What Jeffrey Dahmer's Childhood Was Actually Like - Grunge (2024)

Crime Serial Killers

ByAmy BeemanandWilliam Fischer/

Jeffrey Dahmer has become one of the most notorious serial killers in modern American history. Besides killing his victims, Dahmer dismembered their corpses, preserved body parts, engaged in necrophilia, cannibalized organs, and even attempted lobotomies on some who were still alive (per Biography). During his active years, several brushes with the law failed to uncover Dahmer's crimes, and his family had no idea what he was doing.

In February of 1992 (per History), Dahmer received his sentence. Seven months after his arrest, a jury rejected Dahmer's insanity plea. He was found sane and guilty of 15 murders — out of 17 accused — from 1978 to 1991, and sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences. Two years later,at 34 years old, Dahmer was dead — killed by a fellow inmate while on work detail.

Upbringing doesn't necessarily correlate to criminality, let alone something as extreme as Dahmer's actions. Dahmer himself dismissed any connection between his home environment and his later acts (via A&E). His childhood had its typical ups and downs, and was well within the ordinary. While his family noted certain things in hindsight, no one thought at the time, or had reason to think, that Dahmer would become what he became.

The following article contains references to addiction, abuse, and mental health struggles. If you or anyone you know is experiencing these issues, help is available. Contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

The Dahmer family moved around a lot

Jeffrey Dahmer was born on May 21, 1960, to Lionel and Joyce Dahmer at the Evangelical Deaconess Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The family home at the time was in West Allis, but Jeffrey wouldn't be there for long. His father, Lionel Dahmer, was a devoted chemistry student and future research chemist. According to Brian Masters' "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer,"when Lionel had an opportunity to pursue a master's degree in analytical chemistry at Marquette University, the family moved to Milwaukee for his convenience.

Deference to Lionel's education and career — or for Joyce's nerves — would move the Dahmers around several more times during Jeffrey's youth, as noted by Masters. In 1962, the family moved to Ames, Iowa, as Lionel began postgraduate work. In 1966, before the birth of another son, they moved to Doylestown, Ohio, but relocated to Barberton within a few months after Joyce complained about the neighbors. In 1968, almost on a whim after seeing a house for sale, the Dahmers moved once more, this time to Bath, Ohio. There Jeffrey would live until after high school, though his parents and brother all left the area before him, in the wake of an ugly divorce in 1978.

As a young adult, Dahmer joined the army and was briefly stationed in Baumholder, West Germany, but was discharged in 1981 (per the Los Angeles Times). From there, he hopped around for a few months, living in Florida and Ohio before settling in West Allis with his grandmother.

Jeffrey Dahmer and his father bleached animal bones together

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Palii Oleg/Shutterstock

Lionel Dahmer was often an absentee figure in the Dahmer household. Even before Jeffrey Dahmer's birth, Lionel was so devoted to his chemistry work (per Brian Masters' "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer") that he was often neglectful of his emotionally vulnerable wife. He was often distant from his children for the same reason. But Lionel and Jeffrey could connect, at times, over a mutual interest in nature and animals.

In his book "A Father's Story,"Lionel recalled an incident when Jeffrey was four. Civets had taken to using the space under the Dahmer house for eating their prey, and the growing smell alerted Lionel to the growing pile of bones they'd left behind. Lionel pulled them out from under the house, and as he and his wife talked, Jeffrey became fascinated with dropping and clanking the bones together. "Like fiddlesticks," he told his father, a nickname for bones that would stick.

A few years later, when Jeffrey was 10 (per Masters), he casually asked during a family chicken dinner what would happen to the leftover chicken bones if they were bleached. At the time, Lionel took this as a scientific curiosity, and he demonstrated to his son just what bleach did to the chicken bones. Jeffrey, according to Masters, watched without a word or a blink.

His mother was depressed and suicidal

Jeffrey Dahmer's mother, Joyce Dahmer — known as Rocky, according to her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obituary — was not a happy or healthy woman. Her upbringing was marked by a neglectful and alcoholic father, according to Brain Masters' "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer,"and she developed into a hypersensitive hypochondriac who demanded attention. She also suffered bouts of depression and postpartum depression: After the birth of her second son David, Lionel Dahmer remembered her being left bedridden by the latter in "A Father's Story."

To cope with her physical and mental pain, Joyce turned to medication. Per Masters, she took up to eight Equanil a day by 1970, leading to a month's stay in a mental ward, and another month of psychotherapy for anxiety — which did not result in sustained improvement. Joyce's depression and anxiety persisted after her divorce and the uncovering of her son's crimes. She kept in regular contact with Jeffrey until his death, and agonized with remorse for his victims and over her son.

In 1994 (per UPI), Joyce attempted suicide with her gas oven in Fresno, California, and remained in a haunted state over her son until her death in 2000.

His parents had a toxic relationship

Brian Masters wrote of Lionel and Joyce Dahmer's marriage in his book "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer": "One could hardly imagine a finer recipe for incompatibility." Lionel was emotionally reserved and concentrated on his career, while Joyce was highly emotional and anxious.

