Here's the problem with True Crime.
14 November 2012
There's just no way to say to anyone: "Hey, I just read this unbelievably good book about Jeffrey Dahmer."* The book could indeed be very good. But once you insert "Jeffrey Dahmer" into any sentence, let's face it, the gut reaction "ick factor" is going to scare a lot of people away.
by Derf Backderf
So, I'm well aware of what you might think of me when I say this: I just read this unbelievably good book about Jeffrey Dahmer.
The book in question is Derf Backderf's graphic novel/memoir/true crime title My Friend Dahmer. Backderf attended high school in Ohio with Dahmer in the 1970s, and knew him as a strange guy who went from flying way under the radar to adopting a strange persona based on speech and movement tics (some thought he was imitating a local interior decorator, a businessman who suffered from cerebral palsy, while later it was thought he was perhaps imitating his mother, who suffered from seizures). Backderf and his friends even were part of something they called the Dahmer Fan Club, in which they egged him on while he did his persona, and who sneaked him into a variety of club and activity (to which he did not belong) photos from the yearbook. So this is not just some, "Hey, I went to the same high school as Dahmer, how weird is that" anecdotal memoir.
It is a memoir, so of course it is told from Backderf's point of view, and for many of the scenes portraying Dahmer's inner and personal life he had to depend on other sources, like later confessions of and interviews with Dahmer. But it's done very well, and the fact that it is in graphic novel format makes it all the more disturbing. In a way it's the best possible format--it allows the story to be read quickly, so you don't have to spend a lot of time in the story**, and it also sets the right tone. Dahmer's huge glasses, for instance, are often drawn throughout so they obscure the reader's view of his eyes.
Like most good True Crime, it'll make you think. Particularly when you learn things like Dahmer actually talked his way into a guided tour of Vice President Mondale's office for him and his friends when they were on a school trip to Washington, D.C. Dahmer and Walter Mondale in the same room: it boggles the mind.
*Unless that someone is my brother. I knew he had read Lionel Dahmer's strange but compelling memoir A Father's Story, so I knew we could discuss it.
**I think this is a large part of True Crime's appeal, actually. It often is very quickly paced, which is good, so you don't have to live with the stories too long.