When I sat down to have my first face-to-face coffee with Robyn Maharaj in 18 years, I thought we’d talk about Canadian literature, dogs, and perhaps West Indian cuisine. When she told me she had just completed a book about Jeffrey Dahmer, the light-hearted talk came to a screeching halt. I looked into Robyn’s enormous brown eyes and asked her what compelled her to pursue this journey into the heart of darkness.
I knew Robyn as a poet and an important figure in the Winnipeg literary scene, not as a true-crime lit fan. As we drank coffee on the patio at the Starbucks on Pembina on a sunny afternoon, she explained how her email exchanges and meeting with Detective Patrick Kennedy compelled her to finish the detective’s manuscript and tell the Dahmer story though his eyes.
Jeffrey Dahmer’s story has been told before and he has been psychoanalysed ad nauseam. Robyn Maharaj and Patrick Kennedy’s forthcoming Dahmer Detective: The Interrogation and Investigation that Shocked the World (Poisonberry Press) is the story about a good detective and a good man. Dahmer Detective chronicles the six weeks Kennedy spent with Dahmer leading up to his confession.
The conversation Robyn and I had was too good to keep to myself, so we turned our coffee date into an impromptu interview. The Q&A offers some insight into the process that Robyn went through working on the book. Dahmer Detective officially launches at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg on September 20, 2016.
What led you down this macabre trajectory?
I wanted to write a piece on Jeffrey Dahmer and to speak with someone who knew him well. I wanted to know how evil Jeffery Dahmer was. I knew his crimes were evil, but he always struck me as polite whenever I saw him sitting in interviews talking about the crimes he committed and why he thought he had done them. I felt compelled to learn more about his story and see other sides of him rather than just the evil serial killer, necrophiliac, and cannibal.
I started to reacquaint myself with the case and looked up some videos online. That’s how I learned about Patrick Kennedy. Patrick Kennedy was the lead detective on the case and he interviewed Dahmer extensively. He wasn’t one of many detectives on the case; he was the one detective that Dahmer insisted on speaking with.
Through email, I got in touch with Patrick Kennedy and we wrote back and forth. Those exchanges compelled me to want to meet him. Normally, as a freelance writer, I don’t meet the people I interview, but something about Patrick made me want to take the trip.
I drove down to Madison, Wisconsin for a film festival and saw a film Patrick Kennedy was interviewed in called The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (now called JEFF: the movie when purchased by IFC). He was one of three people featured in the film. We met in person and I interviewed him. That interview gave me the framework for the magazine story I wanted to write. At the time, he asked me to read a manuscript he had written about the Dahmer case almost 20 years before and offer him some feedback. I felt honoured he asked me.
I took the manuscript and about five days after we had our initial and only meeting, he died from a heart attack. I went ahead with my article and got it published and sent his widow the link to the article. We corresponded and decided it would be a great legacy for Patrick to see his project through to the end and get his book published.
Did you get the answer to your original question about whether Dahmer was truly evil?
Kennedy and I—and maybe a handful of people in the world—can separate Dahmer’s actions from his personhood. He was a very strange, lonely guy. He had no friends at all and he had a difficult time connecting with people. He had a lot of time on his hands that allowed him to explore dark fantasies. How Patrick put it, after spending weeks with Dahmer, is that Jeffrey was a pathetically lonely man. Although Patrick viewed Dahmer’s actions as evil, he admitted that Dahmer often came across as likeable and unassuming.
I think we can learn some lessons about loneliness and fantasy from the Jeffrey Dahmer story. When you hear accounts about mass murderers shooting up theatres, you later learn that they’re often very lonely and live in a violent fantasy world. It’s only by hearing these terrible stories that we can glean insight into how to address the root of the incredible loneliness.
Dahmer’s confession provided insight and showed the complexity of different facets of his personality. The fact that his father stood by him also humanizes Dahmer. He loved his father and grandmother very much and made it clear that they were not to be blamed for his own sickness. He was a gay alcoholic who worked at a chocolate factory and had very little ambition.
What drove Dahmer to kill?
It was his sexual drive. His sexual fantasies were very twisted, but he wasn’t a torturer. There are serial killers who feed off the fear and pain of their victims, but for Dahmer, he felt that when he killed people, he was doing it in the most painless way possible. He drugged them, waited until they were unconscious, and then strangled them. He didn’t want the confrontation and he didn’t want to fight his victims. His real goal was necrophilia. He wanted to fulfill his sexual appetites and not have that person ask anything of him.
How did you cope with being immersed in Dahmer’s world while working on the book?
I am a fan of the true-crime genre, but I do not like violence and gore. Although Patrick’s manuscript did go to some very dark places, a lot of it is written in a matter-of-fact style. He did a really nice job going into some of the detail that invariably is going to make some people very uncomfortable. We’re talking about necrophilia and cannibalism. For the record, my mom hopes my next book will be on something nice, like organic gardening, but I had to see the manuscript through to publication.
Although the book focuses on Kennedy’s experience extracting a confession, we may as well get the uncomfortable facts out of the way. What were Dahmer’s crimes?
