You're Wrong About

Jeffrey Dahmer

September 01, 2018 You're Wrong About
You're Wrong About
Jeffrey Dahmer
Show Notes Transcript

Sarah tells Mike that shoddy policing (and Milwaukee generally) are responsible for one of America's most prolific serial killers. Digressions include panel vans, Anita Bryant, early man and Hannibal Lector. Mike struggles, as usual, not to cry during the gross parts.

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Jeffrey Dahmer

Sarah: I was a weirdo introvert bag of elbows. I was like, I don't think I'm pretty enough to get murdered.

Mike: Welcome to You’re Wrong About the podcast where we circle back to history unremembered, misremembered, and dismembered.

Sarah: Oh, disremembered.

Mike: I don't even know what that means.

Sarah: Well, it's dismembered, but with another syllable. 

Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post

Sarah: I am Sarah Marshall. I'm a writer for a bunch of outlets that are waiting on pieces that I promised to them two months ago. 

Mike: That sounds familiar. 

Sarah: I love you guys.

Mike:  And today we're talking about Jefferey Dahmer.

Sarah: Who’s our first serial killer, which is actually sort of incredible that it has taken us this long. We recorded the first episode of this show when the puppies that I am now training were being conceived, which is just amazing to me because I have spent perhaps even more time than the average American researching serial killers.

Mike: I just  imagine you walking around with a 3x3 square Brady Bunch opening credit sequence with all your favorite serial killers in there, looking up and down at each other, looking around. So maybe we should start with where did your interest in serial killers in general come from? And then we can talk about Dahmer in particular.

Sarah: I've written about this. And I feel like my idea of gender as I was growing up was very predicated on the idea that every year there are a certain number of sacrificial white girls. And all you have to do is walk down the wrong dark street and it could happen to you. And it's the Little Red Riding Hood narrative that we all know it's this fable that was raised on. The nineties were an interesting time to be a kid because white middle America had this idea that was probably brought on by the anxiety of knowing that we had all these ill-gotten gains that we didn't deserve and shouldn't have, the world is out to get you, and it will get you through your children. And the world is just these roving bands of kidnappers and rapists in panel vans who are just patrolling schools all day long, every day. And all anybody wants us to kidnap kids, and stranger danger, and abduction. 

And Chuck Klosterman has a great line in his essay about serial killers from his first book about how he was in third grade, his teacher told him to never pick up hitchhikers because they're all serial killers. And in fourth grade, the teacher told them to never hitchhike because anyone who picks up hitchhikers is a serial killer. And so he started imagining, anytime someone picked up a hitchhiker, it was like a serial killer versus serial killer situation with two crazy maniacs trying to edge in and each kill the other one first. And I feel like that was the idea of America that I grew up in, just this profound paranoia. And the serial killer is the ultimate excuse for paranoia. But what is your relationship with that media and with growing up in that landscape, too?

Mike: I had a very long, very intense, serial killer phase when I was in seventh or ninth grade.

Sarah: I didn't even know that about you. Of course. 

Mike: I read book after book after book about serial killers, including all these profiler books. 

Sarah: I Hunt Monsters, Mind Hunter

Mike: Mind Hunter I definitely read, I definitely read all the Hannibal Lecter books. I read this whole idea of profiling. I feel like the rise of serial killers was also paralleled with the rise of this idea of a profiler, that you can look at the crime and be like, oh, this person drives a Ford Pinto, and this person is between 30 and 34, and he lives with his relatives, but not his mother. I just remember that FBI profiler being a counter story that we told ourselves at that time. 

Sarah: Serial killers did for the FBI what The Exorcist for the Catholic church. It's the best PR that both of those very troubled outfits could have possibly asked for.

Mike: The superhero myth. And I remember one of my most indelible memories from my adolescence was reading one of these books that had all of the telltale signs of this person might be a serial killer, and I had seven of them. I was really nervous because something like 9 out of 10 serial killers had either grown up in the Pacific Northwest or spent a significant amount of time in the Pacific Northwest. I remember a lot of them wet the bed relatively late, and I also wet the bed relatively late.

Sarah: Which has been debunked, the bedwetting/fire starting/animal killing trifecta, that was like an early FBI profiling thing that people have looked at since. And in the way that we've looked at many ideas, the FBI had and been like, oh, well, not really.

Mike: So one of the ones was animal torture. And I was, looking back now, I was like the sweetest kid and I loved animals and I loved kittens. But at one point at boy scout camp, I was in this terrible boy scout troop, and at one point during boy scout camp the other kids found a frog and they were poking at it with sticks and trying to set it on fire. And I, because I'm not a serial killer, I was crying and really upset, and I told my parents. But in my head in seventh grade, I was there when animal cruelty was taking place, so I ticked in my head, I ticked the box for animal cruelty, even though I never actually done anything remotely like that. So I was going down this list and ticking all the boxes.

Sarah: Your degree of empathy is well, but I didn't intervene, so basically, I'm evil. 

Mike: I think my serial killer phase was over by the time we got to Dahmer. I didn't have a clear sense of when Dahmer was, and when his murders were, and where we caught him, and when the interest in Jeffrey Dahmer peaked. I actually have almost no memory of him other than he's gay, he's a cannibal, and he got killed in prison. Those are my three fun facts. If I was introducing him at a cocktail party, what would be the three fun facts I would use. 

Sarah: So Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested in 1991. And what happens is he has a potential victim, Tracy Edwards, a young, young black man, because nearly all of his victims were men of color, who escaped from his apartment and ran out to the street and flagged down the police and brought the police back. And the police found this apartment full of body parts. And this guy who said, hey, this guy is going to kill me. 

