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What do true crime series like Dahmer owe the victims?

True crime has made huge strides in centering the victim. But we keep getting series like the Netflix docudrama.

DaShawn Barnes as Rita Isbell stands at a podium in a courtroom, glaring at an off-screen Jeffrey Dahmer. She wears a T-shirt that reads “100% Black.”
DaShawn Barnes as Rita Isbell, a relative of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s murder victims, in the new Netflix series Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
Netflix

True crime has always been complicated, morally speaking. At a minimum, it takes the real stories of victims, their families, and their killers and repackages them as entertainment for the public’s consumption.

Should we expect a person impacted by a crime to be okay with having their story trotted out for the general public? Does it matter if they aren’t? What about when the story leans heavily into the old ways of true crime storytelling — tabloidy, sensationalistic, glorifying the serial killer at the expense of his victims?

Netflix’s new series Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, created by Ryan Murphy and longtime collaborator Ian Brennan (Glee, The Politician), walks right into these questions with about as much subtlety as Jeffrey Dahmer trying to have a normal social interaction. While the docudrama has topped Netflix’s streaming charts in the five days since its release, it’s also prompted a wave of outrage on social media regarding the way it approaches its subject, fueled especially by some of Dahmer’s surviving victims and families.

Multiple family members have spoken out to make it clear that neither Netflix nor the creators consulted them or asked for their permission to use their stories in the 10-episode series. On Twitter, Eric Perry, the cousin of Dahmer victim Errol Lindsey, spoke briefly but compellingly, arguing that the new series is “retraumatizing [the family] over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

Similarly, Lindsey’s sister Rita Isbell told Insider that she didn’t understand why the production didn’t at least donate a portion of the profits to the family members. “If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless,” she stated. “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.”

Isbell’s famous courtroom outburst at Dahmer’s 1992 trial gets movingly recreated onscreen in the new series by actress DaShawn Barnes. Isbell told Insider that she had only seen the episode she appeared in, and that watching those scenes brought back all of the pain and emotions she had felt then. Barnes tweeted in support of the series, arguing that “the victims weren’t an afterthought but their humanity and perspectives were reflected in this series.”

But even presuming the best intentions, this debate points to a problem with true crime itself: Can you enjoy true crime without, to some degree, re-victimizing real people? Does this specific true crime show — a show so unsubtle it has to name its killer twice in the title — offer enough nuance and new insight into its subject to justify its existence?

Dahmer centers — who else? — Dahmer

The phenomenal growth of true crime throughout the past decade has arguably gone a long way toward ameliorating the potential innate harm of the genre. As the true crime audience becomes more aware of the pitfalls in criminal investigations and in the criminal justice system, we demand more — both from law enforcement and from the way we talk and think about crime. These days, true crime stories increasingly get repurposed with care and attention. They can be told in ways that give us new insight into their contexts, into things like botched investigations, good and bad forensics, victimology, and wrongful convictions, or just insight into how to prevent the worst crimes from happening again (or at least from happening to us). We might think of this type of true crime, whether it takes the form of podcasts, documentaries, or docudramas, as true crime for a new and smarter generation of fans.

But there are still all kinds of complicated ethics around telling even the most respectful true crime story — especially stories where the victims or their families are still experiencing the aftermath, still dealing with unthinkable violence and grief. And even now, we’re not always telling the most respectful versions of these stories.

The crimes of Dahmer in particular have arguably been covered in more depth by the media than any serial killer this side of Ted Bundy — and, as with Bundy, that coverage tends to fixate gleefully on him and his character, with an emphasis on savoring the gory details, often skimming over the pantheon of systemic flaws and sociocultural factors that allowed the crimes to go on for as long as they did.

Dahmer was one of many serial killers whose targets were often queer men and/or people of color, and as a result, the police did not acknowledge early on that the missing people were victims of crimes. Milwaukee police failed to recognize that they had a serial killer on their hands, despite one of Dahmer’s neighbors, Glenda Cleveland, repeatedly calling both police and the FBI to alert them about his suspicious behavior.

In the case’s most infamous and heartbreaking moment, Dahmer’s youngest victim, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, actually escaped him and ran to police for help — but Dahmer followed him and convinced the officers that Sinthasomphone, a drugged, naked, and injured child, was actually his drunk adult boyfriend. Police, over the protests of horrified onlookers, returned the boy to Dahmer’s care. In a brutal coincidence, Dahmer had previously been convicted of molesting Sinthasomphone’s older brother Somsack, who was just 13 at the time. But perhaps in part because of systemic flaws in dealing with a victim who spoke no English — the family reportedly did not attend the sentencing hearing because no one even told them it was happening — Dahmer was sentenced to just one year in jail, of which he served 10 months.

To its credit, Dahmer covers much of these missteps in painful detail, never losing sight of the fact that Milwaukee’s police have a long history of alleged misconduct. The show’s opening moment features an apparently fictional (but all too plausible) violent encounter between police and a Black victim, and that racial tension hovers over the city while Dahmer picks off his victims.

