Commentary: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Is it possible to identify the signs that make a murderer?
If so, would it have been possible to prevent the deaths of the 17 victims who lost their lives to Jeffrey Dahmer?
Perhaps the 17 lives lost to Jeffrey Dahmer, and the 17 lost in the Parkland shooting have more than their number of victims in common.
The signs of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mental problems were identifiable, both in real life and in the graphic novel and movie adaptation of My Friend Dahmer by Derf (John) Backderf, therefore, the reputation of this notorious killer likely could have been prevented. This trend is mirrored in modern day society through the common background of the large portion of people who commit violent crimes. For example, it has been stated in the media that the Parkland shooter might have actually been bullied, which could have been a sign to recognize the risk of him turning violent one day.
The movie adaptation of My Friend Dahmer was directed by Marc Meyers, and features Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer. It was released at Tribeca film festival in April 2017, but was not screened at most major movie theaters. Within the past couple of months, it became available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video. The script was written by Marc Meyers and John (Derf) Backderf, the latter being one of the real Dahmer’s friends in high school in the 70’s.
Since reflecting on his relationship with Dahmer, Backderf has realized the red flags that Dahmer displayed in high school, and has voiced his surprise that no adults ever recognized them.
One sign that should have been easy to identify as a red flag was the fact that Dahmer (played by Ross Lynch) came from a very broken home. Initially, his parents were married, but constantly fought. This created an unhealthy environment for Dahmer, and it caused him to spend more time alone, feeding the odd behaviors that will be described later.
While his parents were still together, Dahmer’s father and brother were relatively normal. However, his mother struggled with her mental health and a drug problem caused by her medication. This is shown in the movie through her constant cravings of the drug, despite Dahmer insisting that she was supposed to be off of her medication.
One detail that provides further information on Dahmer’s odd behavior is included only in the graphic novel rather than the film. This detail is that Dahmer’s signature “spaz” act was actually likely inspired by the fits that his mother went through from taking prescription drugs, rather than the interior designer with cerebral palsy that he claimed it was an imitation of.
Dahmer’s “spaz” act is a major reason that he became so comfortable with causing trouble and never expected to be caught. Throughout the movie, the book and in real life, Dahmer would pretend to be undergoing a sort of medical fit to draw attention to himself and make people laugh. He simply wanted to be noticed in a world where he never was.
At one point in the book, movie and in real life, Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Mike (Harrison Holzer) and Neil (Tommy Nelson) ask Dahmer to put on one last “spaz” act. The catch was that this time they would pay him and he would do it in front of a whole mall.
In one of the most chilling scenes in the entire film, Dahmer executes on the performance that he promises to give. From the moment that the scene begins, it feels different; like Dahmer’s whole demeanor changed somehow. It starts out with Dahmer being encouraged to put on his signature show, but as he is introduced to the group of students acting as the audience, he corrects Derf for the first time.
“I now present to you, Jeff,” Derf says.
“Jeffrey,” says Dahmer.
Since Dahmer went by “Jeff” for the entirety of the movie up until this moment, the audience is immediately notified to the fact that this scene will be a turning point in Dahmer’s personality and mindset.
What starts out as Dahmer pulling a prank and simply having fun quickly turns into a depressing scene as his act goes on for a little too long. He is seen scaring people while stone-faced, trying to gain attention, but never being reprimanded. He runs his hands through his hair in desperation and starts to disconnect from reality.
“And so it went on for the next two hours,” writes Derf, “Mall security never caught on.”
This is the moment that someone should have noticed and said something. But no one did.
Despite this, Derf admits to taking some notice to this odd behavior, and he describes what he felt in the graphic novel.
“It wasn’t as much fun as I anticipated,” Derf writes, “In fact, it creeped me out.”
While Derf hasn’t voiced any regret in not noticing the signs of Dahmer’s decline, there is one detail from real life, the book and the movie that really stands out as a clear indicator of Dahmer’s psychosis.
He had a shed in the woods near his house where he dissolved dead animals’ carcasses in acid. This was a known hobby of Dahmer’s and his father believed it to solely be an interest in science. Dahmer had a fascination with biology and how the organs functioned, and he truly had no idea why. However, the extremism of dissolving roadkill in the woods should have been an identifiable reason to start monitoring his behavior.
The scene from the book, movie and real life that fully captures the essence of Jeffrey Dahmer’s struggle with compulsion is when he and his friends go fishing.
Derf, Mike, Neil and Dahmer are all having a fun time fishing in the lake near one of their houses. One of the three friends instructs everyone that if they catch a fish, they should throw it back into the water. Dahmer catches a fish and everyone is super excited, so Derf tells him to just unhook it and throw it back in. Instead, Dahmer pulls out a knife and repeatedly stabs and dismembers the fish. When his friends show appalled expressions and ask him why he did it, his response is what truly encompasses the decline of Jeffrey Dahmer.
“I just wanted to see what its insides looked like.”
This emphasizes the fact that Dahmer displayed clear warning signs of what he would become, and that, still, no one took the chance to get him the help that he needed.
In America today it should be possible to identify warning signs like these in people who commit violent crimes, such as school shooters. They are commonly students who are or were bullied, or students that come from broken homes.
Society today must learn from Jeffrey Dahmer’s story in order to prevent as many future homicides as possible.
This is not part of the article, but I just found it necessary to include some information on my views on the details of the article I wrote above:
I also do not consider any of Dahmer’s hardships as any sort of justification for the disgusting crimes that he committed later in life.