Jeffrey Dahmer Was Once A Sad Little Boy

As a Jungian-oriented clinician, I deeply value the influence of the collective psyche on the lives of individuals and the importance of making conscious these collective forces as a means of bringing greater compassion and peace to our world. So in 2012, following the horror and grief of the Sandy Hook incident, I was intrigued to listen to Dr. Michael Conforti’s reflections on the Sandy Hook tragedy in his lecture, Beyond Horror and Hope: The Archetypal Intersection of Innocence and Evil.

His introduction warned, “While we may never understand what it is that allows for such atrocities, we have to continue to search for meaning, a way to understand and perhaps, to stem the tide of this force.”

In his attempt to find meaning by exploring evil as archetypal, Dr. Conforti cited the example of the gruesome murders committed by Jeffrey Dahmer. He suggested that despite Dahmer’s loving early childhood, for reasons we may never understand, Dahmer committed unspeakable acts.  I was stunned to hear the words, “loving childhood,” in reference to a serial killer as Conforti embellished the age-old idea of the “bad seed.”
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The implications of accepting the “bad seed” hypothesis are astounding. If we ignore the evidence that profound and early developmental neglect and abuse destroyed Jeffrey (and ultimately others), then we turn our back on his suffering and fail to examine the cultural collective psyche that unconsciously breeds this kind of psychopathy. We can shrug and say, “Ah too bad, another case of the bad seed,” and then turn away in revulsion and do nothing. We can do nothing until we need to capture Dahmer and put him in prison. We can do nothing, until it is too late to do something.
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Are there cultural influences contributing to psychopathy? Yes. Can a child born as a “bad seed” in a loving home become a psychopathic killer? Absolutely not. It is gross denial to imagine that Jeffrey Dahmer grew up in a loving home and essentially dismiss any developmental factors that led to his grotesque mental illness.  Propagating this idea that serial murderers can be born into loving homes, disturbed me so greatly that I found myself spending days watching archived court testimony on the Dahmer trials in an effort to piecemeal together his childhood history.  Despite the hours and hours of footage including court testimony and direct interviews with Dahmer, there was shockingly little information about his childhood.  The media briefly dismissed his childhood saying “Dahmer wanted for nothing in his formative years, and was a happy child until the age of six.” It makes for an unbelievable and sensational story.
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If Jeffrey Dahmer were arrested today, I would hope that our discoveries in the past 15 years in the field of traumatology and neurodevelopment would warrant some kind of early childhood assessment.
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Even with the paucity of information, I could find several obvious red flags to indicate that Jeffrey’s early childhood was anything but loving, and at best profoundly neglectful.  It should be understood that childhood neglect is one of the most toxic forms of child maltreatment on the developing brain of a child.  In an attempt to understand the effect of early adversity on development, Dr. Bruce Perry, Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy developed a metric, which is essentially a functional neurological assessment based upon childhood history and current functioning. This metric assesses how early childhood adversity along with genetic and epigenetic influences effect the development of the child’s brain.  This instrument measures the effect of family dysfunction, abuse, chaos, violence, and neglect on key windows of neurodevelopment in-utero and during early childhood.
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Applying the concepts of this assessment to Dahmer’s early childhood narrative, I found more than a few red flags.
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Significant Red Flags

Difficult Pregnancy – Joyce Dahmer struggled with severe health problems during the pregnancy- nervous seizures and extreme sensitivity to noise- sometimes taking as many as twenty six pills a day of Miltown (Equanil, generically Meprobamate) to relieve her symptoms.

Risk Factor: Seizures are associated to the drug Meprobamate.  It does not appear that the drug is any longer on the market for good reason.  There are quite a few studies coming out of England stating that Meprobamate is correlated to serious birth defects.  According to Dahmer’s father, Ms. Dahmer was abusing the tranquilizer.  If the seizures were not related to the abuse of Miltown, then there may be other concerns for the effect of the seizures upon the fetus’ developing brain.

Postpartum Depression- Jeffrey believed his mother had suffered a postpartum depression after he was born. He took that to indicate that he was at least partially the problem for his parent’s bad marital status.  He stated he believed that his mother became depressed after his birth and never quite fully recovered. Dahmer’s mother was isolated and depressed during his early childhood.  Later on, her mental illness appears to have been severe enough to warrant a hospitalization.

