If you grew up in the lower rungs of the white middle class in the Rust Belt in the second half of the twentieth century, you knew a man like Jeffrey Dahmer. He went to the same school as your older brother—maybe he’s on the bowling team; maybe the only class she skipped was the shop—or she lived down the street with her great-aunt, or she worked the night shift at 7-Eleven. She is a beige, recessive ghost who doesn’t blend into her surroundings as she blends into herself; His attention-seeking occasionally reveals deep misunderstandings about social cues or the troll’s neglect of them. Evan Peters’ appearance as a serial killer in Netflix’s “Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is technically spot-on; which is almost invisible and very regional tckThe breath that marks the end of Dahmer’s sentence, for example, is a pure Lake Erie flute. But beyond the preciseness of gestures, dialect, and gait is a strange and paradoxical sense of familiarity: the slow realization that “that person” has somehow become that person.
After Netflix released the ten-part miniseries “Dahmer,” on September 21, it became the streaming service’s most-watched title of the week and its biggest series debut, despite receiving little continued marketing. Subscribers logged nearly two hundred million hours of viewing the program in its first week of release—more than three times more than the next most popular Netflix series. It’s no surprise that Ryan Murphy’s productions, especially those that promise terror and horror, will attract blockbuster audiences. But so much content has been squeezed out of Dahmer’s life and crimes, including several feature-length films, documentaries, and memoirs, that it should be starting to feel tired by now.
“Dahmer” Murphy did seek to broaden the sociological framework. Fourteen of the seventeen Dahmer 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—are allowed Dahmer to continue killing sake for so long. Dahmer’s Black neighbor, Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash), repeatedly and in vain tries to alert the authorities to the stench and strange noises emanating from Dahmer’s apartment. The sixth installment of the series, “Silenced,” directed by Paris Barclay, takes an inventive formal turn in centering the life and family of one of Dahmer’s victims, Tony Hughes, who is Black and deaf; this episode brings out Hughes’ perspective by being almost silent for a long time as Hughes and his friends happily joke and babble in American Sign Language. And, while the series takes a lot of liberties with the facts of Dahmer’s life, one of the most shocking scenes is actually a transcript of a true event: the night in May 1991, two months before Dahmer was finally arrested, when Milwaukee police officers literally handed over the victim on the run. The fourteen-year-old self returned to Dahmer, over the protests of the three black women who had called the police in the first place—Cleveland, her daughter, and her niece—and despite the fact that the boy, a child of Laotian immigrants, was naked, bloody, and unclear.
Jeffrey Dahmer’s decades-long fascination was, of course, largely and only because of the grisly nature of his crimes, including necrophilia, cannibalism, and gruesome skull experiments performed on his unconscious victims. Much of the social media response to “Dahmer” has been condemnation, with relatives of the victims speaking of what they see, understandably, as the inherent exploitative nature of the project. It’s entirely possible that “Dahmer”—despite the brilliant performances of Nash, Peters, and the great Richard Jenkins as Dahmer’s father Lionel—had no real justification for his own existence. If so, it may lie in the stubborn but elusive promise that underlies most true crimes: that the perpetrator and his actions can, to some extent, be “explained.”
The childhoods of most mass murderers have always been scrutinized for such explanations, and they usually provide grim reading. Some ruthless permutations of abuse, neglect, neglect, and unresolved injury or illness almost always seem to provide the wires for the impending explosion. A person can ask, “Who made you like this?”, and the answer often points to a specific person. (That particular person was most likely “made that way” by someone else.) With Dahmer, there’s no answer—and that’s also the key to his endless attraction to him.
Dahmer grew up mostly around Akron, Ohio, and committed most of his crimes in Milwaukee. (He was murdered by a fellow inmate, in 1994.) He was the product of a troubled but fairly ordinary nuclear family, as Dahmer himself explains; by Lionel, in the memoirs”A Father’s Story”; and by his childhood friend John Backderf, in the graphic memoir “My best friend Dahmer.” Dahmer’s mother, Joyce (played by Penelope Ann Miller in the miniseries), took a lot of sedatives during her pregnancy and may suffer from prenatal and postpartum depression. Lionel, a chemist, works long hours. Lionel and Joyce often quarreled and eventually divorced. These are all rather common woes. The teenage Dahmer from his father’s and Backderf’s memoirs—goalless, alienated, without social expectations—isn’t a galaxy removed from, say, teenager Kurt Cobain as depicted in the documentary “Montage of Heck.” (Surprisingly, in both the Netflix series and “A Father’s Story,” Lionel admits and then turns away from the reasonable travel cable. After his son underwent hernia surgery around the age of four, his demeanor changed radically; the cheerful and energetic boy slowed down. , flattened, and detached. Brain injury under general anesthesia is rare but unheard of, certainly not for a very young child in a sixties hospital.)
The miniseries struggles with a lack of explanatory evidence for Dahmer’s depravity, and thus presents itself, sticking in the house. It’s calling the madman in Joyce. Lionel and his son go around looking for a roadkill to dissect in the garage, a form of crazy father-son bond that never really happened (it wasn’t until Dahmer’s murder trial that Lionel fully learned his son’s young fixation on dead animals). Lionel alleges that Joyce never held their baby boy—which could be a game moment, given all we know now about how early neglect can strangle the brain’s receptors for human connection and empathy. But Lionel, who has never shied away from criticizing Joyce’s upbringing, makes no such claims in “A Father’s Story” or elsewhere, and, however, such accusations can never be substantiated. (Joyce Dahmer died in 2000.)
“A Father’s Story”, in part, is a methodical self-interrogation, in which Lionel takes himself to task for the horrific effects his marriage has on his son and the workaholics that put further distance between them. Lionel even delved into his own childhood, detailing explosive build phases and episodes in which he attempted to hypnotize his classmates, for clues as to how his own controlling tendencies, by some poisonous alchemy, were passed on to his son. Although “Dahmer” described the book as something of a swagger project, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and landed the older Dahmer spot on “Oprah” and “Dateline”; in the last program, father and son were interviewed side by side. Lionel Dahmer finally became there-but-for-God’s grace a public figure, a rare and disquieting exception to the violent and abusive fathers who fill so many serial killer biographies. (When I recently asked a few friends what they remembered about the Dahmer case, two of them commented, without being asked, that they remembered how kind his father was.) Lionel’s racial and gender idiosyncrasies have undoubtedly helped him earn this acceptance. So was his demeanor: he was very disrespectful—his speech could stop, and he wore a hideous wig—but he was also calm and analytical, not defensive or pleading. Seventeen times, his son had summoned every parent’s worst nightmare, and he in turn lived his parent’s nightmare obediently and with few complaints, showing unconditional love under the most terrible and unbelievable circumstances.
Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote the Dahmer clef romance “Zombiesis a admirer from “A Father’s Story,” though he’s occasionally amused by his heuristics: “Lionel Dahmer’s ‘confessions’ and his harsh self-criticism are so disproportionate to his son’s pathology that they seem grim and comically unintentional, like blaming himself for slamming doors. and trigger earthquakes.” In other words, he asks “Who made you like this?,” and gives what he sees as a logical answer.“Dahmer” takes this thread in one of the most effective scenes, when Lionel holds his son, standing face to face with him. , moments before he was herded into prison. “I’ve been looking everywhere to find out who’s responsible for all this, blaming everyone but myself,” Lionel said. “And it’s me. I’m the one to blame. . … Listen to me. It’s me. I did this to you.”
And he’s not wrong, not exactly. That makes sense. You make someone, and that person is like this. You have looked up to him and loved him since he was born. You’ve been looking at him for so long you start to see yourself looking back.