BOOK REVIEW / Dark tunnel to a corpse-strewn flat: 'The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer' - Brian Masters: Hodder, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
JEFFREY DAHMER is in prison in Wisconsin, where he was sentenced to spend more than 900 years for the murder of 17 young men. He paid them to accompany him to his flat, where he drugged, killed and dismembered them. In some cases he ate parts of the corpse. He wanted a passive sex toy to hold in his arms. More particularly, he wanted a torso and a stomach, with the internal organs intact. The rest - legs, arms and human personality - was of no interest to his sexual desire or emotional need.

It is Brian Masters's contention that these bizarre and disgusting crimes can be traced back to Dahmer's bitter sense of solitude and alienation. He offers an almost suspiciously complete pathology. It begins with Dahmer's genetic inheritance from an unstable and depressive mother; it develops through deep flaws in his own character; it is compounded by his father's aloofness and his parents' divorce. The chances of gene, chemistry, character, circumstance and misfortune coexisting in such an explosive combination must be at least 10 million to one.

The first detonation in murder is followed by fear and remorse. By the end there are no such scruples. Dahmer is on a roll of raving dementia. His flat full of dismembered corpses (with whom he sleeps, and drunkenly bathes) is like one of the lowest circles of hell. Dahmer pleaded guilty to all the murders, and the function of his trial was to decide whether he was insane. The trial, Masters suggests, was a shoddy affair, in which the judge did not understand the complexity of the definitions, the psychiatrists gave partial or incomprehensible evidence, and Dahmer's attorney too often allowed his opponent to go unchallenged. At one point an eminent psychiatrist for the prosecution found himself arguing that the clutching of a severed head was a straightforward aid to masturbation. The jury found, with two dissenting voices, that Dahmer was sane. The victims' families were desolate but fractionally relieved.

Does it really matter? It is sensible, if in doubt, to give the judge the maximum discretion in sentencing. Prison medical authorities can always move the prisoner to a hospital at a later stage, as they did Peter Sutcliffe. Dahmer himself appears so far sunk into his private pit that it would seem to make little difference in what sort of institution he spends the rest of his life. Yet it does matter, for the future treatment and prevention of such crimes. Dahmer was frequently in trouble in the years before his final arrest, and the reports of those who examined him all rang warning bells. But they did not ring loudly enough.

Masters's case has its dodgy moments, but in essence it is irresistible. The tunnel that issued in the mania of Dahmer's corpse-strewn flat was joined at the other end to a passably normal childhood world. At the core of his mind was isolation from human contact; as this increased, so he became increasingly unhinged. Masters shows two or three key moments when Dahmer's grip on reality was released; the degeneration of the mind through adolescence - in which schizoid and necrophiliac behaviour were already present - to actual murder is brilliantly set out.

There is one point (the murder of the second victim, Steven Tuomi) when Masters's intellectual interest in Dahmer prevents him from expressing proper sympathy for the victim, but generally he tempers his narrative with compassionate reflections on the young men and their families. Some people will wish for more detail, some for less; I thought it reasonably well judged.

Nor, in view of the moderate performance of the lawyers and doctors, need one feel too diffident about expressing a lay opinion on Dahmer's sanity: after all, that is what the jury, on much the same evidence as the reader, was asked to do. Masters, I think, goes too far in a speculative epilogue in which he even invokes the support of Peter Shaffer's highly dubious play Equus. In fact, there are too many passages about Dionysian forces and nature untamed which seem to belong to a different and worse book. On the basic psychiatry, though, Masters is lucid. He specifically ridicules the fallacy that Dahmer must have been mad because of the things he did; instead he gives an analysis of how and why he was mad.

This case raises questions far beyond the current reach of medicine or law. It is tempting not even to try to comprehend such horrors, merely to turn away, which is a fair response to the facts, but not to the book. It is a cold and intellectual piece of writing, but it would be a shame to play moral one-upmanship on the back of it. It is a case study. Its subject is terrible and repellent, but the study itself is enlightening.