My Friend Dahmer – Review


Derf Backderf China.png

Abrams (2012), 224 pages

A Present

My Friend Dahmer is a graphic novel written by one of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school classmates.  While it would be wrong to call Backderf and Dahmer friends (Dahmer was just a bit too strange to have friends) they were close enough to offer Backderf a first-hand view into the strange mind of a trainee serial killer.  My Friend Dahmer also offers an autobiographical account of surviving a US high school.  The impersonality of such a large school and the apathy of some of the teachers makes it easier for those who don’t fit in to be bullied or ignored.  Dahmer’s problems thrived in the uncaring environments of his home and school.


Backderf paints Dahmer as an awkward loner but it is when his parents’ marriage breaks up that his strange behaviour takes off.  As Dahmer got older he began to experience violent necrophiliac desires.  After his parents’ divorce Dahmer lived with his mother in a house outside of town.  Her own mental illness and breakdowns increased the pressure on Dahmer.  None of the adults in Dahmer’s life seemed to notice his increasingly strange behaviour (or if they noticed they didn’t seem to care).  This was the time where some kind of intervention could have prevented future carnage but as Backderf wonders, “Where were the damn adults?” (p. 67)


My Friend Dahmer does contain moments of humour although mostly of the blackest variety.  On a school trip to Washington DC Dahmer manages to organise a meeting with Vice-President Walter Mondale.  After his father moved out Dahmer became increasingly violent and turned to killing animals.   He became something of a mascot for the group of disaffected males who Backderf hung around with.  Dahmer’s alcoholism worsened to such an extent that he would drink in the school parking lot before it opened (again no adults seemed to notice this).  Just as high school was ending Dahmer’s mother moved out of the house leaving him alone until his father (who got the house in a divorce settlement) moved back in.  With school finishing Dahmer lost the illusion that he had any friends at all.  Abandoned by his family his unnatural desires had space to take over.  Dahmer chose to kill his first victim, a young hitchhiker called Steven Hicks.  It would be his first of 17 victims.  It seems that Dahmers sexual desires and fear of being left alone played a part in his killings.

Of the many serial killers I have seen interviewed Dahmer is perhaps the only one who has expressed what appeared to be genuine remorse.  Of course I could have been taken in by a man who was able to manipulate his victims into believing he wouldn’t harm them before he killed them.  My Friend Dahmer is a bleak tale.  Nobody comes out if it well.  Jeffrey Dahmer bears the vast majority of the responsibility for his actions but the failure of the adults in his life to intervene in his obvious problems is also shocking.


Related Links

DerfCity – Derf’s website

Reglar Wiglar interview with Derf Backderf


Khruschev: The Man and His Era – Review


William Taubman China.png

 Free Press, 896 pages

Charity Shop in Kilkenny – €2

Nikita Khruschev, after Lenin and Stalin, was arguably the most important Soviet ruler.  He denounced Stalin’s murderous excesses in his “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.  He presided over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (a series of events that pushed the USA and the Soviet Union towards nuclear war).  Khrushchev acted as a bridge between the horrors of World War II and the new cultural and economic desires of the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” he idolised Stalin for many years.  As he transitioned from a humble worker to a Party apparatchik he was overawed by Stalin’s personality and achievements.  It was Khrushchev’s closeness to Stalin that enabled him to climb the political ladder and also survive the murderous purges of the 1930s.  Khrushchev was complicit in the deaths of many of his party colleagues and acquaintances.  He stayed silent when innocent people were vilified and signed their death warrants.  Khrushchev seemed to believe some of the slanders against the accused but there were others he would have known were innocent.  Taubman notes that Khrushchev only refers tangentially to this period in his own writings.  It is as if he has tried to blank out this most shameful episode of his life.  His willing participation in Stalin’s purges, even if he didn’t agree with its extent, is impossible to overlook.

However Khrushchev was vital in preventing Lavrentiy Beria from taking power after Stalin’s death.  Rule by the psychopathic Beria could have been as bad as under Stalin. Khrushchev was also played a part vital in de-Stalinization through his “Secret Speech” (“On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences“) to the 1956 Party Conference and by outwitting remaining Stalinists.  He also freed many political prisoners.

Khrushchev was wedded to communism and never doubted its superiority to capitalism.  Of course it is easy to be wedded to a political system that insulated Khrushchev and his family from the economic and cultural hardships that afflicted the average Soviet citizen.  While Khrushchev wanted to destroy Stalinism he still wanted to ensure the superiority of Soviet power.  He crushed opposition to Soviet power in Hungary, suppressed unrest in Poland, and he almost brought the world to war over the Cuban missile crisis.

Khrushchev’s genuine working class roots made him feel insecure among his better educated colleagues even when he was Supreme Leader.  He drank to excess and struggled to control his emotions.  He rejected expert advice on agricultural policies.  This resulted in a failed attempt to grow maize across the Soviet Union.  He failed to accept that the world was changing and that the supposed security offered by communism failed to satisfy younger citizens.  Like many dictators he was surprised when others came to claim his throne.  His final years following his removal from power were spent in unhappy isolation at his dacha.  Unlike many of his Soviet peers Khrushchev had the luxury of dying in his bed.


