First off, let me just say that I couldn't put this book down. It was both fascinating and disturbing and fulfilled that strange curiosity that comes up whenever you read an account of someone so disturbed that they engage in the most heinous acts imaginable. How could they be that way? What must go wrong inside of them to allow them to do such things? And what were they like as teenagers? Well, that last question may not be typical, and it was only after reading the premise of the book that I really thought about it. Would there be signs at that age? What is the reaction of people close to such psychopaths to learn about the reality that lies behind the mask of sanity?
Well, in that department, My Friend Dahmer delivers. There's plenty an anecdote to inspire nervous laughter, wide-eyed disbelief, and stunned disappointment at all the missed opportunities that might have prevented such a despicable spree of murder. Dahmer's antics in high school were odd, to say the least, and betrayed very early on a remarkable lack of empathy and capacity for manipulation, as well as the growth of the necrophiliac desires that would prompt his many murders.
But I think it's in Dahmer's capacity for manipulation that the book suffers. It seems to me that even with the benefit of hindsight, Backderf might be buy into Dahmer's story of himself a tad too much. Backderf (but he's not the only one) presents what he believes to be the motivation and psychological history that led to the man Dahmer became: a broken home, absent parents, strange and shameful desires. It's a story that inspires pity (but not necessarily compassion, as Backderf himself writes). But is it the truth? After all the reading I've done on psychopathy and character disorders, I highly doubt it. The only 'witness' we have for what was really going on in Dahmer's mind during all these events is Dahmer himself, and psychopaths are experts at presenting themselves in a sympathetic light, no matter what degree of depravity they have sunk to. It's called impression management and it has one goal: to convince the person listening that the psychopath really isn't that different from you or me. It's a cover story to keep someone from reaching the conclusion that in reality, this person is a human predator, with absolutely no conscience or remorse. If you watch the clips of interviews with Dahmer before he was murdered in prison, you can see it in action: the way Dahmer uses the interviewer's questions and subtle suggestions to both admit what he can't reasonably deny, but frame it in such a way that it's not quite as bad as all that. He leaves the listener to fill int he blanks.
This problem about the way we interpret the words of psychopaths, and all the other manipulation techniques they use, is discussed at length in George Simon's book Character Disturbance: the phenomenon of our age, which I'll be reviewing soon. So, if you want a bit more insight into the minds of people like Dahmer, read that one. It makes a good companion to My Friend Dahmer, which despite its flaws, was still pretty damn good.