Risk Factor:  Severe postpartum depression, continued maternal drug use and isolation during early infancy. Primary caregiver hospitalized for mental illness.

Maternal Drug Abuse (Miltown) During Pregnancy and Early Childhood – Joyce was a drug abuser throughout her pregnancy and Jeffrey’s childhood. She continued to abuse Miltown in great quantities.  It is unclear if Mrs. Dahmer breastfed, but should be noted that Miltown also passes into breast milk.

Risk Factor: Drug abuse is a critical risk factor to the healthy development of a young child, particularly if there is an absence of mitigating influence of other care providers.  All documents and references to Mrs. Dahmer indicate that she felt isolated, alone, and condemned to be alone with her child. Another risk factor early on is the shocking absence of the father who would only come home for dinner and then return to work in his chemist lab.

Chaos due to repeated moves – Jeff’s family moved several times during his early years.

Risk Factor: It is unclear if the mother had any family or social supports, but these plausibly could have been strained with so many moves early on.  The mother was not able to rely on the absent father for support either.

Poorly Treated Maternal Psychiatric Illness & Neglect – The father was grossly absent and the mother’s psychiatric problems continued.  Jeffrey stated his mother appeared to have psychiatric problems and that at one point she had a nervous breakdown during his early childhood, stating she had been hospitalized.

Risk Factor:  Dahmer’s own experience of his mother is that she seemed to have a psychiatric illness, and she was his primary care giver. Her illness appears to have been treated primarily with tranquilizers, which is worse than no treatment in most cases.

Chronic Domestic Violence – In court testimony, “Jeffrey describes his early family life as being extreme tension.  He stated they were constantly at each other’s throat and arguing.”  The father admits that Joyce felt condemned to spending all her days at home while Lionel spent all his days and sometimes much of the night working in the laboratory. By his own admission, the laboratory had become Lionel’s obsession- his focus in life that would cause him to rush home for supper and back to the laboratory with barely a glimpse of Jeff as he played in the yard.

Risk Factor: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study shows that the combination of domestic violence where the mother appears to be threatened combined with verbal abuse is the most toxic combination for negative outcomes.  We don’t know if Mrs. Dahmer also engaged in yelling at Jeffery, but it is clear that it was the status quo between her and her husband.

Birth of another Child Poorly Received – When Joyce and Lionel had a second child, David, and the family moved to Akron, Ohio, Jeffrey responded poorly.  He became afraid of others, and he displayed a general lack of self-confidence.

Risk Factor:  Dahmer shows fragility at age 7, when his brother is born.  Dahmer seems dysregulated and easily threatened.  This is another red flag that his attachment to his mother is not secure, and that he is vulnerable and frightened.

Compulsive Lying – Jeff was clearly a compulsive liar, according to his father’s book, “A father’s story.”

Risk Factor:  Compulsive lying is a common reaction of children who are raised in a punishing environment that makes telling the truth dangerous due to the threat of being punished and/or abandoned by the primary caregiver.  Again, we don’t know anything about the early parenting style of Mrs. Dahmer, but there are questions as to her mental stability in dealing with a small child while highly medicated on Miltown, a tranquilizer.

Classic neurological “time bomb” effect of adolescence due to early childhood neglect

Depressed, Withdrawn prior to Adolescence – Dahmer grew increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative beginning around age 10, showing little interest in any hobbies or social interactions. He biked around his neighborhood looking for dead animals, which he dissected at home (or in the woods near his home).

Risk Factor: Playing with dead animals, playing in isolation, withdrawn, depressed, and unable to verbalize.

Outcast in High School – He was fundamentally an outcast at Revere High School

Risk Factor: Unable to make friends and sustain relationships.

Extreme Alcoholic in Teens – Dahmer began drinking heavily on a daily basis in his teens, and was a morbid alcoholic by the end of high school.  He continued his extreme alcoholism into adulthood until imprisoned.  In fact, he was discharged from the army due to his alcoholism.

Risk Factor: Alcoholism, Isolation, Lack of connection with his mother, father or grandmother.  Emergence of bizarre and violent sexualized behaviors and obsessions.