And so they arrested Jeffrey Dahmer and they took him in, and he pretty much immediately starts confessing. And he names all of his victims. He confesses to killing 17 people. He talks about what he's been doing with the body parts and why. And from that moment on, one of the things I find really interesting about him is that he really did his best to articulate what was going on for him and what motivated him to do what he did, and often just couldn't. There are many moments in interviews that he did where someone said, “Well, why didn't you keep the skulls? Why were you collecting and boiling and arranging skulls in your home? What was the purpose of that for you?” And he says, “For me, it was a place where I could collect my thoughts and meditate”. And I don't know, he admitted the fact that he cannot explain why he felt compelled to do what he was doing, which to me is really interesting. 

We are very used to in our national serial killer narratives and that kind Exorcist demon-style of serial killer that can have the face off with the FBI agent taunting them the way that the demon taunts the priests in The Exorcist, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell”, and all of that. He didn't do any of that. Dahmer, from the moment he was arrested, just was kind of trying to say what was going on in his head and not trying to play games with anyone and was not able to put his compulsions into words. But to me, the most interesting thing about the arrest is that this was not the first person to have escaped his apartment and found the police.

Mike: No way. 

Sarah: Earlier that year, a couple of months before he was arrested, Dahmer had a victim named Konerak Sinthasomphone. He was a Laotian-American immigrant, he was 14 or 15 at the time. And also, and this is another thing that I think is interesting, there's this thing that we all do in the media and as people where we call serial killers by their last name. And I think it helps them become entity-lile, like a force of evil, a person. Dahmer, Dahmer did this, Dahmer did that. It's very weird if we start talking about what a guy named Jeff did. 

So in Milwaukee, white guy named Jeff approaches this Laotian teenager, and does what he often did, which was he said, “I'll give you $50 if you come to my apartment and you pose for photos for me.” And coincidentally, he had already approached this kid's brother and brought him back to his apartment and taken photos of him nude and fondled him. And the kid had survived that and reported it. And Jeffrey Dahmer had spent about a year in a work release prison program for “enticing a minor”, which is such a weird way to put it. 

And so he had already done time. He was on probation. He had a probation officer who was supposed to be visiting his house, but of course was really overworked and did not. And so he would come in and he had a job, he was employed, he was well-spoken, things seemed to be going okay for him. So he was on probation while he was committing a lot of these murders. 

And so while on probation for this earlier incident, he approaches this kid's brother, takes him home, and what he would do typically is he would drug a drink and give it to the person that he had brought back to his house. He approached low-income people who could be persuaded for $50 to come and have photos taken of them. It was the same thing with this guy, who ultimately escaped and survived. He was at the time, some people have positioned this as a fact showing what kind of a crazy evil demon whatever he was, to me, it's just proof that this guy named Jeff was really decompensating. He was attempting to make his victims into zombies. Which meant that he would drill a hole in somebody's skull and inject uric acid into their brain. He was not going about this in any kind of a scientific fashion.

Mike: No fucking way.

Sarah:  Which  basically would kill someone in a few hours. But he had this idea that what he really wanted was to be able to abduct someone  and to not have to kill them, but to be able to turn them into a kind of a zombie who would not have any agency and do whatever he wanted and be in his life that way. 

So he had done that with this kid, Konerak, who then escaped. He somehow managed to escape and ran out of his apartment and into the street and was stumbling and slurring his words.

Mike: So he had the acid in his brain? Dahmer actually did that to him?

Sarah: Oh yeah. Yeah. And he was naked at the time, might've been handcuffed, but he was naked, running into the streets, a teenage boy. And so these two young black women find him. They flagged down the police. Dahmer lived in a black neighborhood, Milwaukee is a very segregated city. And so already the police, I think, were probably not particularly inclined to take the complaint of these girls as seriously as they would if they were in a different neighborhood. They're like, something's going on, clearly. Jeffrey Dahmer comes out of his apartment and comes down and talks to the police and he's able to be well-spoken, seemed like a regular guy, and was just like, “Hello, this is my boyfriend. We are having a misunderstanding. We are gay. This is what gay men do and look like.” And the police are like okay, but maybe we can just escort you back to your apartment and just make sure that everything looks okay. And he's, “Sure, of course.” 

And so they go back to the apartment, escort Dahmer and his victim back to the apartment and come in. And there's kind of some weird smells and some intense perfume that's masking maybe some kind of a rotting smell underneath. And he seems like maybe like a weird guy, a weird place, but they’re like, well, who can say what the gays are up to really. This seems like a normal gay situation. And then they drop them off and go and radio headquarters when they get back in the car and they're like, we just solved a gay dispute. My partner is going to get deloused at the station. We were in a gross gay guy's apartment. He wasn't committing any crimes, but he was gay, and it was gross. And then Dahmer strangles the victim that the police returned to him. 

Mike: He killed him? 

Sarah: Oh yes. Right after the police left.

Mike: During the interaction with the police, did this poor Laotian kid already sort of have brain damage? He couldn't say “this is not my boyfriend”?

Sarah: No. He wasn't really able to communicate. He'd had acid and checked it into his brain. He was naked and running into the street and trying to get help, and Dahmer was able to talk to the police and say, we're having a domestic dispute. This is my drunk adult boyfriend. Because to me it's because there's something about the police having this sense of, we are not even going to look directly at what we are seeing, we just have no way of understanding any of this, and fuck it, we're going home. 

Mike: If you’re not familiar with gayness, you think that it's already this inhuman thing, so you've already put it in the category of wild and crazy stuff. And so you get to somebody's apartment and there's weird, rotting, flesh smells. And one of the partners in a relationship is not speaking and seems significantly impaired. And you're like, well, gay people doing gay people, stuff they're already so far outside of the mainstream that all of these other basic, moral, human rules don't apply to them.

Sarah: And we don't want to get charged with a hate crime. Let's just turn a blind eye at all of these extremely bizarre things that are going on. 

Mike: If it wasn't 1991, Dahmer would have been on Grindr and on Craigslist, I assume, rather than driving up to people in the street.

