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I Had No Other Thrill or Happiness’

Necrophilia is a cure, for some, for (male) impotence; at any rate, an imaginative attempt at a cure. The necrophiliac exerts control over the dead body as, he believes, he could never exert control over the living. (In Dahmer’s case, as it came out at his trial, the necrophiliac’s preference was to have sex with the viscera of his victims, as if the “whole” were too intimidating. Cannibalizing of the parts came next.) Or it may be, as Brian Masters quotes Erich Fromm, that necrophiliacs are deeply narcissistic individuals whose aim “is to transform all that is alive into dead matter; they want to destroy everything and everybody, often even themselves, their enemy is life itself.” Why necrophiliacs tend to be homosexual is not explored in these books, but the narcissistic “mirroring” of the living murderer-lover in the dead victim would seem to be the motive.

I knotted the string because I heard somewhere that this was what the thuggi did in India for a quicker kill. I…looked at Stephen. I thought to myself, “All that potential, all that beauty, and all that pain that is his life. I have to stop him. It will soon be over…” His heart was stopped. He was very dead. I picked up his limp body into my arms and carried it into the bathroom…I washed the body…I threw him over my shoulder and took him into the back room. I sat him on…the chair. I sat down, took a cigarette and a drink and looked at him…”Stephen,” I thought, “you’re another problem for me. What am I going to do with you?”…I laid him on top of the double bed…I lay beside him and placed the mirror at the end of the bed. I stripped…and lay there staring at both our naked bodies in the mirror. He looked paler than I did…I put talcum powder on myself and lay down again. We looked similar now. I spoke to him as if he were still alive. I was telling him how lucky he was to be out of it. I thought how beautiful he looked now and how beautiful I looked. He looked sexy but I had no erection. He just looked fabulous.

This is Dennis Nilsen, quoted at exhaustive length in Brian Masters’s cogently titled Killing For Company. The hallucinatory identification of murderer with victim, “I” with “him,” the mad hope of “vivifying” another by killing him—these are motives that underlay Nilsen’s acts, suggesting a profound incomprehension of the otherness of others. When his killings were over, Nilsen spoke of feeling “intense fulfillment and mutual release for us both…I cared enough about them to kill them…I was engaged primarily in self-destruction…I was killing myself only but it was always the bystander who died.” The excessive attention Brian Masters lavishes upon this serial killer begins to pall fairly early on in Killing for Company, despite the unfailingly intelligent nature of the author’s prose and the obvious sincerity of his involvement with his subject.

By far the most illuminating chapter in the book is the final one, “Answers,” in which Masters, the author of literary studies of Molière, Sartre, Rabelais, Marie Corelli, among others, breaks out of his claustrophobic reportage and considers a vast range of thinkers on the subject of murder, perversion, punishment—Dostoyevsky, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, psychological theories of aggression and nihilism advanced by Anthony Storrs, Ernest Jones, Colin Wilson, and others. By the time Masters reaches an epiphany of sorts vis-à-vis his garrulous subject, the reader may feel he or she has anticipated him.

It is not why [Nilsen] dismembered bodies that bewilders, but how he could face himself having done so…How is it possible to wake up in the morning to a man’s head in a pot on the gas stove? How can one place pieces of people in suitcases and leave them for months at a time…? How was he able to tell me, with quasi-scientific curiosity, that the weight of a severed head, when you pick it up by the hair, is far greater than you would imagine?…It is Nilsen’s inhuman detachment, his invulnerability to the squalor of human remains, that makes him finally unrecognizable.

One can sympathize with the exasperation here without sharing in the conviction that it is a serial killer’s demeanor that should most distress us.10

4.

Nothing can exist in a natural state which can be called good or bad by common consent, since every man who is in a natural state consults only his own advantage, and determines what is good or bad according to his own fancy and in so far as he has regard for himself alone…; therefore sin cannot be conceived in a natural state, but only in a civil state… The law and ordinance of nature under which all men are born, and for the most part live, forbids nothing…that appetite suggests.”

Spinoza

I really screwed up this time.”

Jeffrey Dahmer, to his father

Definitions remain riddlesome and tautological: what is a “psychopath” except an individual who is perceived to have committed “psychopathic” acts? Can one be a “non-practicing psychopath”? And since the specific nature of “psychopathic” behavior is contextual, can one be a “psychopath” at one time, a “normal” individual at another? The romance of Ted Bundy, for those who continue to find him fascinating, is that he gave every appearance of being a supremely “normal” man, who never lacked for female companionship and intimacy; his “psychopathic” behavior seems to have occupied a fairly limited portion of his life, about as much as some “normal” men allot to avocations like hunting, fishing, squash. Radical feminist theorists who posit all men as (potential) rapists would interpret the Bundy phenomenon as non-“psychopathic” but in fact “normal”—if the male is the rapacious sexual predator, the female the inevitable victim. The difference between Bundy and other men is that Bundy executed his fantasies, and was caught.