Abandoned by Mother – When Jeffrey was 16, his mother abandoned him leaving the home and taking her younger son with her. After this, Jeffrey started having trouble with feeling alone.  And he truly was alone without his mother, living with a father that essentially remained at work.  He began hating to sleep alone.  He was prone to panic and fear of abandonment.

Risk Factor: No social support.  No primary supportive relationship.  No relationships of any kind mitigating stress for him. Emotional and physical abandonment by mother.

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Obviously there is a great deal we do not know about Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood.  However, having a skeletal understanding of his early childhood stressors, Dahmer appears to have been suffering very early on from depression and was dissociative.  I think it is more than plausible to suspect that prenatal drug abuse, early neglect, ongoing maternal drug abuse, domestic violence, profound maternal mental illness marked by isolation, a completely absent father, and an absence of any sufficient communal support contributed to severe brain damage early on.  The brain grows sequentially, so early failures in development can lead to continued disruption in normal development.  Dahmer’s entire childhood seemed to be plagued by loneliness and a lack of relational caregivers, so any early damage was not mitigated by a loving and attuned environment, but was rather exacerbated by ongoing emotional neglect and family chaos.
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Studying research in neuroscience fundamentally changed the way I understand children, particularly when I learned that childhood abuse and neglect is more akin to brain trauma than psychological insult.  The epigenetic and early environmental transmission of violence on a neurodevelopmental level is astonishing.
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In looking to disastrous events such as Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Jeffery Dahmer, we must appreciate the developmental roots of violence.  Readers may find the ACE Study of interest, as is shows the dose rate relationship between adverse childhood experiences (early childhood abuse and neglect, family chaos, domestic violence and criminality, maternal depression and drug & alcohol abuse) and long term adult health problems.
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We are beginning to understand the profound neurodevelopmental and epigenetic consequences of early life experiences. Harvard University “On the Developing Child” has published very interesting work on the process by which the epigenome encodes the gene, including the tendency toward violence.  Certain brains are more vulnerable to becoming overly reactive, not only due to a damaged and poorly developed pre-frontal cortex (which are damaged in many serial killers), but also an over-developed lower brain (brain stem and diencephalon) contributing to greater tendency toward violence and impulsivity as well as serving to inhibit development of the limbic and prefrontal cortex parts of the brain which allow for the expression of empathy.  Sensitivity toward threat and a neurological readiness to survive in perceived unsafe environments, is enhanced by early abuse and neglect and family dysfunction. This sensitivity is also transmitted epigenetically through the early childhood experiences of the parents and grandparents.  This adds a whole new meaning to the idea of trans-generational violence.
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In the United States, 5 children are murdered every day at the hands of their own parents. My own contribution to raising awareness of the human rights of children and ending child abuse was to establish StopSpanking.org a nonprofit dedicated to ending all violence against children. The issue of spanking is a signifier to the gross level of childism and repressed hatred our culture carries for its own children.
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Monsters are created. As I look to Dahmer’s childhood, my heart aches for a young child that never had a chance.  If we don’t start to understand this, we will continue to fail children, we will continue to marginalize them and be astonished by horrible long-term outcomes. There are many lingering questions that both Dahmer’s own testimony raises, as well as that of his father who wrote a book called, “A Father’s Story.”  My hope is that this brief assessment will support a more sophisticated inquiry into Dahmer’s early experiences, and turn our attention to the very real problem of early childhood abuse and neglect. If we genuinely seek to eradicate atrocities such as Sandy Hook from this world, we must be willing to understand its origins and not leave its mystery in the hands of the gods. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study has recognized early adversity as the single most influential factor leading to illness, poor quality of life, and death. It is clear from the literature on the effects of early abuse and neglect on the developing brain, that recognizing and ending child abuse will do much more than stem the tide of atrocities like Sandy Hook and Jeffrey Dahmer. Ending child abuse will eradicate them.
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Robbyn Peters Bennett, LPC
Child Mental Health Specialist
Founder, StopSpanking.org
VP, The Alliance to End the Hitting of Children

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The Neurodevelopment of Empathy & Psychopathy, Children’s Law Institute, 2017

Social Withdrawal and Violence, Newtown, CT, “The New England Journal of Medicine”

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