Dahmer's dad puts blame on himself

March 09, 1994|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Special to The Sun

If you're a believer in the pop culture marketplace, then you nTC know that no one loves a murderer like an American does.

Popular iconography includes Billy the Kid, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde. But even those deemed too weird, psychotic or unredeemable for mass hero worship -- Chessman, DeSalvo, Gacy, Bundy -- have had their followings.

They are written about, read about, studied by psychiatrists, law enforcers and loners. Recently serial killers have been put on the faces of a line of trading cards. They're half the reason for those "True Crime" sections in bookstores.

Even as crime/guns/violence are publicly abhorred and privately traumatizing, law-abiding Americans -- the other half -- leave room in their hearts for their sickest, more dangerous souls.

Given this national obsession, it shouldn't be all that shocking that the excessively normal parents of extremely deranged children have taken up the pen to defend themselves from the sting of public opinion.

Jack and Jo Ann Hinckley, in their scabrous 1985 book, "Breaking Point," provided a recipe for overcoming the actions of their son, would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley: intensify their faith in God and the free enterprise system and sink further into middle-class banality.

Now it's Lionel Dahmer's turn. The father of serial sexual murderer Jeffrey Dahmer is much more therapeutic in his approach than the above-it-all Hinckleys. In fact, the scenes and thoughts portrayed in "A Father's Notebook" appeared to be culled from a psychiatrist's notebook.

In a fast-paced, apologetic style, Lionel Dahmer (with help from ghostwriter Thomas H. Cook) tells his version of Jeffrey's life. We hear of the psychoactive substances the as-yet-unborn Jeffrey ingested through his mother's bloodstream. We hear of the shock of discovering his son had become a monster capable of killing 17 people, and Lionel's realization that his own life would never be the same again after Jeffrey's arrest in Milwaukee in 1991.

Through most of the text, Mr. Dahmer would seem to be the loving but contrite father. Although not necessarily neglectful, he wasn't around much for "Jeff," immersing himself in his doctoral studies or the chemical labs where he would later work.

Although initially an interested, energetic child, Jeffrey Dahmer developed into a sullen one, we are told. After a hernia operation at the age of 4, he never quite returned to his old self.

"During any period of recovery," his father writes in 12-step speak, "a certain flattening of mood could be expected. But in Jeff, this flattening began to take on a sense of something permanent."

From there, Mr. Dahmer hits the tabloid highlights. Jeffrey's mood continues to darken. He breaks windows at age 6 and likes to play with bones. By his teens, he has started his own road-kill cemeteries and planted a dog's head on a stake. By the age of 18, he has committed his first murder.

His father knew little of this at the time, and while recounting the macabre, he chastises himself for not seeing the signs of violence and mental illness. His parenting misses the point. Whenever Jeffrey would do wrong, Lionel sat him down and discussed the boy's future in that rational, insensitive manner that a generation of fathers embraced. Jeffrey would nod and stare into space, emotionally empty.

Part of Lionel Dahmer's catharsis in writing this book is in laying as much of Jeffrey's guilt on his father's shoulders.

Although Jeffrey's mother had severe emotional problems, Lionel points the finger back at himself. As a child, he writes, he, too, had a violent, withdrawn streak. Like Jeffrey, he had no "social skills" and felt powerless when surrounded by people. It's a side that Lionel had buried and denied into adulthood -- until now.

Watching a son's brutal actions compel a father to question his entire life is painful stuff. Ordinarily, all would agree that one couldn't help but feel for Lionel Dahmer, who seems to be a decent, if naive, guy. He even wants to turn some of the book's profits over to a good cause. (Although the dedication page says that some of the book's profits will go to the families of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims, a spokesman for the publisher said that the "undetermined percentage" would probably go to an unrelated crime-victims group.)

But you can't feel for a guy when, for one thing, he gives his first interview to those purveyors of yellow checkbook journalism, "Inside Edition."

Still, it would be cruel to skewer Lionel Dahmer, a man who has suffered in exponential measure to his misdeeds. Besides, he is only half of the equation. "A Father's Story," then, is the perfect marriage between private vulnerability and public commerce -- between a father's need for absolution and the public's insatiable lust for violence.

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Mr. Anft is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Father's Story"

Author: Lionel Dahmer

Publisher: Morrow

Length, price: 255 pages, $20

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