But the show, as its title suggests, spends most of its time exploring Dahmer himself: his psychology, his awkward home life, his relationship with his parents. At one point early in episode one, the camera slips past a pair of missing persons flyers on a telephone pole as it follows Dahmer up the street; if you squint, you can catch one name but not both. This slide past the victims feels like a metaphor for the series as a whole: Though it dramatizes many points at which police missed opportunities to apprehend Dahmer, it also seems to suffer from the same failure of viewpoint that turned Netflix’s previous Bundy documentary, Conversations With a Killer, and its sibling docudrama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, into bland glorifications of their subject.

Murphy and Netflix might have wanted to sidestep these questions prior to the docudrama’s release; as Variety pointed out, “No episodes were available to screen before premiere; no stars present to interview ... There was no premiere, no party, no pomp nor any circumstance.” Variety’s Caroline Framke posits this might be due to the fading momentum of Murphy’s Netflix deal, but it might also be due to the producers’ wish to avoid stepping into the thorny thicket of 2022 true crime ethics. If that was the case, however, nobody told Netflix’s social media:

While plenty of Netflix’s target audiences responded to the scene itself, an equally predictable contingent reacted with disgust.

What does true crime owe victims’ families?

We should zoom out a little here and note that neither Netflix nor this particular production is the only one waging a storytelling battle against the families of victims. In May, the sister and aunt of murder victims Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica excoriated FX’s critically acclaimed production Under the Banner of Heaven for similar reasons.

“I felt a heavy feeling that my sister was going to be murdered all over again,” Sharon Wright Weeks told Deseret News at the time, arguing that the drama, based on journalist Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name, was “absolute fiction” that used the murders as a backdrop for screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s personal criticism of the Mormon faith.

Unlike the Isbell and Lindsey families, Black did consult Weeks about the series early in the writing process. By the time the project made it to the screen, however, Weeks found the character of her sister unrecognizable. She also felt, as Rita Isbell did, that the whole production was on a level exploitative, capitalizing on her sister’s death for profit.

This, again, is a common complaint among many families of victims. In the true crime community — among podcasters, journalists, and documentarians — this type of sentiment has led to a growing emphasis on working with families to center stories on the victims and their loved ones rather than on the perpetrators. It’s increasingly common to hear family members appear as guests to share their perspectives or provide information directly to the storytellers.

But podcasting and grassroots documentarian work are vastly different creatures than a glossy Ryan Murphy joint. Like FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace, also produced by Murphy, Dahmer uses its subject to probe the social and psychological forces that contribute to the victimology of young queer men. If it does that while glossing over the lives of the queer men in question, can it still hold meaning for the rest of us?

That’s more complicated. If Netflix’s stats are correct, then it’s undeniable that millions of people around the world still find Dahmer worthy viewing material. And if you’re going to produce a story that centers him, surely it’s at least good to have one that encompasses the failings of the police force and acknowledges the harms he inflicted on the community and the victims’ families.

But while that story is better than the alternative, I’m still doubtful that such a story is necessary. The recounting that might be necessary in this case most likely isn’t one Hollywood is interested in telling. While the creators have sympathy for Dahmer’s victims and respect for the circumstances that rendered them vulnerable, it seems they cannot allow themselves to imagine a fully deconstructed retelling of the narrative that centers the victims and their lives, that turns Dahmer into a disruptive sideshow in the lives of working-class Milwaukeeans rather than the main attraction and hero of his own story.

It’s a good exercise to imagine how differently we might read Dahmer’s story if it more fully focused on the Sinthasomphone family, on their goals and desires as Laotian immigrants, on the hurdles they faced assimilating into Wisconsin life, long before their children first encountered Dahmer. Or on the Lindseys and the Isbells, for that matter, on their community and family attachments, and the interpersonal dramas and deep connections that led up to Rita Isbell’s famous courtroom cries of rage.

Instead, those cries of rage seem to have been diverted onto social media and spread around as part of the backlash over yet another controversial true crime docudrama. It all seems avoidable. Make your true crime dramas if you must — certainly on Netflix and other streaming platforms, true crime documentaries are in perpetual demand — but make them with the assistance of and respect for the victims. Model your true crime dramas after Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, made with the full support of its subjects, rather than at their expense. If you must tell a story without the victims’ perspective, then realize that it’s all the more important to put them at the center of your story rather than at the edges.

Make the Sinthasomphones the face of his story. Do that with every true crime story you have the opportunity to tell, and you might just create something worth watching.

Correction, October 2, 7:30 pm: This article has been corrected to reflect that Dahmer served 10 months of a one-year sentence in prison for the 1989 sexual assault of Somsack Sinthasomphone. Dahmer was tried in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison on 15 counts of first-degree murder, including that of Somsack’s brother Konerak Sinthasomphone.