A Father’s Story: A Review
When I was a little kid, serial killers seemed to be in the news all the time. There was the murder spree and bizarre trial of the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez. There was Ted Bundy’s trial and escape and execution. And there was the arrest in my home state of Wisconsin followed by the prison murder of Jeffrey Dahmer. Since I can remember, I’ve known Dahmer’s name, and the sight of him has terrified me. For that reason, as well what I assumed would be the difficult emotional content of the book, I waited many years to read Lionel Dahmer’s account of his son’s life in A Father’s Story.
Since the novel I’m working on now has to do with a similar subject matter, I finally picked up A Father’s Story as research material. It’s a relatively short read: I could’ve read it through in a sitting if the book wasn’t so emotionally dense. As it is, though, I found myself putting it down often in order to digest some of the more difficult points.
Dahmer doesn’t talk much about the murders his son committed, so readers looking for a voyeuristic account of a series of grisly murders will be disappointed. Rather, this book is about a father trying to come to terms with the horrific actions of a beloved son.
Every one of Dahmer’s memories of his child’s early life is tinged with regret, suspicion, and foreboding. Little boys are often morbidly curious when it comes to things like bones and dead animals, but in the case of young Jeffrey Dahmer, we find ourselves wondering along with his father, is this where it all went wrong? We watch young Jeffrey go through normal childhood ups and downs: we see the love he had for the family dog, Frisky. We see his fear of starting a new school after the family moves. We see childhood photos of young Jeffrey eating ice cream with a friend and playing in the pool and being held by his grandparents. The disconnect between what we come to the book already knowing about Jeffrey Dahmer and what we learn about him while reading is only compounded by the fact that it was written by a man who knew this happy little boy first, who only found out later (and to his shock) that he was frighteningly disturbed.
Genetics become a serious avenue of exploration in the memoir, as well. Lionel Dahmer discusses his difficulty in expressing, and even experiencing, a normal range of emotions — a trait he later finds has turned very dark in his sons. Lifelong trouble with low self-esteem is another trait that Dahmer feels he passed onto his son, though the work ethic the older Dahmer learned to apply to overcome this lack of confidence doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on Jeffrey. Dahmer considers the possibility that the prescription drugs his wife took while she was pregnant with Jeffrey contributed to the boy’s later troubles. Dahmer talks about seeing his young son go through many of the difficulties that he, himself, had experienced as a young man. But where Lionel Dahmer had a loving and attentive father to help guide him through his troubles, it often seems that the young Jeffrey was left on his own, maneuvering through his problems in the shadows of his disconnected and deeply unhappy parents.
Lionel Dahmer doesn’t shy away from calling his parenting of Jeffrey into question, either. He and his wife had a very troubled marriage, pretty much from the get-go, and Dahmer talks at length about how he would escape the turmoil of his house into the calm and order of his chemistry lab at work, leaving his young son alone with a depressive, often disturbed (it seems) mother. Both this lack of availability on the part of his father and the constant and close contact with a very ill mother are two more possible contributing factors to the things that young Jeffrey would later grow up to do. It often seems, throughout the first part of the book, that a dysfunctional home life was a major factor in the young man’s devolution into what he later became. So detuned to the life of their teenage son were the Dahmer parents that they didn’t notice he was developing a pretty serious problem with alcoholism. And when his parents finally do get divorced, seventeen-year-old Jeffrey’s mother abandons him in his childhood home for weeks without telling anyone she’s moved out. It is only when Jeffrey’s stepmother, Shari, comes into the picture that the seriousness of the young Dahmer’s troubles begin to be illuminated.
But by then, of course, it’s too late. Jeffrey has already killed his first victim and is well on his way to spiraling completely out of control.
I don’t want to relate the entire book to you, dear reader, but as you may be able to tell, I found it a fascinating and often heartbreaking memoir of what-if’s and if-only’s, and even a tiny pinch of redemption. A Father’s Story is not Lionel Dahmer’s attempt to rationalize for his son, nor does he write to place blame on anyone or to redirect it off of his own shoulders. He doesn’t seem to be asking us to forgive his son or to forget the terrible nature of his son’s many crimes. Rather, the memoir is a sincere attempt to try and find where it all went wrong, to solidify and understand his own role in his son’s crimes, to find out why and maybe even to mourn for the normal life his son never got to live.