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Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Thoughts on Alex: My Friend Dahmer

We review a lot of graphic novels around here (thanks in large part to super-reviewer Francisca Goldsmith) so, as we said on Monday, Angela and I were very happy to see a GN on the Alex Awards list this year.  As I somewhat embarrassingly indicated, though, I hadn’t read Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, so I wanted to read it and take a closer look at it.

First of all–wow.  This is a great graphic novel. I saw a goodreads review which criticized this book for being more sympathetic to Jeffrey Dahmer than the narrator, and several others who attacked the book for Backderf’s seemingly contradictory portrayal of himself as both a friend and bully of Jeff.  But these were actually the two pieces that I found most compelling about the book.  Backderf never quite comes out and accuses himself of being a bully, but he shows it copiously.  And his sympathy towards Dahmer’s suffering is both admirable and absolutely necessary for the book to work.

We had four graphic novels on our Best of 2012 list: Gone to Amerikay, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, Sailor Twain, and Goliath.  I’m on record as calling Gone to Amerikay as my favorite, and Angela named Dotter.  What My Friend Dahmer has clearly over both of those titles is heaps more teen appeal.  Most obviously, the true crime sensationalism of Dahmer, but also the high school setting, the themes of bullying, the clean comic-style art, and the linear plot all make this far more accessible than Angela and my favorites.  The only GN from our list that might rival the appeal of My Friend Dahmer is Goliath, which has a similarly linear narrative and a very different but still more accessible art style.  It’s also funny, which doesn’t hurt.  But if the Alex committee looked at it at all, they may have seen it as a bit too slight in comparison to the thematic weight of My Friend Dahmer.

But is it nonfiction?
The source of my embarrassment, above, was that I didn’t know that this book was a nonfiction title, but as I read it I had to wonder, is it exactly nonfiction?  On the most mundane level of library shelving, my library has it in fiction, as do three of the first four libraries in my area that I looked at (Yolo County, Oakland Public, Sonoma County).  San Francisco Public puts in True Crime.  Of course, where a library shelves a book isn’t always foolproof, as I recently saw.

What interested me more was that Backderf admits to inventing conversations (“Obviously, this conversation is a re-creation, based on Jeff’s recollection,” p. 212).  In all the hubbub over Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb and accuracy in nonfiction, one of the most common things I heard was memories of the “bad-old-days” of nonfiction where dialogue was invented from whole-cloth.  The examples in My Friend Dahmer don’t seem as bad, but they certainly cross a line we wouldn’t expect to see crossed in a primarily textual book.  

Then I started wondering whether a graphic novel (note the word “novel”) can ever hope to be as rigorously nonfiction as a text book.  The very format demands that the author make decisions about things he can’t possibly know–the clothes someone wore, the layout of a house, the weather.  This was driven home to me as I was reading Dotter of her Father’s Eyes.  In this memoir/biography, Mary Talbot wrote the text and her husband Bryan illustrated it.  On a couple of occasions, Mary slyly interrupts the graphics with notes like these: “NB: My mother wouldn’t have been seen dead in a frilly apron” (p. 13); “NB: Bryan’s wrong again. In my school boys were seated on one side of the classroom, the girls on the other. Always.” (p. 18).  This is clever and fun, but it draws attention to the fact that one never sees these notes in other graphic novels.  Does Backderf draw Dahmer in an outfit he would never have been caught dead in?   Is the seating arrangement in the classrooms wrong? Who knows?

These are undoubtedly minor points, but I think it is worth pointing out that when we talk about graphic novels as being nonfiction, we are almost certainly putting them in a slightly different category from other nonfiction.  By the way, I don’t mean this as a criticism of My Friend Dahmer, or nonfiction Graphic Novels.  I just think it is an interesting element about how the ever elusive “truth” is translated into various mediums.  I’m more than happy to hear from anyone who has thoughts or opinions on this.  Comment away.

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark


  1. Derf Backderf says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    Graphic novels, at least in my local libraries, are usually shelved together, whether they are fiction or non. I would argue that the standard of non-fiction you describe here is unattainable by anything other than the driest academic tome. Memoir has its flaws, to be sure, but by your definition, can never be considered non-fiction. I don’t accept that. I’m not particularly a fan of memoir myself, especially comix memoir. That may seem strange, given I’ve penned this now-famous one, but “My Friend Dahmer” HAD to be memoir, since I was a part of the story.

