Did Dahmer Just Need a Friend (Anthropology in the Tattoo Parlour)?
I’ve recently been reading David Zahl’s excellent new book Low Anthropology. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I am deeply convinced that we are in need of better understandings of human nature than the default ones we tend to operate with these days. As I mentioned in my previous post, I think a realistic and hopeful anthropology is one of Christianity’s great gifts to the world, however ignored or misunderstood it often is. We are all sinners in need of grace. We are all divine image-bearers who are loved and called. Both of these statements are true. And together they can save us from thinking too little or, far more likely in our cultural moment, too much of ourselves.
Most people don’t move through their lives pedantically parsing ordinary daily interactions for the anthropological assumptions they reveal. I suppose I am a bit weird that way. But it’s fascinating to observe where these assumptions are laid bare. The tattoo parlour, for example. Yes, I finally took the plunge. After talking about it for years, my daughter and I went this week to get matching tattoos. It was an interesting experience. The process itself, certainly, but also some of the conversations I eavesdropped in on while there.
At one point, the guy who was inking my daughter and I, a twenty-something year old guy with a hipster moustache and (obviously) a generous assortment of tattoos was having a discussion with his colleague, a young young woman with blonde dreadlocks, multiple piercings and the aforementioned obligatory ink. They were talking about a show on Netflix called “Dahmer.” I have not watched this show, nor do I plan to. I know just enough about its subject matter—the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who committed almost literally unspeakable crimes against seventeen men and boys in the 80s—to be horrified and revolted into abstaining. Such stories should not, in my view, be fodder for entertainment.
But these two had watched it, and were keen to discuss. And at one point our guy said something like this. “I don’t know what has to be wrong with someone to do things like that. Something has to be seriously f***ed up. Like, that is just evil.” His colleague responded, “You know, I feel like if he would have just had a friend when he was a kid, he would have turned out differently.” Tattoo guy vehemently disagreed. A friend wouldn’t have changed anyone that monstrous. Dread-lock girl didn’t back down (maybe she recently took a intro to psychology class). He was lonely, picked on, etc. Back and forth they went for a while, the volume rising. Eventually, the conversation petered out and they resumed their more pressing tasks of imprinting specialness on their curious customers.
The conversation nicely summarized for me two of our common anthropological scripts. For the first guy, Jeffrey Dahmer was a kind of special category of evil. He was something different, his deeds so horrifyingly terrible that they were only explicable by saying that he was fundamentally other. For the young woman, Jeffrey Dahmer was not so different than anyone else. He had a bad childhood. He wasn’t loved or cared for. He was neglected and mistreated. There were a whole bunch of failures in his context that tragically conspired to produce a serial killer.
These two poles represent the extremes between which most of our default anthropologies lie. Jeffrey Dahmer was a monster (the chosen subtitle of the Netflix series betrays its operating anthropology), barely human, something outside of our categories entirely (low anthropolgy). Or, Jeffrey Dahmer just needed a friend (high anthropology).
As I sat there with the needles humming and stinging into my forearm, I thought that here, again, a truly Christian anthropology tells the truth about the human story, even stories as grotesque as Jeffrey Dahmer’s. Because of course both poles tell part of the truth. Jeffrey Dahmer—yes, even Jeffrey Dahmer—was created in the image of God. He almost certainly would have benefited from better formative influences in his life (who among us wouldn’t?). And yet, he also made choices and pursued paths that led him into a category of evil that most of us can scarcely contemplate. Something was indeed broken within him. There are depths of darkness that human beings are capable of that should make us shudder in horror.
Without a coherent anthropology, we struggle to make sense of human stories, whether the stories are sensationalistic ill-advised Netflix fare or our own. We are, each one of us, dearly loved and summoned to extend the love of our creator outward in the world. We are, each one of us, broken and selfish and easily corruptible, capable of evils that would never occur to any other creature on the planet. We have within us the potential for great love and goodness as well as staggering evil. We are beautiful and we are terrible at the same time. We are human beings.