No question: I never would have picked up this book, let alone read it, without the absolutely spot-on recommendation delivered to me a couple of years ago by an old friend whose taste I trust. It’s hard not to be skeptical of anything with the title My Friend Dahmer.
But, and here’s my recommendation, this book isn’t any of the things you’re afraid it’s going to be. It isn’t gruesome, or morbid, or trivializing, or exploitative. It neither glamorizes nor demonizes its infamous central figure.
What it is, more than anything else, is terribly, terribly sad.
I’m inclined to argue that the title is a little bit misleading. Yes, Derf Backderf knew Jeffrey Dahmer in high school, but the sense I get is that Dahmer never had any real friends. I suppose My Acquaintance Dahmer or That Guy Dahmer don’t have quite the same ring, but the degree to which no one knew him (or bothered to know him) is definitely part of the point here.
In his preface, Backderf writes, “There are a surprisingly large number out there who view Jeffrey Dahmer as some kind of antihero, a bullied kid who lashed back at the society that rejected him. This is nonsense. Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.”
That directive is at the crux of what My Friend Dahmer makes space for—the wonderful world of fiction aside, the scariest villains are the ones that are real, and for those more than any of the others, it’s important that we don’t let ourselves forget their humanity.