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If you've seen Netflix's limited series, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, or you're mentally preparing for Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, you know the story is chilling…to say the least.
Jeffrey Dahmer was an American serial killer born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 21, 1960, according to Biography.com. His father claimed, in an interview on Good Morning America in the 1990s, that things went south after Jeffrey had hernia surgery at 4 years old.
But multiple deeply upsetting aspects of Jeffrey's childhood played a role in his pathology. "It's impossible to say what exactly caused this person to behave in this manner, but it was a perfect storm of several variables," says Janice Englander Katz, Ph.D. HSPP, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families. "There is no one thing that contributed to how his personality and mental health issues manifested, but there were multiple factors that resulted in this particular dysfunctional behavior."
Jeffrey experienced numerous traumas during his childhood—but how much did that play into shaping him into the serial killer he became?
Read on to see how the following aspects played a role in Jeffrey's pathology, according to psychologists.
His mother had a history of mental illness.
Hi mother, Joyce, severely suffered from postpartum depression, as depicted on the show. Lionel wrote in his 1994 book, A Father's Story, that Joyce had postpartum psychosis after giving birth to David.
"Depression, anxiety, and most diagnosable mental health conditions do tend to run in families," says Katz. "It doesn't necessarily mean you will also suffer from these kinds of issues, but it's a combination of what you were born with and what you're exposed to–it's nature and nurture," she explains. So, because Jeffrey's mom suffered from depression, it's possible he also struggled.
However, just because you experience mental illness, that doesn't mean that your child will automatically inherit it. And it certainly doesn't doesn't doom your offspring to become as deeply disturbed as Jeffrey was.
Jeffrey was reportedly a victim of sexual abuse.
In 1991, Jeffrey's father, Lionel, told probation agents that his son was molested by a neighbor when he was 8, according to the Associated Press. Of course, there is no direct correlation between being abused and psychopathy. But assault can trigger bad behavior, especially at a young age.
"If there is sexual abuse, and a child doesn't feel like he has resources to go to, such as mom being emotionally unavailable and dad working a lot, then he doesn't have a good support system who can buffer and process the events with him," says Katz. "If [the event] doesn't get resolved, then it continues."
His experience with sexual abuse may have led to Jeffrey sexually controlling others. Because he was exposed to trauma and sexual assault, it may have manifested into obsessive behavior, explains Katz. For Jeffrey, childhood abuse might have been a factor into why he later became an abuser and a sexual predator.
His parents had a toxic relationship.
Lionel and Joyce had a bitter divorce in 1978 and charged each other with "extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty," according to the Los Angeles Times. Police were called by neighbors to break up the Dahmers' fights—and Jeffrey witnessed their physical and verbal abuse.
"It appeared that there were a fair amount of parental disputes with yelling and physical aggression, which can lead to more conduct behaviors in childhood, putting someone at risk of having antisocial personality disorder," says Erica D. Kelsey, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist. "I wouldn't go as simplified to say that it's the parent's fault, but they were risk factors and added trauma."
There is also chronic tension and anxiety about the unknown when parental relationships are abusive. "If you never know how something is going to go, or if someone is going to get hurt, then that is no way to function," says Katz.
It's an additional stressor and risk factor that can lead to dysfunctional behavior, she explains.
Jeffrey's parents neglected him.
When the Dahmers split in 1978, they fought over custody of his brother David, who was six years younger than Jeffrey. "There was much discussion and worry over who should have custody of David and where he would live, but no thought was ever given as to what should happen to Jeff, or where he would be expected to live," wrote Brian Masters in his 1993 biography The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, per Today.
After his parents divorced, Joyce moved out and took their son David with her. Jeffrey, 18, was left entirely alone in the house, per the LA Times. He had no food, money, and a broken refrigerator. During this time, Jeffrey told police that he had killed his first victim.
In fact, Jeffrey had been neglected his entire childhood. His parents were so distracted with the challenges of their relationship and their own mental health, that they gave little attention to Jeffrey and his disturbing obsessions, according to the LA Times.
"They missed their son's idiosyncrasies and idiosyncratic interests," says Katz. For example, Jeffrey was fascinated by roadkill and human organs. She explains that if his parents had noticed, they could have steered it in a productive and socially acceptable direction. "Just because a kid has an unusual interest doesn't mean they are going to be mentally ill, but the more you know about [the interest] and understand it as a parent, the better the outcome."
Abuse and neglect also impact and increase the risk of mental health disorders. "If you're being raised in a house where there's a lot of violence or verbal aggression, and you are not cared for, or you're neglected emotionally or physically, your brain is going to adapt and become desensitized to violence and aggression," she explains. "It also becomes desensitized to being neglected and isolated for survival purposes."
Jeffrey's father disapproved of his sexuality.
After his capture, records show that Dahmer told police that he was gay: "Client appears to still be struggling with this," an agent noted in his file, per the AP. "Client states he knows he prefers male partners but client feels guilty about this."
Homosexuality was not widely accepted in the 1970s and 1980s when Jeffrey was growing up. Lionel, a fundamentalist Christian, often made negative comments about gay men and lesbians throughout Dahmer's childhood and remained against homosexuality even after Jeffrey's trial, according to the 1992 book Milwaukee Massacre: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Milwaukee Murders, per StyleCaster.
The book also reported that Jeffrey and Joyce had a conversation in March 1991 where Joyce told her son that she had "no problem accepting his gayness."
Rejection and condemnation by society seriously attribute to high stress levels, anxiety, and self-loathing. And if a parent disapproves of your identity, that's even worse, says Katz. "Your parents are supposed to be your biggest cheerleaders, and their role is to be supportive and help you process things unique about yourself that you are exploring or struggling with." Rejection from your parents about something so true to who you are is a substantial problem, she adds.
Children and teenagers need support from their parents or caregivers, and a lack of acceptance increases the chance of developing mental health disorders, adds Kelsey. "A child may become resentful, angry, or turn their feeling of self-shame inward because of their family's values or opinions."
So, what role did Dahmer's upbringing play in determining his fate?
It's difficult to say, but Jeffrey was at high risk of developing unhealthy obsessions and severe mental illness due to his traumatic childhood and lack of parental attention. "When you are nurtured and so adored, that frees up your psyche and frees up your soul to go out and explore the world," explains Katz.
Many people have these factors in their lives and don't grow up to be serial killer cannibals. But without resilience and support, Jeffrey was set on a disturbing path.
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