Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

The Dahmer Case

Jeff Dahmer
Jeff Dahmer

Not all serial killers were beaten or abused as children. Jeffrey Dahmer had an apparently normal upbringing, yet grew up to be one of the most notorious sex murderers in popular culture. In his book A Father's Story, Lionel Dahmer searches for answers to his own son's deviance. Lionel, who describes himself as an "analytical thinker," believes that Jeffrey's mother's hysteria and psychosomatic illnesses during pregnancy might be responsible.

He describes Joyce as going through a difficult pregnancy, constantly vomiting, as if her body was being sickened by what was germinating, an early biological "rejection" by mother. While pregnant with Jeff, Joyce developed strange fits of rigidity: "At times, her legs would lock tightly in place, and her whole body would grow rigid and begin to tremble. Her jaw would jerk to the right and take on a similarly frightening rigidity. During these strange seizures, her eyes would bulge like a frightened animal, and she would begin to salivate, literally frothing at the mouth."

As Lionel describes it, it's as if a corpse was giving birth. Father Lionel remains detached and analytical while Mother Joyce is in the midst of a biological warfare, fighting hormones with drugs. Lionel asks, ominously, "Why was she so upset all the time? What was it that she found so dreadful?"

"Then, at the end of the long trial, my son was born." Lionel's first sight of his son is in a plastic container, which is how the victims of apartment 213 will later be removed. The bloody chamber of Jeff's apartment, according to Lionel, had its origins in Joyce's drugged womb.

While Lionel implicates Joyce as the biological contaminant in Jeffrey's sickness, he admits to his own destructive inclinations, which may have been passed on to their son. Lionel was fascinated by fire and made bombs as child. "A dark pathway had been dug into my brain," he writes. Little Jeffrey is transfixed by pile of bones, which only seems macabre after the adult Jeffrey's deadly deeds. At the time, Lionel saw it as normal curiosity.

At age 4, Jeffrey had a double hernia, and had to have surgery. "So much pain, I learned later, that he had asked Joyce if the doctors had cut off his penis." Lionel thinks this quasi-castrating surgery affected his son: "In Jeff, this flattening began to take on a sense of something permanent," he wrote. "This strange and subtle inner darkening began to appear almost physically. His hair, which had once been so light, grew steadily darker, along with the deeper shading of his eyes. More than anything, he seemed to grow more inward, sitting quietly for long periods, hardly stirring, his face oddly motionless."

Both father and son found solace in controlling biological experiments. "In the lab, I found a wonderful comfort and assurance in knowing the properties of things, how they could be manipulated in predictable patterns. It provided a great relief from the chaos I found at home." Jeff became shy and fearful of others, just as his dad had been. "It was as if some element of my character yearned for complete predictability, for rigid structure," said Lionel. "I simply didn't know how things worked with other people." Lionel recognized that Jeffrey was "so intimidated by their presence, that in order for him to have contact with them, they needed to be dead."

Lionel sees a "terrible vacancy" in own son's eyes, and wonders, "Am I like that?" and sees his son as a "deeper, darker shadow" of himself. He remembers that at the age of 13 he wanted to hypnotize and cast a spell over a girl, "so I could control her entirely." At what point does an innocent fantasy warp into a deadly fascination? Can we control the inner life of our children? Lionel warns that "some of us are doomed to pass a curse instead." The frightening conclusion of Lionel Dahmer's cautionary tale is that we can be blind to our own destructive tendencies, and may innocently pass them on. "Fatherhood remains, at last, a grave enigma, and when I contemplate that my other son may one day be a father, I can only say to him, as I must to every father after me, "Take care, take care, take care."


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