BOOK REVIEW / The man who made Milwaukee infamous: The shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer - Brian Masters Hodder, pounds 14.99
Jeffrey Dahmer was Milwaukee's answer to Nilsen: a creepy chocolate mixer whose idea of a sex-aid was a strangled black youth, an alcoholic loner with a tidy fish tank who played around with the innards of his victims, even drilling holes in their skulls and injecting them with acid in an attempt to render them alive but inert - so seductive that way.
It is very ugly stuff indeed, and the real mystery is why Masters should want to crawl into it all over again. He says that his purpose is to 'understand', but the only thing you really understand from this book is that if a big blond guy offers you 50 bucks to go home and pose for some photographs, don't do it. Perhaps Masters was obeying some inner compulsion; maybe there were voices, strange demonic voices inside his head urging him to do it again. There might even be a dodgy incident in his childhood.
These are cheap shots; but it is not exactly an expensive book. Seeking to deliver a comprehensible profile of Dahmer's mental make-up, Masters declines to tell the whole story. We are not introduced to the victims, who appear in the text, much as they appeared to Dahmer, as ghastly props. At one point the sense in which murder is something that happens to Dahmer, rather than something that happens to the people who cross his path, is outrageously indulged: 'When Jeffrey Dahmer woke up the following morning, he was lying on top of Steven Tuomi. He immediately saw that the man was dead. . . 'I felt complete shock,' he recalls.'
Most readers will more naturally consider the scene from Steven Tuomi's point of view. They might not be inclined to take Dahmer's word for it that he was shocked: he had done this before, after all; and he always went to elaborate lengths to prepare drugged glasses of Bailey's Irish Cream, and to acquire the macabre tools of his trade - the drill bits, the syringes, the bleach, the packets of Soilex. Readers might also resent the linguistic emphasis throughout the book which casts Dahmer as the 'victim' - it is he who is constantly building himself a 'prison' and living out a 'nightmare'; it is he, not the boys he eviscerates, who is 'troubled' and 'self-destructive'.
Inevitably, the book's first reflex is to grope around in Dahmer's early life for clues. Some of this is simply risible. 'He had trouble getting his boots on and off,' we learn, 'and the teacher would not help him.' After a hernia operation, the four-year-old future murderer 'really disliked the doctor'. Masters points out that we should not give breast-feeding more weight than it deserves ('it is true that thousands of Western mothers decline to feed their offspring at the breast'), and then adds, astoundingly: 'But it may be instructive to imagine the effect upon the child of such a sudden withdrawal of sustaining contact.'
Several times, Masters uses the formulation 'It is true' to state the obvious, before proposing something that is, presumably, not true. 'There is, it is true,' he says, 'no overt instance of ill-treatment in the family history . . . But who knows how the young Jeff Dahmer felt about his role with a self-absorbed mother and distant, busy father?'
Who knows, indeed? And who cares? There are, we might think, higher priorities for our sympathy than Jeffrey Dahmer. But Masters permits the man plenty of nihilistic candour. 'This is the grand finale,' Dahmer says, 'of a life poorly spent, and the end result is just overwhelmingly depressing . . . it's just a sick, pathetic, wretched miserable life story, that's all it is.' Masters seems willing to go along with the idea that men like Dahmer are in some sense truth-tellers, that they have something to tell us about the nature of human existence.
But surely a little attention to Dahmer's language at these moments might be more revealing than all that fluff about how hard it is to get your shoes on. Was he really self-dramatising enough to think of the court case as a 'grand' finale? Did he really think his life story was only sick, pathetic and wretched, rather than cruel, self-centred and malevolent?
It would be better if books such as this had the nerve to come right out and admit that the subject, however horrible, is just plain fascinating. Masters pleads instead that his work is useful and necessary, and this ruins it. Useful in what way? To help us identify people before they go too far? One doctor examined Dahmer early on, and announced: 'He is definitely SPOOKY]' It was obvious: yet there was nothing anyone could do.
Of course Masters is right to emphasise that Dahmer is just a human being, and that we human beings are capable of the worst that we can imagine, and then some. But is 'problemed' really a more useful word for what Dahmer did than the now taboo word 'evil'? Masters insists that horror and revulsion are a 'poor basis on which to found judgement and careful appraisal of the implications'. But The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer is not an easy book to read if you feel that horror and revulsion are not so easily dismissed, or if you think that, in the face of Dahmer's deeds, they are a rather important and necessary basis for a response.
The meaning of the story is the story, not the shrink's footnotes. If we are not allowed to be horrified by a man who kept the heads in the fridge, put the liver and heart in the deep freeze in case he felt like a television dinner later on, and pickled the penises of his dead sex-toys for his so-called 'shrine', then what the devil are we supposed to be horrified by?
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