Sarah Marshall on Jeffrey Dahmer and Barbara Gowdy
IN THE CITY where I grew up, you could go mushroom hunting on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or you could take a trip to the library, or you could visit the dead babies. The babies are still there, and that was how I always thought of them when I was a child: “the babies.” As in: “Mom, when we get to the museum, the first thing we have to do is see the babies.” And we always did. The babies were kept at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where my mother always took me in the hopes that I might learn something. I don’t know how much I learned on those trips, but I know it had nothing to do with the finite lessons—the weight of an atom, the density of a diamond, the death of a star—that my science classes tried to teach me.
It took me a long time realize not that the babies really were dead, but that their death was the same kind I would someday experience. To me, it seemed as if they had never lived, but had always existed as they did now: in a kind of peaceful stasis, suspended in a darkness like space, eyes closed, not asleep, not dreaming, not in pain, not in pleasure; simply being. They were not grotesque or garish or tragic or ugly or beautiful to me. All I knew was that they were.
The babies were arranged in a semicircle, preserved by expert hands and placed in order of gestation. The first baby was a speck of white matter. The last looked stillborn. The rest were somewhere in the middle: between something that did not even look like life to me, and a face I recognized as another child’s face, not so different from my own. For reasons I could never articulate, I always found it necessary to start with the smallest and move to the biggest, looking at each individual baby along the way, working my way toward my own age, my own face, my own form of being.
I don’t know if you would call it a gesture of respect, this careful attention. I was a child, and children don’t tend to pay much heed to the complex systems of etiquette that govern adult relations between the living and the dead—or at least, I didn’t. But children also know what fascinates them—or at least, I did. For as long as I can remember, those babies have fascinated me.
Last winter, I called a Milwaukee real estate company to ask why they had bought a certain plot of land. The property in question had been home to an apartment building until 1992, when it was demolished by a neighborhood improvement group. The demolition cost fifty thousand dollars, and a local newspaper reported that, once the building was gone, the lot would be turned into a neighborhood park.
Instead, nothing happened. The property fell into a state as close to disrepair as a totally vacant space can manage. The lot was matted with overgrown grass and strewn with litter when it finally found a new owner, in 2011. Ogden & Company bought the land from the City of Milwaukee for $500, but with one catch: they had to promise not to build anything on it. The lot, vacant for twenty years, would have to stay vacant forever. The company agreed.
When I called Ogden, I wanted to know only one thing: why would they buy a property they could never profit from, and that would inspire only negative attention?
When I explained my question to the woman who answered the phone, I told her I was calling about the property at 924 North 25th Street, in Milwaukee’s Avenues West neighborhood. When this didn’t seem to remind her of anything, I laid all my cards on the table. “You know,” I said. “Where Jeffrey Dahmer used to live. Uh—why did you buy that lot?”
“Good question!” she said, in the Midwestern mix of aggression and politeness I was still getting used to after moving to Wisconsin that fall. Then she put me through to an answering machine. I never heard back.
More often than not, describing Jeffrey Dahmer comes down to describing his apartment. Both Dahmer and his home—which one true crime writer would later describe as “not just a one-bedroom flat, but a dungeon, a maw of death”—came to the world’s attention on July 23, 1991, when Tracy Edwards, a young man Dahmer had handcuffed and attempted to murder, escaped from his apartment and flagged down the police. He was not the first person to escape from the building at 924 North 25th Street: a few weeks earlier, a fourteen-year-old Laotian-American boy named Konerak Sinsamphone had done the same. Dahmer had caught up with him, and managed to convince the police that they were in a consensual relationship. “Intoxicated Asian, naked male, was returned to his boyfriend,” one policeman said into his radio after he had escorted the two back to Dahmer’s apartment. He was laughing as he added, “My partner is going to get deloused at the station.” After they left the apartment, Dahmer strangled Sinthasomphone, sodomized his corpse, and then went to work photographing and dismembering his body, deciding to preserve the skull.
At the time he was arrested, it seemed impossible to explain Jeffrey Dahmer himself: to say what would possess a seemingly normal man not just to murder seventeen young men, but to preserve and collect parts of their corpses. When the police searched his apartment, they found three headless torsos decomposing in a vat in the bedroom, and a human head and three bags of organs in the refrigerator, and three skulls. “He stated he kept the skulls of the good looking ones because he didn’t want to lose them,” a detective who had questioned Jeffrey Dahmer later testified.
