After Hours

Are you there, God? It’s me, Jeffrey.

The scenes haunted Milwaukee: officers in yellow hazardous materials suits carrying appliances down the stairs from the apartment; the tales of necrophilia, of cannibalism, of dismemberment; the thin, mustached man appearing in the mugshot; the trace of a smirk on the mass-murderer’s face.

When Jeffrey Dahmer exploded into the city’s consciousness, the fascination was morbid, but it was fascination nonetheless.

Three years later, brutality unfolded again, as Dahmer lay dead in a pool of blood, his skull fractured by another inmate. Again the headlines blazed, and again the public was consumed with the story.

Fifteen years and countless tellings and retellings later, the Dahmer story continues to intrigue and haunt Wisconsin. For two authors, the question is not what we know about Dahmer. The question is what we don’t. And they fall on opposite sides of the conclusion: was Wisconsin’s most notorious criminal better than we think? Or worse?

The Case For Dahmer’s Absolution

“I think of him as a Christian. I think of him as being rewarded the way any Christian would be rewarded by God,” says Roy Ratcliff, co-author of “Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith.” “I think that Jeff is destined for Heaven, if not there now.”

Ratcliff made the news in 1994 when he baptized Dahmer in prison. Hearing stories of Dahmer’s alleged plans to build an altar of human skulls, many may find it difficult to think of him as religious. But Ratcliff is convinced. To him, Dahmer is a child of God, deserving of God’s forgiveness.

After the baptism, the public was in a state of disbelief. When Dahmer first asked if he could be baptized, Ratcliff responded yes. Dahmer heaved a heavy sigh and admitted he had been nervous to meet Ratcliff.

Ratcliff says Dahmer told him, “I was afraid that you would tell me I cannot baptize you because you’ve been too evil, sinful, too bad. You just can’t be saved, you’re beyond hope.” Instead, Ratcliff’s response was, “If you want to come to God, I will do what I can to help you come to God.”

Responding to skepticism about Dahmer’s sincerity, Ratcliff describes the deep remorse Dahmer felt and the sorrow he saw in his eyes, albeit no tears.

Ratcliff says Dahmer asked, “Am I sinning against God by living? Should I have been dead and should I find some way of making myself dead because by living I am somehow going against God?”

To Ratcliff, daring to ask this question proved Dahmer’s honest intentions with his religious transformation.

“I can’t think of anything that gets much more sincere than to say, ‘Would I serve God better by dying?’ That’s a very hard question to think about, a very hard question to ask. ‘And if so, I would be willing to die to serve God.’ Well, you don’t get much more sincere than that,” Ratcliff says.

Ratcliff mentioned an addendum to Jeffrey’s father’s book, which discussed the positive changes he had seen in his son since imprisonment.

“[Dahmer’s] whole approach to life was completely changing. He was seeing people differently. They were not just objects that he could use, but they were important people, people of value,” Ratcliff says.

A father wants to see the best in his son, but what did the families of Dahmer’s victims think? During the court proceedings, one of Eddie Smith’s sisters became close to Dahmer’s parents. When Dahmer was murdered, she attended the funeral and brought her sister, who was unaware of where they were going. The deceived sister sat at the back of the service, furious and crying.

“At the end of the service, she came to me privately and said, ‘Well, I was very angry at my sister for bringing me here under false pretenses, but after hearing your story and hearing you describe Jeff, I believe now he did come to faith and it has helped me to kind of forgive him a little bit,’” Ratcliff recalls.

Ratcliff compares Dahmer finding God to the parable of the prodigal son. The Bible story tells of a son who comes to his senses and returns home to his father after wasting his inheritance. He expects to be disowned, but his father welcomes him back with open arms, claiming that his family must celebrate his son who was lost, but had been found.

Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s <i>Story of Faith</i>

“I think people really struggle with forgiveness, they have a hard time coming to terms with it,” Ratcliff says. “Forgive one another as I have forgiven you is the commandment by God. And we don’t want to do that. We would rather judge in the place of God.”

He believes people have a difficult time accepting Dahmer’s transformation because they “have a problem believing in God.” Ratcliff says Dahmer “came to his senses” in prison when he turned to faith and his remorse deepened.

Ratcliff believes Dahmer became the face of evil in part because he broke the societal taboo of cannibalism. Upon his arrest, Dahmer was quoted saying that he was saving the body parts in his freezer to eat for later.

“There’s a part of me that wonders how much of that is sarcasm on his part. How much of that is just a tendency to use shock?” Ratcliff asks. He paints a whimsical side of Dahmer when he recounts a detail told to him by a prison guard. Ratcliff says a guard told him in one of his first visits that Dahmer used to hang a sign in his cell reading, “Cannibal Eaters Anonymous Meeting tonight.”

Ratcliff thinks this was his way of poking fun at his crimes. He tells another anecdote of Dahmer whispering to a particularly nervous guard, “I bite.” Ratcliff thinks Dahmer played up the persona, but wasn’t as much of a cannibal as the public perceived him to be.

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