Jeffrey Dahmer: The Penitent Criminal

Jeffrey Dahmer's conversion to Christianity near the end of his life raises many questions about redemption, salvation, and what it means to be a sinner.

Netflix’s 10-part series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was released on September 21, 2022, and it has become one of the most watched shows of all time on Netflix. It features a solid cast, including Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Jenkins as Lionel Dahmer, Molly Ringwald as Shari Dahmer, Michael Learned as Catherine Dahmer, and Niecy Nash as Glenda Cleveland.

Peters delivers a very convincing and powerful performance, especially with his uncannily accurate imitation of Dahmer’s voice. The show was created by television writer and director Ryan Murphy and Irish-Catholic director, actor, and screenwriter Ian Brennan. A companion documentary was also released shortly afterward, on October 3. 

Numerous people, especially those of a younger generation, have curiously raised questions about the horrors of Jeffrey Dahmer and his crimes. For those unfamiliar with Dahmer, he murdered 17 young men (including a young adolescent boy who was 14 years old) from 1978 to 1991. His modus operandi was to lure to his apartment young gay men—usually of color (by all accounts due to sexual preference and opportunity, not because of some inherent racism)—to photograph, drug, rape, and murder them. He often took photographs of these men while dismembering their bodies. He would also have sex with their corpses and kept grisly souvenirs of his victims, including their heads and genitalia. Perhaps the most sensational aspect of Dahmer’s despicable crimes is that he attempted to create zombies of his victims and also cannibalized some of them.   

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Out of all the movies and reenactments I’ve seen on the subject over the years, this Netflix series has been the most well-acted, well-scripted, creative, and thought-provoking. The series pays special homage to the victims and takes great care to show their humanity by engaging in the details of their personal lives, thereby humanizing them. This is something that has been by and large neglected in the past. The show exposes the incompetence and often inherent prejudice of the Milwaukee Police Department and their mishandlings, particularly the tragic but preventable murder of the Laotian 14-year old boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone

It also gives an in-depth look at how these tragedies affected Dahmer’s own family, especially his father, Lionel Dahmer, who, in 1994, published an introspective and heartfelt memoir that I read many years ago: A Father’s Story. Here is an excerpt from the dust jacket:

A Father’s Story cannot claim to have discovered the ultimate solution to the enigma of either a criminal or his [Jeffrey Dahmer’s] deeds. It is, in fact, not the story of Jeffrey Dahmer at all, but of a father who, by slow, incremental degrees, came to realize the saddest truth that any parent may know: that following some unknowable process, his child had somewhere crossed the line that divides the human from the monstrous.

This memoir is not a refutation of the charges, an attempt to change the record. It is both a touching family memoir and a haunting confession—the searing account of a man who never relented in his effort to fathom the deepest quarters of his son’s affliction, even as they pointed to his own. It is an important document on the nature of fatherhood, the origins of madness, and the role of kinship in the legacy of evil.

The ramifications of Dahmer’s crimes bring many theological and philosophical questions to the fore. It provokes us to think more deeply on questions of soteriology (the study of the doctrine of salvation) and hamartiology (the study of the doctrine of sin), and related philosophical questions pertaining to free will and moral responsibility. (It also raises many intriguing questions in the fields of psychology/psychiatry, sociology, evolutionary biology, and genetics.) 

St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, summarizes the greatness of God’s grace when he states: 

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16) 

As St. Paul recognizes in Romans 3:10-12, we are all undeserving of God’s grace: 

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. 

And yet, God’s mercy is extended to all of us. St. Paul recognizes the magnitude of God’s grace even in the backdrop of his profound wickedness. I, too, have tried to see myself in such terms, despite the ongoing temptation to justify and diminish my own sins and deep inadequacies. Becoming ever more self-aware of these shortcomings enables us to grow closer to God, which is always a work in progress as we increase in virtuous living. 

Since Dahmer’s crimes were sensationalized throughout the world in the early 1990s, his name has been synonymous with some of the most notoriously evil humans, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Luis Garavito, Ted Bundy, and Dean Corll. The general sentiment by those who do not appreciate or comprehend the power of the Cross or the veritable message of the Gospel is that someone as depraved as Dahmer is beyond salvation. 