Journalists’ descriptions of Jeffrey Dahmer and his home are rife with the language of contagion. The year before Dahmer’s arrest, true crime author Don Davis wrote, his “bloodletting erupted anew,” loosing “a torrent of emotion and mayhem” on the community. After “the police were deluged with information,” the details of his case “began to ooze out when the scab was scratched open,” and “the nation was soaked with television footage of investigators searching the environs of the Oxford Apartments.” When Dahmer himself appeared on TV, his eyes were apparently capable of “drilling holes in…the camera lenses, as if he could see through the film and into the heart of anyone who gazed at him.”
1991 marked the moment when many middle Americans had to face the fact that AIDS wasn’t going away, and that it was capable of destroying not just lives they regarded as disposable, but people they knew and loved. Writing of how Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother decided to reconnect with her son after her work in an AIDS clinic made her “sympathetic to the plight of the gay community,” Don Davis concluded that “Jeffrey Dahmer was indeed a homosexual, but now he was also a mass murderer, just as deadly to the men he took home and had sex with as any disease—and he killed faster.”
He didn’t, of course. But there was something comforting in this version of the story: Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t resemble the specter of AIDS so much as take its place. AIDS wasn’t a disease that could infect suburban homes; Dahmer was. Ignorance and hate and lack of government funds didn’t kill gay men; Dahmer did. A segregated city where white police patrolled black neighborhoods didn’t kill men of color; Dahmer did. A police force that paid no attention to the fact that young black men were disappearing from Milwaukee’s “gay ghetto” wasn’t to blame for Dahmer staying free long enough to murder seventeen people; Dahmer was evil, and evil could not be stopped. Society didn’t have problems; Dahmer was the problem, and soon he would be gone.
By now, the name “Dahmer” has been repeated so many times, in tones of such fear and revulsion, that it seems to refer not to a person but to a disease—to the point where, describing an excusive interview he conducted for Dateline NBC, Stone Phillips recalled that “‘Jeff,’ as his father called him, was polite, and seemed unnervingly normal.”
To both Stone Phillips and his viewers, “Jeff” could not be his real name. “Jeff” is no name for evil in human form. But something strange happens when “Dahmer” drops away, and when we ask what happened not in the “maw of death,” but inside Jeff’s apartment.
When Jeff talked about his crimes, he was disarmingly straightforward, offering none of the sinister, well-rehearsed mission statements the media had come to expect from notorious criminals like Richard Ramírez and Charles Manson. “If I couldn’t keep them there with me whole,” he said of his victims, during an interview with Inside Edition, “at least I felt that I could keep their skeletons. And I even went so far as planning on setting up an altar, with the ten different skulls and skeletons… As a sort of memorial. A point where I could—I don’t know,” he said. Whatever he wanted could not be put into words, or at least into the words he knew.
A man and a woman meet in a donut shop. The man is a medical student. The woman works in a funeral home. When the man asks the woman why she chose that work, she answers: “Because I’m a necrophile.” The man looks at her and does not laugh or change the subject or look away.
“Normally I don’t like looking people in the eye,” the woman tells us, “but I found myself staring back.” She is the heroine of Barbara Gowdy’s “We So Seldom Look on Love,” a story in her 1992 collection of the same name. The book is filled with stories of women who find their lives guided by impossible longing and subversive bliss, but “We So Seldom Look on Love” is its crown jewel. Its heroine is unapologetic and straightforward, interested not in frightening the reader but in showing them how necrophilia satisfies a need that, like Jeff’s, issues from a place where language ceases to function. She cannot explain the depth of this need, where it comes from or how it came to consume her, but she can tell us of the pleasure, the satisfaction, the relief necrophilia brings her.
“By the time I reached the prep room,” she says, of one experience, “tremors were running up and down my legs. I locked the door behind me and broke into a wild dance, tearing my clothes off, spinning around, pulling at my hair. I’m not sure what this was all about, whether or not I was trying to take part in the chaos of the corpse’s disintegration, as Matt suggested. Maybe I prostrating myself, I don’t know.”
There is something novel in the idea that necrophilia is not a performance: that it is not an act undertaken to scandalize the rule-abiding world, but something personal, private, even necessary. And so deep a need, so enduring a compulsion, cannot be explained away by the pursuit of pleasure alone. No pleasure is worth this much.
“Once the dancing was over,” Gowdy’s heroine tells us, “I was always very calm, almost entranced. I drew back the sheet. This was the most exquisite moment. I felt as if I were being blasted by white light. Almost blinded, I climbed onto the table and straddled the corpse. I ran my hands over his skin. My hands and the insides of my thighs burned as if I were touching dry ice. After a few minutes I lay down and pulled the sheet up over my head. I began to kiss his mouth. By now he might be drooling blood. A corpse’s blood is thick, cool and sweet. My head roared.”
