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Why does a Jeffrey Dahmer happen? How does a man become a serial killer, necrophiliac, cannibal and psychopath? Very few convincing answers are forthcoming, despite a spate of books that propose to understand the problem.
Many of the theories would have you believe that the answers can always be found in childhood abuse, bad parenting, head trauma, fetal alcoholism and drug addiction. Perhaps in some cases, these are contributing factors, but not for Jeffrey Dahmer.
His father, Lionel Dahmer, wrote a very sad and poignant book called A Father's Story which explores the very common phenomenon of a parents trying desperately to give their child a good upbringing and discovering to their horror that their child has built a high wall around himself from which their influence is progressively shut out. While fortunately, most parents do not have a Jeffrey Dahmer to raise, too many have seen their children succumb to drugs, alcohol, crime despite their very best and, often frantic, efforts to intervene.
"It is a portrayal of parental dread... the terrible sense that your child has slipped beyond your grasp, that your little boy is spinning in the void, swirling in the maelstrom, lost, lost, lost."
Lionel seems to be fairly straightforward in recognising the negative influences in Jeff's life. No family is perfect. Jeff's mother had various physical ailments and appeared to be high strung, coming from a background in which her father's alcoholism deeply affected her life.
Lionel, a chemist who went on to get his Ph.D., stayed at work more often than he should to avoid
Turmoil on the home front. Eventually, the marriage dissolved in divorce when Jeff was eighteen.
However, none of this commonplace domestic discord accounts for serial murder, necrophilia, etc.
Jeff Dahmer was born in Milwaukee on May 21, 1960, to Lionel and Joyce Dahmer. He was a child
who was wanted and adored, in spite of the difficulties of Joyce's pregnancy. He was a normal,
healthy child whose birth was the occasion of great joy. As a tot, he was a happy bubbly youngster
who loved stuffed bunnies, wooden blocks, etc. He also had a dog-named Frisky, his much loved
Despite a greater number than usual of ear and throat infections, Jeff developed into a happy
little boy. His father recalled the day that they released back into the wild a bird that the
three of them had nursed back to health from an injury: "I cradled the bird in my cupped
hand, lifted it into the air, then opened my hand and let it go. All of us felt a wonderful
delight. Jeff's eyes were wide and gleaming. It may have been the single, happiest moment
of his life." The family had moved to Iowa where Lionel was working on his Ph.D. at Iowa
When Jeff was four, his father swept out from under their house the remains of some small animals that had been killed by civets. As his father gathered the tiny animal bones, Jeff seemed "oddly thrilled by the sound they made. His small hands dug deep into the pile of bones. I can no longer view it simply as a childish episode, a passing fascination. This same sense of something dark and shadowy, of a malicious force growing in my son, now colours almost every memory."
At the age of six, he was found to be suffering from a double hernia and needed surgery to correct the problem. He never seemed to recover his ebullience and buoyancy. "He seemed smaller, somehow more vulnerable...he grew more inward, sitting quietly for long periods, hardly stirring, his face oddly motionless."
In 1966, Lionel had completed his graduate work in Iowa and got a job as a research chemist in Akron, Ohio. Joyce was pregnant with their second son David by that time Jeff was in the first grade and "a strange fear had begun to creep into his personality, a dread of others that was combined with a general lack of self-confidence. He was developing a reluctance to change, a need to feel the assurance of familiar places. The prospect of going to school frightened him. The little boy who'd once seemed so happy and self-assured had been replaced by a different person, now deeply shy, distant, nearly uncommunicative."
Lionel suspected that the move from Iowa to Ohio was the causative factor and Jeff's behaviour was a normal reaction to being uprooted from familiar settings and placed into entirely new ones. Lionel, too, had suffered from shyness, introversion and insecurity as a child and had learned to overcome these problems. He figured his son would learn to overcome them too. What he didn't realise was that Jeff's boyhood condition was far graver than his and that "Jeff had begun to suffer from near isolation."
In April of 1967, they bought a new house. Jeff seemed to adjust better to this move and
developed a close friendship with a boy named Lee. He was also very fond of one of his teachers
and took her a bowl of tadpoles he had caught. Later, Jeff found out that the teacher had given
the tadpoles to his friend Lee. Jeff sneaked into Lee's garage and killed all the tadpoles with
Things did not get better with time, according to his father. "His posture, and the general way in
which he carried himself, changed radically between his tenth and fifteenth years. The loose-limbed
boy disappeared, and was replaced by a strangely rigid and inflexible figure.
He looked tense, his body very straight. He grew increasingly shy during this time and when approached by other people, he would become very tense. More and more, he remained at home, alone in his room or staring at television. His face was often blank, and he gave the more or less permanent impression of someone who could do nothing but mope around, purposeless and disengaged.
