I continued my reading on the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murders with this personal memoir of the case by his father Lionel. The issue lying before me is writing a review where I feel awful for everyone involved and also relate a lot without sounding either hard-hearted, overly forgiving, or like I myself am headed down some dark road. And also to avoid making it sound like I think that my own theories about the case psychology are necessarily correct vs what experts think. True crime often has that discordant result — the desire to know more vs the desire not to seem like a ghoul.
This is a very good book and captures the tension that I’ve circled above — Lionel is torn between his remembrance of his son as his son and the knowledge of his crimes. He also has a deep guilt that he contributed to Jeffrey’s mental or genetic predispositions. Lionel struck me as autistic, and honestly when I read some of the other Dahmer books, Jeffrey did in a way as well, although I think he has other personality disorders and psychosis going on, in a very complicated psychological profile. I was recently diagnosed as autistic and so the diagnostic DSM criteria are very present in my mind, and as I read this book I kept checking things Lionel said about himself off that list — desire for control, need for strict routine, social issues, flat affect, problems reading other people’s emotions, etc. I know that I was relating a lot to Lionel because to me he was clearly undiagnosed and blaming himself for his brain working differently. At one point, he blames himself for focusing too much on details and not emotionally connecting, and says that the letter he wrote where he talks about his work is “the perfect representativ[e] of that part of my fatherhood which had always remained intransigently evasive and uninsightful.” I felt like that was partially true but I also felt deeply sorry for him because I felt like he was missing the deep-seated need to collect information and then share it that can be so positive for autistic people. Then I started worrying that I was over-empathizing and pathologizing someone who clearly has been tormented enough by having his personal life exposed to the world.
For the general reader, I would recommend this as a very open and brutally honest look at what a family can go through after one member is revealed to be a murderer. Lionel really pushes himself and I found the book to be deeply affecting. I did read a negative review on Amazon where the person was saying that they were upset that Lionel was trying to rationalize and empathize with Jeffrey, and that he was smiling in a photo they took together in prison. If you would get angry at a parent trying to understand their son’s awful crimes, then this probably isn’t the book for you. Also, to return to the autistic lens, Lionel says that he has been playing a role of a father and he knows how to do it, which a super autistic thing to say and one I again related to a lot in terms of figuring out how to act in order to do what’s societally appropriate. I felt more that he knew that was his role and he was going to keep doing it, and he wasn’t at all absolving his son completely of everything. His guilt and horror about what Jeffrey did is apparent, and I didn’t think that this book was at all an attempt to excuse him. Anyway, I clearly have very complicated and personal feelings about this book, but I did think it’s probably the best book on the case I’ve read, so highly recommended.
Note that I read the original version — the book has been reissued and updated, but I got it used and wound up with the first edition instead.
Warnings for: discussion of necrophiliac murders in a lot of detail (rape, murder, dismemberment), psychological trauma, intense guilt and horror