Reader Response: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

This post is a reader’s response to a book read for the 2013 Hub Reading Challenge.

MyFriendDahmerIn my check-in posts for this year’s Hub Reading Challenge, I found myself repeatedly stating that I had read something I would not otherwise have picked up and was glad I did. One of the best things about the Challenge is how it encourages me to read outside my comfort zone. Taking the risk to read something you normally wouldn’t is easier when you know that a group of professionals you trust has pronounced it an excellent book.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf is the story of Jeffrey Dahmer before he became a killer. It is the story of a troubled young man told through the eyes of his junior high and high school classmates. It is a chilling tale of a teen in crisis who never received the help he needed. And it is a book that was never going to make it to my To Read pile for two reasons: I don’t self-select graphic novels because I’m not confident about choosing them, and, as a recovering horror-phobe, I usually avoid creepy stories. But this title was on not one, not two, but three lists for the Challenge. Maybe I really did need to read this book. Boy, am I glad I did.

This is a horrifying book, but not in the way I expected. It was scary to see the factors that contributed to creating the warped adult Dahmer became. So many teens and tweens have similar experiences: dysfunctional families, isolation, bullying. Any teen librarian can think of some teen they have encountered who is in a bad situation. We like to think that these kids get help, that the cycle of neglect Dahmer experienced no longer happens. But how many kids still fall through the cracks? Ultimately, Dahmer was responsible for the crimes he committed. But how responsible were the adults in his life? Could one of them have intervened and saved him from becoming such a monster? I never expected it to happen, but Jeffrey Dahmer actually had my sympathy right up to the point where he kidnapped his first victim and acted out his twisted fantasies.

Usually monsters in books are fiction. We can be scared in the safety of knowing that it isn’t real. The horror in reading about someone like Jeffrey Dahmer is much stronger because it is a true story. But far greater for me than the fear of becoming a victim of someone like Dahmer is the fear of being one of those adults who lets down the teen in crisis. Maybe Dahmer would still have become a killer even if someone had intervened. We’ll never know. What we do know is that many people missed opportunities to try to make a difference. How I do my job on a daily basis will be different because I read this book. For me, the real horror would be knowing that I never made the effort to help.

— Angela Critics