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?

Masters is severe with his readers, there is a touch of the moral tutor about him. His study of murder and psychological mayhem is a philosophical enquiry which we are bound to contemplate if we seek the truth. ‘I realise, of course, that this is a dangerous undertaking, and there are many who will take refuge in any manner of evasions rather than face it ... The reader must have something of the therapist who “draws on his own psychotic possibilities”, or he will flounder in the reassuring soup of “objectivity”.’ In spite of quoting the dubious authority of R.D. Laing, there is no questioning Master’s intention, which is serious, as it was in his previous book on Dennis Nilsen, another killer whose behaviour was inexplicable to most people.

Murder is the borderline between society and the wilderness. It is the irreversible act which must make the killer an outcast, for ever set apart by his or her act. But this does not mean he (or she) is inexplicable to the rest of us. The taking of another life is always terrible, but it is also sometimes understandable. Even the most dreadful of murders, infanticide, is not beyond the comprehension of parents who remember the power that the cries of small babies have to distress. From time to time we have all had to use self-control when faced with the rage other people can create in us. But such feelings, even when acted on, are still feelings, and connect us with others. Murder is usually a social crime.

Jeffrey Dahmer is extraordinary (although not alone: Nilsen’s affect and motivation are remarkably similar) in that absence of feeling is at the root of his crimes. So absent is the feeling that murder is hardly the crime at all. It only happens to be what he has to be charged with because the law does not recognise his real transgression. The death of others for Dahmer was merely a necessary stage on the way to what he really wanted: lifeless bodies deprived of all volition. Depersonalised from childhood, he needed to subtract the person from individuals in order to make a relationship with them. In this sense, Dahmer (like Nilsen) was not destroying, but creating: he was making dead bodies which he then, and only then, could have and hold. Before he began habitually killing people, he drugged them insensible even when they were willing to have sex with him. And later, when dead bodies proved so unsatisfying because they could not be kept for very long, he tried, a crazed and ill-informed Dr Frankenstein, to create a living zombie by drilling into a sleeping man’s skull and injecting the frontal lobes with acid. Death was not his object: objects were his object.

If we are looking at Dahmer to see our own distorted reflections, there are two essential questions: how did he come to be the way he was? And: was he mad, a monster or evil? In order to answer the first question, Masters details Jeffrey Dahmer’s upbringing. A tranquilliser-addicted, neurotic mother, a distant, though not uncaring father, a country-town boyhood. It is not a happy childhood, and like many children of disturbed families, he became withdrawn. The problem here is to make a distinction between Freud’s ‘ordinary unhappiness’ and the devastating turmoil of this particular individual. Masters pinpoints details which, with hindsight, look powerfully significant. The game he invented at the age of 11 was called the Infinity Game, where stick people were annihilated if they came too close to each other, and tightly-drawn spirals called Black Holes were the entrances to Infinity, from which nothing returned. He had an early addiction to being drunk. He vented his unhappiness by smashing at trees with an axe in the woods, rather than speaking to anyone. At four, he had the experience of a double hernia operation, and a (presumably subconscious) memory of having his viscera handled, then of waking in such pain that he asked his mother if his penis had been cut off. And he dissected dead animals.

This last was Dahmer’s single boyhood enthusiasm. He took road-kills apart, examined the internal organs, let the flesh rot and then tried to reassemble the skeleton. He never killed anything, or took pleasure in giving pain. It’s tempting to think that, finding a void within himself, he was taking living things apart to see what it was he was missing. When he began to kill men he picked up, it was with the intention of keeping them, of not letting them go away. There was something he wanted from them, and in all probability it was life. But like taking a watch to pieces in order to see where the tick is, the thing he was looking for vanished in the searching.

None of these aspects of Dahmer’s youth really explains what he became, and even if the combination of all of them signals what he was, there is still no clue as to why. Which, of course, is the real mystery. An early interest in form and structure might turn an adolescent into a sculptor, an architect, a butcher, a biologist. Young boys who have had hernia operations don’t regularly become the kind of necrophiliac even necrophiliacs shy away from. Drunkenness might make it easier to do unspeakable things to human beings, but most people who get drunk to overcome their inhibitions do not want to do what Dahmer did. And might not the young inventor of the Infinity Game become an astro-physicist or SF novelist? Masters does suggest (nerve-wrackingly for the inhabitants of North London) that Dahmer’s kind of withdrawal has two possible outcomes: if it doesn’t make a killer of you, ‘it promotes the creative isolation of the artist, who is, in this respect, the antithetical twin of the murderer.’

