If you grew up in the lower rungs of the white middle class in the Rust Belt of the second half of the 20th century, you knew a guy like Jeffrey Dahmer. He went to high school with your older brother, maybe he was on the bowling team; maybe the only class he passed was shop, or he lived down the street with his great-aunt, or worked the late shift at 7-Eleven. He was a fawn, recessive wraith that didn’t blend in with his surroundings as much as he blended with himself; his occasional attention-seeking episodes revealed a profound misunderstanding of social cues or a troll contempt for them. Evan Peters’ performance as the serial killer in Netflix’s “Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is technically accurate; those almost imperceptible and highly regional tockThe breaths that mark the ends of Dahmer’s sentences, for example, are pure distilled Lake Erie. But beyond the exactness of gesture, dialect and gait there is a strange and paradoxical sense of familiarity: the slow realization that “that guy” somehow became that kind.
After Netflix released the ten-part miniseries “Dahmer” on September 21, it became by far the streaming service’s most-watched title of the week and the biggest series debut, despite receiving little. advance advertising. Subscribers logged nearly two hundred million hours watching the show in its first week of release, more than triple the hours of Netflix’s next most popular series. It’s no surprise that a Ryan Murphy production, especially one that promises horror and gore, draws a blockbuster audience. But so much content has already been culled from Dahmer’s life and crimes, including multiple feature films, documentaries and memoirs, that some fatigue should have set in by now.
Murphy’s “Dahmer” attempts to broaden the sociological framework. Fourteen of Dahmer’s seventeen murder victims were boys or men of color, including ten black victims, and “Dahmer” extensively dramatizes how racism and homophobia, both structural and individual, and particularly at the law enforcement level, allowed for Dahmer to continue killing for good time Dahmer’s black neighbor, Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash), repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to alert the authorities to the stench and strange noises emanating from Dahmer’s apartment. The sixth installment in the series, “Silenced,” directed by Paris Barclay, takes a formally inventive turn by centering the life and family of one of Dahmer’s victims, Tony Hughes, who was black and deaf; the episode privileges Hughes’s perspective by remaining almost completely silent for long stretches as Hughes and his friends gleefully joke and trash talk in American Sign Language. And while the series takes many liberties with the events of Dahmer’s life, one of its most shocking scenes is practically a transcript of a true event: the night of May 1991, two months before Dahmer was finally arrested, when Milwaukee police officers literally returned Dahmer to a fourteen-year-old victim who had escaped, despite the protests of the three black women who had called the police in the first place (Cleveland, her daughter and her niece) already despite the fact that the boy, a son of Laotian immigrants, was naked, bleeding and incoherent.
The decades-long sustained interest in Jeffrey Dahmer, of course, is primarily and simply due to the gruesome nature of his crimes, which included necrophilia, cannibalism, and horrendous cranial experiments performed on his unconscious victims. A significant part of the social media response to “Dahmer” has been damning, with relatives of victims speaking out about what they see, understandably, as the project’s inherently exploitative nature. It’s entirely possible that “Dahmer,” despite brilliant performances by Nash, Peters and the great Richard Jenkins as Dahmer’s father Lionel, has no real justification for his very existence. If so, he might lie in the stubborn but elusive promise that underlies most true crimes: that the perpetrator and his acts can be, to some extent, “explained.”
The childhood of most mass murderers is always scrutinized for such an explanation, and usually makes for a grim read. Some diabolical permutation of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and unresolved injury or illness almost always seems to provide the wiring for the detonations to come. One can ask, “Who made you this way?” and the answer will often point to a specific person. (It is likely that specific person was “made that way” by someone else.) With Dahmer, there is no answer, and this is also key to the endless fascination with him.
