In New Film, 'My Friend Dahmer' Author Portrays Serial Killer As Sympathetic Outcast

Originally published on November 12, 2017 6:16 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's that second story we promised you. There's a new movie out this weekend, and it's a biopic with an interesting backstory of its own. Remember the serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer? Between 1978 and 1991, he murdered 17 people in grotesque ways. While the movie "My Friend Dahmer" opens this weekend, it's a fictional retelling of Dahmer's high-school years based on the international bestseller, a graphic novel of the same name by John Backderf. As the title suggests, he actually did know Dahmer in high school in Ohio. And after the killings, he took it upon himself to learn more about Dahmer's background. David C. Barnett of member station WCPN ideastream in Cleveland tells us more.

JOHN BACKDERF: I just have hundreds of these things.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: Cartoonist John Backderf flips through sketches of Jeffrey Dahmer...

BACKDERF: Now, this is actually the genesis of the book.

BARNETT: ...Sketches that Backderf started drawing in 1975, when he and Dahmer were both students at Revere High School in suburban Akron.

BACKDERF: He was - blond hair. He had this kind of odd halting way of talking. And he just didn't look comfortable in the world.

BARNETT: Backderf says Dahmer started to attract a small following for his subversive antics.

BACKDERF: You know, you'd be sitting in the library. And suddenly, the door would creak open and he'd suddenly bleat out like a sheep and then slam the door and run away.

BARNETT: Some of that is captured in Backderf's 2012 graphic novel, "My Friend Dahmer," and in the new film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY FRIEND DAHMER")

ROSS LYNCH: (As Jeffrey Dahmer, imitating sheep)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Who did that?

BARNETT: Dahmer also pretended to have epileptic fits in the school hallways. All of this led to the formation of the Dahmer fan club. John Backderf was a member, so was Mike Kukral role.

MIKE KUKRAL: You just look at him and think either, man, that kid's weird or he's funny or, what's up with him? You just didn't know.

BARNETT: But back home, Dahmer's parents fought often. And when Backderf went back to do research, he learned that Joyce Dahmer suffered from depression and was addicted to pills.

BACKDERF: Later I found out that his mom was also suffering from nervous episodes at home. And she would have seizures where she would shake and twitch until she exhausted herself essentially. So really he was imitating his mom at school. And how screwed up is that?

BARNETT: Backderf also learned that Dahmer started drinking at the age of 14. His research began in earnest in the summer of 1991.

BACKDERF: I was at home. And my wife was at that time a reporter for the Akron paper. And she called me at home and said, this guy you went to school with has killed all these people in Milwaukee and apparently ate some of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There are 11 individuals parts thereof that were recovered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have also in addition through our investigation determined that the suspect may well have been involved in at least 17 homicides.

BARNETT: A newspaper story caught Mike Kukral's attention. He says he read it over and over.

KUKRAL: I didn't sleep for about two weeks, which has never ever happened to me before or since. And when I did sleep for short periods of time, I would have dreams of Jeff Dahmer in them. And that's pretty horrific.

BARNETT: About a week after the story broke, Mike Kukral and John Backderf got together with another friend to try and process the news. Backderf figures he filled 10 pages with new notes and sketches based on those conversations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARC MEYERS: Roll sound please. Rolling sound, guys. Quiet.

BARNETT: A film crew came to the Akron area last year and shot in some of the same locations where the story first took place. Director Marc Meyers says he made a conscious effort to get as close to the book as he could.

MEYERS: I started tearing apart a copy of the graphic novel and using those visuals as like a collage to storyboard my way through the entire book.

BARNETT: When "My Friend Dahmer" was published five years ago, some critics charged that John Backderf was trying to make a sympathetic character out of a heinous criminal. Now Marc Meyers is preparing to suffer the same flak.

MEYERS: This story is about understanding in a much more compassionate or empathetic way a troubled kid's life before he became a monster to maybe help understand people that have sort of fallen by the wayside, that have become outliers. How did they get there?

BARNETT: Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death in a Wisconsin prison bathroom in 1994 by a fellow inmate.

BACKDERF: You know, I was surprisingly upset by it.

BARNETT: John Backderf.

BACKDERF: You know, I didn't feel sorry for Jeffrey Dahmer the monster. But Jeff Dahmer, the kid who was my friend, yeah, you know, you had a little bit of mourning there, yeah. And then you felt guilty about, well, why would I care?

BARNETT: But John Backderf thinks there's plenty of guilt to go around in the story of the kid who looked like he wasn't comfortable in the world.

BACKDERF: This guy reeked of booze all day long. And all the kids knew exactly what Dahmer was doing, but I think the adults just didn't want to be bothered. You know, another year, he'll be out of our hair and he's somebody else's problem. Well, unfortunately, he was somebody else's problem.

BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.