    Yes, the conversation on pg. 164-65 is a re-creation. Which I state in my copious footnotes. But that is the exception. It is not an “invention”, as that implies it is untrue, which it is not. This book is meticulously researched and the source material for each and every scene is listed in 20 pages of footnotes in the back. I tried to have three sources for every scene. This was not always possible, and the conversation on pg. 164-65 is an example. There were only two possible sources, and both Jeff and his mom are, of course, deceased. However, it is not an “invention,” since some of that conversation comes directly from Jeff himself, as the footnote on pg. 212 states. Joyce: “And you can’t tell your Dad… promise me you won’t tell him.” Jeff: “I won’t tell.” In the source for that scene, an interview with NBC, Jeff says specifically “I was told not to tell.”

    You write that I can’t possibly know the clothes that Dahmer wore. That is incorrect. The outfits I draw throughout the book are EXACTLY the ones that Dahmer preferred, as I and the friends I interviewed at length remember them, and as the many photographs I worked from show, right down to the dark jacket he wore throughout high school and the styles of glasses he sported in both junior high and high school. The layout of the house is inaccurate? Guess again. I’ve been in it (a friend bought it) and made reference drawings to use in the creation of this book, going so far as to pace out the dimensions of the rooms. The weather? I researched that, too, to place the heavy snowstorms of the era. You’re picking nits that I already worked over.

    I daresay there has never been a graphic novel that has 20 pages of source notes and explanations at the end. That was done specifically to counter the concerns of skeptics that a graphic novel couldn’t be a serious piece, researched at journalistic standards. I’ll leave the argument over what is and isn’t non-fiction, by definition, to you librarians, and props to you all for contemplating such things. I have to say, though, it would be an awfully small section if your exacting standard was adopted.

    As for the question of bullying, my goal was to write this book with as much brutal honesty as I could muster, because that was the only way to craft it, in my opinion. There are no heroes in this sad story. Everyone fails, including, of course, Jeff himself, about as much as anyone ever has. I could have cast myself in a more heroic light. Who, after all, would have known, outside a handful of contemporaries? I chose not to, and that was the right choice. But I never felt, nor do I think so today, that my friends and I “bullied” Dahmer. There was no evil intent in our antics. And, Dahmer, for his part, didn’t think so either. he loved every minute of it! When he recalls those antics, he does so fondly. It was very likely the highlight of his otherwise wretched life. The problem with Goodreads reviews is that many of the commenters come bearing their own baggage. There are a great many Dahmer “fans” out there who have constructed a bizarre urban legend around Jeff– that he was shunned victim who later lashed back at the society that had ostracized him– and they tend to get upset when I pop that fantasy.

    Thanks to all in the library community who have championed My Friend Dahmer. If authors don’t sing your collective praises enough, let me do so: your embrace of this work has played a large part in its commercial and critical success.

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Thanks for the response Derf!

      First let me say that it wasn’t my intent to impugn MY FRIEND DAHMER in any way, nor to accuse your or your friends of being deliberately malicious towards Dahmer. With that said, a couple of quick responses:

      1) The library I work at shelves nonfiction GNs in with the nonfiction–but you are probably right that those who are shelving it as fiction aren’t making a judgement about the content so much as a shelving decision.

      2) I was absolutely surprised and impressed with the copious source notes at the end of the book, and I should have mentioned that in my comments above. You are totally right that neither graphic novels nor memoirs generally have such exhaustive notes. (And I, too, am somewhat suspicious of memoirs as a result).

      3) I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t accusing you of creating a conversation that never happened, but rather using your own words to re-create a conversation that you didn’t have access to. I apologize for my sloppy use of the word “inventing”. Nevertheless, I think my point remains that if a text-only nonfiction work put words into the mouths of characters, we would consider that an error. But my whole point was that the format of GNs doesn’t really allow you any other recourse, so we should be happy to give you more slack–*especially* since you are so up front about everything you did in your notes.

      4) Wow–I had no idea you were so meticulous about the clothing and layouts, etc. Thanks for the information. Again, I didn’t actually mean to nitpick the book, so much as open a conversation about how accurate it is possible to be, but I’m really excited to read your comment to see that you actually *were* able to be that accurate.

      5) Finally, on bullying. Again, perhaps a poor word choice. The way I read the book, the character of Backderf and his friends act in a somewhat callous way towards the character of Jeff on several occassions. To be clear, the actions I’m talking about are absolutely in line with things that I and my friends did in high school and things that I see happen among high school kids all the time. Whether that constitutes bullying is perhaps beside the point. I felt that you were completely clear (and totally right) that the true fault in Dahmer’s situation lay with the adults, but I was impressed by your ability to show yourself in what may not have been the most flattering light.

      Thank you again for your thoughts, and congratulations on your very well deserved Alex Award.