If we must confront wickedness, we may also have to confront our inability to grasp it in a simple cause-and-effect way. Not long ago someone suggested I read Alice Miller’s case-study on Hitler, because, she said, ‘the way she analyses his childhood makes him completely understandable.’ Do we want Hitler’s childhood to make him understandable? And could it ever? The fact is, the range of unhappiness in childhood is so vast and so dreadful that I doubt Hitler’s home life was worse than that of many another infant who did not grow up as he did. But it is not Hitler, really, who we need as comparison to Jeffrey Dahmer. It is the concentration camp guard we need to wonder at, the man who looked human beings in the eye while he performed the acts which Hitler merely ordered. The mystery is in the absence of shame and humanity on the small scale of Dahmer and his visitors, or you and me. It’s at that singular point we can find no other word more appropriate than evil.

The question the jury at Dahmer’s trial had to decide on was not guilt or innocence, but whether the man was a mad devil or a sane monster. Technically, did he have a mental disease? Did he have any control over his impulses? Dahmer spoke of being ‘compelled’ or ‘possessed’ by the hunger to have bodies. He did not only use the bodies for sexual gratification, but had a black table with skulls and a skeleton arranged on it, which he called his ‘shrine’, and he also ate human flesh.

Masters makes a good deal of anthropological evidence on the cannibalism/primitive religion nexus, citing the Aztecs, the Windigo psychosis of Canadian Indians who become eaters of human flesh, and of course, the Catholic Mass. Certainly, Dahmer seems to fit in with these notions, as well as the dark area of the psyche which includes werewolves and vampires. The sacrifice of humans and eating people as an act of love, or a desire to partake of their qualities has a long history. Masters speculates on the spiritual plainness of Dahmer’s Lutheran religion, and how it might have created a vacancy which hankered after Dionysian excess and primitive ritual. (You almost get the feeling Masters is suggesting that had Dahmer been a Catholic – of the Southern European variety, it would have to be – he might have been all right.) It’s important, says Masters, that Dahmer is not a moral idiot. He knows right from wrong. But that is no proof against possession. The Devil only triumphs over a man capable of putting up a fight against him. Corruption must have a decent medium in which its bacilli can multiply. Dahmer was finally taken over, but there were periods when he tried for normality.

In the end the labels seem transferable: what we might call multiple or schizoid personality and feel comfortable with, is surely no more than a current transformation of the ancient idea of possession by spirits. In either case, what the individual feels is that his ordinary social self has been overcome by a force, a will, beyond his control. Call it devilry, call it madness; either way Dahmer was obviously not very well.

Which is not what the jury decided. On all counts of murder Dahmer was found, by ten votes to two, not to have a mental disease. It suggests, since there is no death penalty in Wisconsin, that the ten were those who choose to ‘look away’. They decided not to have his condition examined, but to lock him away out of sight.

Masters is very likely right to suggest that Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes were extreme versions of our own unacted-on fantasies, on which we prefer not to dwell. A desire to explore the internal labyrinths and possess the interior of a lover’s body is not beyond the sexual imagination. Indeed, it is implied in the various acts of penetration people perform with one another. Sexual hunger is visceral; though, unlike Dahmer, most of us settle for dark dreams and do not go beyond the limits of reason.

The danger in this line of thought is that Dahmer becomes an existential hero, the outsider who dares to act on what ordinary mortals can barely think about. But the reality of Dahmer is otherwise. Finally, I doubt that his actions can tell us more than we know already from myth, story and fantasy. The strongest and most awful image of both Dahmer and Nilsen is that of housekeeping in hell. Both come to a point where the bodies pile up around them – Dahmer taking a shower with two corpses in the tub – the smells are intolerable, the logistics of disposal impossible, and they are condemned to a seemingly unending task of dismembering, eviscerating, dissolving, and scrubbing away at the disorder and putrefaction they have created. All the classic images of hell are present in each of those flats, inhabited by the ghost of Hieronymous Bosch and the two increasingly bewildered, dull-minded men, who finally long to be caught so that their nightmare can stop. The question of whether Jeffrey Dahmer is, in the end, of vital interest is addressed by Dahmer himself, and I’m inclined to agree with him: ‘This is the grand finale of a life poorly spent ... How it can help anyone, I’ve no idea.’