Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents — The serial killer’s upbringing

Jeffrey Dahmer

Netflix’s miniseries Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is not the first or the last production we’ll see about the legendary serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Like many American serial killers of the 20th century, Dahmer’s murders had sexual motivations. However, unlike fellow murderers, Dahmer’s fascination with his victims extended beyond their death and into their anatomy. 

Dahmer dismembered his victims and preserved various body parts. His residence was a house of horrors, comparable to Ed Gein’s, but thanks to lessons from his father, Dahmer’s depravity was more sophisticated. 

In Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Jeffrey’s parents, Lionel Herbert Dahmer and Joyce Flint, struggle to come to terms with their son’s crimes. 

Jeffrey’s parents didn’t give him enough attention growing up

Jeffrey Dahmer was born on 21st May 1960 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Lionel Dahmer and Joyce Flint. It’s unclear when Lionel, of German and Welsh descent, and Joyce, of Norwegian and Irish ancestry, married. 

Neither Lionel nor Joyce gave Jeffrey the attention he craved. Lionel was rarely home as he studied to become a research chemist; Joyce was reportedly more interested in herself, demanding constant attention from Lionel when he was home. 

Lionel wrote in his book that Joyce was on drugs during Jeffrey’s pregnancy and mentally unstable when she gave birth to him. In Dahmer – Monster, Richard Jenkins, portraying Lionel, says:

“You do know that pills are what started this whole thing. How many pills [do] you think she was on when she was pregnant with him? Thousands. She was on sleeping pills, sedatives, [and] seizure medication.”

Joyce Dahmer
Jeffrey’s mother, Joyce Dahmer

Herbert said Joyce was a hypochondriac whose fear of contracting diseases inhibited her parenting. Lionel in Dahmer-Monster says: “She never even held him. She scared the shit out of him. And then she just left. She left that kid in that house all summer.”

“Well, where were you that summer, Lionel?” Jeffrey’s stepmother, played by Molly Ringwald, retorts. Jeffrey, an already neglected child, feared the worst when Joyce gave birth in December 1966: he would have to share the little affection he got from his parents with another person. 

In an attempt to pacify Jeffrey, Lionel and Joyce asked him to name his brother. Jeffrey named his younger sibling David. 

Lionel saw his son’s interest in anatomy and bones as scientific curiosity

Lionel described Jeffrey as a shy and timid child, while Joyce said she saw nothing peculiar about her son’s behavior. “I always asked if he was safe,” Joyce told People. “He’d say, ‘It doesn’t matter, Mom. I don’t care if something happens to me.’”

Jeffrey’s father was delighted when Dahmer showed interest in anatomy and bones. He viewed it as scientific curiosity rather than a warning sign. Lionel wrote that Dahmer was ‘oddly thrilled’ by the sound of animal bones, which he referred to as ‘fiddlesticks.’

The collection of bones soon became a father-son activity. Carl Wahlstrom, a forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Dahmer, told A&E: “He and his dad, as a father-son activity…bleached the connective tissue and the hair off rodents’ corpses when they found animals who’d died under their house.”

Lionel Dahmer and Jeffrey Dahmer
Lionel and Jeffrey Dahmer

After the family settled in Bath, Ohio, he started stockpiling animal corpses in a shed on the family’s property. Lionel and Joyce said they were oblivious to this behavior. Lionel said on Larry King Live:

“If I had known about the roadkill, that would’ve been a red flag. I would’ve done something immediately, intervened. But before that, there wasn’t really anything.”

The seemingly curious interest in preserving animal parts fueled Jeffrey’s depravity. Wahlstrom said that Jeffrey had an unusually high libido and incessant thoughts about killing men and having sexual intercourse with their bodies. 

Aged 13, Dahmer could have murdered his first human victim if a male jogger he lusted had followed his regular schedule. Fortunately, the man didn’t jog that day. “He was a very disturbed kid and adolescent,” Wahlstrom said. “He was very isolated from the people around him.”

Dahmer refused to blame his parents for the person he became

“You’re not going to lay this on me, no. It’s not my fault. I didn’t do this. I was a good dad to you,” Lionel says in Dahmer – Monster. “What I was doing was showing concern for my son who finally showed an interest in something. You know, what you did, I didn’t teach you how to do that.”

Jeffrey told Wahlstrom that he didn’t blame his parents for anything. “He said he had very loving parents,” Wahlstrom said. “[And] that blaming [his] parents for these issues was completely off the mark. His parents seemed in the broad range of normal.”

Wahlstrom agreed with Jeffrey. Though he suffered neglect as a child, watched his parents negotiate a messy divorce, and almost lost Joyce to suicide, Dahmer’s childhood struggles weren’t enough to push him to murder and cannibalism. Wahlstrom said:

“Lots of people have conflicts with their brothers and sisters. Having your mother attempt suicide and become hospitalized is not a pleasant event, but it doesn’t make you become a serial killer.”

Nevertheless, Lionel couldn’t help but wonder whether genetics passed on from him or Joyce made Jeffrey a serial killer. Lionel wrote in his memoir A Father’s Story:

“As a scientist, [I] wonder if [the] potential for great evil… resides deep in the blood that some of us… may pass on to our children at birth.”

Joyce attempted suicide after an inmate murdered Dahmer in prison

In November 1994, Jeffrey Dahmer died at the hands of Christopher Scarver, a convicted murderer. Joyce said: “I still love my son. I’ve never stopped loving my son. He was a beautiful baby. He was a wonderful child. He has always been loved.”

Lionel wanted Jeffrey to be cremated, while Joyce wanted his brain studied. The couple fought in court, with Lionel emerging victorious. 

Months after Dahmer’s death, Joyce attempted suicide. Her suicide note read: “It’s been a lonely life, especially today. Please cremate me… I love my sons, Jeff and David.” It’s unclear why her suicide attempt failed. 

Joyce moved to Fresno, California, where she worked with HIV/AIDS patients. After she died in 2000 due to breast cancer, Julio Mastro, an executive director of an HIV community center in Fresno, told The Los Angeles Times:

“She was enthusiastic, and she was compassionate, and she turned her own tragedy into being able to have a great deal of empathy for people with HIV.”

Jeffrey’s brother, David, faded into obscurity, seeming uninterested in wallowing in his brother’s infamy. He uses a different name and lives a secretive life.