Dahmer grew up primarily around Akron, Ohio, and committed most of his crimes in Milwaukee. (He was murdered by a fellow prisoner in 1994). He was the product of a troubled but fairly ordinary nuclear family, as Dahmer himself describes it; by Lionel, in memoirs “The story of a father”; and by his childhood friend John Backderf, in the graphic memoir “my friend dahmer.” Dahmer’s mother, Joyce (played by Penelope Ann Miller in the miniseries), took many tranquilizers during her pregnancy and may have suffered from prenatal and postpartum depression. Lionel, a chemist, worked long hours. Lionel and Joyce fought often and eventually got divorced. These are all pretty common miseries. The adolescent Dahmer of his and Backderf’s father’s memoirs — aimless, alienated, socially hopeless — is not far from, say, the adolescent Kurt Cobain depicted in the documentary “Montage of Heck.” (Interestingly, in both the Netflix series and “A Father’s Story,” Lionel acknowledges and then steps away from a plausible tripwire. After his son underwent hernia surgery at around age four, his behavior radically changed; the cheerful, energetic child slowed down, flattened, and turned off. Brain injuries under general anesthesia are rare but not unheard of, certainly not for a very young child in a 1960s hospital).
The miniseries struggles with this relative lack of evidence to explain Dahmer’s depravity, so it finds its own, keeping close to home. Mark Joyce’s madness. Lionel and his son drive around to dissect roadkill in the garage, an insane form of father-son bonding that never actually happened (it wasn’t until Dahmer’s murder trial that Lionel learned the full extent of the juvenile fixation). of his son for the dead animals). Lionel alleges that Joyce never held her infant child, which could be a defining moment, given everything we now know about how early neglect can stifle the brain’s receptors for human connection and empathy. But Lionel, who never shied away from criticizing Joyce’s parenting, made no such claim in “A Father’s Story” or anywhere else, and in any case such an accusation could never be proven. (Joyce Dahmer died in 2000).
“A Father’s Story” is, in part, a methodical self-examination, in which Lionel criticizes himself for the effects his terrible marriage had on his son and the workaholism that put more distance between them. Lionel even investigates his own childhood, detailing a phase of making explosives and an episode in which he attempted to hypnotize a classmate, for clues as to how his own control tendencies may have been, through some poisonous alchemy, passed on to him. your son. Although “Dahmer” portrays the book as something of a vanity project, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and earned Dahmer’s oldest spots on “Oprah” and “Dateline”; in this last program, father and son were interviewed side by side. Lionel Dahmer finally became there, but by the grace of God public figure, a rare and disturbing exception to the violent and abusive parents that populate the biographies of so many serial killers. (When I recently asked some friends what they remembered about the Dahmer case, two of them commented offhandedly that they remembered how kind their father was.) The privilege of Lionel’s race and gender undoubtedly helped him win this reception. His demeanor did too: he was endearingly unpolished, his speech could be breathy and he wore a hideous toupee, but he was also calm and analytical, neither defensive nor pleading. Seventeen times, his son had invoked every parent’s worst nightmare, and he, in turn, lived out his own parental nightmare obediently and without complaint, showing unconditional love in the most dire and unbelievable circumstances.
Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote the Dahmer roman à clef”zombie,” what in fan from “A Father’s Story,” though he was sometimes amused by its heuristics: “Lionel Dahmer’s ‘confession’ and strict self-censorship are so out of proportion to his son’s pathology that they seem grim and unintentionally comical, like blaming himself for having knocked on a door and precipitated an earthquake.” Put another way, he asked, “Who made you like this?” and provided what he saw as a logical answer. “Dahmer” picks up this thread in one of his most effective scenes, when Lionel takes his son by the shoulders and stands before him, moments before he is escorted to prison. “I’ve been looking everywhere to find out who was responsible for all this, blaming everyone but me,” says Lionel. And I am. I’m the guilty. . . . Listen to me. It’s me. I did this to you.”
And he’s not wrong, not exactly. It makes a certain kind of sense. You made a person, and the person is like that. You looked at him and loved him from the day he was born. You’ve been looking at it so long that you start to see yourself looking back. ♦