Sarah: Or meeting people in one of the handful of gay bars in Milwaukee in 1991. And he would go to bathhouses. I think he was banned from one of the bathhouses at one point, because he was going around drugging people and they were like, you can't do that.

Mike: So what do we know about his childhood? 

Sarah: So he was born in 1960 in Iowa. His Dad was a chemist. He had a stay at home mom who seemed to have had postpartum mental health issues and mental health stuff, generally. His parents had a terrible marriage. He described them as always being at each other's throats and just were always fighting each other. He grew up in Ohio and in Bath Township, which is a bedroom community of Akron. And because of course if I'm passing through a geographic area where there is some kind of thing that you can see that connects to some dark chapter of history, I will go out of my way to see it. I have gone to his house, the house that he grew up in. Of course I have, you know me, you know, your friend, Sarah. I've gone to his house in Bath Township. And he lived in a house in a rural area that is not very walkable, pretty isolated, not very neighborly. A house on a big lot at the end of a long driveway kind of a place. 

This is a very small part of the total, but there is something about his growing up in geographic isolation that if you're already a lonely kind of a person, which he was. That kind of compounds that. He didn't really have friends when he was growing up. He seemed to have spent a significant part of his adolescence riding around on his bike, looking for roadkill to dissect. He was very interested in dead things from a young age. 

Mike: Oh my God. 

Sarah: And he said in interviews later on that maybe things have gone a different way, he would have become a taxidermist and instead things went the way that they did. He just seemed to not get people, and to have this basic sense from a very young age of not knowing how to communicate or interact with other human beings. Not having felt close to his parents when he was growing up. His dad wrote a memoir about being Jeff's dad and then about his arrest and everything called, A Father's Story, by Lionel Dahmer. And he comes across in that as a very well-intentioned person who also just… I hate the phrase ‘in touch with your emotions’, because that suggests someone like me, who cries every two days and has feelings about the sea turtles and the whatever, but someone whose emotions were sort of just a speck on a horizon. 

I feel like the middle America myth ignores the fact that there are a lot of things that you have to be able to do to be a successful suburban middle American, especially in mid-century America. You have to be a good worker and you have to be professional and you have to progress in the hierarchy of your company or whatever. But you don't have to be able to say,’ I love you’ to your children. You don't have to be able to have the courage and the resources to find a way to communicate with your son who's just completely withdrawn from you. You don't have to know how to do that. And Jeffrey Dahmer's dad didn't know how to do that. 

So he just seemed to grow up not really having relationships with people. He wasn't abused. He wasn't kidnapped by a satanic cult. So he had the kind of young adulthood that a lot of us have.

Mike: Did anybody raise alarms about Dahmer when he was a kid? A school counselor or a neighbor or something saying, hey, this kid really needs help. 

Sarah: Nothing that dramatic. He was known in school as being smart. He could have applied himself. He started drinking heavily when he was in high school, maybe even earlier. And so he would get drunk at the start of every school day. If your self is unbearable to you, then at a certain point, you're going to discover substances, right? 

Mike: The smell. How did nobody bust him for that? 

Sarah: It was a big high school, I guess. I don't know. 

Mike: So he was blending in. He felt like one of many, or it was easy for him to stay under the radar, even though he smelled like Grandpa Joe walking around. 

Sarah: Yeah. He didn't have friends, but he knew how to make people laugh, and he had acquaintances who he could entertain by being funny. That's how you get people to make a place for you in some way. So he would pretend to have epileptic fits and do impressions of people and do little routines to get people  to pay some attention to him. Because comedy is all about being a deeply troubled, wounded soul. The comedian to serial killer pipeline is invisible, but huge, I think. 

He finishes high school, and then the summer after he's in high school, I think that was when his parents finally got divorced. He had a younger brother who apparently his parents were much closer to, or that his mother was much closer to than she was with him. Which if you're a kid who grows up feeling socially isolated and rejected by your parents, having a sibling who they appear to like more than you doesn't help. 

So his mother took his younger brother, who was 12, and went off to spend the summer somewhere else. And apparently unbeknownst to her, Jeff's dad had started courting a nice lady who would ultimately become his step-mom. And so they both just left him alone for the summer after he finished high school. And he was in this empty house down a long driveway with no food in the fridge. And this is when he committed his first murder. 

Mike: No fucking way. That early? 

Sarah: Yeah. And the funny thing too, is that he commits this first murder when he's 18 and then there's nothing for 10 years as far as we know and as far as he confessed. And he was very candid about all this. So to me, obviously, you take everything with a grain of salt. But he is to me very credible on the subject of himself. And he had been fantasizing about committing murder for a while, although I don't think that that murder in itself was really the draw for him. It was a means of spending time with someone essentially in a way that he could control. 

Mike: What about Scrabble? 

Sarah: There was a jogger in his neighborhood who he had apparently seen and fantasized about clubbing or something, somehow debilitating, so he could basically knock him out or kill him or something and lie down next to him. That was what he wanted to do. He wanted to have physical intimacy. 

Mike: Oh no, sweetie. He just wants someone to make out and cuddle with, which is the most fun part.

Sarah: Yes! That's what he wants. These are all cuddling motivated, murders, everything we're going to see going forward. Also side note, being a gay teenager in 1978 Akron, this is also roughly during the period when Anita Bryant and all of her friends are pushing the argument that if you are gay, that means that you basically are a murderer anyway. And all you know how to do is molest and kidnap children.  

Mike: Well it’s an ugly time to be growing up gay, because in some ways visibility is increasing, right? That it's been 10 years since Stonewall, and there is this burgeoning social movement for gays to come out and for gay rights. So every once in a while, that'll show up in magazines or on TV or whatever. But there's also a much larger counter movement that has brought gayness to the surface and is using gayness as a wedge issue and as a way to demonize people. And so there was this long,  hundred year period of invisibility. 

