother sent his father away and then took his little brother and moved away herself, leaving troubled teenaged Dahmer alone with his macabre urges. It was during this time that he killed (and violated the corpse of) his first victim, Steven Mark Hicks.
There are plenty of people – myself included – whose parents went through awful, traumatizing divorces, who didn’t turn into serial killers.
No, Dahmer’s sickness (if we can call it that) seems to have been inside him all along; from the time he was four years old, he was fascinated by animal bones, by what was inside of other beings. At first, his father saw it as merely curiosity, and indulged it. However, once he saw that maybe the curious hobby had maybe gone too far, he told him he needed to quit.
And that’s the other thing that doesn’t fit the pattern. Dahmer’s father saw red flags (of course, not imagining what young Jeffrey was capable of), and he did everything he could to try and help his son.
When Dahmer was little, and was having trouble making friends, his father did all he could to make him socialize with kids his age. When his father found out he was alone in the house, he moved back in (too late, sadly, for Hicks). After Dahmer dropped out of college and couldn’t keep a steady job, his father had him join the Army, thinking it would not only give him discipline, but put him on a respectable career track (instead, he found a perfect environment to commit rape and get away with it). When he was kicked out of the Army for his drinking, his father made him go see a counselor (which he skipped out on).
Lionel Dahmer genuinely loved his son, was concerned about him, and was willing to do whatever he could to help him. It’s just that none of it worked.
Jeffrey Dahmer doesn’t fit the typical serial-killer pattern for another reason: he seems to have known his urges were wrong, and he tried, at times, to control them. He drank heavily starting very young in an attempt to self-medicate and numb his urges. After killing his first victim, he managed to refrain from murdering anyone else for nine years (he did, however, drug and rape over a dozen victims during this time). While living with his grandmother, he used a mannequin as a substitute for an unconscious – or dead – sexual partner.
Of course, he never told any of this to the various counselors he saw. So the one thing that might have helped him (therapy and psychiatric drugs, I assume) he refused to consider.
The final difference might seem trivial, but it isn’t: his name. Or, more specifically, the fact that he doesn’t have a real nickname, as most infamous serial killers do. In this respect, he’s in a small club: John Wayne Gacy, H.H. Holmes, and most female serial killers.
Sure, some dubbed him “The Milwaukee Cannibal” after he was arrested, but it doesn’t stick.
Usually serial killers get their nicknames from the press or law enforcement as their crimes are discovered, but before they’re caught and identified. But no one knew Dahmer was a killer until he was caught. And this fact – that he could have murdered so many young men without it even being noticed by law enforcement or the media – is what angers so many about Dahmer’s reign of terror.
Serial killing is always about a power dynamic – the killer occupies a place of more power or status than their victims. This is why prostitutes are the number one demographic preyed upon by killers: they are the “untouchables” of American society, living on the lowest rungs, utterly without power or status. Jeffrey Dahmer held a much higher place in society – white and middle class – than his victims, who were predominately men and boys of color. Some were more or less vagrants, rejected by their families for being gay, so living on the edges of society. The gay community knew that men were going missing, but law enforcement never took their concerns seriously. The fact that their bodies never turned up made it even harder to attract attention to the problem.
Twice Dahmer was nearly caught. The first time, he had the decaying remains of his first victim in his car when he was pulled over by a cop in Bath, Ohio. Despite the smell, Dahmer was able to convince the cop it was just trash, and the cop didn’t search the car. Dahmer drove off, free to go on and murder 16 more men.
The second time he was nearly caught, when by all rights he should have been caught, was when 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped. Naked and bloody, he ran out into the street, screaming for help, and two women who saw him called the police. When the cops showed up, Dahmer met them outside and claimed that Sinthasomphone was not only of legal age, but that he was Dahmer’s partner. Dahmer claimed Sinthasomphone was drunk, and that he did this kind of thing all the time.
Despite the boy’s (and the women’s) protests, ignoring the blood running down the boy’s legs, the cops believed Dahmer. They followed Dahmer up to his apartment, where the corpse of one of his victims was decomposing in the bedroom. They didn’t look around to investigate the source of the odor. They didn’t check Dahmer’s or Sinthasomphone’s ID – if they had, they would have found Dahmer was a registered sex offender. Instead, they left the 14-year-old boy with Dahmer. As they drove away, they even laughed about the “domestic dispute.”
As soon as the police left, Dahmer immediately killed Sinthasomphone.
Once Dahmer was finally caught, it “shone a spotlight on the racism and homophobia of the Milwaukee Police Department,” according to the Wisconsin Gazette. Milwaukee’s LGBT and other minority communities were outraged. The case demonstrated the “glaring disparities between the level of service police provided to straight white citizens versus their non-white and LGBT counterparts,” according to the Wisconsin Gazette. “Missing person reports filed by the families of young men of color, many of them gay, had been ignored.”
In response to these concerns, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist appointed a commission to hold hearings on police-community relations. After about a year, it produced a report “condemning Milwaukee police for dismissing citizens’ complaints, mistreating minorities, and discriminating by selective enforcement of the law.”
In addition, the commission developed recommendations to address the problems that it uncovered. According to the Wisconsin Gazette, many of those recommendations have since been implemented.
While the Dahmer case may have, in the end, improved community relations, it still stands as an anomaly, a freak storm of evil that could neither be predicted or avoided. Little wonder that in Milwaukee, they have done their best to erase Jeffrey Dahmer’s existence. The city demolished the apartment building where Dahmer killed and kept most of his victims. When his “estate” (a few personal items including the tools he used in his crimes) went up for auction, a community group raised the money to purchase the items and have them secretly disposed of.
I understand that. No one would want the site of their loved one’s violent murder turned into a tourist attraction.
Yet we can’t erase Jeffrey Dahmer, and we shouldn’t. Jeffrey Dahmer reminds us that polite, well-groomed white men from respectable backgrounds can do very evil things. Maybe if the police had believed that truth, he wouldn’t have done so much of that evil.