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The Unique Existence of Jeffrey Dahmer

Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. What he can teach us about being human.

Key points

  • One role of repression is to lessen the unbearable knowledge of our death.
  • Repression develops in the safety of our early lives.
  • Cannibalism was his way of dealing with unbearable loneliness.

Diagnostic assessments fall short of understanding Jeffrey Dahmer’s depravity and the destruction he perpetrated on the lives of his victims and their loved ones. Do we leave the pursuit of a deeper understanding by calling him evil as the judge did upon sentencing him?

Is there anything else we can learn?

Netflix’s highly successful series by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brenner, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, offers a compelling picture of Jeffrey’s early life. His mother’s pregnancy was besieged with mood swings, for which she was treated with a concoction of “26 pills” per day. We do not know with any certainty how this affected the development of Jeffrey’s brain, but we do know that the nervous system unfolds in the embryo during critical stages that are harmfully affected by medication. The standard psychotropic medication for depression and anxiety in 1959 and 1960 when Jeffrey was in utero given to Joyce was Milltown. Not only neurotoxic to both mother and child but physiologically addictive, Jeffrey would have experienced medication withdrawal upon birth. Other toxic drugs used were hormones, barbiturates, and morphine.

Unfortunately, Joyce suffered postpartum depression further putting Jeffrey at serious risk for attachment difficulties; maternal attachment being the foundation of all subsequent relationships with severe abandonment fears being an unfortunate sequela for Jeffrey. His parents fought viciously in full view of him. His mother’s psychiatric struggles continued as did her suicide attempts. A double hernia repair at age 4 terrified him. A favored, younger brother was born. School teachers reported Jeffrey to be exceptionally shy and fearful.

His father, Lionel, tried to be a stabilizing factor for his son but he was away from home a great deal. When around, he created a strong bond with his son by teaching Jeffrey about the abundant animal life in the woods around their home and by dissecting road kill together. After Jeffrey’s capture, he spoke of his own struggles with murderous fantasies and depression as a younger man. He empathized with his son’s shyness and loneliness but never imagined what might have been brewing in his son’s mind. Regretfully, he admits, he never inquired. He banked on Jeffrey being like him.

His parents divorced. His father moved out and Joyce disobeyed a court order leaving Jeffrey alone while still in high school.

By the age of 15, Jeffrey drank alcohol openly in school. Drinking excessively as he did, whatever control Jeffrey mustered to manage his loneliness, and developing sexual proclivities would be eroded by the disinhibiting effects of alcoholism on his brain. Much research shows how alcohol use affects the forming teenage brain, with dangers including violent behavior, injury, and death. Alcohol use accompanied every phase of Dahmer's dark and deadly passage.

What might it have been like to be Jeffrey Dahmer?

Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death discusses a human being's most brutal certainty, that we die, a fact that causes us overwhelming anxiety and terror. Becker’s thesis is that civilization in its myriad of complexity was formed to keep this knowledge of our impermanence from our collective selves.

As individuals we do this through defense mechanisms, our unique strategies that keep us from fully grasping the fundamental paradox of our existence, that is that we consist of two selves: the physical self that will die and the symbolic self that is timeless.

The timeless self is formed through our imagination, creativity, our work, and our relationships. It allows the formation of a reality that goes beyond our lifespan. In our everyday lives, we hear about death, we read about it, and we witness others dying, yet the prospect of being dead is unfathomable. Repression, a defense mechanism keeps at bay the reality that we die so that we can proceed with our everyday lives.

But repression is not a singular force that we have in fixed doses. Repression evolves dynamically from experiencing the safety and protection of one’s parents or caregivers. Repression protects the fragility of our budding vitality and personhood. Along the lines of Becker’s thesis, I wonder if Jeffrey was able to repress the presence of death's certainty. Given the intrauterine toxicity he experienced, he was born already vulnerable, into an emotionally toxic home. How would repression form in such an environment? How could he live a symbolic existence when his own physical being felt so barren and threatened? He must have always felt uncomfortable.

We can see why he wanted to create a zombie out of his victims. I suspect he felt like one, someone without any agency, a failure in the symbolic world leaving him without grounding in sustainable personhood. A physical body without a symbolic self. And a zombie would never abandon him.

Was cannibalism just a means of disposal?

Repression Essential Reads

I don't think so. He claimed his first killing was accidental and spread the powdered remains of his victim around his family property to keep the man near him.

Cannibalism was an evolution of this.

Biology professor, Bill Schutt, writes “Depending on the culture, cannibalism has also been practiced as a learned behavior, as filial piety, as a form of luxurious indulgence, as a funerary ritual, and even as a mood stabilizer.”

Cannibalism was Jeffrey Dahmer’s way of dealing with unbearable loneliness, and his unrelieved sense of death’s presence by literally incorporating his victims for nourishment.

None of my thoughts diminish the horrible things that this man did, nor have any bearing on his mental state while engaging in these murders. He was an astute liar and killer of innocent human beings.


The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, The Free Press, a division of MacMillan Publishing 1973

“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.” Bill Schutt. Illustrated. 332 pp. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Adolescent Brain Development and Underage Drinking in the United States: Identifying Risks of Alcohol Use in College Populations. Harvard Review of Psychiatry

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