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THE HAUNTING VOICE OF A KILLER'S FATHER
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THE HAUNTING VOICE OF A KILLER'S FATHER

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You have to leap a couple of hurdles to get to whatever value there might be in A Father's Story (Morrow, $20), Lionel Dahmer's confessional account of the upbringing of his son, mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.

The first is getting past a mild embarrassment for bringing the book up to the checkout counter. The second is getting over the feeling that you're a sucker for shelling out $20.

The record is clear on Jeffrey Dahmer. He killed at least 17 young men, dismembered their bodies, engaged in necrophilia and, in the end, ate their flesh.He has been tried, convicted and sentenced to nearly a thousand years in prison. Unless to satisfy a morbid and salacious curiosity, what more do we need to know?

The publisher and author suggest there is more and have taken great pains to persuade us that this is a serious work, an inquiry into big themes - ``the nature of fatherhood, the origins of madness and the role of kinship in the legacy of evil.'

The short answer is: Even if this book isn't all of that, neither is it trash.

Lionel Dahmer says he was as shocked as the rest of the world when his son's crimes were first revealed in July 1991. He wants to understand what went wrong, wonders to what extent he - a chemist who escaped an unhappy family life by spending long hours away at the laboratory - might be to blame.

The elder Dahmer sees much of himself in his son. They are both unemotional, withdrawn. Lionel Dahmer wonders why he was able to control his most violent impulses - a childhood fascination with fire and bomb-making, for example - while his son was not.

He remembers his son fondly as a child, how he had hugged him a thousand times. He describes Jeffrey Dahmer's eventual withdrawal as an older child and the alcoholism that set in during his late teens.

Lionel Dahmer doesn't whine, doesn't scapegoat. He mentions the gory details only when necessary to advance his narrative and seems genuinely to seek an understanding of what went wrong.

All of this gravity notwithstanding, this is a disquieting book that fascinates chiefly because of the horrible crimes Jeffrey Dahmer committed. The detachment of Lionel Dahmer's voice as, for example, he describes learning only at the 1992 trial of his son's adolescent obsession with road kill, the way he would gather it in plastic bags and take it home to strip the flesh from the bones, finally leads the reader from fascination to stomach-turning despair.

Whatever it may have been at one time, this is no ordinary family now. It is this terrible isolation, in fact, the way the elder Dahmer and his second wife have been beseiged (they now go by assumed names), that elicits sympathy for the father and consequently for the book.

The reader is forced to wonder: What would you do if you were Jeffrey Dahmer's father? Answers don't come easily, though ``write a book' isn't first on the list.

There may be more to learn about Jeffrey Dahmer - what combination of genetics and environment might drive a person to such evil. But we don't learn them here, partly because Lionel Dahmer was never very close to his son and partly because his account is limited to his own experience.

Neither are Lionel Dahmer's observations on fatherhood particularly helpful. His is such an extreme case that this can only qualify as a father's worst nightmare, not an experience widely shared nor particularly instructive.

Chiefly then, this book is the anguished rumination of a preoccupied man. It is a confessional, and, indirectly, it seems to be an appeal for forgiveness. All of this is sad, pathetic really, but hardly of universal importance.

You may want to read this book if only to be reminded that Jeffrey Dahmer sprang from a very human family. But offhand I can't think of any compelling reason to recommend that you put yourself through it.

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