Both their children reported that the atmosphere in the family home was tinged by the obvious tensions between the parents: Jeffrey Dahmer and his younger brother David Dahmer witnessed shouting matches, thrown objects, and hitting. However, Masters contends that the children were never harmed and that the family was not in a constant state of misery.

In 1977, after attending her father's funeral, Joyce Dahmer began an affair, and soon told her husband that their marriage was over. Lionel Dahmer described their divorce proceedings briefly in "A Father's Story,"saying only that they engaged in a custody battle for their younger son, which ended with Joyce having custody. But neighbors told the Los Angeles Times that, during and after the divorce proceedings, police had to be called to the Dahmer house to break up shouting and shoving matches. Masters elaborates that Joyce alleged neglect of duty and cruelty in her suit, and that the concern for David's future so consumed both parents that Jeffrey – by then 18 and about to attend college – was often overlooked.

A double hernia surgery may have greatly affected him

Jeffrey Dahmer's family remembered him as an ordinary little boy in his earliest years. In "A Father's Story,"his father recalled that he suffered ill health as a baby but seemed to grow out of it. He enjoyed playing non-competitive games, running about the house, and hiding. But shortly before his fourth birthday, while being checked for an ear infection and pneumonia, according to"The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer,"doctors said that a hernia condition might need surgery. Just after Christmas, it was determined that Dahmer needed a double hernia operation.

Dahmer would later claim to remember watching "Bewitched" with other kids in the hospital right before his operation, performed in March 1964, and of the intense pain after coming to from the anesthetic. So much did the pain affect him that Dahmer asked the nurse if they had cut off his genitalia, and later asked his mother the same question. The pain endured for a week, and Dahmer's mother noted in her diary at the time how much her son didn't like his doctor after the surgery.

In the months and years after the surgery, his father noted something else. As could be expected during recovery from a traumatic surgery, Dahmer had little energy or enthusiasm. But well after his body had healed, he seemed a sadder, more apathetic, and unresponsive child, a condition that became more marked and permanent with time.

How did Jeffrey Dahmer get along with his younger brother?

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Jeffrey Dahmer was an only child for six years. When his parents told him that he would be getting a sibling in 1966, he was delighted. According to Brian Masters' "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer,"he was so excited that his characteristic withdrawal into self-absorption vanished. He thanked his mother again and again for getting pregnant, insisted that he wanted a brother to play with, and was allowed to pick out the name of the baby when it arrived.

The Dahmers welcomed their second child — another son — on December 18, 1966. As promised, Jeffrey got to choose his brother's name: David. Their mother worried that jealousy might cause trouble, but Jeffrey doted on David and loved having a playmate — even if the family dog, Frisky, came first in affection. The older Dahmer boy also confided in the younger at times: Well before their parents, David knew about the graveyard of animal remains that Jeffrey maintained outside an old hut near their home. David thought his brother was performing a good deed by burying the animals.

With time, the brothers began to drift apart. David, according to Masters, would remember his older brother as unresponsive, often speaking in a monotone voice, and unable to handle frustration. The two would eventually be separated by their parent's divorce: David went with their mother, and Jeffrey — then an adult — lived on his own.

Jeffrey Dahmer hurt animals

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Professor of psychology Louis Schlesinger told A&E that childhood animal cruelty often correlates with development into a serial killer. Carl Wahlstrom, a forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Jeffrey Dahmer, was told by Dahmer about an incident in grade school. Dahmer had given his teacher a tadpole as a gift, and the teacher regifted it to another student. When Dahmer found out, he was so upset that he poured gasoline into the tadpole's aquarium and set it on fire. "If you want to call that torturing animals," Dahmer told Wahlstrom, "I tortured animals."

After the tadpole incident, however, Dahmer caused no harm to live animals, according to Brian Masters' "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer."Instead, he showed a fascination with animals that were already dead. He would collect and dissect road kills to examine their insides, impale skulls on sticks, string up corpses, and maintain an animal graveyard in a hut near his house.

Dahmer's father, Lionel, recalled a fishing trip in his book "A Father's Story,"where his son was enthralled by the gutted fish. After Dahmer's crimes were known, Lionel struggled not to see shades of the future in such incidents, though many children are naturally curious about death and the workings of the body. In the meantime, Dahmer remained devoted to his own pet dog, Frisky, and never considered killing any animal he knew from around the neighborhood.

He was the class clown in high school

For the documentary "Dahmer on Dahmer: A Serial Killer Speaks" (via NBC), interviews were collected from those who knew Jeffrey Dahmer as a teenager. One of his high school classmates, Mike Kukral, volunteered his memories. He didn't remember any unsettling or dangerous qualities: Instead,he remembered Dahmer as a gifted mimic, who enjoyed pulling pranks at the mall for his friends' entertainment.

