Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer

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Book Reviews

Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Richard Tithecott. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. 192 pp. $14.95.

In Of Men and Monsters, Richard Tithecott uses specific examples of the various media representations of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer as a means by which to examine the larger issue of America's fascination with serial murder. Tithecott sees the construction of the serial killer in narrative representation as part of a growing cultural tendency to reject intellectual critique of one's own cultural values as contributing factors to violence. As evidence, he points to the culture's frequent use of words such as "motiveless" in constructing serial murder tales. The refusal to entertain a serious discussion of motive, to posit crime as essentially unknowable and thus, at least by some definitions, metaphysically evil, serves to distance the serial killer from the comfortable everyday world and place him in some mythic realm where he is at once profane and sacred. The popularity of the serial killer in fictional narrative, then, is a symptom of a larger cultural denial of responsibility in the production of violence. If nature (or God or destiny) intends one to be a serial killer, and this nature is perceived as unknowable and uncontrollable, as so many of these narratives imply, what is the point of trying to do better as a society? Tithecott wishes to remove the word "nature," with its associations of biological determinism and historical inevitability, from discussions of serial murder (8) so that we may acknowledge our ability to change the parameters of a world we have created (or at least transformed) through narrative representation.

Part One of Tithecott's study, entitled "Policing the Serial Killer," is centered around the idea that mainstream American discourse is more and more dominated by the voices of those who "describe a world threatened . . . by inexplicable horror" and advocate "imprisonment or execution ... as the state's only suitable response" (15) to crime. The entertainment industry is also dominated by these authoritarian voices, so that we are witnessing a widespread "intensification of what might be called a cultural `policing mentality'" (16). Part of this policing mentality insists that violent criminals such as serial killers are both sane and evil, so that "Sane beings motivated by evil can be imprisoned or capitally punished and estranged from the rest of us" (21). The policing mentality also "elevates the FBI to a community service, above politics" (22) and dismisses the language of modern psychiatry as somehow complicit with the transcendental "evil" of serial murder itself. The policing mentality, in its attempt to configure serial killing as an "asocial" evil so that the social order itself is preserved, finds intellectual justification for its agenda in the Freudian psychological emphasis on the childhood origin of adult personality-a zone outside of society and located within an uncontrollable "nature." Thus, from the policing perspective, words and language, products of society, seem unsuited to deal with the reality of serial murder. Only the Gothic, with its "acknowledgment of language's lack of certainty, of the voids which destabilize its meanings" (49), seems appropriate to describe the serial murder phenomenon, whether in fact or fiction.

However, Tithecott finds a contradiction between the mainstream desire to hold the serial killer individually culpable for his "evilness" and yet silently exonerate middle-class, domestic, misogynist society for its own culpability in perpetuating violent ideologies of radical selfhood. He then argues that "Having constructed a barrier between nature and our culture,... we expel the unspeakable serial killer to the natural world" (63). Relegating the killer to the realm of nature also allows demonization of behaviors objectionable to mainstream, heterosexual America. …