Amexica – Review


Ed Vulliamy  China.png

Vintage (2010), 368 pages

Chapters Bookstore – €3

Amexica: War Along the Borderline at times reads like a Cormac McCarthy novel.  The border between the USA and Mexico, despite attempts to fence it off, has always been a mixed zone.  For most people the mixing is of the innocent kind, to travel to jobs, to go shopping, to meet family and friends.  However for others the border provides an opportunity for meeting the demand for illegal goods on both sides of the border.  Put simply drugs flow north and weapons flow south.  Caught in the middle are the people trafficked north and the citizens of the respective borderland areas.  In recent years the Mexican narco-wars have changed the region, especially on the Mexican side, into one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Vulliamy’s interviews portray a complex series of problems exacerbated by massive drug-fuelled corruption on the Mexican side and a failure to control the massive amount of weapons flowing from the USA into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.  It is estimated that the drug trade is worth an astonishing $323 billion a year.  A key part of Amexica is the economic “developments” that have encouraged the spread of low paid jobs on the Mexican side of the border assembling goods for the US market.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has resulted in the loss of US jobs while creating a population of poorly treated sweatshop workers in factories near the border.  The workers are so disposable that hundreds of female workers have been killed in the region since the early 1990s.  The factory owners, the police, and the State have all failed to create a safe environment for Mexican workers.  Is the Amexica portrayed by Vulliamy an extremely violent anachronism in Mexican history or a vision of a future where people are seen as even less valuable than the disposable goods they produce?  In some ways the business models being employed by the drug gangs are mirrored by the methods used by legal sweatshop businesses with a similar disregard for the human costs of their actions.  Building walls and fences between people is generally a sign of failure.  Instead of trying to solve the root cause of the problem a fence is a sticking plaster placed across a gushing artery.  Until the reasons why US citizens consume large amounts of illegal narcotics and the reasons why many Mexicans head north in search of a better life are addressed then emotions of greed and desire will always overcome any fence.


Related Links

The Guardian archive of Vulliamy’s newspaper articles

Killers of the King – Review


Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I is a great historical page turner. Charles I was executed following a show trial in 1649.  His autocratic style of rule led to conflicts with the English Parliament which sparked the English Civil War that was to claim over 100,000 lives.  When Charles I’s son, Charles II restored the monarchy to power in 1660 he sought to avenge his father’s execution.  A trans-continental manhunt attempted to bring all of those involved in Charles I’s execution to justice. The execution of Charles I ushered in the dubious benefits of republican rule under Oliver Cromwell (a man whose name is synonymous with massacres and barbarism in Ireland and the deportation of 50,000 Irish as slaves to the West Indies).

Of course “justice” in 17th century England was shockingly different to justice now.  Although Charles I had the right to defend himself in a trial it was a show trial with a preordained verdict. Charles I was a poor king.  He was arrogant and believed in the divine right of kings to such an extent that he thought he could ride roughshod over the powers enjoyed by Parliament.  He convened Parliament irregularly and when he did it was to try and squeeze taxes (especially Ship Money) from his increasingly reluctant subjects.  Monarchies generally don’t fall because of a sudden spontaneous revolution.  They fall because an inflexible monarch’s actions have infuriated his subjects to such an extent they would rather take a chance on the unknown than continue with the status quo.  As far as I know the last monarch to be overthrown was the Nepalese king.  He managed the neat trick of both strengthening Marxist opposition to his rule and convincing liberal monarchists that they’d be better off with a republic.  Following Charles I’s trial 59 people signed the king’s death warrant.  It was these people plus those involved in the execution (the king was allowed a noble execution by beheading instead of the hanging, drawing, and quartering that would be meted out to his killers) that would be pursued by Charles II.


The execution of Charles I Credit:

Execution for the regicides involved being publicly humiliated and torn apart in an exhibition of ISIS-like depravity.  Spencer spares no details in his description of the executions of those who are caught by Charles II’s men.  Were people in the early modern period so different from people today?  Why was such extreme violence accepted?  Of course those who turned up at executions had their own reasons for doing so, many people avoided such horrific spectacles.  Life was significantly more violent in 17th century Europe (quite apart from the greater risk of dying from disease or injury).  The current homicide rate in London is about 1 per 100,000 people.  In the 1600s it was probably over 40 (and possibly over 50) per 100,000.  That would make London, at today’s homicide rates, one of the most dangerous cities in the world (depressingly though you would be safer in 1650s London than in some cities in Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia today).

Killers of the King is excellent at portraying the religious, political, and personal motives behind the actions of those who signed Charles I’s death warrant.  Seventeenth century England contained an extraordinary mix of Christian beliefs, many of them apocalyptic in nature, that created a fevered atmosphere.  Radical changes were deemed necessary to establish God’s kingdom on earth.  Naturally where one group sought the removal of the existing king for religious reasons their opponents had equally deep felt beliefs for fearing that regicide would bring God’s wrath down upon the nation.

Spencer’s account of the trial of the king and the pursuit of his killers is gripping.  Charles II’s men scour Europe and the American colonies in search of their quarry.  It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the fugitives as they continually run for their lives knowing the dreadful fate that awaits them if they are taken alive.  However some lack basic common sense, they travel in groups and still dress and carry themselves as elite Englishmen.   This makes them relatively easy to find in a Europe of small towns and cities.  Spencer is even-handed in his approach, he elicits sympathy for both Charles I and his killers.  Both Charles and his killers (although both misguided) genuinely believed that they were leading their country in a better direction.  The real tragedy was that their inflexibility played a part in the deaths of over 100,000 people in the English Civil War.


Related Links

Homicide in Early Modern England: The Need for a Quantitative Synthesis