Dahmer was a tennis player and a clarinetist as a teenager, but it's as a class clown that many of Dahmer's teenage peers remembered him best. According to"Milwaukee Massacre: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Milwaukee Murders,"he was such a notorious prankster that to do a wild stunt at Revere High School (pictured) was to "do a Dahmer." Among his performances was a race up the escalator while running the wrong way, faking an allergy to free health food samples, sneaking into the honor society photo (he was blacked out of the yearbook), and talking his way into a tour of the U.S. vice president's office during a field trip to Washington, D.C.

Some found Dahmer's antics more concerning than amusing. As early as the first grade (perThe New York Times), a teacher noted that Dahmer seemed isolated. Classmate Martha Schmidt told The New York Times that he never talked about what was going on at home but that, in hindsight, his pranks were an obvious demand for attention.

Jeffrey Dahmer started drinking at a young age

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Just Life/Shutterstock

Jeffrey Dahmer's maternal grandfather had been an alcoholic, and he was hitting the bottle by age 14, according to his brother (via"The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer"). He had been sliding into a state of apathy as he approached adolescence, and he considered alcohol the only way out. PerThe New York Times, when a high school classmate caught him drinking scotch in class, Dahmer told her that it was medicine, and another schoolmate once saw him with gin.

Other classmates knew him as a beer man: According to"Milwaukee Massacre: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Milwaukee Murders,"some of Dahmer's notorious high school pranks were done to get beer money or a six-pack. Between his acting out and his consumption of alcohol, Dahmer's grades fell, and he noticeably put on weight.

As his parents' marriage collapsed, his drinking increased: By the time he enlisted in the army, he was a full-fledged alcoholic. His fellow soldiers stationed in Germany remembered him (via the Los Angeles Times) as drinking until he passed out, and then drinking again once he was up.

He had an off the charts libido

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Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Carl Wahlstrom, a forensic psychiatrist tasked with evaluating Jeffrey Dahmer ahead of his trial at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, came to one specific conclusion about him: his libido was "off the charts" from the time he was a young teenager (per A&E). However, this could be said about many boys going through adolescents: Brian Masters noted in "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer" that Dahmer's teenage habits of self-pleasure and ogling attractive bodies in p*rnography, without a thought for the person in the body, weren't anything unusual for his age group.

On the other hand, what was unusual was how much of Dahmer's time was taken up with sexual fantasies, and how intense they were. In an interview with the Chicago Reader, Wahlstrom said that at least half of Dahmer's adolescent days were spent fantasizing, a portion that grew to three-quarters by the time he reached adulthood, keeping him from managing day-to-day life.

His fantasies also went beyond having sex. As early as 13, Dahmer daydreamed about murdering other young men and having his way with their corpses. He also fantasized about the inner workings of the human body, of opening it up and understanding it. In time, the two began to blend together.

Jeffrey Dahmer planned his first murder at age 13

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It for you/Shutterstock

Jeffrey Dahmer's early sexual fantasies, according to "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer," centered around the chests and abdomens of naked men. Rather than imagine intimacy with a person, Dahmer visualized coveting and holding the bodies themselves. Over time, these thoughts began to mingle with his other fantasies of dissecting bodies to examine their inner workings.

When Dahmer was 13, both scenarios became attached to an attractive jogger who ran by the family home on a regular basis. Unsure of how to meet the jogger, convinced he wouldn't let Dahmer touch him, — and uninterested in gaining consent — Dahmer came up with a sinister plan.

One day, Dahmer waited by the side of the road, a baseball bat in hand: He was going to bludgeon the jogger, drag him into the woods, and have his way with the body. Whether he meant to kill the man is unclear: psychiatrist Carl Wahlstrom told the Chicago Reader that Dahmer may have been unsure of actually killing his victims. Either way, Dahmer never got the chance: On the day he was waiting for the jogger, he never came by, and Dahmer didn't make a second attempt to get him. His violent impulses would remain in his fantasy life for another few years yet.

Jeffrey Dahmer's depravities took hold during his teen years

Lionel Dahmer was probably right about the harbinger of horrors, because his son Jeffrey Dahmer told Stone Phillips in an interview (via The Shrine Of Criminology) that as a kid he would ride his bike around looking for road kill. He said he took pleasure in cutting open the animals, adding that it started as a curiosity, then "something went wrong."

By the time Dahmer was 14, he began having violent fantasies that intermingled with sexual fantasies. It was also during his teen years that his parents' marriage started falling apart, with Lionel and Joyce Dahmer often having explosive fights that would send Dahmer into the woods to hide out.

He told Phillips, "I sort of lived in my own little fantasy world when things got too heated in the household. It was just my little world where Ihad control. Maybe I felt I had no control as a child or young adult, and that got mixed up with my sexuality and Iended up doing what Idid. It was my way of feeling in complete control ... I had the final say ... Icould completely control a person ... and keep them with me as long as possible, even if it meant just keeping a part of them."

What Jeffrey Dahmer's Childhood Was Actually Like - Grunge (2024)

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