"Richard" and Jeffrey Dahmer: A Criminological Juxtaposition

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While the cases of "Richard" and Jeffrey Dahmer are strikingly different and the contrast between the two is much more vivid than the similarities, similarities exist.  Of course, what is revealed about Richard yields far less information than the wealth of information available on the infamous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer (JD), or most career criminals for that matter.  Even so it is the information known about the adolescent lives of both that are most prime for comparison.  In addition to this are the details of the murderous act(s) of both, though far less conducive to comparison than the former.  Similarities between the two include social deviance, calls for attention, learned behavior, agitation-motivated murder, rational response to action(s), excellence of academic ability, dissociative tendencies, and, of course, and a functional moral sense.  The differences include domestic lives, specific motivations behind murder(s) (e.g., psychological abnormality vs. domestic abuse, sexual urges vs. external source agitation), social circumstances/behaviors, and, of course, the amount of murders.  It is these similarities/contrasts that this paper intends to juxtapose, while attempting to preserve the nuanced similar and contrasting aspects of the respective cases, in order to explicate why the two falls under different criminological theories.

In Richard's case, social deviance would have been a red flag to his parents had they possessed a closer relationship with him.  Richard's deviance is best posited as a product of his treatment at home.  He describes his father as "manipulative" and both physically and psychologically abusive.  His mother, though not described as being physically abusive, is recalled as being emotionally abusive as well.  Richard's memory of his home life entails frequent, cacophonous bickering between his mother and father, and he himself was pulled into arguments as well.  Through years of therapy Richard claims to understand that he has a dissociative disorder that is also best posited as a product of his broken home life.

Conversely, Dahmer's early domestic life was rather desirable.  He was raised by loving parents whose marriage problems began much later than the start of his deviant behavior.  Following his arrest, Dahmer even expressed his exasperation with those that would seek to blame his parents for his actions.  In a biographical interview, Dahmer describes a memory of his father collecting bones of animals that had collected under the house.  He was fascinated by them and the sounds they made as they were tossed into the wagon ("J.D.: Monster," 1996).  Though his father attributed this to nothing more than mere curiosity, he retrospectively believes that he should have seen this as a warning sign (1996).  

Many theories have been posited concerning Dahmer's mental state, as despite the idyllic conditions of his early childhood, Dahmer was already expressing deviant behavior.  At age four, JD's father, Lionel Dahmer, noted what appeared to be more than social quirks, difficulties with appropriate eye gaze behavior, displayed facial expressions devoid of emotional glow...a certain motionless of his mouth...having a body posture that made him appear rigid, unusual in the straightness of his body with a sense that the knees were locked and the feet dragging stiff...oddly reminiscent of...[a] "zombie-like" person... (Silva et al, 2002, p. 2)

With the irony of his post-pubescent sexual urges being mimetic of his childhood stature in mind, all of these symptoms are characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome (2002, p. 3).  And while the limits of this paper are not adequate to make a case for such a diagnosis, it would certainly seem that psychopathology can and should be the most predominant factor in determining which theory of criminology JD best fits into.

At school, Richard was academically astute, boasting to have tested out in the top 1% of the country.  Despite his academic superiority, Richard eventually became bored of school, most likely due to the lack of an external feedback system viz., his parents.  Richard recalls acting out in order to receive attention which he lacked in all areas of his life.  Richard describes himself as "the little kid who sat in the corner...all by himself," and having no "social skills".  With virtually zero healthy relationships at home or at school, Richard clearly suffered from a lack of attachment.  

This absence of proper relationships in Richard's life affected not only his attachment, but his commitment and involvement as well.  As already stated, Richard lacked an external reward system, with the punishment he received being arbitrary.  This, and likely the lack of academic rigor, led to a disinterest in school.  His disinterest and lack of experience in sports as seeming consequence of his father's lacking interest, coupled with his lack of popularity as a consequence of his social deviance, led Richard to consistently be the last one chosen for team-based activity.  The lack of attachment in relationships, both at home and without, as well as to academics, coupled with his lack of involvement in sports and other social activities, inevitably led to a lack of commitment to goals, survival eventually being one of these.   