Although Dahmer was very aware of his actions, given his great pains to cover up his crimes, he did suffer from a series of paraphilia, such as splanchnophilia (a sexual arousal caused by the sight of internal organs, particularly their shininess), necrophilia and sexual cannibalism, and mental disorders including antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizotypal personality disorder. No excuses should be made, though. Dahmer acted with tremendous callousness by torturing and murdering innocent young men in a sad attempt to alleviate his loneliness and his own selfish sexual desires. 

But such is the toll that sin can take on our soul, especially when left unconstrained. Dahmer, like St. Paul, at the end of his trial, in his final statement on February 17, 1992, also recognized himself as “the worst of sinners.”

The final episode of the Netflix series, titled “God of Forgiveness, God of Vengeance,” explores Dahmer’s conversion to Christianity. Although discussed in interviews, to my knowledge this is something that had never been dramatized before. This episode presents a fascinating juxtaposition between the clown serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. and Dahmer. 

There are some parallels between the crimes of Gacy and Dahmer. Both killed and tortured boys and young men, and both claimed to have found solace in their Christian faith. Dahmer, unlike Gacy, admitted to all of his crimes in sordid detail. Through his confessions, he also helped the authorities close many cold cases that may have never been solved otherwise. Gacy, on the other hand, denied that he murdered any of the 33 boys. In fact, he wrote a book titled A Question of Doubt: The John Wayne Gacy Story, where he claims he was the 34th victim, who was wrongfully imprisoned and convicted.

Dahmer, in a conversation with the chaplain at the Columbia Correctional Institution, questions why Gacy, a self-proclaimed Catholic who speaks of salvation, would deny the truth of his crimes. He rejects the idea that he and Gacy are the same since Gacy is obviously unrepentant. The chaplain responds with the story of the two criminals who were crucified on each side of Christ as depicted in the Gospel of Luke. He explains to Dahmer that one of the criminals was remorseful while the other was not. 

Dahmer, like the penitent criminal, recognizes his own wrongdoings. Dahmer refuses to shift the blame onto anyone or anything but himself, as he admits in an interview in 1993 with Inside Edition: “The person to blame is sitting right across from you. It’s the only person. Not parents, not society, not pornography. I mean, those are just excuses.” Gacy, on the other hand, showed a lack of remorse right until the bitter end, as demonstrated through his final words before execution: “kiss my ass.”  

In an eerie coincidence, on May 10, 1994, the day that Gacy was given the lethal injection, Dahmer was baptized. There was also a rare solar eclipse on that day. It’s as though God used the examples of Gacy and Dahmer to demonstrate the extension of His grace and mercy, if we so choose to follow Him. If anything, this Netflix series can function as an opportunity, in the face of tremendous gratuitous suffering and evil, to bring forth the Gospel to a new audience. (This may have been part of the intention behind how this episode was scripted, given Ian Brennan’s Catholic faith.) 

In the summer of 1994, Dahmer was almost killed by a fellow inmate and was given the opportunity to be put in solitary confinement. He refused. Dahmer was prepared to receive any punishment that he may face from other inmates. That fall, he was viciously attacked by another fellow inmate, Christopher Scarver, a self-professing Christian who suffered from schizophrenia. Scarver repeatedly beat Dahmer’s head with a barbell, believing he was carrying out God’s will by punishing Dahmer for his crimes. Whether it was God’s mercy or not to end his life soon after repenting and being baptized, who can say.

The minister who baptized Dahmer, Roy Ratcliff, stated the following at his memorial service on December 2, 1994:

Jeff confessed to me his great remorse for his crimes. He wished he could do something for the families of his victims to make it right, but there was nothing he could do. He turned to God because there was no one else to turn to, but he showed great courage in his daring to ask the question, “Is heaven for me too?” I think many people are resentful of him for asking that question. But he dared to ask and he dared to believe the answer.

May we always choose the example of the penitent criminal in our day-to-day lives.

[Image Credit: Netflix]

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