And then when you begin to get the visibility, you also get this huge backlash. And so there's all these studies about how in 2005 when states were debating the constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, depression rates spiked, suicide rates spiked, alcoholism rates spiked, that it's actually really stressful and really bad for you to be in a country where everyone is debating your own existence. And so we don't have studies from the late seventies, obviously. But when you think about the idea of turning on the TV and seeing a speech where someone is saying, “These homosexuals shouldn't be teaching our kids. They shouldn't be in our churches. They shouldn't be anywhere. They're all child molesters”, whatever else. Even if they're not talking about you individually, it really hurts and it really stresses you out. And so I can only imagine what it's like, not that I want to have so much sympathy for Jeffrey Dahmer, because he seems like not a great boyfriend. But I can just think of the world that he would have been growing up in where there's this increased visibility, but  no positive visibility yet. So what happens with this jogger? He’s fantasizing about cuddling this jogger and then he kills him one day. 

Sarah: He doesn't. I think he had a bat or something ready, he had a plan, but the guy just didn't jog past his house that day. And there but for the grace of God, or choosing a different jogging route, basically. But then the summer that he spends alone, after he graduates high school, he is out driving one day and he picks up a young hitchhiker. His name was Steven Hicks, and in pictures he looks like a very, very sweet seventies youth. Just has that shiny kind of Bee Gee’s hair, just a cute, young guy. So he brings him home. They have some beers, they have some sex, they have this nice, consensual encounter as far as we know. And then Steven Hicks says, “Well, I got to be going. I'm going to head out”. And the way Dahmer describes it 13 years later, what he says to the police is, “He wanted to leave, and I didn't want him to leave.” Right. That gets me. 

Mike: We've all been that dude. 

Sarah: We've all been that dude. It's so simple. I feel like we want there to be when we're confronting people who kill people, people who kill people on the scale, and then the demon awakened in him, and he had to take another life and draw a life force from the destruction of innocence and et cetera. And it's just he wanted to leave, and I didn't want him to leave. And so he kills him by bashing him on the head with a barbell and then cuts some up and smashes his bones with a sledgehammer and just scatters the bone fragments around the forest behind his house. And nobody knew about this or what had happened or had any idea until he confessed to it when he was arrested in 1991. 

Mike: No fucking way. That takes hours. 

Sarah: Well, his parents weren't at home, so he had some time. And then at the end of the summer, his dad and step-mom come back and they're like, Jeff, you're alone in the house and the electricity has been turned off and there's no food. This is no good. You're going to go to college. And so they send them to college. He goes to Ohio State and immediately starts drinking constantly and gets thrown out after the first semester because he's not going to any of his classes and presumably is dealing with the psychic fallout of having destroyed a human life.  

It's also another one of those things where you look at just the idea of, what excuse did he have? And it's did anyone ever really try to figure out if he was okay? Did anyone ever look at him and think this does not seem like a healthy person, this person is not doing okay. He just seems to have moved through anonymous spaces where there was never anyone close enough to him to really notice. It's not one of those things where there were no signs. It's an interesting commentary on just how anonymously you can exist in America. But yeah, so he gets thrown out of college after the first semester and his dad is like, all right, you need to do something. Why not join the army? And basically takes him and signs him up for the army.

Mike: Aw, that’s like the gayest thing. Don’t send your gay kid to the army. Your gay kid who's obsessed with men and violence.

Sarah: But it's impossible to notice these things if you're an extremely emotionally withdrawn chemist. He takes him and signs him up for the army. He goes and trains to be an army medic. He lives in Germany for two years and he seems to have done fine with medic training. He wasn't dumb. He gets thrown out after two years because his drinking is out of control. 

And of course, in one of the books that I read they also were like, “and then Dahmer would drink and retreat to his fantasy world and listen to his heavy metal music”. And it's like, all right, do we really have to blame heavy metal for all of this? Isn't crushing loneliness and a personality disorder and alcoholism enough? Why must we blame Ozzy Osbourne for literally everything. 

Mike: That's also an extremely normal thing to do in your early twenties. Get drunk and listen to music really loud in your headphones. That's how I spent my entire twenties. It's totally fine.

Sarah: And that's the fourth serial killer warning sign, right? Bedwetting, fire starting, animal torture, and headphones. 

Mike: Yeah. And oh no, he liked music, he must've been a killer.

Sarah: So he gets kicked out of the army. After he left the army but before he came back to the Midwest, he lived in Miami for a few months. And basically, he just came back when he ran out of money. And he was living in Miami during the time that Adam Walsh disappeared. This is the murder that inspired America's Most Wanted, because the host of America's Most Wanted was the father of this little kid, Adam Walsh, who disappeared. 

Mike: John Walsh.

Sarah: Yeah. Adam Walsh disappeared at the age of, I think, five while he was in a toy store. And later, much later on Ottis Toole who had been a friend and sometimes co-murderer of Henry Lee Lucas later on confessed. This is one of  the stranger danger abductions that made Americans feel like this would happen that this was happening constantly. And if you turned your back for a second, somebody would snatch your kid. 

Mike: My parents actually told me once, if anybody tried to abduct me and I refused, that they would give me a hundred dollars. Whenever I would be waiting for them to pick me up at the Seattle Center or whatever, I would kind of hoped that somebody would try to abduct me so I could run away and get a hundred bucks. So I’d be looking around, oh, that guy looks like he might try to kill me, let’s inch over towards that guy. And I was so disappointed when nobody ever tried to offer me candy from their van or these other things that probably never happened all that much, but we all thought that there was a one in two chance.

Sarah: Every van is just full of guys offering candy. You know, it's never the local news. Yeah. And after he's arrested, people still didn't know in 1991 who had killed Adam Walsh. So they were like, maybe he killed Adam Walsh. Who got killed in Germany during this time? Maybe he did those murders. And this thing that happens when we find someone who becomes a notorious serial killer, we're like maybe this is the answer to all of our problems. There are various people in various departments across America who are convinced that Ted Bundy committed most of the unsolved murders in the Western U.S. and even in states that he never appeared to have been in. And there are only so many hours in the day, basically.

