I'm a sucker for serial killers. So when I learned a few weeks ago that Jeffrey Dahmer was going to be interviewed on "Dateline NBC" I couldn't resist tuning in. I expected to be titillated by gory madness. I didn't expect to understand.
"Dateline" is a '90's news-melodrama with movie music and a cleft-chinned baritone host, Stone Phillips, to make us feel comfortable. As a prologue to his visit to the prison, Phillips spoke with Dahmer's dad, Lionel Dahmer, who is hawking his book, "A Father's Story," in which he searches his fundamentalist Christian soul for what could have gone wrong in his normal, happy household. We know Lionel's not just a cheesy parent making a buck off the misery of others, because he has promised to give "a portion" of the profits to the families of Jeff's victims. What altruistic thing he does with the remainder we can only guess.
After a glowing product-shot of the book, Lionel Dahmer did some dramatic readings interspersed with a travelogue of his son's childhood haunts. Then he showed home movies Never Before Seen On Television, and wondered (for our benefit) how that gawky boy on the screen became a ghoul. He fretted that he might have overlooked early warning signs: the time little Jeff jingled the bones of some dead animals in a bucket; the habit Jeff had of sulking in the woods alone, whenever Lionel and his wife were shoving and screaming at one another. The child, he could now see, had been shy, weak and alienated.
I thought back. When I was a kid, I was entranced by bones; they seemed so honest. Even though I had loving parents who never screamed at each other, I still managed to feel shy, weak and alienated. It seems to me that's a big part of being a kid. I suppose that's why I spent a lot of time playing gunslingers, the guys who could always get what they wanted. What I always wanted was beauty: The prize horse, the ranch with the stream through it, the dance-hall belle. In my back yard, I shot many a man for beauty.
When I grew up, I realized that beauty was still hard to get, but that adults who wanted Jennifer Jason Leigh or Mel Gibson as a love-slave had an alternative to kidnaping at gunpoint. They could go to movies like "The Hitcher" and "Lethal Weapon" and harmlessly fantasize about Jennifer strung up between two trucks, or Mel hung from meat hooks and prodded with jolts of electricity. As grown-ups they could still play in the back yard.
But Dahmer did what he should have dreamed. He stalked the best-looking victims he could find, invited them home for drinks and kept them with him for always, even if that meant just keeping a piece.
One day when he was driving home, Dahmer gave a lift to a hitchhiker. I've done that. He saw beauty and wanted it in his power, utterly, as only a well-placed blow to the head can deliver. OK, I confess, I've wanted that as well--but I chose not to pick up a sawed-off baseball bat and make my wish come true. That's why I can drive to the beach whenever I feel like it, while Dahmer has to live in a prison and talk to Stone Phillips.
Sitting beside his father in a cement-block room, Jeffrey Dahmer answered Phillips' questions about his crimes and his sexuality. He spoke reflectively, as a monster who knows he is a monster but thinks his fall from dreamer to demon might be instructive to others. Toward the end of the interview, Phillips asked whether Dahmer thought family problems caused his obsession. In a decade when criminals cloak guilt with victimhood, Dahmer's answer was strangely frank. "I feel it's wrong for people who commit crimes to try to shift the blame on to somebody else, onto their parents, or onto their upbringing or living circumstances. I think that's just a cop-out. I take full responsibility."
They say that when Dahmer walks through prison, his fellow inmates go silent. I can understand that. I felt it, too, even sitting before the television in my living room. There is about him a quiet and dreadful honesty. His darkest secrets are public entertainment. He is one of the few among us with nothing left to hide.