This past week I finished reading A Father’s Story, a memoir written by Lionel Dahmer the father of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I found a renewed interest in the story after watching the Dahmer Netflix series. I remember the story unfolding as a teenager in the early 90’s. At the time I tried to find out everything I could about the case which wasn’t much because…well…pre-internet and 4 TV channels. I did read a couple books back in the 90’s but nothing like this.
I gave the book 5 stars. The memoir was very emotional, dark, and painful to read. I could find myself relating to Lionel. I have to think that every good parent tries to seek the answers deep down within themselves as to why their child went astray. What did I do or not do that could’ve caused this? What part of me do I see in them? Why do we have this need to know or blame ourselves or others?? It was very clear to me that he was reaching at every little straw to blame himself for what his son did. He could’ve trashed his ex-wife but he didn’t. He blamed himself for his traits he saw in his son. He talked about the hopes and dreams he had for his son before he knew he was a killer. He wrote about thoughts and feelings every parent has.
At times while reading this, I found myself in tears. I could relate to Lionel’s analytical mind and his tendency to throw himself into work as a way to cope. Although I can’t relate to what it is like to have a child who is a killer, I can relate to how he felt. The book was challenging and triggering to me at times. It’s impossible to not blame yourself as a parent. I still struggle with that as a parent of a child with mental illness. I had big dreams for her before this all happened. We were going to go on college tours. But instead of going off to college, my daughter spent the end of her senior year in a residential mental health facility after multiple hospitalizations, threats of suicide, and an outpatient program.
My dreams of her living a normal life were gone. Just seeing her is a painful reminder of that. Her body covered with hundreds of self-harm scars so deep they will never fully heal. I feel somehow that some of it was my fault. I remember at one of her earlier hospitalizations one of her doctors blamed me for her condition. The research says that Borderline Personality Disorder is a trauma based disorder a majority of the time. But not always? I don’t want this kind of life for my child. She has a hard time taking care of herself and holding down a job. Nobody cares. The system doesn’t care. The dozen therapists she burned through don’t care. The multiple doctors and health care systems don’t care either.
It falls back to us as parents. Investing our time and resources trying our best to help her help herself. That’s not the life I wanted for her or myself. It’s painful especially after my daughter accused me of abuse and neglect, others thought poorly of me, and I’ve blamed myself. I can relate to trying my best and sometimes it is just not good enough. There is grief in letting your dreams for your child die. It’s so painful that at times I deceive myself with false hope. It’s awful having a child who wants to kill themselves. I can’t imagine the weight of having a child who kills other people.
The other day my son walked in while I was crying for one of the first times. I didn’t want him to see me like that. He choked up with tears in his own eyes telling me he felt sad by my pain. He tried to comfort me in the moment. He was calm, kind, and empathetic. I showed him a side of myself he doesn’t usually see and in return I saw likewise. It feels good to have the support of my spouse and other adult children for the times I blame myself for having a child who is not everything I dreamed of her being.
This week I’m reading I’m Glad My Mom Died, a memoir by childhood actress Jennette McCurdy. Oh boy, it might be a long week…