Mike: So, okay. He leaves Germany, he leaves the army.

Sarah:  And so his dad's like, all right, you can go live with your grandma in West Allis, which is outer Milwaukee. Again, there are signs. Stuff like he steals a male mannequin at one point and brings it home, and is spending time with it and fondling it. And his grandma's like, “Jeffrey, please get rid of that mannequin. You're acting a little weird and please stop. You need to be more normal. This is not fun for us.” He did seem to have a pretty good relationship with his grandma. That seemed to be the person that he had the most connection to in his family ,and maybe generally. 

And during this time he was starting to go to gay bars in Milwaukee. So during the years that he was committing the bulk of his murders, and maybe during this time he was working at the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory, which is still in business. Also after he was arrested, these urban legends sprung up about maybe he'd contaminated Midwestern chocolate with blood and or body parts and stuff. And he did bring body parts to work once, but he kept them in his locker. 

Mike: I wonder if the work has one of those charts up that says XX days since a serial killer worked here. And every day they update it.

Sarah: Yeah. So he had a job working various night shift jobs too, which doesn't help anything. And he was starting to go to gay bars and to bathhouses. And Milwaukee is also, I think it probably had even a higher population in the late eighties than it does now, but it's been getting less populous since the sixties. It has neighborhoods that at this point could be gentrified by coyotes. So you have this life where you get up, you go, you do your factory job, you punch out, you go home, get some sleep, spend time with your mannequin, go to a bar, find someone to not have a human interaction with, because you don't know how to do that, but to maybe drug or something. If you're someone who has lived this kind of life of anonymity in isolation so far, living in Milwaukee would compounded that.

Mike: It's Milwaukee's fault.

Sarah: It's not Milwaukee's fault, but the location did not help. So in 1987, he picks up a guy. They go to the Ambassador Hotel, which is a hotel in Milwaukee that has since been spruced up, and where I have also been. And he has been drinking heavily. And the way he tells a story later is that he blacks out, he wakes up, and the guy is dead. And he realizes that he appears to have beaten him to death. And he doesn't remember any of this. And so he takes him back to his grandma's house. 

Mike: Oh my God. How? Wait, how? How does he get a fucking dead body through the lobby?

Sarah: He bought a suitcase and put the body in it and carried it home. 

Mike: No fucking way. So he has a big trunk that he's rolling through the lobby with this poor guy in it.

Sarah: There's a lot that you can do if people are not really paying attention to you, is one of the morals here. He kept the body for about a week. 

Mike: In his house with his grandma?

Sarah: Yeah. He lived in the basement, which is one of the maybe things that helped with that. But, yes. 

Mike: So he’s just got a dead body, a room temperature in his house the whole time? Oh my God. Ah, the smell. When does a dead body start to smell?

Sarah: Pretty fast. But yeah. I think his grandma did notice, eventually. But again, Jeff is in the basement and there are strange smells, and that's just what Jeff does. 

This is a story about how you can't let manufacturing die in a large American city, and how family members have to communicate with each other.

Mike: It's all economic anxiety. All that economic anxiety was so hard on Jeff. 

Sarah: So he, after a week, disposes of the body the same way that he disposed of his first victim. He breaks up all the bones with a sledgehammer and throws it away in the trash.

Mike: Just literally in the trash, in the actual trash?

Sarah: Yeah. Which is what he would also do later. Fairly soon after that his dad comes and is like, listen Jeff, your grandma doesn't want you to live with her anymore. And you have to find your own apartment now. And so he goes and finds his own apartment. He moves into a building in a black neighborhood, which means that the police don't spend that much time there. After that, that seems to have been when the switch kind of flipped. He starts killing people fairly prolifically. 

So he would meet someone in a bar, or go cruising and find someone whom he liked the look of, and say, “Come to my house and I'll pay $50 and take photos of you.” And then he’d drug them and strangle them and spend time with the corpse. Have sex with it. Masturbate in front of it. 

Mike: No way. 

Sarah: One of the things in his father's book is a list of, let me read this to you, actually. After the police searched Jeff's apartment, they sent an inventory to his father. It listed, Lionel Dahmer wrote in his memoir, A Father’s Story, the Residue of My Son's Life. “There were bottles of nutritional supplements and bags of Ruffles potato chips, artificial peacock feathers, a DOS manual, a bottle of Clorox bleach. There were things he had read, all of it pornographic, with the exception of four books on the care of fish.” He also had an aquarium. “There were utterly neutral things, suddenly made sinister. Three black handled forks, two books, four knives, a pair of chemical resistant gloves, a handsaw with five detachable blades, and a three quarter-inch drill.”

Mike: Oh my fucking God. 

Sarah: “And finally, on the last page of the inventory, there were the contents of Jeff's bedroom. One pillow white with light blue flowers with bloodstain, one pillow, black case and pillow with bloodstain, one bedsheet black, fitted with bloodstain, one white mattress cover, white with bloodstain, one pillowcase black with bloodstain, one mattress with blue flowered pattern with bloodstains, both sides.” 

Mike: Both sides.

Sarah: Both sides, which means that at one point, not to get too FBI profiler about this, he flipped it because it had bloodstains on it and then commenced to take another dead body to bed.

Mike: This is going to sound like a really crass question, but Jeffrey Dahmer, was he conventionally attractive? Was picking up guys in bars pretty easy for him, or was he not super good looking and that was part of resentment?

Sarah: Well, this is really a question about game. Let's do this first, look up a picture of him and tell me what kind of luck he would have picking you up.

