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Surviving Jeffrey Dahmer

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Justice does not always bring resolution, and so it was with the sanity trial and conviction of Jeffrey Dahmer. As Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Laurence Gram read the 15 verdicts, family members shrieked and burst into tears. When the grim recital was completed, some observers cried while others applauded. Their jumbled reactions were an accurate summary of the confusion and hurt that has reigned since the public first learned of Dahmer last July.

The jury's finding that Dahmer was sane when he lured and killed young men relieved the fear that he might enjoy _ if not freedom _ at least the technical possibility of parole. No matter what they have done, the criminally insane are considered sick people who might someday be cured. Had jurors concluded that Dahmer suffered from "mental disease" and could not distinguish "wrongfulness" or exert self-control, he would have been sent to a psychiatric institution for treatment. Every six months, he would be eligible to petition for review.

While one cannot imagine circumstances under which he might actually go free, the mere hope, however remote, would have left the families of his victims cold. In his role of self-appointed judge and executioner, Dahmer allowed the young men he selected as victims no hope at all.

With its findings, the jury enabled Judge Gram to impose life imprisonment, the maximum sentence allowable under Wisconsin law. The death penalty is not evenly administered in America. If these crimes were discovered in a state that executes prisoners, many would have argued forcefully for that option. Dahmer won't be put to death in Wisconsin, but unless science finds a way to increase life expectancy to 957 years, the 31-year-old serial killer will never, ever leave prison alive.

Comforting as that notion may be, the public is left with a nagging question: If Jeffrey Dahmer's behavior is not the work of a madman, what is? What standard would allow as sane the slaughter and dismemberment of 15 people, the collection of grim "souvenirs," the horrendously cruel attempts to transform some victims into living dead?

Such atrocities were committed on a mass scale in the Nazi death camps, and the modern world has been left to ponder the reality ever since. Whether the motive is ideology, lust or hate, the dehumanizing and ultimately fatal impact on victims is essentially the same.

What happens to the survivors is a different question, however. One juror remarked during the trial that just being in the room with Dahmer was traumatizing. Public officials have wisely offered special counseling to this brave jury, but what should be done for the victims' families? What, for that matter, can be offered to the millions of Americans exposed to Dahmer by way of newspaper accounts and television screens?

Some will turn to clinical casebooks, but a finer awareness might be gleaned from the post-Holocaust writings of Bruno Bettleheim, Victor Frankel, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Unbearable as it seems, Dahmer is not unique. The truly extraordinary people are those who survive to help others find meaning in mayhem.