First aired on Q (21/03/12)
A coming-of-age tale set in suburban Ohio might not seem like the most dynamic or original topic for a book, let alone a graphic novel. But writer and artist John "Derf" Backderf's latest book, about his high school years alongside a fellow student named Jeffrey, is receiving high acclaim. The book is called My Friend Dahmer, and it's a sensitive and considered account of what it's like to grow up with Jeffrey Dahmer, then an Ohio teen, but later known to the world as a horrific serial killer. The story stops before Dahmer's first murder, and the book focuses on the environment that the author came of age in, and the ways it shaped both him and his disturbed classmate. Backderf is best known for his syndicated comic strip The City and is a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. My Friend Dahmer has already earned the praise of writers including Chuck Klosterman and Robert Crumb. Backderf spoke with Q's Jian Ghomeshi (who described Backderf's memoir as "memorable, moving, and macabre" in a recent tweet) earlier this week.
In the 20 years since Dahmer was caught and convicted of the murder of 17 young Ohio men, Backderf has had plenty of time to reflect on his high school years. He has written and illustrated shorter excerpts from this story over the years, but why is he prepared to tell the full story now? "It was always the plan," he said. "It just took me a lot longer than I thought it would to get to it." The story existed only in sketchbooks for years as Backderf wanted to avoid the media feeding frenzy surrounding the Dahmer case. "It was just too much, so I waited," he said. "It's a very difficult subject to deal with and it took a long time to process it all."
Even years after that media frenzy has died down, there is still a sensationalistic aspect to publishing a memoir about the high school years of a serial killer. But Backderf was always confident that this was his story to tell. "I knew that I wasn't going to make it exploitative in any way," he said. "It's been 21 years since these events were uncovered, and 17 since [Dahmer] died, so if it's exploitation, it's about the worst example of it I've ever seen."
Backderf just wanted to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. "Dahmer wrote the story, not me," he said. "It just fell out of the sky into my lap." So how well did Backderf know Dahmer? "We were school friends," he said. "We weren't close friends, he wasn't part of my inner circle, but from Dahmer's perspective, me and my friends -- a small group of band nerds who for a time called ourselves the 'Dahmer Fan Club' -- were as close friends as he had. He was missing chunks of humanity from a pretty young age, and he just didn't respond to people the way that other people did. He was sort of wandering around the school looking for any interaction he could find, and we sort of adopted him into our circle, more as a mascot than anything."
Backderf has done so much extensive research that he doesn't even view the book strictly as his own memoir. "Believe it or not, I have a degree in journalism, which has been useless up until now," he said. "I looked for corroboration wherever I could find it." He found it through interviews with other former classmates. "I was surprised at how accurate my own memories were," he said. "But I always tried to find another source that would second what I remembered -- so I'm pretty sure it's accurate."