If you grew up on the lower rungs of the white middle class in the Rust Belt of the second half of the twentieth century, you knew a guy like Jeffrey Dahmer. He went to high school with your older brother—maybe he was on the bowling team; maybe the only class he passed was shop—or he lived down the street with his great-aunt, or he worked the late shift at the 7-Eleven. He was a beige, recessive spectre who didn’t blend into his surroundings so much as he blended into himself; his occasional bouts of attention-seeking revealed either a profound misunderstanding of social cues or a trollish disregard for them. Evan Peters’s performance as the serial killer in Netflix’s “Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is technically precise; those almost imperceptible and extremely regional tcks of breath that punctuate the ends of Dahmer’s sentences, for instance, are pure distilled Lake Erie. But beyond the exactitude of gesture, dialect, and gait is a sense of strange and paradoxical familiarity: the slow realization that “that guy” somehow became that guy.
After Netflix released the ten-part miniseries “Dahmer,” on September 21st, it became far and away the streaming service’s most-watched title of the week and its biggest-ever series début, despite receiving little advance marketing. Subscribers logged nearly two hundred million hours watching the program in its first week of release—more than three times as many hours as Netflix’s next most popular series right now. It’s hardly surprising that a Ryan Murphy production, especially one that promises terror and gore, would attract a blockbuster audience. But so much content has already been wrung from Dahmer’s life and crimes, including multiple feature-length films, documentaries, and memoirs, that a certain fatigue should have settled in by now.
Murphy’s “Dahmer” does attempt to widen the sociological frame. Fourteen of Dahmer’s seventeen 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 level of law enforcement—enabled Dahmer to continue to kill for so long. Dahmer’s Black neighbor, Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash), repeatedly and fruitlessly attempts to alert authorities to the stench and bizarre noises emanating from Dahmer’s apartment. The sixth installment of the series, “Silenced,” directed by Paris Barclay, takes a formally inventive turn in centering the life and family of one of Dahmer’s victims, Tony Hughes, who was Black and deaf; the episode privileges Hughes’s perspective by falling almost entirely silent for long stretches as Hughes and his friends happily banter and trash-talk in American Sign Language. And, while the series takes plenty of liberties with the facts of Dahmer’s life, one of its most shocking scenes is virtually a transcript of a real event: the night in May, 1991, two months before Dahmer was finally apprehended, when Milwaukee police officers literally handed an escaped fourteen-year-old victim back to Dahmer, over the protests of the three Black women who had summoned the police in the first place—Cleveland, her daughter, and her niece—and despite the fact that the boy, a child of Lao immigrants, was naked, bleeding, and incoherent.
The sustained, decades-long interest in Jeffrey Dahmer, of course, is mostly and simply due to the ghastly nature of his crimes, which included necrophilia, cannibalism, and horrendous cranial experiments performed on his unconscious victims. A significant share of the social-media response to “Dahmer” has been condemnatory, with relatives of victims speaking to what they see, understandably, as the inherently exploitative nature of the project. It’s quite possible that “Dahmer”—despite brilliant performances from Nash, Peters, and the great Richard Jenkins as Dahmer’s father, Lionel—has no real justification for its own existence. If it does, it might lie in the stubborn but elusive promise underlying most true crime: that the perpetrator and his acts can be, to some extent, “explained.”
The childhoods of most mass murderers are always scrutinized for such explanation, and they usually provide grim reading. Some diabolical permutation of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and unresolved injury or illness almost always seems to provide the wiring for the detonations to come. One can ask, “Who made you this way?,” and the answer will often point to a specific person. (That specific person was likely “made that way” by someone else.) With Dahmer, there’s no answer—and this, too, is key to the unending fascination with him.
