Growing Up with Dahmer
Long before he became a cartoonist and writer, Derf Backderf was unwittingly part of a horrifying story: He was a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. Once the serial killer’s awful crimes began to come to light, Backderf went back into his own memories, and those of his other friends, to see what happened. The result is the shocking and honest memoir My Friend Dahmer.
You've worked on this book, in some different incarnations, for a while now. How does it feel to finally have this long-form project completed?
Roughly 20 years, to be exact. Not continuously, of course. I worked on it off and on. To be honest, the time kind of got away from me there. That wasn't entirely my fault. I waited until Dahmer was killed before I did anything other than sketchbook drawings and then tried for five years to sell this project to a publisher and got nothing but rejections. But I also had other books I wanted to do. It's not like I was just sitting around brooding about NOT finishing My Friend Dahmer.
It feels good to have it done at last. It's always satisfying to finish a book and hold the physical artifact in your hands. These things take so long to produce, that's the big payoff. This is the book I envisioned all those years ago and I'm confident I told this story as well as I could. I didn't have the skills, or the clarity, to make this book back in 1995. And I never dreamed I'd land at a bigtime publisher like Abrams and get this kind of high-end printing. They did a beautiful job with it. It's a gorgeous book.
You did an extraordinary amount of research on Dahmer while writing this. Were people reluctant to dredge up this past again? Or were they eager to share a story that hadn't much been told before?
Most of the people I interviewed were my friends, my teenage inner circle known as the Dahmer Fan Club, and I only approached those who were open to talking about it. Friends Mike and Neal were the major sources. They're both natural storytellers and their memories are incredibly sharp. My friend Kent, on the other hand, who is still a close pal, doesn't like to talk about Dahmer, or about high school at all really. Which is too bad, because he knew Dahmer longer than the rest of us. I didn't even try to interview him. I knew his stance.
Most of the other folks I talked to were fine with answering questions. But remember, I'm a local boy and I know these people and they know me. It's not like a reporter from CNN or the New York Times beating on their door or sticking a microphone in their face. I have a natural "in" and often Dahmer would just come up in conversation. Sometimes it was a five-minute conversation, sometimes longer, and maybe there wasn't anything useful said. Maybe I ran into someone at the local grocery store or a tavern or a football game. That was the benefit of working on this so long. It was a very casual process.
In your hometown, is there still a fascination with Dahmer? Does the town draw tourists or curious wanderers based on his horrible crimes?
No, not really. The guy who owns Dahmer's boyhood home tells me that carloads of teenagers occasionally pull into the driveway, especially around Halloween, but there's no big civic wound like there is in Milwaukee. Dahmer only killed one victim in Ohio, after all.
Probably the most chilling scene in the book, for me, was the one in which your friend Mike has given Dahmer a ride home in his car. Based on the timeline, you determine that the body of one of Dahmer's first victims must have been just yards away. Did doing this book give you chills, even though the book itself is clearly not meant to be in that vein?
Particular revelations did, like with the scene you mention. Not chills of excitement. Creepy chills.
For example, an episode that I didn't include in the book came a week after that scene. It's not in the book because I didn't want to venture into the grisly details of Dahmer's spree, but rather end the book right at the moment he kills. This is, after all, the story before the story everyone knows. I was home from college for a long weekend, and got together with my friends to hang out. We gathered at Neal's house, which was roughly 200 yards from the Dahmer home. We all sat around in his basement den and watched these goofy films we made in high school, some featuring us imitating Dahmer's spaz schtick. As we were watching these clips, up the hill, Dahmer was in the crawlspace beneath his back porch carving up the body of his first victim! 200 yards away. We were that close to these monstrous acts.
But I think the spookiest moment was the day the story broke in 1991. I drove down to my parents' house to dig through boxes of my teenage possessions, to see what kind of material I had kept of Dahmer. I remember driving by the high school that day, and some smartass had already painted the school rock in the front lawn to say "Dahmer. Class of 1978." All my stuff was in my folks' basement, and I hadn't cracked open these boxes since I left home for college 13 years previous. Inside them I found all sorts of stuff, specifically drawings I had made of Jeff. Very probably as he was sitting across from me in study hall or the school library! It was the whole thing: the shock of his crimes, reeling from the media hounding me, a dimly lit basement and seeing these things that I had long forgotten. I remember my skin crawling and my hands shaking as I leafed through the boxes. At one point I had to run upstairs and out the back door into the sunlight, just to calm down.