Dahmer had 17 victims from 1978 to 1991. His very first victim he killed at age 18. He had about a nine-year-hiatus and then he killed again. He tried to stop himself but he eventually succumbed to his desires. He dismembered the bodies and would eat parts and put other body parts in acid drums to destroy evidence.
Most of Dahmer’s victims were African-American men. People questioned whether he was racist, but Dahmer said his victims were the men he found attractive. He would go to the gay clubs and watch them dance and a lot of them had the body type he liked. He liked their musculature and skin colour.
There is something called somnophilia also known as the “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome,” and those afflicted by it really want a lover who is incapacitated. It’s the desire to be able to do whatever they want without having a reciprocal lover. That is the fantasy that fuelled Dahmer’s crimes.
Did you feel close to Milwaukee Homicide Detective Patrick Kennedy while working on the book?
I did. He was a great guy. Because I was reading his manuscript when he died, it really shook me up. Even though I didn’t know him well, I felt there was a connection. The other thing was that the day he died of a heart attacked marked the sixth-year anniversary of my own heart attack. I fully recovered but Patrick’s proved fatal. I survived my heart attack and he didn’t and I felt a responsibility to get Patrick’s story in print.
He had a very full life with three grown kids and six grandchildren. He was also a professor of criminology at two universities. He gave back to the community through his involvement with an inner-city sports program. The focus was on sports, but it allowed police to connect with kids and mentor them. The police would help the kids with homework and listen to the kids’ problems. This six-foot-seven police officer became known as “Coach Kennedy” and he organized basketball competitions.
I felt compelled to take his project through to completion. The investigation took place in 1991. Detectives did not have all the forensic tools we have now. To get a confession involved great skill as an interviewer. He was a gifted detective.
You mentioned that systematic racism in the Milwaukee police force may have played a role in Dahmer’s getting away with his crimes for so long. What led you to draw that conclusion?
There was a crime involving a 14-year-old Laotian boy named. Konerak Sinthasomphone. Jeffrey Dahmer mistook the boy for much older and picked him up. Back at Dahmer’s apartment, he gave the boy drink with drugs in it and the boy passed out. Dahmer decided he wanted more beer—he was a raging alcoholic— so he left the boy and went to the store. The boy woke up intoxicated but managed to stagger out to the street.
A woman saw the boy and took a windbreaker from the back of her lawn chair, covered up the boy, and tried to help him. A neighbour had called the police and they waited for the police to come. When the police arrived, the woman said, ”This boy is in trouble. He looks like he has been assaulted. You need to help him.” The police said that before they did anything, they would need to gather some more information. They were trying to talk to the boy, but the boy didn’t speak English and he slurred his words.
So this blonde-haired, blue-eyed man shows up with a six-pack and asks, “What’s going on here?” The police say that the boy came out of the apartment and they were trying to ascertain what’s going on. The people around identified Dahmer as a resident of the building, but Dahmer tells the police that the boy isn’t a teenager. “He’s of age and he’s my boyfriend,” he said.
He convinces the police to come up to his apartment. There’s actually a dead body in the apartment, but of course the police don’t know that. They take the boy back up to the apartment with one arm on each officer and Dahmer claims he can produce the boy’s identification. He looks for it and eventually says he can’t find it but offers some Polaroids he took earlier of the boy smiling with a drink. He finally convinces the police that his story is true and they leave. A half hour later, Dahmer killed the boy.
He had this uncanny ability to convince the police because he was white, polite and soft-spoken. The woman on the street was African-American and there were other teenaged girls who said, “I think this boy goes to our school. I think he’s only 14.” The police chose to believe the white guy and dismissed the woman and girls as hysterical. The issues of race and criminal justice were problems that Patrick wanted to work on. Police behaviour is very timely right now in light of Black Lives Matter and the deaths of black people at the hands of police.
How did you structure the book?
The story is told in first person. Patrick begins the book by describing getting ready to work the third shift. He tells the story of catching Dahmer and interrogating him. The story wraps up on the final day when Dahmer plead guilty. The only thing that was up for debate was whether he was sane or not. Dahmer was found sane and sentenced to prison for the rest of life. Patrick ends the story in and amongst all the media hoopla about the guilty verdict and the families’ receiving closure. Kennedy comes home and he’s alone.
I did an introduction that places the story and 1991 and describes the milieu. I kept the story in Patrick’s first-person narrative and added an analysis at the end of the book. The final part is my interview with Patrick and his observations and insights on Dahmer and a biography about Patrick.
Who’s the target audience for this book?
I think this book will appeal to anyone who is interested in the true-crime genre. I think it is also interesting from a criminal history perspective. I am hoping too that there might be some interest from the criminal justice side of things because Patrick did teach criminal justice. He tried to work very closely with the training of new officers and better screening. As I previously mentioned, there were incidents where Dahmer managed to fool police. Patrick wanted to make sure history did not repeat itself and address the systemic issue in the justice system. It’s a tragedy that he died at the age of 59, but this book will allow his legacy to live on.
Written by Candice G. Ball
Copy Edited by Vikki Wood