Dahmer grew up mostly around Akron, Ohio, and committed most of his crimes in Milwaukee. (He was murdered by a fellow prison inmate, in 1994.) He was the product of a troubled but fairly ordinary nuclear family, as described by Dahmer himself; by Lionel, in the memoir “A Father’s Story”; and by his childhood friend John Backderf, in the graphic memoir “My Friend Dahmer.” Dahmer’s mother, Joyce (played by Penelope Ann Miller in the miniseries), took a lot of tranquilizers during her pregnancy and may have suffered from prenatal and postpartum depression. Lionel, a chemist, worked long hours. Lionel and Joyce fought often and eventually divorced. These are all rather common miseries. The adolescent Dahmer of his father’s memoir and of Backderf’s—aimless, alienated, socially hopeless—is not galaxies removed from, say, the adolescent Kurt Cobain as depicted in the documentary “Montage of Heck.” (Oddly, in both the Netflix series and “A Father’s Story,” Lionel acknowledges and then turns away from a plausible trip wire. After his son underwent a hernia operation around the age of four, his demeanor radically changed; the joyous, energetic boy slowed down, flattened out, and disengaged. Brain injury under general anesthesia is rare but not unheard-of, certainly not for a very young child in a hospital of the nineteen-sixties.)
The miniseries struggles with this relative lack of explanatory evidence for Dahmer’s depravity, and so it comes up with its own, sticking close to home. It dials up the crazy on Joyce. Lionel and his boy drive around looking for roadkill to dissect in the garage, a demented form of father-son bonding that never actually happened (it was not until Dahmer’s murder trial that Lionel learned the full extent of his son’s youthful fixation on dead animals). Lionel alleges that Joyce never held their infant son—which could be a game-over moment, given all we now know about how early neglect can asphyxiate the brain’s receptors for human connection and empathy. But Lionel, who never shied from criticizing Joyce’s parenting, made no such claim in “A Father’s Story” or elsewhere, and, in any case, such an accusation could never be proven. (Joyce Dahmer died in 2000.)
“A Father’s Story” is, in part, a methodical self-interrogation, in which Lionel takes himself to task for the effects his terrible marriage had on his son and the workaholism that put further distance between them. Lionel even probes his own childhood, detailing an explosive-making phase and an episode in which he attempted to hypnotize a classmate, for clues to how his own controlling tendencies may have been, by some poisonous alchemy, passed down to his son. Although “Dahmer” portrays the book as something of a vanity project, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and landed the elder Dahmer spots on “Oprah” and “Dateline”; on the latter program, father and son were interviewed side by side. Lionel Dahmer eventually became a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God public figure, a rare and disquieting exception to the violent, abusive fathers that populate so many serial killers’ biographies. (When I recently asked a few friends what they remembered of the Dahmer case, two of them remarked, unprompted, that they recalled how nice his father was.) The privilege of Lionel’s race and gender undoubtedly helped him earn this reception. His comportment did, too: he was disarmingly unpolished—his speech could be halting, and he wore a god-awful toupee—but he was also calm and analytical, neither defensive nor beseeching. Seventeen times, his son had summoned every parent’s worst nightmare, and he in turn lived out his own parental nightmare dutifully and with little complaint, showing unconditional love under the most appalling and unbelievable of circumstances.
Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote the Dahmer roman à clef “Zombie,” was an admirer of “A Father’s Story,” although she was amused at times by its heuristics: “Lionel Dahmer’s ‘confession’ and his stringent self-censure are so disproportionate to his son’s pathology as to seem bleakly and unintentionally comic, like blaming oneself for having slammed a door and precipitating an earthquake.” Put another way, he asked, “Who made you this way?,” and provided what he saw as a logical answer. “Dahmer” picks up this thread in one of its most effective scenes, when Lionel takes his son by the shoulders, standing face to face with him, moments before he is escorted to prison. “I have been looking everywhere to find out who was responsible for all this, blaming everybody except myself,” Lionel says. “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. It makes a certain kind of sense. You made a person, and the person is this way. You’ve looked at him and loved him since the day he was born. You’ve been looking at him so long you start to see yourself looking back. ♦