Have you read the 2013 Alex Award winner My Friend Dahmer? (P.S. Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18). If you haven’t read this grippingly doleful graphic novel about a bizarre human being who became one of the most notorious criminal names of our time, you should. Well…I can’t really say you should because, well…it’s disturbing. But…can ‘disturbing’ be award winning? I say yes. If you do it the right way, and I think this book accomplishes that in a mega-way.
First off, let’s get the gore out of the way. Who is “Dahmer”? Jeffrey Dahmer was an American serial killer known for particularly gross crimes that (in the inevitably sensational telling of such) included cannibalizing his victims. The title tells you right off who the author is. Derf Backderf was a friend of Jeffrey Dahmer’s in high school. What?! Jeffrey Dahmer was once young and went to a normal high school like everyone else? What?! Jeffrey Dahmer had friends? Not only did he have friends, this graphic novel presents an extremely relatable version of the man many have often thought of as a monster. What makes this book so good is that the author accomplishes creating a sympathetic depiction without asking the reader to feel sorry for the criminal. But…I for one couldn’t help it. What you as a reader have an opportunity to see in this book is the origination of pain and the depths of reaction to that pain. Jeffrey Dahmer inexcusably went off the deep end with his reactions and responses to what he found confusing in this world, but that is also what makes the book so gripping—why did he react this way, and why don’t ‘I’?
On top of the captivating psychology of the book, the illustrations are appropriately stark in black & white, framing the subjects as what David Small (author of Stiches, also very worth reading) refers to as “figures that look like organic robots”. It perfectly depicts the weirdness of Dahmer’s life of binge drinking, surprising attention grabbing, cerebral palsy impersonating, and shy chagrin.
So is it disturbing? Yes. Is the subject approached delicately and insightfully? Yes. Is it worth it? I don’t know. I can tell you that I felt moved and made better for reading it by coming closer to understanding the power of depravity and pain, an understanding I found very worthwhile.
Review by Gigi, CLP-Brookline