JD's life at school was also dichotomous.  From an early age, he could be described as reclusive, shy, and as possessing a limited amount of emotional range.  By age five, he did not appear interested in social activity.  As an elementary student, his father described him as quiet, becoming increasingly reclusive, and inept at negotiating relationships with his peers.  And by age fifteen, he was described by his father as a child who, "rejected all efforts to develop interests in the world that his father attempted to introduce.  But this is likely due to a plurality of issues.   As Jeffrey grew older, he was subjected to three relocations, costing him his sense of security and causing him to retreat even further inward.  At the age 10, his mother was hospitalized for anxiety and it was at this point that his parent's relationship began to fail.

In his high school career, he is purported to have been a model student at times, and the class clown at others.  A classmate of his described him as such, "[Jeffrey] could be an A-student if he wanted to, other times he would fail the class because he had no interest" ("J.D.: Monster," 1996).  Often times bursting out in sporadic calls for attention, Richard clearly (though not necessarily consciously) felt the effects of his social deviation take its toll.  As his parents' marriage edged closer and closer to the fray, consequently arguing more and more, Richard would frequently retreat to the woods to slap tree trunks with sticks.  He clarified his confused feelings at the time in one interview: "I'd leave the house, go out into the woods and sulk, brooding, wondering why they had to have such a rough relationship.  This inevitably took its toll on Dahmer's behavior as well.  In whatever task he performed in a social setting, whether it be class activity or sports, he would increasingly act out to gain attention in any form.

It was a more perverse social tension in Richard's home that caused him to make the decision to end his life.  Unfortunately for his mother (and him), her agitation of him in a moment of extreme cognitive vulnerability, consequently ended in her death.  Richard, like Dahmer, would often retreat from the house to escape the verbal crossfire, but Richard's distraction of choice was often shooting his gun.  At this time, Richard's sisters had already moved out of the house and he was alone with his mother. The decision to take his life already made, Richard had the gun in hand when his mother proceeded to verbally castigate him for one thing or another.  Richard responded to this pressurized stimulus by shooting her rather than himself.  Immediately in shock, Richard then proceeded to hide her body, dumping it on the side of a road.  In the days following the murder, Richard reported being in a kind of dissociative denial about what happened to his mother and where her whereabouts were.  He reports having believed that he truly did not know where she was, calling others to gain information on where she could possibly be.  

Prior to murdering his mother, Richard's belief system had already been distorted as a consequence of his lack of attachment, involvement, and commitment in virtually all areas of his life.  These four interrelated factors are all part of what is known as "social bonding theory".  In order for a case to adequately fall into this category, the criminal must have a lack of attachment (e.g., social/domestic relationships), a lack of involvement (e.g.., academic institutions/conventional activities), a lack of commitment (e.g., conventional goals), and a consequent distortion of beliefs.  Richard fits perfectly into this theory and there is no reason to believe that any of Richard's developed, cognitive abnormalities were the cause of anything other than cognitive-extraneous influences.

Antithetically, JD's abnormalities seem to be the cause of natural development.  During the observation of his first socially deviant behaviors/expressions, and for much longer after that, his life at home was ideal.  When he reached puberty, he discovered that he was a homosexual, but what's more, discovered that his sexual thoughts were intermingled with thoughts of violence. Allegedly, JD never intended to kill anyone and that is supposedly why all of his killings were accomplished via strangling: "the most humane way" ("J.D.: Monster, 1996").  The testimony of his second kill would support his claim, but the others are highly questionable.  

His first kill was performed, three weeks after his high school graduation.  Convincing a hitchhiker named, Stephen Hicks to return home with him, under the pretext of social drinking, Dahmer later strangled him with a dumbbell after Hicks expressed a desire to leave.  Dahmer describes the transformation of the level of his aggressiveness from preserving animal bones and perpetual masturbation to the killing of humans as, "One thing led to another.  It took more and more deviant behavior to satisfy my urges" (1996). He also reported that the "only motive that there ever was, was to completely control a person that I found physically attractive...and keep them with me as long as possible, even if it meant just keeping a part of them" (1996).  Perhaps this can be partly attributed to his connection to what ended up as a broken home.  By this time, his parents had already separated, and his mother had left him to relocate to Chippewa Falls.  And perhaps further it could be just as much attributed to his lack of social disability.  But it seems much more likely, due to the interest in bones and social deviance at such a young age despite having had a perfectly suitable home for someone with normal cognitive functioning, that his criminal career is due to a mental disorder, such as AD mentioned above.

