OK. Apparently this needs to be said again. I’ll post this here so I don’t have to repeatedly state this. Any media can feel free to pick up any of these quotes. I've no real interest in being interviewed about all this again. I'm currently promoting my latest book, Trashed, and working on my 4th and 5th books. I'm looking forward, not in the rearview mirror.
With the film in production and getting press, some of the tired charges of “exploitation” are flying around again, mostly from the usual parties: tv news and other mainstream media and from tongue-cluckers who haven’t read the book and have no intention of ever reading it.
My Friend Dahmer was released in 2012. Twenty-one years after Dahmer was arrested, 19 years after he was killed. There have been four feature films made about him, one starring Jeremy Renner, the action film hero. There have been hundreds of books written about Dahmer. Dozens of tv biopics. Thousands of magazine and newspaper articles. There’s a line of Jeffrey Dahmer trading cards. Katy Perry has sung about him. There are three death metal tribute albums. There are two Jeffrey Dahmer action figures. He’s been a character in South Park, and on Saturday Night Live. And a thoughtful memoir is somehow “exploitive”? Yeah. OK. Sure.
So why did I make the book? I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. And this story dropped from the sky and fell in my lap.
Mine was also a story that hadn’t been told. Most concentrate on his infamous crimes. My book isn’t about those crimes. It’s the story before that story. It ends when he kills his first victim. There’s no violence, no depictions of deviant sex, heck there aren’t even any swear words! My story is that of a sad, dysfunctional boy who falls between the cracks, and his inexorable march to the edge of the edge of the abyss as an uncaring adult world stands by and watches with disinterest. It’s a story with value. It’s a story worth telling. It’s also MY story. I was a part of it and I have EVERY right to tell it.
My Friend Dahmer is in its 15th US printing. It’s been translated into six languages. It’s been universally lauded by critics here and abroad. Lev Grossman, the book critic of Time magazine, named it one of the five best non-fiction books (ALL books) of 2012. It won a prestigious Alex Award from the American Library Association, and was placed on the 100 Greatest Graphic Novels of All Time list by the same organization. It was awarded an Angoulême Prize in France, the Cannes Film Festival of comics, along with three other European book prizes. It’s taught in many, many high school and college lit classes, both here and in Europe. Think it’s tacky or exploitive? That question has long been answered, and you’re on the wrong side of it.
I have nothing to apologize for. My story isn’t about Dahmer’s crimes, and it’s not about his victims. The only murder that is touched upon (and it doesn’t occur “on camera”) is that of his first, 19-year-old Stephen Hicks, a local kid who was just trying to get home. I’m haunted by Stephen, because his grisly fate was so random, because my friends and I were so close to the murder, mere yards away at some points, and because he was so like dozens of kids that I knew at Revere High School. The other 16 victims aren’t in this story at all. In fact, the book ends nine years before he kills his first victim in Milwaukee. Mine is a melancholy tale, full of regret and, yes, a little anger.
So why a comic book? Why didn’t I write a “real” book? I, of course, reject that question out of hand. Comics are my storytelling medium and I think I'm pretty good at it. How else was I going to tell it? If I was a poet, I would have written a poem. That question also implies comics are a junk artform, unworthy of such a story, which is a small-minded American thing, from ignorant people who don’t understand what a wonderful storytelling form this is. This isn’t Jughead here. Comics have won Pulitzers and been nominated for National Book Awards.
Why allow it to adapted into a film?
I made the book I wanted to make. A film only enhances the book, and perhaps leads more people to pick it up who wouldn’t otherwise. That helps me from a commercial standpoint, sure. I’m not going to apologize for making a living. I’m a professional, and have been for 33 years. I also want people to read this story, because I think it has value. With every mass shooter or guy who kills his family, I see the same things I saw with Jeff. The same missed signs, the same lack of intervention. There are lessons in My Friend Dahmer, ones we as a society seem to have no interest in learning, true, but I hold out hope.
My Friend Dahmer, at its heart, is a story about failure. EVERYbody fails. His parents, his teachers, the school administrators, his friends, and Jeff himself, who fails about as spectacularly as someone CAN fail. The result of that across-the-board failure is a pile of bodies and thousands who mourn his 17 victims. I’m sure those thousands don’t like this book. I get that. Not only because it deals with a man who caused them so much pain, but, frankly, because it humanizes him, and that’s not something they want to see.
But that, too, has value, in my opinion. It’s easy to write off someone like Dahmer as a just a monster. And he certainly was. But not always. At one point in his life, he was just a sad, lonely boy struggling against a welling madness. To label him nothing but a monster absolves everyone else in this story of any responsibility, because he was ALWAYS a monster, and what he did was inevitable. Nothing could have been done. Well, I don’t believe that. Mistakes were made. MANY mistakes.
Filmmaker Marc Meyers wasn’t the first to approach me. I had turned down several offers previously, from filmmakers who I didn’t think would stay true to the story. I watched Marc’s first film, Harvest” which won the top prize at the Cleveland Film Festival, and I saw a talented director who made made quiet, smart films for adults. I decided to give him a chance. There’s risk involved in any endeavor like this. I’m passing off a very personal, very finely crafted story to another artist to interpret in his own way. I’m sure there will be things I like, and things I don’t and things I disagree with completely. Heck, we’ve ALREADY had those disagreements. But if he makes a good film, and I’m confident he will, it will only enhance the book. If he boots it, well, people will say “damn, this is nowhere near as good as the book.” I essentially have nothing to lose, and much to gain. The pressure, which I frequently remind him, is on him.
People who think I’m doing this just to cash in, well, they are clueless about the economics of independent film. I’m not partnering with Joss Whedon here! I made a little money, and I won’t apologize for that, but my motivation is to spread the story to new audiences and to sell more books. Period.