Mike: Alright let  me see what he was working with. I'm seeing a white guy, relatively thin, longish blonde hair. I'm looking at his mugshot, he's in a hoodie. Yeah, he's in relatively good shape. He's a normal looking guy. You wouldn't say he's the hottest guy at the bar, but he's also not the minger at the bar either.

Sarah: Yeah. I feel like he just was unexceptional looking. He just looks like a regular man. One of the other things that I find so interesting about him is that after he's arrested, after he's in prison, after he gets maybe his meds stable, he just comes across as boring. There is an interview, I think on 48 Hours, where Stone Phillips comes and interviews him at the prison in Portage. And there's just a clip of them talking and Dahmer and just making very boring, upper Midwest male conversation. He was talking about, “Ah, did you get here okay with the snow, it was snowing like crazy here yesterday.” He's just an unexceptional looking kind of a boring guy. And I think another big factor in it is that most of his victims were men of color. A lot of black men, a lot of men who also the deal was sweetened for them by the fact that this guy was going to give them $50 and supply the beer. 

Mike: So is he primarily attracted to men of color, or is he doing this because he knows the cops won't investigate them as much?

Sarah: What he said is that he was primarily attracted to men of color. Those were the bodies that he wanted. Those were the people that he coveted. The other interesting thing to me about this, and the thing that really contradicts the serial killer narrative as we know it, and I always hear this in the voice of the narration of the Silence of the Lambs trailer, which opens with a voice going, ‘a killer is on the loose’. That's always a story. The killer is on the loose and the authorities have noticed, and they're tracking him down with their profiling. 

And what happened with Dahmer’s victims, and this is another thing where the problem is Milwaukee and also America, the families of these men - not all of them, but some of them - some of them are minors. Some of them have stable lives and routines and are not prone to going off and disappearing. Most people don't disappear, generally. Their family members and their friends are going to the police and they're saying, my son, my brother, my friend has disappeared and I'm afraid that something terrible has happened to him. Or I have reason to believe that it was this weird guy that he was seen with. Will you do something about it? And the police are like, we're not investigating the disappearance of a gay man of color. Fuck you. He's probably in Chicago. Any complaints that people took to the police during these years, which there were several of, the police were like, “What? No, we're not doing that. We don't care.”

Mike: Yeah, because 17 people is a lot. Especially because it sounds like there's a relatively similar pattern that somebody must've seen him leave the bar with these people. Somebody, I mean, it sounds like this would lead you to Jeff pretty quickly.

Sarah: Yeah. And members of the gay community have started noticing that something seems to be off. It's a small community, the gay community in Milwaukee in the late eighties and early nineties, and the police are like, no, fuck you guys, gay men, black men. These are not the populations that we are working for. 

Mike: Right. And there's also an inherent suspicion at that time that you hear a lot in accounts of the AIDS crisis and other accounts from this period, once you're gay, everything else gets thrown out. That, oh, he disappeared. Oh, he's gay, well he probably just moved to San Francisco. Oh, he probably ran off with his boyfriend. That these completely implausible accounts become plausible all of a sudden because, oh, it's a gay person that we're dealing with. 

Sarah: Yeah. And just how there's this idea of well, there's a subculture that we don't understand, and we don't know what they do, so it makes sense that they just disappear without a trace over and over again. 

And it's funny too, because our sense of the vigilance with which people approach the missing young, white woman is, we all know that if you're a young white woman and you disappear, people will be on tenterhooks, immediately. But that didn't used to be how it was. When Ted Bundy was initially committing his murders in Seattle in the first six months of 1974 roughly, his first known murder victim, he abducted her from her bedroom, bludgeoned her while she was still in bed. There was blood on the pillowcase soaked through the pillow, down through the sheets, into the mattress. Her roommates were like, this seems like a kidnapping. We are concerned. She didn't show up at her job. She didn't show up at school. We haven't seen her. She disappeared in the middle of the night. And the police were like, listen, these groovy, young women are just prone to wander off. She's probably hitchhiking and having fun somewhere. He had to finally abduct two women on the same day from the same park in broad daylight for the police to be like, huh? Maybe they're not all just wandering away to go party. 

Mike: Holy shit.

Sarah: It's hard for just an average, dumb, fucking white man to be a serial killer anymore. They've closed the shop on that. The industry is dying. But back in the day, 70s, 80s, 90s, like you as a serial killer sometimes had to showboat a little bit to get the authorities to pay attention to you. In Dahmer's case, it means that he had to have a second victim who escaped from his apartment and made it to the police. Once that had happened twice, these police officers happened to be like, this doesn't seem great. And it was because it was a victim who had not had a hole drilled into his skull yet and was able to communicate that this motherfucker was going to kill him. And who now, by the way, is homeless because that's how America works.

Mike: So how long is this spree going on for? These 17 people? Is this a couple of years? A couple of months?

Sarah: It's over the course of four years. So he commits the murder in the Ambassador in the fall of ‘87. Then he's caught in the summer of 1991, and it increased in frequency in the last few months. And also the people in his apartment building are complaining, and some people call the police and are like, it smells like rotting flesh in this guy's apartment. And the police are like, “And? What kind of living conditions do you expect to have, black person?” So it's not one of those things where it's well, he was always a quiet loner or he said this weird thing once and maybe we should have looked into it. No. People were complaining about how their family members had disappeared and they were worried that they'd been murdered and how this had happened over a dozen times. And people were complaining literally about the smell of rotting flesh. 

Mike: Everyone is like, this dude's a serial killer. This is not a misunderstood loner. This guy's a fucking serial killer. And then it takes this guy running out of his house, being like this dude is a serial killer, for the cops to be like, “Oh, this guy might be a serial killer.” 

