NPR: The Suburban Akron High School Kid Before He Became a Monster

Director Marc Meyers shot "My Friend Dahmer" on location in Northeast Ohio [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
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A film about the suburban Akron origins of one of America’s most notorious serial killers opens this weekend in the place where the story started.  Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 people in grotesque ways.  But, before he became the monster, he was a local high school kid.   That story was told in the internationally best-selling graphic novel “My Friend Dahmer”.  The new movie stays true to its source material.

Cartoonist John Backderf flips through dozens of sketches of Jeffrey Dahmer

"Now, this is actually the genesis of the book," he recalls.  Backderf started these drawings in the mid-1970s, when he and Dahmer were both students at Revere High School, in Bath Township. 

"He had blonde hair and he had this kind of odd, halting way of talking," Backderf says.  "He just didn’t look comfortable in the world, you know?  Even at that age.  And this would only get worse."

Backderf says Dahmer started to attract a small following for his subversive antics.

"You’d be sitting in the library and suddenly the door would creak open and he would bleat out like a sheep and then slam the door and run away." 

Dahmer also pretended to have epileptic fits in the school hallways.  All of this led to the formation of the “Dahmer Fan Club”.  John Backderf was a member. So was Mike Kukral.

"And you would just crack up and look at him and think either that kid’s weird or he’s funny or what’s up with that kid?" says Kukral.  "You just didn’t know."

But back home, Dahmer’s parents’ fought often. And when Backderf went back to do research, he learned that Joyce Dahmer suffered from depression and was addicted to pills.

"Later, I found out that his mom was also suffering from nervous episodes at home, and she would have seizures, where she would shake and twitch until she exhausted herself, essentially. So, really, he was imitating his mom at school.  And how screwed up is that?"

Backderf also learned that Dahmer had started drinking at the age of 14.  His research began in earnest in the summer of 1991.

"I was at home and my wife, at that time, was working for the Akron paper," he remembers.  "And she called me, and said this guy you went to school with killed all these people in Milwaukee."

It was a newspaper story that caught Mike Kukral’s attention.  He says he read it over and over, trying to make sense of it.

"I didn’t sleep for about two weeks, which has never happened to me before or since," Kukral says.  "And when I did sleep for short periods of time, I would have dreams with Jeff Dahmer in them.  And that’s pretty horrific."

About a week after the story broke, Mike Kukral and John Backderf got together with another friend to try and process the news.  Backderf figures he filled ten pages with new notes and sketches, based on those conversations. 

A film crew came to the Akron area, last year and shot in some of the same locations where the story first took place.  Director Marc Meyers says he made a conscious effort to get as close to the book as he could.

"I started tearing apart a copy of the graphic novel and using those visuals as a collage to storyboard my way through the entire book," he says.

When “My Friend Dahmer” was published five years ago, some critics charged that John Backderf was trying to make a sympathetic character out of a heinous criminal.  Now, Marc Meyers is preparing to suffer the same flak. 

"The story is about understanding in a much more compassionate or empathetic way a troubled kid’s life before he became a monster, to maybe help understand people who have fallen by the wayside, that have become outliers," Meyers says.   "How did they get there?" 

Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death with a in a Wisconsin prison bathroom in 1994 by a fellow inmate.

"I was surprisingly upset by it," says John Backderf.  "I didn’t feel sorry for Jeffrey Dahmer the monster.  But, Jeff Dahmer - the kid who was my friend - you had a little bit of mourning there.  And then you felt guilty about Why would I care?"  

But, Backderf thinks there’s plenty of guilt to go around in the story of the kid who looked like he wasn’t comfortable in the world.

"This guy reeked of booze all day long," he says.   "All the kids knew what Dahmer was doing.  I think the adults just didn’t want to be bothered, you know?  Another year, he’ll be out of our hair, then he’s somebody else’s problem.  Well, unfortunately, he was somebody else’s problem." 

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