A Father's Story by Lionel Dahmer

William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994 255 pp. 20.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Part of our fascination with serial killers is that they allow a modern formulation of an eternal question: is evil a genuine force in the world, or can seemingly evil acts be explained scientifically, as originating in genetic malformation or environmental causes? While Hannibal Lecter's crimes entertain, the horrors Jeffrey Dahmer perpetrated were real. Monster? Genetic or environmental victim? Let's ask Jeff's dad.

In A Father's Story Lionel Dahmer tries to confront the question of how he and his wife spawned one of America's most relentless and despicable killers. This results in a most curious document, one which wears candor on its sleeve, yet seems to obscure as much as it reveals.

Lionel Dahmer was socially inept and, like many men of his generation, out of touch with his feelings. As a graduate chemistry student, he witnessed his wife Joyce's emotional deterioration during her first pregnancy with Jeff. "She began to develop uncontrollable muscle spasms ¼ During these strange seizures, her eyes would bulge like a frightened animal, and she would begin to salivate, literally frothing at the mouth." Owing to her rigidity, "¼ a doctor would usually have to intervene, giving Joyce injections of barbiturates and morphine, which would finally relax her."

Heavily medicated, she eventually bore Jeffrey, whose childhood seemed normal, unless one views his behavior through the lens of what he will become. Then, his childhood medical problems don't seem so routine. Owing to repeated infections, he had repeated injections. "His little buttocks were covered with injection lumps, and he began to lash out at the nurses and doctors who labored to treat him." A double hernia operation followed. Afterward he was in so much pain he asked his mother if the doctors had cut off his penis.

Otherwise, Jeffrey's childhood was marred only by Lionel and Joyce's relationship, which led to divorce during Jeffrey's adolescence. Even before his parents' breakup, however, Jeffrey had begun to withdraw. "A strange fear had begun to creep into his personality, a dread of others that was combined with a general lack of self-confidence. It was as if he had come to expect that other people might harm him in some way, and so he wanted to stay clear of them."

Following Joyce's sudden disappearance, Jeffrey moved in with his grandmother. Here he began his first murders, hiding bodies beneath the garage, and keeping the head of one victim in a box in his room.

One day the police call Lionel, saying there has been a murder. In a tribute to Lionel's ignorance, he thinks someone had murdered Jeffrey.

In examining his life, Lionel sees many of Jeffrey's qualities in himself, but cannot explain why Jeffrey passed the line into murder. Lionel's recurrent explanation is psychological. "The dread of people leaving him had been at the root of more than one of Jeff's murders. In general, Jeff had simply wanted to 'keep' people permanently, to hold them fixedly within his grasp. He had wanted to make them literally a part of him, a permanent part, utterly inseparable from himself."

Seeing his father for the first time after his arrest, Jeffrey responds to the horrors he perpetrated sounding more like the Beaver confronted by Ward: "I guess I've really done it this time."

While Lionel Dahmer's candor is both admirable and painful to watch, A Father's Life presents more a road map of masculine emotional repression than an explanation for Jeffrey's crimes. Read it as an uncomfortable self-examination, but don't expect it to explain the origin of evil.