  2. Fortunately, my school’s library has a sizable collection of graphic literature, including collected volumes of continuing comic series (e.g.: Spiderman, Batman, X-Men), graphic novels, memoir/biography, some children’s picture books, and nonfiction (e.g.: the 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation). We shelve all this material together so our teens who enjoy reading graphic lit to find a wide variety of materials.

    I read My Friend Dahmer last spring, but I recall feeling stunned and awed by the content, which is chilling, but equally stunned by the detailed notes. I found myself reading the notes and revisiting those sections of the book. It’s challenging subject matter for sure, but it is important for us–and teens particularly–to see the humanity in the monstrous and vice versa. At times I wanted the narrative to be a bit tighter, but that is my fiction bias showing. After reading Mark’s and Derf’s comments above, I realize that the graphic format made me expect fiction narrative style, but really this is firmly nonfiction work.

  3. FGoldsmith says:

    Sequential art narratives show us exactly what those ‘dry academic tomes’ can hide: nonfiction comes with a point of view. Does that make it fiction? Nope, it reminds us that a significant aspect of reading is looking beyond what is printed on the page/screen, being thoughtful about which facts must receive documentary authenticity, which are interesting but inconsequential trappings, and from whose viewpoint the difference rises from potential to actual matter. I am so glad that Derf Backderf’s viewpoint rose to the top of the Alex roster. And also happy as can be that Mark has reminded us all that the naggy classification game may have as much to say about libraryland’s desire to get the exact right pigeonhole than the reader’s quest for insight.

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Thanks Francisca – you’ve put this so much better than I did, but it is precisely what I was trying to get at.

  4. Lynn Van Auken says:

    “. . . the naggy classification game may have as much to say about libraryland’s desire to get the exact right pigeonhole than the reader’s quest for insight.”
    Hear, hear!
    Further, it is (one of) our jobs as teacher librarians to teach our students to become critical readers; to help them understand that there’s a lot of gray matter between all that black and white on our shelves, and to have these conversations with our kids as they explore the wide, rich variety of literature we offer.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I may be mistaken, didn’t this also make GGNT and QP? As Top Tens? I’d check, but my computer won’t let me log into the YALSA site (or vice versa). Could I order this for my junior high libraries? Seventh and eighth grades?

    • Angela Carstensen Angela Carstensen says:

      Yes, it did, Jonathan. A rare event! (And I will let Mark reply to the second part of your question. I haven’t read it yet.)

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Jonathan –
      I’m going to be posting on the Alex/Quick Picks connection later on, but yes – a fascinating overlap.

      I don’t see any reason you couldn’t offer Dahmer to Junior High kids. There’s much discussion of Dahmer’s high school alcoholism, and, of course, a bit on the more gruesome aspects of his crimes (although most of that is left for the back matter), but if your students know who Dahmer is already, there isn’t much there to scare them off.

  6. Peter Gutierrez says:

    Sorry — no such thing as a “nonfiction graphic novel.” Even if publishers call them that (and they even call anthologies of TPB comic book collections GN’s), we know better. (This is a graphic memoir, btw.) Also, perhaps it’s mentioned somewhere and I don’t see but there’s a free Teaching Guide for this title available for download. Just Google the book title + “Teaching Guide.” It’s excellent, if I do say so myself. 😉 Anyway, thanks for covering such an important, if challenging, work.

    • Tessa Barber says:

      Hi Peter – You’ll probably not see this as I’m coming to the conversation several months in, and I’m not sure what criteria for non-fiction you’re using, but as far as I know there are many great nonfiction graphic novels – some of the more recent ones include Economix by Michael Goodwin & Dan Burr, Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert, The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone, and others. I’d suggest checking out the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list to see more.

      • Francisca Goldsmith says:

        I too wonder where Mr. Gutierrez derives the definition he presents as one that excludes graphic novels on their face. To invoke one that received much discussion when it was published now several years ago, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the 9/11 Commission’s report, demonstrates the capacity of the sequential art medium to present some facts with considerably more accuracy than text alone can. To wit, the simultaneity of hijacked flights is depicted as a simultaneity, rather than in successive paragraphs and pages; the mechanics of perception in the cause of racial profiling also can be==and in this work is–better depicted than described.

        In truth, we could say there is no nonfiction in any format, if Mr. Gutierrez imagines that to be categorized as such, neither point of view nor communication technique be employed to report actual events or experiences. That, for me, is such a rigid absurdity that I won’t be entertaining it, unless, of course, we hear more compelling reasons from Mr. Gutierrez as to what brought him to this assertion.

  7. Ann Perrigo says:

    Tessa and Francisca–
    My hunch is that Peter G. is simply taking issue with the nomenclature. There are graphic memoirs, graphic nonfiction, and graphic novels–not all books written in graphic form are novels. This seems like something we could all agree on!