He had one friend, who drifted apart from him at age fifteen. Lionel found out at Jeff's trial that during this period, Jeff would ride around with plastic garbage bags and collect the remains of animals for his own private cemetery. "He would strip the flesh from the bodies of these putrescent road kills and even mount a dog's head on a stake." There has been the suggestion that Jeff tortured animals, but that is unlikely. He enjoyed a dog and cat as pets in his childhood and kept pet fish as an adult. His fascination was with dead creatures. Jeff, age 14, swimming
Jeff grew more passive and isolated -- "his conversation narrowing to the practice of answering questions with barely audible one-word responses. He was drifting into a nightmare world of unimaginable fantasies. In coming years those fantasies would begin to overwhelm him. The dead in their stillness would become the primary object of his growing sexual desire. His inability to speak about such strange and unsetting notions would sever his connections to the world outside himself."
While other boys pursued careers, education, the creation of homes and families, Jeff was completely unmotivated. "He must have come to view himself as utterly outside the human community, outside all that was normal and acceptable, outside all that could be admitted to another human being." One would expect that a person harbouring the fantasies of death and dismemberment that swirled around in Jeffrey Dahmer's head as a teenager would show some outer signs of mental illness. But Jeff just became more isolated and uncommunicative. Far from rebelling, he never argued with his parents because nothing seemed to matter to him.
In high school, Jeff had average grades and participated in a few activities: he played tennis and
worked on the school newspaper. However, his classmates considered him a loner and an
alcoholic, who brought liquor into the classroom. He actually had a prom date, who he later invited
to his parents' house for a seance.
His classmates remember a stunt he pulled when he sneaked into the yearbook photo of the
members of the National Honour Society. The yearbook staff caught the prank in time and blacked
out Jeff's picture.
As Jeff became more passive, the passions between Lionel and Joyce increased, culminating in divorce when Jeff was almost eighteen. A custody battle began over David. Some months later, Lionel remarried. Whatever Lionel missed about Jeff's alcoholism, his new wife Shari did not.
Lionel and Shari convinced him to try the idea of college. In the fall of 1978, they drove him to Ohio State University, but he stayed drunk the whole semester and flunked out. By this time, his drinking problem was well understood, but he would not seek help for it. Lionel read him the rules: either Jeff had to get a job or join the Army. When Jeff refused to get a job and stayed drunk most of the time, his father drove him down to the recruiting office to join the armed forces in January of 1979.
From that time until Jeff's final arrest in 1991, life was a rollercoaster for Lionel and his wife. Jeff would appear to be doing well and then it was clear that he wasn't. He seemed to enjoy the Army, but then he was discharged early for habitual drunkenness. He then moved in with his grandmother and got a job, but then he was arrested for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. The offences got worse as his alcoholism and emotional problems intensified. Indecent exposure, then child molesting and finally, the most horrible discovery of all when the police arrested him for multiple murders. Each time, Lionel stood by him, paid for the lawyer, urged him to seek treatment and crossed his fingers that Jeff would improve. Each time, his hopes were dashed by some fresh and more serious difficulty. Lionel began to understand that his son was completely beyond his reach.
As early as 1989, when Jeff was facing sentencing for child molestation, Lionel felt that the his "son would never be more than he seemed to be -- a liar, an alcoholic, a thief, an exhibitionist, a molester of children. I could not imagine how he had become such a ruined soul...For the first time, I no longer believed that my efforts and resources alone would be enough to save my son. There was something missing in Jeff...We call it a "conscience"...that had either died or had never been alive in the first place."
Dr. James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at North-eastern University in Boston and recognised expert on serial killers claims, "there was nothing we could do to predict this [tragedy] ahead of time, no matter how bizarre the behaviour". He also noted that while Jeffrey was devastated when his mother left him, it would be wrong to blame his parents for what has had become. "Ever since Sigmund Freud, we blame everything bad that kids do on their parents...The culprit was Dahmer. Not his father, not his family, not the police."
Fox believes that Dahmer was an unusual serial killer. "He fit the stereotype of someone who really is out of control and being controlled by his fantasies. The difference is that most serial killers stop once the victim dies. Everything is leading up to that. They tie them up; they like to her them scream and beg for their lives. It makes the killer feel great, superior, powerful, dominant...In Dahmer's case, everything is post-mortem...all of his 'fun' began after the victims died...He led a rich fantasy life that focused on having complete control over people...That fantasy life, mixed with hatred, perhaps hatred of himself which is being projected into his victims. If he at all felt uncomfortable about his own sexual orientation, it is very easy to see it projected into these victims and punishing them indirectly to punish himself."
Serial murder, psychopathology, necrophilia, cannibalism -- none of these phenomena is unique to modern times. The explanation of these phenomena go in and out of fashion. Today, genetics is gaining ground over behaviorism in explaining why people become criminals. In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, it may be the only explanation.