(Major content warning on this one, friends: r*pe, murder, misogyny, stalking, serial killers)
Jenny Diski was lots of people’s favorite writer. She published many books of fiction and memoir during her lifetime, though I haven’t read most of them—I only knew her from the essays she wrote for the London Review of Books, where she was a frequent contributor. After she died a few years ago I bought a copy of Don’t, a collection of book reviews and personal essays she wrote for the magazine, and I spent some time today re-reading it.
One of the first pieces in the book, in a section titled “Looking at Monsters in the Dark,” is a review of a lurid-sounding book called The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, which came out in 1993, a year before Dahmer died in prison. I was a young teenager when Dahmer was caught and his crimes were revealed. I remember being horrified by him, but at the same time somehow comforted by the knowledge he had preyed on boys and men, which was new information to me, a surprise. I filed the information away: Men harm other men, too. It’s not just women and girls who are in danger. It is usually the men doing the harming, though, it seemed. That part was not a surprise.
When I saw this essay in Diski’s book I had the same reaction to it that I always do to articles or films about serial rapists and murders: I don’t want to read it. I can’t look at it. / I have to look at it. I have to read it, every word. Typically, after I read or watch the thing, I will get sick to my stomach or have at least one very bad night’s sleep, but I continue to do it occasionally anyway. Am I interested in these subjects, or am I punishing myself for something? Am I trying to keep myself safe, or to understand something about human nature? Or about myself? Or is all of those at once?
So I read the Dahmer essay, along with the rest of the book. I deeply enjoyed the essays. This is writing about many areas of life—reportage of a kind—by someone with a truly interesting mind, as well as a wonderful sense of humor. Diski looked at Dahmer the way she looked at the book written about him, and about every subject she approaches: Not only does she not look away, as I was tempted to do, she looks inward as well. She does not shy away from the horrible things that happen in the world or from her own dark thoughts, and by letting all these exist together on the page she makes room for the, shall we say, fullness of the human experience. Even still, by the end of her essay she admits that she might not see much need for books about people like Dahmer, agreeing with something he once said about himself: “This is the grand finale of a life poorly spent … How it can help anyone, I’ve no idea.”
But old Jeffrey Dahmer has a way of popping up again and again, doesn’t he? All these guys do, these serial killers everyone is so fascinated with, along with all the other kinds of violent crimes that are splayed all over the news. They won’t go away and so occasionally, I guess, we feel compelled to take a look.
When I was in my 20s and working at a Barnes & Noble, a sweet but possibly creepy guy I worked with there asked me to get the book he’d ordered from behind the register, and when I saw that it was a biography of Jeffrey Dahmer I felt truly skeeved, I can’t lie. As I handed it to him I gave him a look that said Why?, trying to cover my discomfort by teasing him. He just looked embarrassed, and I remained afraid of him until I quit the job a few months later.
But then, I was a young woman, and I was afraid a lot of the time. Even specifically at that job: There were a few men who would pester the young women who worked at the store, asking for us by name even though they were strangers to us. One man in particular came in looking for me after we’d spoken on the phone when he called to ask about a book. He then stood there in front of my register (and a bunch of other people) and told me what a “soothing” voice I’d had over the phone, gazing at me with a truly demented expression in his eyes. I often worked the store’s evening shift, which meant I had to stay until it closed at 11, help do all the closing-up stuff, then leave to walk out into the dark, empty parking lot at midnight and walk home alone. The whole time I worked there I nursed a low-level fear that the soothing voice guy would be there waiting for me, and yet this feeling was indistinguishable from the at-least-low-level fear of all men that I carried around with me all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever even considered that particular anecdote important enough to tell anyone about before now, though I’ve thought of it often over the years.
A few years before I had that bookstore job, I was in college and living in downtown Philadelphia, when the so-called Center City Rapist was at large. He lived, it turned out, in an apartment just a few blocks from the one I shared with my best friend K. Several times over the course of a few years, he slipped out of the bed he shared with his girlfriend in the middle of the night to break into women’s apartments while they slept and rape them. He murdered one of them, a woman named Shannon who lived a few blocks from where I lived at the time. (All of these crimes were committed within a few blocks of where I lived.) She was 23, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania while I was an undergraduate there; I was 21. The Philadelphia Police Department’s habit of underplaying, ignoring, and mishandling of sex crimes has since been reported on widely, though at that time my friends and I did not know this, and didn’t need to know it to realize we were deeply unsafe. We already had the much larger knowledge that most women have always had—that we were on our own with this stuff.
Actually, I once read a book about Jeffrey Dahmer myself. At the library one quiet afternoon, looking for something good to read, I found a graphic memoir by a man who’d gone to school with “Jeff.” He wrote about Dahmer’s crimes as well as his memories of him as a teenager, and how those did, or did not, line up with what later happened. It’s a very sensitive and powerful book—it was later made into a film, which I haven’t seen—but it scared me so badly that I regretted reading it with the same intense energy one usually feels for regretting having done something, not simply having read or looked at something. If only I could take it back! Some things, once you’ve seen or heard them, do not go away.
I want to say here that the current wave of fascination with murder, which as far as I can tell has been spurred on if not created by podcasts and the Netflix’s serial killer documentary machine, leaves me very cold. I don’t find the “fandom” of well-known murders funny, and I don’t think being preoccupied with stuff like this makes a person interesting. I wish it would all go away. The violence, and the glamorization of the violence. Just make it stop. A line from one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under, comes to me now. When his coworker starts describing the M.O. of a serial killer they’ve agreed to embalm after he was executed by the state, the undertaker David nearly shouts: “Don’t tell me. It’s bad enough things like that happen. Do we have to talk about them too?”
But—I think sometimes sometimes we have to talk about them. Last year, during a period when I was feeling extremely disturbed after learning about an act of sexual violence that had happened to someone I love, I watched Conversations With a Killer, a four-part, nearly four-hour documentary Netflix produced about Ted Bundy and the journalists who managed the rare feat of interviewing him while he was on death row. I was hungry for this story, and not in my usual, guiltily self-harming way. It felt important for me to try to understand the reason a person might hurt someone for pleasure. I have to conclude that a hunger for understanding is the reason people write books like the one I read, and the one Diski reviewed, though I can’t say that in the case of this documentary I really gained much wisdom beyond an astonished sort of appreciation for the depths that people can sink to.
(And yes, like it or not, these are people, not monsters. There’s no such thing as monsters, I’m afraid. In a song on Tori Amos’s album American Doll Posse—one of the funny, spooky little ditties she does so well—she sings: “Devils and gods, now that’s an idea / but if we believe that its they who decide / that’s the ultimate detractor of crimes / cuz devils and gods, they are you and I.”)
One of the details from the Bundy film that haunts me the most, a year after watching it, is something one of the journalists said, something about regret. He was a tough old-school newspaper reporter and didn’t seem the type to be scared by much, but he talked about how thoroughly disturbed he was by Bundy, how he felt that by spending time with him he’d been infected by his essence. He described bringing home with him a darkness that has gnawed at him more, not less, as time has worn on, and he said he wished he’d never done the interviews at all.