Good Housekeeping

Jenny Diski

  • The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer by Brian Masters
    Hodder, 242 pp, £14.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 340 57482 8

By the age of 31 Jeffrey Dahmer had killed 17 people, all men, none of whom he had known for more than a few hours. He masturbated with the bodies, dissected them, had sex with the viscera and performed fellatio with the opened mouths of severed heads. Not long before he was caught, and while in the process of yet another killing, his flat in Milwaukee contained two corpses in the bath, a headless torso immersed in bleach, several severed heads, hearts and genitalia in the fridge and freezer, and the body of a man killed two days previously under a blanket on the only bed, where, presumably, Dahmer slept until he discovered the head crawling with maggots, and was obliged to cut it off and prepare it for freezing.

Do we need to know about this man and his activities? Is he of intrinsic interest? Wouldn’t it be enough to catch him, account for 17 missing people, and prevent any more deaths by locking him securely away for the rest of his life? It could be useful for specialists – criminologists, psychiatrists – to have the details of Dahmer’s life and doings with a view to learning about the causes, and therefore the prevention, of such aberrant behaviour. But is it useful for you and me, with no more than a window-shopper’s interest, to know about Jeffrey Dahmer? Brian Masters says yes, not only is it useful, it is vital to examine this human being in detail, because he is one of us.

I suppose the world divides into those who look and those who look away. Looking away is easiest, of course, because it requires no justification, implying, as it does, decent sensibility. Looking is altogether a more difficult activity. I doubt that it’s ever entirely free of prurience, but the decision to gaze on the abominable – starving children in far-away countries, death and destruction in vicious wars, images and accounts of the Holocaust – might also be a conscious decision to bear witness to the monstrous possibilities of our own humanity. Part of Primo Levi’s final depression centred on his belief that fewer and fewer people were listening to what he had witnessed on our behalf. ‘Nothing human is alien to me’ is more than an affirmation of species togetherness: it’s a warning that by denying kinship with the worst of our kind, we may never know ourselves at all. There have been others like Dahmer, but he’ll do as the worst.

Masters quotes Colin Wilson: ‘The study of murder is not the study of abnormal human nature; it is the study of human nature stained by an act that makes it visible on the microscopic slide.’ This is a seductive argument for insatiably curious creatures like ourselves, but why then don’t we pick up (or review) with equal relish books about the good, the gentle or the kind? If wickedness is a black hole we peer intently into because we are unable to comprehend it, isn’t goodness, actually, as mysterious? Why isn’t it as interesting?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in