Sarah: One of the reasons we're so attracted to the serial killer or just the late evil murderer narrative is because it's a way for authority figures, for the nice, white dudes to prove how nice and smart and powerful they are. They're like, I'm an FBI profiler. And because of the serial killer, we can show America that there's this cadre of elite investigators who can look at the details from a crime scene and be like, I intuit that our killer lives in this neighborhood and drives a car like this, and we're going to find him this afternoon. And instead with the Dahmer narrative, what we get and what we don't remember about it, is people coming to the police and handing them essentially all but saying there is a serial killer, maybe it's the Dahmer guy. And the police being like, I don't know, who can say. 

It's similar to when I was in Alaska, I was reading this book called, Murder at 40 Below and one of the chapters and it was on Robert Hanson, the Alaska serial killer. Robert Hanson solicited a prostitute in Anchorage and abducted her, took her out in his plane to Connick, and took her to the woods and said, okay, you're going to have a little head start and then I'm going to hunt you like game. And I had raped her before that. Somehow she escaped, somehow she lived, and went to the police. And the police find Robert Hanson because she IDs him from a photo array because he has a prior offense and they take him in and he's a successful small businessman for heaven sake. And he says, well, we started fooling around and I didn't know she was a hooker and she demanded money and I wouldn't give it to her. And so she made up the story and she came to you guys. And the police are like, well, our hands are tied. It's a classic he said/she said, we really can't do anything about this. 

I feel like the kind of serial killer stories that we tell ourselves now and that were so in the media and the nineties, are partly based in the same way that the Satanic Panic came in part from there just being no recognition of childhood sexual abuse, basically until the 1970s in America. The fact that, as a serial killer, you really could do whatever you wanted for a very long time before anyone paid any attention to you at all. And now we have all these stories about how the FBI profiler can hunt down the killer from the least clues. And it’s like, no, actually, we live in a country where you can come to the police and say, I am a serial killer. And they can be like, eh, how does that affect me?

Mike: I guess with the myth that we've built around serial killers, it feels a little bit like in the 70s when they started finding a bunch of human remains in the Rift Valley, these old skeletons, million year old skeletons, and they started putting together all these previous ancestors of the human race. They started thinking that the Rift Valley was the home of this huge civilization and that it was really the centerpiece of early man. But what it turns out is that the Rift Valley is just really good at preserving human remains. There were human populations there, but they weren't particularly dense there. It’s just the soils are really conducive to preserving human remains. And so I wonder if all of this profiling stuff and this myth, this hero myth of the FBI profiler, is partly because these are the serial killers that we've caught. And these are the ones that we eventually… 

Sarah: That we happened to notice because they were so prolific, and that at some point they fucked up, but you had a lot of leeway back then. I'm sure there are so many people who were never caught. 

Mike: If it's this hard to believe women, and if it's this hard to believe gay men of color, you think about somebody who, for example, started preying on migrant farm workers back at this time or even now. You'd have to kill a lot of migrant farm workers for somebody to go, hmm, I guess there's something going on here. You'd have to kill dozens. 

I remember years ago reading about how the most prolific serial killer was in the Soviet Union, and he killed 52 women. And the whole account of it was about how the Soviet Union didn't want to believe that somebody was killing people. So they didn't want to have a press conference and say, hey, maybe don't go out at night. Or say, hey, we're looking for a guy that looks like this, he's killed 10 women. And then it was 15 women, and then 20 women, and 25 women. And the whole time the cops are saying, look, we're not actually looking for this guy very hard. But it was all the bureaucratic stuff. It's kind of a metaphor of the extent to which these things are politically constructed to an extent that we don't always realize.

Sarah:  Yeah. Okay. I have a final You’re Wrong About, about Jeffrey Dahmer. So we know he's a cannibal. To what degree of cannibalism do you suppose that he engaged? 

Mike: Oh man, I'm going to faint if you describe this in too much detail. My understanding was that this was part of his M.O. He would keep people in the freezer, wouldn't he?

Sarah: Well, he did. But he was primarily preserving body parts as company. He had these preserved parts, and I will not go into the detail of what all the parts were, but he had all of these preserved parts around his apartment that he would use to, in his way, spend time with the people. We know of one instance where he consumed a small part of one of his victims.

Mike: Really? So that's it. 

Sarah: And I can tell you about it or not tell you about it. 

Mike: Tell me, tell me, tell me, but ugh.

Sarah: There was a young dancer who he killed, whose arms he really liked. And so he cut off of his biceps and fried them and ate them. And then he had a heart and a liver in the freezer that he told the police he was saving to eat later. And that was the only eating that he was doing. 

To me it's not an apology, but it's a significant piece of cultural confusion. Because 1991 is the year that The Silence of the Lambs comes out and one of the shows that I find fascinating for the kind of vision that it presents of the certain serial killer/profiler relationship is Hannibal, which is so much about the aesthetics of cannibalism. Did you ever watch that show? 

Mike: Sarah, knowing what you know about me, did I watch that show? Did I get within 50 feet of that show? 

Sarah: But it’s super gay though, is the thing. It wants to be gay. 

Mike: My love for gayness got me over my hatred of movie violence. 

Sarah: The sort of Hannibal Lecter cultural figure thing is that you kill your victim and then you exquisitely prepare their body and you absorb their life force. And it's a way of showing that you're superior to them in some way. Because the whole Hannibal Lecter thing is that he listens to Bach, and he's cultured, and it's and that's why he’s so scary because he's fancy. 

And I have a quote, this is from a really great article about Jeffrey Dahmer that came out the year that he was caught. The author went and interviewed Dennis Nilsen, the British serial killer who had a very similar M.O. And he actually talks about the Silence of the Lambs, and what Dennis Nielsen says about Hannibal Lecter is “He is shown as a potent figure, which is pure myth. It is his power and manipulation which pleased the public, but it's not at all like that. My offenses arose from a feeling of inadequacy, not potency. I never had any power in my life.” 

