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Writer tells you about his childhood friend: Jeffrey Dahmer • Brooklyn Paper

Writer tells you about his childhood friend: Jeffrey Dahmer

Before he was a monster: Derf Backderf’s graphic novel, “My Friend Dahmer,” explores his relationship with the notorious serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the years leading up to his first murder.
Photo courtesy of Abrams Books

A graphic novel retells the story of infamous murderer Jeffrey Dahmer from a decidedly discomforting perspective — a childhood friend’s.

Derf Backderf is heading to BookCourt bookstore on April 26, to read from his book “My Friend Dahmer,” which explores the author’s relationship with the notorious serial killer in the years leading up to his murder of Stephen Hicks in 1978.

“We sat together in study hall, sat together in lunch, I gave him rides home from school, we were in the same social circle,” Backderf said. “We were friends.”

The story is set in Bath, Ohio in the late ’70s — before the cannibalism, the necrophilia, the heads in the jar, and the amateur lobotomies — beginning when Backderf met Dahmer in the seventh-grade and ending after the future author and the future murderer became high school grads. The story concludes shortly before Dahmer claimed his first life.

In that time, Backderf observed his friend’s behavior devolve from the strange to the very dark.

“Back then it was just mildly bizarre,” said Backderf. “He was a strange dude, he went from being an oddball in the seventh grade, to something much more strange.”

Dahmer’s “oddball” antics included a fascination with road kill — namely, dissolving animal carcasses in jars of acid — as well as walking the school halls with a Styrofoam cup filled with alcohol and faking epileptic seizures in public places — antics Backderf and his 15-year-old friends encouraged. They formed the “Jeffrey Dahmer Fan club,” decades before similarly named clubs were established, under the allure of more macabre fascinations, according to Backderf.

From goofball, to murderer: Jeffrey Dahmer in his Bath, Ohio high school in 1978, when Derf Backderf’s graphic novel, “My Friend Dahmer,” is set.
Photo by William Henry

“I should sue for rights,” the author joked.

But the graphic novel is less about a boy who was destined to be monster who took 17 lives, and more about a boy who no one cared to help.

“I think I certainly humanize him, which is, I understand, controversial for some people,” said Backderf. “But to me, he was just a friend, he was just a kid who had committed no crime and I think that we don’t accomplish anything by wholesale demonizing people. Everybody starts somewhere and it’s interesting to think, ‘What would have happened if somebody helped him, or just tried?’”

Wherever Dahmer’s origins may lie, Backderf says that Brooklyn should be happy his old friend settled in Milwaukee.

“I think Brooklyn should consider itself lucky that he never moved here,” the author said. “He left nothing behind expect bodies, misery and heartache.”

Derf Backderf at BookCourt [163 Court St. between Paficic and Dean streets in Cobble Hill, (718) 875-3677] April 26, 7 pm. Visit www.bookcourt.com

Reach reporter Colin MIxson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.

Dahmer’s friend: Derf Backderf, author of “My Friend Dahmer,” was friends with the infamous mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer when they were in high school.
Photo by Mark Urycki

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