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 the things he had read,” Lionel Dahmer wrote, “all of it pornographic, with the exception of four books on the care of fish… There were utterly neutral things, suddenly made sinister: three black-handled forks, two butcher knives, a pair of chemical-resistant gloves, a handsaw with five detachable blades, and a three-quarter-inch drill.” And finally, on the last page of the inventory, there were the contents of Jeff’s bedroom:
1 Pillow White w/Light Blue Flowers w/Blood Stain
1 Pillow Black Case & Pillow w/Blood Stain
1 Bed Sheet Black Fitted w/Blood Stain
1 White Mattress Cover White w/Blood Stain
1 Pillow Case Black w/Blood Stain
1 Mattress w/Blue Flowered Pattern w/Blood Stains Both Sides
How many bodies did Jeffrey Dahmer take to bed with him? How long did he keep them there? At his trial, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz testified: “there was no force pushing him to kill. There was merely a desire to spend more time with the victim.”
In the descriptions we are used to, Dahmer’s destruction is powered by deadly rage: according to true crime authors, he stalked the streets of Milwaukee, “feeding his hate, only to find that it was more consuming with every new kill,” and even as a boy, he barely contained a “towering, murderous rage” that “built to white heat within him.”
But in his own descriptions of his crimes, Jeffrey Dahmer never spoke of anger. Two of his surviving victims would testify that he listened to the sounds their bodies made—the beating of their hearts, the gurgling of their stomachs—in a practice he had enjoyed since childhood, and which represented one of the few acts of intimacy he appeared capable of engaging in with a still-conscious body. His trial revealed that he took “showers with two dead bodies in the bathtub,” and that “he would freeze the corpse of a special victim so he could have repeated sexual encounters with it.” Questioned by detectives about his first victim, Stephen Hicks, he simply said: “He wanted to leave and I didn’t want him to leave.” After his arrest and trials, he described the murders and their aftermath as “the drive and focus of my life, the only thing that gave me satisfaction.”
This is the kind of ambiguous statement that could belong to Dahmer as much as it could belong to Jeff. It could belong to the seething mastermind glorying in his bloodlust, or to the blurry figure who somehow frightens us more.
No matter how much media accounts of the murders insisted upon Dahmer’s rage, Jeff’s dependency on his victims loomed at the edges. You couldn’t read about the apartment full of skulls without thinking about the man who had taken the time to boil, clean, and preserve them, and to wonder what purpose this preservation served.
“Obsession began to storm through me, as if I were a tunnel,” Barbara Gowdy’s necrophile heroine tells us. She has found a living lover named Matt, but it has only made her crave the corpses at the funeral home even more. “With Matt,” she says, “when we made love, I was the receiving end, I was the cadaver. When I left him and went the funeral home, I was the lover.”
Matt wants more than he can have from our heroine, and she cannot find a way give him what he wants. Neither, it seems, can he. But Matt finds a solution. He decides to hang himself, slipping on the noose, but waiting for his beloved to come home before he does anything more:
“If you leave,” he said, “if you take a step back, if you do anything other than pull away the ladder, I’ll kick it away.”
“I love you,” I said. “Okay?”
“No, you don’t,” he said.
“I do!” To sound like I meant it I stared at his legs and imagined them lifeless. “I do!”
“No, you don’t,” he said softly. “But,” he said, “you will.”
Our heroine watches her lover die. Then she becomes the lover, and he the beloved.
“I took my clothes off,” she tells us. “I knelt over him. I kissed the blood at the corner of his mouth.”
Gowdy’s story takes its title from the closing lines of Frank O’Hara’s “Ode on Necrophilia”:
so seldom look on love
that it seem heinous.
As a boy, Jeff rode around his Ohio hometown on his bicycle, looking for roadkill to play with and dissect. “Was there some pleasure,” Stone Phillips asked, during their interview, “in—in the cutting open of the animal?
“Yes,” said Jeff. “There was. No—no sexual pleasure, but just—”
“[A] sense of power?” Phillips tried. “[A] sense of control?”
“I suppose that's a good way of putting it, yeah,” Jeff said. “I suppose it could have turned into a normal hobby like taxidermy,” he added, “but it didn't. It veered off into this.”
