Dahmer Fires Debate Over True Crime's Dark Power to Retraumatize

Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has been out for two weeks, but people can’t stop talking about the Ryan Murphy production — whether they’ve watched it or refuse to. The staggering 196.2 million viewing hours in its first week on Netflix have reignited a seemingly endless debate about the impact of true crime on victims’ loved ones, and the morality of releasing true crime stories as entertainment.

The fact that Dahmer mostly did its due diligence in terms of accuracy is both a blessing and a curse. Beyond the superb casting, the series got lots of details right, from Dahmer’s Midwestern accent to the interior of his apartment to his obsession with The Exorcist III. Everyone who has watched seems to agree on Evan Peters’s stunning dedication to his chilling performance as Jeffrey Dahmer.  

But the show’s eerie precision has reopened unwanted memories for some relatives of the Dahmer victims — most notably Rita Isbell, the older sister of Dahmer’s eleventh victim, Errol Lindsey. Her real-life courtroom denunciation of Jeffrey Dahmer is accurately recreated in the show, and provides a powerful and cathartic moment — but one that she didn’t want to see on screen.

When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” she wrote in an as-told-to essay for Insider, referring to the recreation of her infamous impact statement from Dahmer’s 1992 sentencing hearing. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.” 

Lindsey’s cousin, Eric Perry, also voiced his disapproval of Dahmer in a viral Twitter post. “I’m not telling anyone what to watch, I know true crime media is huge rn, but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) are pissed about this show. It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?

Murphy did not respond to a request for comment.

Also Read: Conversations With a Killer Director Joe Berlinger Saw ‘Glimpses of Humanity’ in Jeffrey Dahmer

Dahmer is only the latest true crime project to disrupt the lives of people trying to leave the past behind. “We wish this could get put to rest. We’re tired of hearing about Bundy,” said Lisa Little, a friend of serial killer Ted Bundy’s final victim, Kimberly Leach, in an interview with First Coast News in January 2019. She spoke out soon after the release of the Netflix documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and just three months before the release of the fictionalized biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which Zac Efron plays Bundy. “If we’re going to talk about Bundy, I want to focus on the victims, they’re the ones that need to be remembered. He has gotten all of the attention he deserves.”

Joe Berlinger, a true crime pioneer and the creator/director of both the Bundy documentary and feature film, describes himself as a “social justice documentary maker” who believes sensitivity to victims is of utmost importance. His latest project is Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, which Netflix released soon after the Ryan Murphy limited series. (You can watch our interview with Berlinger about the project here or above.)

Before a project, Berlinger said, he reaches out to survivors and victims’ loved ones to ask if they would like to be involved. He said Lisa Little did not respond to his requests for comment about Bundy. “We have a massive grid of every family we’ve ever reached out to in all of these shows to see if they would participate,” he said. Nobody’s ever said, ‘Don’t do the show.’ If anyone did, I might’ve considered a different outcome,” he said. 

Dahmer Fires Debate About True Crime's Dark Power to Retraumatize

Defense attorney Wendy Patrickus and Jeffrey Dahmer in Conversations With A Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes. Courtesy of Netflix.

In fact, Berlinger once planned to make a star-studded true-crime movie called Facing the Wind, based on Julie Salaman’s book, Facing the Wind: A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation. “I had the rights, optioned the book, developed the script, had actors, was ready to go, and one of the people whom the book was about reached out to me and told me it would destroy her life if this movie was made,” he told Moviemaker. “And I canceled the project, because the movie was about her and her experience.”

To be sure, not all victims’ loved ones object to true-crime accounts. Kevin Sova, a 64-year-old man from Streetsboro, Ohio, told Time that he cried tears of joy when he learned that Unsolved Mysteries had included the case of his 17-year-old brother Kurt’s strange death. “I thought most of the world gave up on Kurt long ago,” he remarked. 

And Sarah Sak, whose son Anthony Walgate was one of four gay men killed by “Grindr Killer” Stephen Port, encouraged BBC’s production of Four Lives, a three-episode miniseries. “I just thought it’d be a really good thing to get out there to the public,” Sak said in a March interview with The Guardian. She never worried that it was “too soon” to dramatize the events, emphasizing the need for awareness about the perils of online dating. She said she felt an emotional release after watching the series — twice over — and cried in both instances.

Neil McKay, who created Four Lives, told The Guardian that true crime media—particularly cinema — can be empowering for victims’ families, if they are consistently consulted throughout production. He read the Four Lives script to Sak at her home, invited her and the other victims’ families to visit the set, and showed them the series prior to its release. To McKay, the key thing is “how you treat people.” 

Mindy Pendleton, the stepmother of Robert Mast —  a 25-year-old strangled to death in 2015 — dreaded the story being told in the Netflix docuseries I Am A Killer. She told MovieMaker that she “can’t even imagine” how someone could find a true-crime account of their loved one’s murder empowering or healing. 

“It scares me to think of [a] world mindset hardened to the feelings of others. My heart goes out to any family retraumatized by the networks exploiting our tragedies. We need more empathy in this world — not making heroes out of killers,” she said.

Rita Isbell and Eric Perry have complained that no one involved in Dahmer ever contacted them about the show being made. “I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it,” Isbell wrote. “They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.” 

Isbell also wrote that Netflix also had an opportunity to do some good with the release of the series—and bypassed it completely. “I could even understand it if [the show’s producers] gave some of the money to the victims’ children…If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless.”

In 2004, Documentary Magazine spoke to Carroll Ellis, the (now retired) Director of Victim Services at the Fairfax County Police Department, who ran a homicide survivor support group for two decades. “Seeing references to or images of a dead loved one on television with no preparation is going to have drastic effects,” Ellis explained. “Survivors are going to be angry, emotional; they could have a heart attack or a stroke. The passions, the feelings and the trauma are just that deep-seated.”

In the same article, the late Bonnie Bucqueroux of the Victims and the Media Program at Michigan State University commented that “The three issues that victims find hardest to deal with are the glorification of the predator, the poor treatment of the victim story and the absence of notification to the survivors about the show.”

Berlinger took these factors into consideration in his approach to both The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Because the former was unscripted, it naturally included violence; the feature film, however, did not include violence until the very end of the film, because it was told from the perspective of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, and Berlinger wanted the audience to experience Bundy’s gaslighting the way she did. “Because Bundy was so charming and likable to the people around him, they couldn’t believe he was capable of such things…I wanted to take them on that same kind of journey.”

Still, both projects received some of the same criticisms. Berlinger was accused of glorifying Bundy and minimizing his atrocious crimes by not showing them. “You just can’t win with certain people in this category. It always gets criticized. That’s not to say you can’t be and must be sensitive to and honor the victims—and the way I do that is I try to get as much victim inclusion” as possible, he said

Netflix won’t abandon the true-crime genre anytime soon. The Good Nurse, a film based on American serial killer Charles Cullen (played by Eddie Redmayne), will be available on the streaming service on October 26, and will be released in select theaters a week prior. 

Both Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes are now streaming on Netflix.