And to me, the kind of misconception about Dahmer is the cannibal of Milwaukee. And the rhetoric and the true crime books about him. He kills faster than aids. He’s full of hatred and anger and his anger and hatred are boiling over and boiling over and erupting. And he has to take another victim with the force of his angry power, which is how American men conceptualize power, I guess. And he's not doing that. He's not trying to terrorize the public. The public has not noticed what he's doing even once. And he's not doing this, ‘I am powerful and potent and you're all weak, and I'm taking the life force out of my victims’, thing. To me, focusing on the cannibalism and not looking at just the fact that he has all of these body parts as a way of spending time with other people and the only way that he knows how to. There's no power in this, there's nothing worth weirdly looking up to as a power of, it's evil power, but it's still power. None of this is power. This is just a deeply mentally ill and lonely person who was able to commit crimes in a way that nobody noticed, because nobody cared about the victims that he wanted 

Mike: It’s much more pathetic than it is decadent, I suppose. It's interesting to me that after he gets arrested, he just confesses and blurts out all this information. What's behind that? Why does he do that?

Sarah: It certainly was never in hopes of getting any kind of a deal. He wanted to be executed.

Mike: As soon as they said, “Hey, we're arresting you”, he raises his hand and says, “Yep, I'm a serial killer.” Is that basically how it went?

Sarah: Yeah. The story that his dad tells is that he gets a call, comes down to the police station and there's his son in handcuffs and Jeff is like, you know, “Dad. I messed up. How's grandma doing?” He’s like, okay. I will tell you about all of my murders. 

Mike: What is the fanfare, or what is the public reaction after he’s caught?

Sarah: It was huge. Yeah. And you can no longer go to the apartment building where this all happened because the city of Milwaukee, at great cost, had it demolished. 

Mike: No, the whole building?

Sarah: Yeah, it cost half a million.

Mike: People lived there, what the hell?

Sarah:  Yeah. He had lots of neighbors who had perfectly nice apartments in a building that no longer had those smells. And they were like, no, we have to symbolically destroy something, so move. And so now if you go there, it is a rod iron fence with spiked tips, and it's around just this flat green lawn. It's owned by a property management company, and it is someone's job to go and trim the grass and keep it all flat and fertilized. And it's not a vacant lot. 

Mike: It is a weird waste of space to have. If it's going to be a park, make it a park, but don't make it a park behind a fence.

Sarah: And do something to honor the lives of these victims that nobody paid attention to the fact that they were disappearing. This is the neighborhood that these people who the police didn't care about still live in today.

Mike: How does he end up getting killed in prison? Because doesn't another prisoner kill him. 

Sarah: Yeah, he got killed when he was on janitorial duty, I think. And another prisoner, a young black guy, bludgeoned him and killed him and he died instantly. And he had wanted to die. 

Mike: Yeah, was he sentenced to death? Was this death row? 

Sarah: No. I don't think that they've had the death penalty in Wisconsin for a long time. And in one of those various symbolic sentences, he's sentenced to 900 years. So I've also read a book by the pastor who became his pastor and did Bible study with him after he converted to Christianity, became a Church of Christ congregant. He became Christian while he was in prison, as a great many people do. And in his last months of life he came around to the idea of Christ’s love. 

Mike: Oh whatever Jeff, the Christians can have Jeff. Can the gay people not have Jeff anymore and the Christians take him?

Sarah: And I think that one of the things that he felt guilt over was not just being a murderer but being gay.

Mike: What does the Reverend say in this book about him as a person? 

Sarah:  It's a very sweet book. The guy's name is Roy Ratcliffe, and he talks about Jeff being like, “I've been reading about Church of Christ rules and how you have to have wine or grape juice, but I can't have access to grape juice in prison. All I have is grape drink, is God okay with that?” And the pastor is like, yes, it is. It is. God understands. If all you can get is grape drink. 

And this is in the eight months before he's killed. They baptized him. And the pastor, after he's killed, speaks at his funeral. And there were not very many people at that funeral, as one might guess. And I think a family member of a victim turned up and he talked to her, and they apparently had a moment. She regarded the man who had killed her family member as human. 

Mike: Do you think this Reverend, his account of later Jeff, do you think that's a sign that the system could have intervened and could have saved Jeff in some way, whether it was the church or a social worker or a jobs program or something could have intervened and stopped all this?

Sarah: I don't know. I feel like when I look at his life, it feels like this coalescence of just all of these different factors. That he was born with the hardware that he had and that he was so emotionally isolated. During his childhood and adolescence, people didn't get therapy for kids and teenagers in the sixties and seventies, they just didn’t.

Mike: Or even try to get him diagnosed. Nowadays your parents would be like, oh, Jeff is weird. Let's take him to a psychologist and get some sort of label to put on him of what is going on with this kid. And you would try to do something about it. Whereas back then, it's just, weirdos be weird!

Sarah:  And what criteria did they have at the time for whether someone is truly troubled? Is it, well, he's not like stealing or he's not doing anything violent that we know about. Which he didn't, he wasn't violent until he was technically an adult. There were no people in his life unless they were his victims. The only people he interacted with really seemed to be his victims. It's that, it's the happenstance of just how his chemistry worked. And we live in a lonely society. People always write about how it's really hard to form friendships in adulthood and to find community. If we lived in a society where people weren't so isolated, you know, that's just one of so many factors, but it's one of them. 

Mike: Well, you're blaming Milwaukee.  

Sarah: All right. I have a lot of love from Milwaukee. I don't want that to be the takeaway. I'm blaming America. I'm blaming mid-century America and American loneliness. And once again, as we talked about with D.A.R.E., let's take a page from Iceland's book and have some municipally funded chess clubs and activities for the kids. Let's facilitate community for people. 

Mike: If he could have joined a taxidermy club, none of this would've happened.

Sarah: Just a safe space for a lot of…

Mike: Weird ass kids.

Sarah: Weird kids who do not want to interact with each other, but can sort of stand near each other while they work on their pelts. That could have been nice.