America is currently revisiting its fascination with one of the sickest modern serial killers of all time - and it's important to remember what this story is really all about - continued profiting off the systemic and calculated dismemberment and desecration of black and brown bodies - and the willful ignorance of those with the power to effect change.
The Birth of the Monster
Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer was born a child of the 1960's - the age of free love and civil strife. His mother Joyce (depicted as a depressed and attention-deprived hypochondriac) was being treated according to the Arthur Sackler manual of chemical imbalance and overprescribed a variety of Equanil, laxatives, and sleeping pills to fix her "condition". Meanwhile, his father Lionel (an agitated, unhappy man) was in and out of his life during his prepubescent and adolescent years. This left young Jeffrey abandoned and isolated with his own troubled thoughts for much of his young life.
Much has been made of his youthful fascination with dead animals as a child and his father's role in teaching him how to dismember, dissect, and later dispose of these doomed animals with chemicals. Was this the birth of the monster who would later confess to doing the same to a litany of (mostly black and brown) gay men (in addition to drugging, necrophilia, cannibalization, and corporal preservation)? Did he subconsciously associate black and brown people with animals and treat them accordingly, or was his preferred prey merely a preference or just a coincidence?
A social outcast who realized early on that he was gay, he started getting into trouble with authority figures as a troubled youth. An alcoholic by age 14, he defied disciplinary measures. And in a pattern that would repeat over and again, he would be given a mild reprimand and set free. After his parent's divorce coincided with his high school graduation, both his mother and father abandoned him to his own devices at their family home and the young man took to selling his blood to get enough money to keep him in alcohol. Around this time his fantasies of immobilizing and controlling partners for his own sexual gratification merged with his fascination for dissection.
It was in this state - as a suddenly abandoned, continuously inebriated, repressed, and sexually frustrated 18-year-old; that he committed his first murder - that of hitchhiker Steven Hix - one of only two white victims in his oeuvre. But most of the hallmarks of his compulsions were already present in this first victim - leading one to imagine that he had already put a lot of thought and consideration into his craft.
The Age of Willful Ignorance
Dahmer would go on to be expelled from college, discharged from the army, fired from a litany of jobs, arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, and moved from place to place as he tried to control his compulsions and live a normal (albeit alcohol soaked) life. After being forced to move in with his grandmother, things only got worse. He stole a mannequin from a department store planning to use it for sexual gratification (but his grandmother found and discarded it), and he was arrested for indecent exposure at a county fair.
Still, he continued finding employment and getting chance after chance to turn his life around. Instead, he delved into Milwaukee's gay bars and bathhouses to explore his sexuality. Frustrated with his partners' animation during intimate moments, he procured a seemingly endless supply of powerful sedatives by lying to doctors about a sleeping condition and realizing that he needed to see these men as sex objects and not people, began drugging them before indulging in his compulsions. He was kicked out of the bathhouses shortly thereafter, when one of his sexual subjects overdosed. But he just turned to using hotels for his needs.
It was in this moment - where he was not yet killing his sexual conquests, that he entertained digging up a corpse and bringing it home, and subsequently was charged for lewd and lascivious behavior for exposing himself before a pair of 12-year-old boys. But the charge was later changed to disorderly conduct for which he received one year of probation, with additional instructions to undergo counseling.
Drunk and disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, illegal drug procurement used in drugging men, lewd and lascivious behavior in front of minors. Judges, business proprietors, doctors, teachers, military officials, and police had all crossed paths with Dahmer by this point. And all of them ignored an emerging pattern that would soon once again turn deadly.
The Big Red Flags
Dahmer's alcoholism and general sloppiness led to more than a few mishaps on his journey to full serial killer mode. His second murder victim (Steven Tuomi) was someone he confessed to having no recollection of killing due to being black-out drunk. He later brought a man to his grandmother's home from a club, but his grandmother woke up, so he took the man to County General Hospital instead of killing him. His grandmother eventually kicked him out for drinking, bringing strange men home, and an unending stench he attributed to his taxidermy hobby. Three days after moving into an apartment, he was arrested for drugging and sexually fondling a 13-year-old boy whom he had lured to his home on the pretext of posing nude for photographs.
Dahmer pleaded guilty to the charges of second-degree sexual assault and of enticing a child for immoral purposes. Between the guilty plea and being sentenced to five years' probation and one year in the House of Correction, he murdered his 5th victim (Anthony Sears) while temporarily living back at his grandmother's house. The details of his sentencing allowed him to keep his job and he later received early parole. He had to register as a sex offender upon discharge from the work camp.
But being on probation and registered as a sex offender did nothing to slow Dahmer down. Six corpses and a few years later, the damning incident of 14-year-old Lao teenager Konerak Sinthasomphone occurred (the brother of one of Dahmer's earlier victims), who was zombified by Dahmer and managed to escape naked, only to be escorted back into the monster's lair by two police officers. This is after a litany of complaints by neighbors to the landlord about the ungodly smell and sounds of torture and trauma emanating from Dahmer's apartment. He would kill Sinthasomphone and 4 more men before finally being captured, tried, sentenced, and finally imprisoned.
The Power of Privilege
After ingesting the story of Jeffrey Dahmer's horrific activities, one cannot help but to also reconcile with the conditions that allowed this predator to thrive. He preyed on a marginalized community in plain sight in defiance of the authorities. He was tagged by law enforcement several times and set loose repeatedly to wreak his unique brand of havoc. He was allowed to explain himself out of trouble in situations where a black or brown person would never have received the benefit of the doubt.
We cannot separate Dahmer's whiteness or maleness from this reckoning. Just as we cannot separate the white maleness of the police officers, teachers, judges, and doctors, who enabled him over the years. Much like when Jason Bateman of American Psycho attempts to confess to his lawyer about his murderous ways only to be dismissed, so did these biased authority figures grossly underestimate Dahmer's potential for harm even with a demonstrated pattern of chaos in his wake.
And once in prison for sixteen consecutive life sentences, his fame only grew. Not only did he indiscriminately murder but he also created an industry of morbidly fascinated fans desperate to get any piece they could of the monster. And who suffers repeatedly? The families of the victims. They don't participate in profit mongering, nor do they have any say over how their loved ones are centered or depicted. This latest Dahmer documentary is just the latest in a long line of toxic cash grabs based on our morbid fascination with mythologizing serial killers.
It's good to see that there is at least as much backlash as there is avid support for the show in this instance. But it's cheap information to the still and forever grieving, who are forever haunted by a living representation of the horrors of systemic racism we can never escape. Dahmer has never just been about a lone disturbed maniac. It is a powerful reminder that until we see privilege and systemic racism for what it is - a perpetually toxic force that strips dignity from marginalized people, just like Dahmer stripped his victims of their lives and flesh - our collective calls for justice and opportunity will never be answered.