Violators of taboo strike us as atavistic, primal. It is comforting to think of them as “strangers” among us who are somehow not us. They excite our fear, our revulsion, and our desire to severely punish; simultaneously, they excite our fascination, and, in some, whether secretly or openly, our admiration. (T.S. Eliot, for instance, admired the notorious English murderer Dr. Crippen, and once went to a party disguised as Crippen.) There is no more celebrated serial killer in history than Jack the Ripper of London’s Whitechapel district, though, by contemporary standards, his kill count was modest—seven known victims. Here is a historic figure, of 1888, who has been elevated to the plane of myth: a celebration of male misogyny and physical revulsion for women. The individual who violates taboo in so spectacular a way is perceived as undefined by society’s restraints, unlike those who believe themselves defined, and so it’s a temptation to project extraordinary powers—romantic, dark, “Satanic”—upon him. But as the materials under review here, and others, make clear, this is a naive and mistaken assumption. Most criminals are losers, in crime as in life. The romance of crime is purely that—a romance, a fiction.

Of serial-killer losers, none is more pathetic than Jeffrey Dahmer. The dullest sort of light plays about the workmanlike pages of Anne E. Schwartz’s The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough, which covers the Dahmer case from the evening of his arrest in July 1991 through his “sensational” trial and sentencing in early 1992. Schwartz is the Milwaukee Journal reporter who broke the Dahmer story when a police source woke her with an excited telephone message: “Rauth and Mueller found a human head in a refrigerator at 924 North 25th Street, apartment 213. There are other body parts in the place, too. You aren’t gonna believe what-all’s in this goof’s apartment. He was cutting up black guys and saving their body parts…” The book’s tone is of this quality, suggesting the antic breeziness of a television cop program in which a clever, feisty female reporter is featured; it is informative as a daily newspaper is informative, with a good deal of ephemeral Milwaukee political gossip thrown in. There is little engagement with Dahmer as a subject, or with the phenomenon of the necrophiliac serial killer as anything but a celebrity-freak to be gawked at. Schwartz remains steadfastly on the outside, as if to align herself with the most ingenuous of readers:

Many people came to court to see if they could sense any underlying evil in Jeffrey Dahmer by looking at him. I remember being filled with a strange sense of anticipation as I waited in the courtroom to see what a serial killer looked like. I was shocked to see that he looked just like an ordinary fellow. I had thought the pupils of his eyes might do spirals. What he had done was awful, but I could not get over how ordinary he looked. The times I saw him up close, I saw nothing there. He did not appear crazed, like mass murderer Charles Manson, nor did he exude the charm of serial killer Ted Bundy. There was just nothing to him.

And so on.

The particular poignancy of Lionel Dahmer’s A Father’s Story is that it is so clumsily groping and questioning a document; so much a cry of pain, a sequence of anguished questions that yield no answers. Lionel Dahmer tries to deal with the fact that he is the father of Jeffrey Dahmer and that, somehow, father and son are meaningfully linked; the book’s epigraph is from William Wordsworth—“In deep and awful channel runs/This sympathy for Sire and Sons.” As the psychopath feels not the slightest gram of guilt for the cruelest of crimes, so often those close to him take on the burden of guilt, trying to locate, in themselves, possible causes, motives, the wellsprings of horror. When, in 1988, Jeffrey Dahmer was first convicted of a sexual felony, Lionel Dahmer thought, “In the eyes of parents…children always seem just a blink away from redemption. No matter to what depth we watch them sink, we believe they need only grasp the lifeline, and we can pull them safely to shore.”

Lionel’s belief in his ability to make any difference in his disturbed son’s life, if not to “save” him, was defeated at that juncture, and Jeffrey was taken away to serve a year’s sentence in the Milwaukee County House of Corrections. (As in a television situation comedy, Jeffrey is always assuring his anxious father that he’s sorry for his behavior—“I’ll never do anything like that again, Dad.” Ironically, unknown to Lionel Dahmer as to the numerous mental health counselors, therapists, defense attorneys, and probation officers who would touch his life, Jeffrey had already killed four young men by 1988. He’d been only eighteen at the time of the first killing in Ohio.)

