‘Monster’ and the ugly side of human nature
Online platforms are abuzz with praise, criticism, warnings, and accolades-wishing for DAHMER–Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a 10-episode series recently released on Netflix. The near-true depiction of the life and death of the serial killer Dahmer–who murdered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, and dismembered and cannibalized some of them–is produced by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Ian Brennan (Glee).
The subject matter of the series is difficult, of course, based majorly in fact about the historical Dahmer tragedy, which shone a spotlight on racism and police corruption in Milwaukee (which, in some ways, was good). Dahmer represented the pinnacle of evil for many who heard of his gruesome acts of pedophilia, necrophilia, murder, assault, rape, and cannibalism. Besides informing newcomers to the story, the horrorific drama brings insight and redress to the metaphorical cracks that society creates for some of its members to slip through, including minorities, police forces, middle-class parents and, in this case, their son.
Jeffrey Dahmer and I share some common denominators. I spent my formidable youth in Akron, OH, not far from where Dahmer grew up. I, too, was a closeted gay person growing up in an area and time when being gay was unspeakable in America. But my connections to youth, and parents, sexuality, and brain chemistry somehow blended together to create a person very different in behavior. Perhaps that was what first drew my interest in Dahmer.
I remember becoming very interested in his case after a jury convicted him and gave him 16 consecutive life sentences. I read a lot about his background and his upbringing (not far from mine in class and location). The thing about Dahmer that strikes me as different than most other American serial killers is his remorse. Some see the demonstration of remorse to be a tactic, but it never struck me that way. Over the years, he had told people close to him that something was wrong with him, but they swept away that notion. He said repeatedly that he wished to die for his acts; he described his compulsion as overwhelming and–despite his lawyers telling him that he should seek an insanity plea (which didn’t work in court–he insisted he was not insane. He said he was sorry and that he did try to resist his urges, but failed.
Of course, I know what Dahmer did was reprehensible. I am not one who slathers over serial killers, or killing. I don’t write to murderers, or buy their art, or want to date them. But I still feel like Dahmer showed remorse and confusion over what must have been a horrible way to live.
Dahmer’s parents, Lionel and Joyce, and his stepmother Shari, all contributed to the coddling and consequences-free reign of a maniac in the making. Even at times when Dahmer stated that he felt like something was wrong with him, the Dahmer series shows how morally fraught the situation must be for those who raise an eventual predator and killer; they both suffer and delude themselves and others.
Lionel Dahmer loved his son unconditionally. Dahmer’s intentions to help his oldest son, Jeff, by all historical accounts, were good. In one poignant example, the show covers a real-life letter that the elder Dahmer wrote to a judge after his son’s first arrest for sexual assault. Dahmer entreated the judge for treatment for his son’s alcoholism; that effort failed, but not for lack of trying. Perhaps I’m moved more than others by Lionel Dahmer’s efforts. My own father died by suicide, somehow leaving a perpetual trust behind to provide stability for my family. Beyond monetarily, that effort failed, but not for lack of trying.
The victims’ families have stated repeatedly their understandable complaints about the exploitation of their loved ones with a new portrait of the infamous serial killer. But true crime will always win out when it comes to infotainment. The true crime genre engrosses viewers, especially women. It’s not exactly clear why this is, but the demographics bear it out.
So, in effect, shouldn’t the families of those killed and harmed be angry with the public, or at least the insatiable demand for true crime, and not necessarily with Netflix or Ryan Murphy and company? True crime sells and those companies that hawk it wouldn’t be broadcasting/creating the show if demand were low. Whether viewers are drawn to true crime because of vicarious gratitude for escaping such a fate, schadenfreude, or morbid historical curiosity–psychology experts have mentioned them all–it seems, for now, like the behavior of a serial killer, the reasons behind the pattern remain unknown.
There will be more disgust expressed, no doubt, as more people watch the show. And the clamor isn’t just debate, as it might have been in earlier times. Through social media, antipathy may well turn into action, with certain naysayers leading to protests and calls to banning of shows. It makes one wonder: has antipathy towards media representations increased in the social media era?
Also, how does a moral person who enjoys true crime justify that craving alongside feeling that crimes like these are abhorrent? For this fan, the answers are complex and keep swirling after decades of thought.
Dahmer as entertainment
I remember watching one jailhouse interview with Dahmer that really affected me in a way I didn’t foresee. While the journalist asked Dahmer questions, she gave the impression that she felt some sympathy for him. And the strategy worked: he opened up more than one might expect. But during every break, she addressed the TV viewer by basically becoming a different person–one who deemed Dahmer a monster and almost ridiculing him for falling for her interview ploy. What was going on there? Why did she feel the need to change her demeanor so? Why do I feel compassion for someone who did such horrible things?
The custom of masking one’s authentic self to tease out a “good” story is shameful. But certainly not uncommon; police detectives use the strategy routinely.
Later in the ‘90s, I met a forensic psychology major from Kansas. He made me feel better about my interest in Dahmer. He believed that we should study serial killers to see what brain patterns we can identify. Today, with the advances in genealogy and genetic choice technology, the kind of discovery science he was pursuing is, or soon will be, possible. Ironically, as depicted in the show, the real Lionel refused to allow his son’s brain to be sent for forensic examination, one last example of his adherence to hiding and deflecting blame.
Until then, we should think deeply about how people like Dahmer escape our notice. Not only was he able to get away with things because he was a white, good-looking man, but most of us turn away from the unpleasant behaviors we may witness, all the while craving it in media. So, the labels we assign to others, and to ourselves, are blurry. We need to admit that. Most viewers who lap up true crime shows themselves could be called good, bad, and ugly by others, too.