After someone like Dahmer commits horrifying crimes, journalists often go back to the friends, relatives, and neighbors of the perpetrator to get some sense of what he was like and to try to make some sense of it all. As a journalist yourself, what did you learn about Dahmer, while doing this book, that possibly helped you put some perspective on how he turned out the way he did?
You know, I was surprised I didn't learn more than I already knew. Most of what's in the book I either knew or had heard a rumor of, like his mom's mental problems and dog heads on stakes in the woods. Dahmer was secretive, but he wasn't particularly complex. He did the same things, over and over and over. As he did later, when he began to kill.
I don't pretend to have any answers about what made Dahmer do the things he did. Dahmer himself didn't know! And he was analyzed by some of the greatest criminal psychologists in the country, who also couldn't conjure up any answers.
There are no great "lessons" in the book. But it is certainly a cautionary tale, because people like Dahmer keep popping up with depressing regularity; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine, Seung-ho Cho at Virginia Tech, most recently Jared Loughner in Tucson. They were all like Dahmer, kids who fell between the cracks and spun into madness while the adults either didn't notice or, if they did, made ineffective attempts to get them help. And the result of those failures was carnage.
Your artistic style for this book seems different from The City and your other works. Was there a conscientious choice to vary your work here to make this book different?
It's certainly different than the goofy cartoon style of The City. It's a lot more complex making a graphic novel than making a mere comic strip, especially these days when strips are the size of postage stamps. The early stories I did back in the Nineties weren't that different than my strip style, and I think that was a big flaw in those stories. This is a serious book. It requires a more "grown-up" style.
But I don't think it's much different stylistically than my last book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. In fact PR&TP is the book where I really learned how to draw a graphic novel. I couldn't have done My Friend Dahmer without having done PR&TPfirst. It was that big of a leap forward for me as a storyteller. And I went into that book with that very goal in mind. I threw every visual challenge I could think of into PR&TP, didn't shy away from anything, determined to force myself to master the craft. Or as much as I could, anyways. I'm hoping people who read My Friend Dahmer will find their way back to PR&TP, because it's a book I'm very proud of and one that should be read by more people, dang it.
So I think My Friend Dahmer looks like a Derf book. I may or may not stink, but I don't write like anyone else and I don't draw like anyone else.
What, to you, was the most surprising discovery you made about Dahmer while creating this book?
That Dahmer didn't have any friends who were closer to him than me and my friends were. I thought there was one guy who was close to him, but that turned out not to be the case. In fact, that friend cut Dahmer off well before the rest of us did. One of the minor bitches I read in reviews or write-ups is that we really weren't "friends," just acquaintances and schoolmates. Yeah, but we were all Dahmer had! Which is, admittedly, sad. And once high school ended, he was alone for the rest of his life.
Another discovery had to do with the spaz schtick that was his trademark in high school. He'd fake epileptic fits, shake and twitch and bleet like a sheep. I always assumed this was Dahmer imitating his mom's interior decorator, who had cerebral palsy. But when I began to read details of his mom's own nervous fits (she suffered from mental and emotional issues), I noticed that HER fits mirrored Jeff's fake ones. I realized he wasn't imitating the decorator. He was imitating his mom! How screwed up is THAT?
Were there any concerns, from either you or the publisher, about how other classmates are depicted in the book?
Not really. I don't use real names and the characters don't look like their real-life counterparts, outside of myself and the Dahmers, who, after all, are very public figures. Mrs. Dahmer has been dead for 12 years, so that's not an issue at all. And Mr. Dahmer has popped up on Larry King and Dateline NBC and, of course, written his own book. I changed names and faces to skirt that very problem. Besides, there have been dozens of books written about Dahmer that do use real names.
People often talk about wanting to understand serial killers, what motivates them and how they operate. Do you yourself want to know this? Did working on this book change that in any way?
Nah. I'm not a "serial killer fan." The only reason I did this book is because it was an incredible story that fell out of the sky and dropped in my lap. How could I not do it?