(Top photo: Jeffrey Dahmer's 1982 mugshot)
Good, honest, God-fearing citizens feeling empathy for serial killers is nothing particularly new. We're all human; we all want to understand why people do the things they do. But when it comes to Jeffrey Dahmer – who was sentenced to 15 life terms 25 years ago yesterday – there seems to be an unusual climate of compassion.
Jeffrey Dahmer killed at least 17 young men between 1978 and 1991. Many of these men were African-American or Hispanic, and most were picked up in or around gay bars. Once he got them home, Dahmer would usually drug his victim and, once they became unconscious, strangle them. He would dismember the victim, have sex with the body, occasionally eat bits of the body, and take photos throughout, in a bid to remember the experience as best as possible. Ultimately, what Dahmer wanted most was to keep someone in a submissive state so they could never leave. He said himself: "The only motive that there ever was was to completely control a person […] and keep them with me as long as possible." In 1991, he attempted to pour muriatic acid into a hole in his victim's head in an attempt to create a zombie – a willing companion with whom he could do what he pleased.
Still, Dahmer is sometimes framed – and viewed – as a sympathetic character, not just by the "fans" who dedicate entire blogs to the serial killer, but by many others, including crime writers, lawyers, psychologists and doctors. Comments below documentaries on Dahmer often ask the question: "Does anyone else feel sorry for him?" And bizarrely, the answer in many cases is "yes".
"I think it's easier to romanticise him because he genuinely wanted love and closeness."
Sympathy for Dahmer is not a new phenomenon, but it's been popularised recently by the comic book My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf, who met the killer in high school. The book is about the pair's friendship, looking back on times the writer noticed darker parts of Dahmer's personality – his alcohol abuse and tendency to play with dead animals. The book doesn't glamourise Dahmer's crimes, but it does construct Dahmer as a victim, a product of his environment. Mind you, Backderf has made it clear that "Dahmer was a tragic figure, but that only applies up until the moment he kills".
Time and distance could be to blame for the unusual treatment of Dahmer, but even those close to his case treated him sympathetically. Dr Samuel Friedman, a psychologist who was asked to testify at Dahmer's trial, spoke almost fondly of him. He believed it was a "longing for companionship that caused Dahmer to kill", adding that he was "amiable, pleasant to be with, courteous, with a sense of humour, conventionally handsome and charming in manner. He was, and still is, a bright young man." Dr Palermo, a psychiatrist appointed to provide an objective assessment of Dahmer, noted: "Strange to say, he is not such a bad person."
Many who empathise with Dahmer tend to do so because of his shyness – because you could tell he was troubled just by looking at him. There's also the belief among Dahmer enthusiasts that he derived no pleasure from his crimes; that the murders were a means to an end, an accidental byproduct of his quest to create a companion for himself (even though his ideal companion was a zombified human incapable of independent thought or movement).
Abigail Strubel, a mental health specialist who wrote a study on theoretical diagnoses and treatments for Dahmer, told me over the phone: "I have a bit of sympathy for him, because he was such a damaged, diminished person. He showed signs from a very young age that he was not like other people. He seems to have experienced tremendous anxiety […] he wanted connection and companionship so badly, and he was so unable to connect."
As for why others feel sympathy for him? "He was not a sadist," said Strubel. "Most serial killers enjoy inflicting pain and humiliation on their victims, so by comparison he's a 'softer' serial killer. I think it's easier to romanticise him because he genuinely wanted love and closeness. He just undertook some very odd practices to get [those things]."
"Dahmer murdered 17 people and ate some of them. However you dress it up, there are probably millions of lonely people out there who don't do that."
Researching for this article, and getting wound up in the world of Dahmer sympathisers, it was easy to forget that there are – of course – many others out there who don't feel sorry for the serial killer. Joan Ullman, who was present at Dahmer's insanity trial, wrote a first person account of the discomfort she felt: "The words I kept hearing from lawyers, spectators and forensic experts were 'healing' and 'understanding'. The endless talk of Dahmer's profound mental illness, treatment needs and prognoses made me think of his homicides as almost incidental […] Jurors said they had found a new understanding of mental illness, which helped them see Dahmer as a person with problems who needed treatment."
Tony Blockley, a senior lecturer in Criminal Investigation at the University of Derby, is also less than sympathetic. "[Dahmer] murdered 17 people and ate some of them. However you dress it up, there are probably millions of lonely people out there who don't do that," he said over the phone. "When you think about Dahmer, between 1978 and 1991, he was killing people. He said he was sorry, but is he actually sorry for the crimes, or is he sorry that he got caught?"
The ways in which Dahmer chose his victims were careful and calculated, and in many cases he went to great lengths to preserve the bodies. "That's quite a calculating mind, isn't it? To actually think like that, and to think, 'I'll choose that victim because…' That's not somebody out of their head and suffering from a mental disorder and not being able to think lucidly," said Blockley. "That is a calculated and specific way of committing a crime."
And he's right: the Dahmer apologists – as if you even have to make this point when you're talking about a man who murdered and defiled multiple human beings – don't really have a leg to stand on.
Strubel sums it up: "Jeffrey Dahmer might not appear as demonic and menacing as other serial killers, but many of his actions were extremely repugnant. That limits what sympathy I'm able to muster for him […] and certainly doesn't excuse any of the murders and other bizarre crimes he committed."