Despite its stated intention of confronting “every error of judgment, every miscalculation, every instance of obliviousness” that might have contributed to Jeffrey Dahmer’s derangement, A Father’s Story is a testament to the futility of such an effort. Not that it is not passionately argued, or insincere in its language; not that it draws back squeamishly from its modest revelations (though Lionel Dahmer does not enumerate the details of his son’s crimes, and no one reading only A Father’s Story would have a clear idea of the charges brought against Jeffrey Dahmer).

In chapters interspersed with family snapshots, Lionel meticulously scrutinizes his own lonely, introverted childhood in the hope of comprehending his son’s; he recalls his need for fantasizing “control” in relation to Jeffrey’s pathological need; he analyzes his own adolescent predilections (for magic tricks, fires, making explosive chemical mixtures—the other boys called him “Dahmer the Bomber”) in relation to what he knows of Jeffrey’s (who, as a boy, was fascinated with dead animals—skinning and dissecting them in secret). Lionel Dahmer wonders if perhaps the extraordinary amount of powerful medications Jeffrey’s mother took through her difficult pregnancy might not have contributed to the boy’s “dull-normal,” affectless personality and his alcoholic dependency. (Like most serial killers, including Dennis Nilsen, Jeffrey was an alcoholic who became violent and dissociated when he drank. He already had a drinking problem by seventh grade.) Lionel rereads letters he’d written to Jeffrey years ago and is ashamed of the “utter emptiness” they express—the awkward, affable banalities of a parent with little to say to an estranged, troubled son with nothing at all to say to him. By the memoir’s conclusion, Lionel wonders if he is responsible for having passed on to Jeffrey a defective gene, and if the “Dahmer line” should be allowed to die out.

That Thomas H. Cook should be involved in the preparation of A Father’s Story is appropriate, for Cook is a gifted mystery novelist (The City When It Rains, Mortal Memory, Sacrificial Ground) whose predominant themes are dysfunctional families and whose plots frequently involve the search of a father for his child—a search for knowledge that may be an actual search, a spiritual adventure. A Father’s Story limns a similar quest, in intelligent and compassionate terms, but without a resolution. For, finally, Lionel Dahmer’s “confession” and his stringent self-censure are so disproportionate to his son’s pathology as to seem bleakly and unintentionally comic, like blaming oneself for having slammed a door and precipitating an earthquake.

To what extent can, or should, any reasonable parent assume responsibility for an adult child’s life?—for his or her accomplishments, as well as failures? Had Lionel Dahmer done a survey of the literature of serial killers, he would have learned that Jeffrey’s middle-class, generally supportive background is exemplary compared to the backgrounds of 99 percent of such killers: no child abuse, no head injuries, no alcoholic prostitute for a mother, no nightmare foster homes or institutions. (For an education in how parents can make of a seemingly normal child a full-fledged psychotic killer, see Flora Rheta Schreiber’s The Shoemaker, another classic in this gory genre.)

The unexamined egoism of the principle underlying such a document as A Father’s Story—the masculine line of descent of which Wordsworth speaks in “this sympathy for Sire and Sons”—takes no one else into consideration, including of course the mother. Yet it is doubtful that, if one has had the rotten luck of siring a psychopath, anyone or anything can deflect him from his course. How exactly does one deal with a budding Jeffrey Dahmer, laconic, deeply secretive, a chronic liar as a teen-ager? How does one even begin to comprehend a son who steals a full-sized department store mannikin—“a male figure, fully dressed in t-shirt and shorts”—and hides it in his bedroom closet, with the vague mumbled excuse that he’d taken the mannikin “only to demonstrate that he could do it”? (If you really want to know what young Jeffrey was doing with the mannikin, which Lionel seems not to have guessed, see Schwartz’s The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough with its catalog of Jeffrey Dahmer’s myriad perversions, including his “paraphilia” episodes.)

How does one confront a zombie son with no interest in educating or training himself, no friends, no future? Is it a defective gene? Or simply bad luck? The blunt fact of Jeffrey Dahmer, as it would appear to be the defining fact for male serial killers in their adolescence, is that, while their coevals are establishing friendships that may last for decades, while they are “dating” and fantasizing romantic and sexual relations of the kind presumed “normal,” the serial killer-to-be is fantasizing violent sadistic acts that empower him sexually and yearning for the day when he has the opportunity to make them real. I had no other thrill or happiness.

Letters

Serial Killers June 9, 1994

Serial Killers June 9, 1994

  1. 10

    Nilsen was found guilty of six counts of murder at his trial of October–November 1983 and sentenced to life imprisonment with the recommendation that he serve a minimum of twenty-five years. Since Nilsen was thirty-eight when he became incarcerated, he will be only sixty-three when he is released. Contrast Jeffrey Dahmer’s sentence of 957 years on fifteen counts of murder, handed down by a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, judge in February 1992.

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