Despite Richard's alleged void of intent to kill, he is responsible for the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys, some of these involving necrophilia and cannibalism (Tithecott, 1997).  He always chose victims that he was attracted to, and he always raped and killed them (not necessarily in that order).  His tactics often involved incapacitation viz. sleeping agents or similar drugs.  His obsession with the dead started at an early age and at the same time he discovered his sexual orientation, he discovered that his attraction was inseparable from violent proclivities. His psychopathy was associated with violent crimes.  He often tried to preserve the remains of those he had killed, as he did with animals when he was younger.  Clearly, this abnormality was by no means kindled by household unrest or abuse, but rather through natural development.

The conclusion of this paper's theoretical analysis on Jeffrey Dahmer, ergo, is to place him within the constructs of social process theory in the context of a biological impetus.  Otherwise stated, and more specifically, the circumstances leading up to the criminal actions of Jeffrey Dahmer indicate that his psychological abnormality (AD or otherwise) led him to deviation of social networks that could have otherwise possibly prevented or mitigated the hard he caused.  Understanding JD from the perspective of Social Control theory is perhaps therefore best as the lack of attachment and eventual lack of control balance of JD are intertwined with his inability to contain his desires.  Social relationships could be argued to have had the potential to vitiate his urges through communicative discouragement.  Alas, as he lacked the relationships, it is, at best, conjecture.

This paper will now provide a more direct juxtaposition of the factors that led to the criminal acts of both Richard and JD.  Both Richard and JD exhibited antisocial behavior, but Richard's seems more likely to be a natural consequence to his domestic situation, while JD's seems almost certainly to be related to mental pathology.   Despite this, Richard eventually attained a following, though close relationships were out of the picture to his condition.  Richard had none.  Both Richard and JD had potential for academic greatness, but both were often bored.  For Richard, this boredom derived from the lack of academic challenge to his intellect.  For JD, he was attentive in some classes, but a lack of interest in the subject caused him to be disruptive in others.

Richard's family life consisted of manipulation, emotional, and psychological abuse on part of his father, and purportedly just the latter on part of his mother.  JD's home circumstances were idyllic and both parents loved him very much.  This was disrupted for JD by having to relocate three times, his mother's anxiety attacks, and his father's busy life due to attending both school and work.  It was further disrupted at the point of his mother's hospitalization and the beginning of the end of his parent's marriage.  But as hopefully has already been made clear, these were hardly driving forces to drive Richard to his atrocious acts.  For Richard, the contrary is true.  The abuse sustained by his mother and father led him to social deviance which ultimately affected the previously mentioned four factors of social bonding theory as they apply to his life.  Under extreme pressure and agitation, it is almost as if Richard response was a natural reaction to sustained threatening stimuli.  Unlike Richard, JD's acts (though not allegedly not the murders) were premeditated and a response to sustained sexual urges, not pressures; though at this point we are dealing with semantics (urges vs. pressures), one thing is almost certain based on their respective testimonies: Richard's pressures were external while JD's, internal.  Both had a functioning moral sense, or at least seem to, as both expressed remorse, at some point, following their actions.

In closing, the differences between these cases are vast and mostly blatant, while the similarities are nuanced and mostly circumstantial.  Both criminals reacted to pressures that were beyond their control, but perhaps not the potential control that society could have had.  For both, social control could have played a big role in mitigation, prevention, or at least stalling the acts, especially for Richard.  Being as JD's impulses were almost entirely internal (and internalized), social prevention, while a somewhat plausible posit, seems unlikely.  Richard's act, on the contrary, could easily have been prevented had he been raised in a loving home.  An increase in social interaction could have done much good as well, as most criminology theories attest.  The following similarities of social deviance, calls for attention,  learned behavior, agitation-motivated murder, excellence of academic ability, dissociative tendencies, functioning moral sense as well as the differences of domestic lives, specific motivations behind murder(s) (e.g., psychological abnormality vs. domestic abuse, sexual urges vs. external source agitation), social circumstances/behaviors, amount of murders) were what this  paper has used in order to compare criminological classifications and better understand them from these unique perspectives.


Jeffrey Dahmer: The Monster Within. Dir. Christine Shuler. Perf. Jeffrey Dahmer, Phil Walters, Lionel Walter. A&E Home Video, 1996. Film.

Silva, J.A. "The Case of Jeffrey Dahmer: Sexual Serial Homicide from a Neuropsychiatric Developmental Perspective." J Forensic Sci 47.6 (2002): 2-13. ASTM. Web. 14 June 2013.

Tithecott, Richard. Of men and monsters Jeffrey Dahmer and the construction of the serial killer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. Print.