“Death is what makes taxidermy possible,” curator Rachel Poliquin writes in The Breathless Zoo, “but taxidermy is not motivated by brutality. It does not aim to destroy nature but to preserve it.”
It also allows us to create a reality that never really existed—to place ourselves in a space that does not mimic nature, but improves upon it, by allowing it to conform to our desires. “To collect is not to mirror the world,” Poliquin says, “but to remake it.”
Writing of the taxidermy displayed in the American Museum of Natural History’s Akely African Hall, academic Donna Haraway notes: “each diorama has at least one animal that catches the viewer’s gaze and holds it in communion. The animal is vigilant, ready to sound an alarm at the intrusion of man, but ready also to hold forever the gaze of meeting, the moment of truth… There is no mediation, nothing between the viewer and the animal… No merely living organism could accomplish this act.”
The “gaze of meeting,” the wordless communion between man and animal, desirer and desired, only lasts for a moment in the best of circumstances. For the trekker who falls behind the safari group’s vanguard, there will be no gaze, no moment of recognition. Even for the lucky ones, the experience will only last a moment. Then the implications of the moment will subsume the moment itself, and man or animal will decide he must assert his dominance. Then these separate bodies must realize that they are indeed separate, cannot coexist peacefully, and perhaps cannot even acknowledge the moment of unguarded intimacy they have shared.
But in the American Museum of Natural History, Donna Haraway writes, “the sacrament will be enacted for each worshipper.” This moment of intimacy is guaranteed to every visitor, and prolonged for as long as any visitor could want. We see what we want to see. Reality does not intrude. And perhaps, also, we can see that our deepest longings are always for the ungraspable: Let me control you completely, but still believe that you wish to be with me; let me experience intimacy without the terror intimacy brings; let me be the lover; let me be sure you will never leave.
When I visited the space where Jeff’s apartment once stood, I was amazed at how well-kept a piece of nothing could be. The lot that was once weedy and trash-strewn is now a perfectly manicured lawn, and the grass is a green that is lusher than lush, the color not of nature but of Astroturf. The property itself is surrounded by a spike-tipped fence, and if you didn’t know what once stood here, you would think it was erected to keep something dangerous from getting in, or something precious from getting out.
The lot is now its own kind of recreated reality. It is a diorama where we will not encounter an animal we might gaze at, and recognize. This empty space satisfies yet another of our longings: let me see where it happened without knowing why it happened; let me stand where he once stood without knowing him, and without having to admit that the terrible violence he committed came from a need I recognize, because I feel some version of it, too.
“Your Honor,” Jeff told the judge at his sentencing hearing, “it is over now. This has never been a case of trying to get free. I didn’t ever want freedom. Frankly, I wanted death for myself. This was a case to tell the world that I did what I did not for reasons of hate. I hated no one. I knew I was sick or evil or both. Now I believe I was sick.”
More than evil, more then fury, more than any dark force beyond the human, Jeffrey Dahmer’s life seems to have been marked by an unbearable loneliness. Reading about his adolescence, his alcoholism, his factory work and his life in Milwaukee, I found myself looking at a man who knew no one, trusted no one, confided in no one, felt close to no one; a man who only seemed to interact with those who would soon become his victims, and who seemed unable to find any semblance of human connection unless he found it with a corpse. There is horror in what he did, but there is horror, too, in the vast and endless emptiness of the world as he knew it. I do not know if one horror eclipses the other. I do not believe that one must.
I cannot think about Jeff’s apartment without thinking about my own childhood, and my own constant desire to go see the babies. I don’t know where this urge came from, only that I felt it, and only that the visitation was, for me, the answer to a longing I could not put into words. And it’s hard for me to see this longing as unhealthy, when I go to see the babies today and see the room still filled with children, staring up in wonder and curiosity, but never in fear. Their parents are patient, walking with them from embryo to infant, and helping them to search for the moment when their lives, as they know them, began.
When I visited the babies, there was never a moment of recognition of the kind that takes place in Akely Hall: the babies’ eyes were closed, and would stay closed forever. But on a recent visit, I was astonished to realize that I recognized the babies not in a general way, but as individuals. I looked at a face I had returned to again and again as a child, and felt for a moment that I had spotted an old friend in a crowd. I knew this face. I knew this person, I thought. But I had grown up and they had not, and if they had a name, I would never learn it.
Yet still, there was this knowledge, across the distance of time and space and death. The baby was the same baby I had known for my entire life. I could always return to it, and it would never leave me behind.
SARAH MARSHALL is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writing has most recently appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015.