My Best Friend's Exorcism
Hendrix, Grady. My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2016.
Last week, I finished reading Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and it was a breath of fresh air. Hendrix somehow captured my essence in the 330 pages of his book; he masterfully illustrated all of my little loves, as well as the quirks and colors that make life so vivid: the novel's words burst with 80s pop culture, rollerskating references, music, the supernatural & horror, love, friendship, and humor - all wrapped up perfectly in the cover art and end-papers of his book.
Hendrix had my attention before page one. The cover art perfectly evokes the attitude of his book. The grid of awkward black and white yearbook-style photos of teens in their 80s-fashion-best provides a background for the exuberant greens, yellows, and pinks of the title. It’s the cover’s contrasts that make it so striking. Top and center, standing out from the strained and stiff faces of her classmates, is a portrayal of Gretchen - back-turned, in the throws of possession. The black and white provides a visual representation of the stereotypical fight between good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, as well as presents a sense of foreboding; however, the vibrancy of the title and the hot pink of the spine elicit the story’s playfulness and 80s awesomeness. The end-papers continue the fun with all of the irony, humor, and teen angst found in high school yearbook signatures. For example, Jeni tells Gretchen that “Mr. Goat wants to touch [her] with his damp mustache. Be careful [she doesn’t] have his love child this summer.” Hendrix realistically renders the absurdity of inside jokes (and bad jokes). Furthermore, in a more entertaining way, he does something similar to what Ian McEwan does, by including a bogus journal article and references in Enduring Love, by, instead, including yearbook pages. Hendrix’s inclusion of imitated documents seems more purposeful in creating an amusing atmosphere; however, it still lends itself to the idea that all fiction is fiction. And yet, I have to love the paradox that some of life’s most ever-present truths are more easily deciphered through fiction.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism never loses the initial pace it sets with its cover and end-pages. On page 9, the story begins with “The exorcist is dead,” and with that one, simple sentence the reader is hooked. Not to mention that the first chapter title, as well as all the others, conjures music and lyrics; Hendrix's chapter headings provide the reader with an excellent sound track with songs including “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Gos, “Sunday Blood Sunday” by U2, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., and “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany.
In fact, the more I revisit the incidents of Abby and Gretchen’s friendship, the more I fall in love with it. It is a friendship that springs from an E.T.-themed, rollerskating birthday party that no one, but Gretchen, with a Children’s Bible as a gift , shows up to and flourishes to life in Abby’s head with “We Got the Beat,” completely misinterpreted lyrics, and backwards skating. This is how Abby and “the weird new kid” become best friends (13). As they grow into teenagers, they bond, as girls do, through sleep overs, late-night phone calls, reading and watching scandalous books and shows, inside jokes and music. Then, in their sophomore year, they, and a couple friends, drop acid for the first time, Gretchen disappears in the woods, and life becomes markedly different.
In the beginning, Gretchen displays all of the typical signs of possession, including excessive bleeding, hearing voices, outbreaks of acne, and projectile vomiting, but when her appearance clears, the danger escalates. She manipulates one friend into attempting suicide by trying to jump from a bell tower; she poisons another friend with tapeworms; and sets Abby up for stealing a dead baby from a hospital on their anatomy field trip. The tapeworm scene between Abby and Margaret is fascinatingly disgusting, and the Hot Dog on a Stick scene between Abby and the hot-pink-fanny-pack-wearing, bodybuilding exorcist is equally entertaining in its hilarity. Yet, when the exorcism actually begins, I was afraid I was going to be disappointed by its conclusion. I feared a predictable ending. That, however, is not what I received.
The exorcism initiates with Brother Lemon manhandling Gretchen - tying her to a bed, praying over her, throwing sanctified salt in her face - and progresses to this giant specimen of a man running away to his daddy, leaving Abby alone with Gretchen, who, in the most irreproachable moment ever written, infusing me with envy at Hendrix's wit, begins singing, “I think we’re alone now. There doesn’t seem to be anyone aroun-ound. I think we’re alone now, the beating of our hearts is the only sou-und...” (295).
This is where it gets good and where I was pleasantly surprised. When Abby and Gretchen are alone, Abby begins reading from the exorcist’s directions and Bible that he left behind in his haste. As Abby begins to pray over Gretchen, the demon falls upon well-used tricks of the imagination - roaches rushing from Gretchen’s open mouth but, even better, the image of a hand emerging from her mouth, extending to a forearm, struggling to pull a body from her splitting face. Abby stops; she can’t stand the thought of hurting Gretchen’s body any more. And just when Abby gives up, and you think it’s over, and the novel’s going to end in some stereotypical way with the demon living on in Gretchen’s body or transferring to Abby - Abby miraculously rebounds. And in a fashion that I can only associate with Mabel from Gravity Falls, my daughter’s favorite cartoon (which I happen to equally enjoy), Abby rises up and defeats the demon with a poorly quoted rendition of “We Got the Beat” and alluding to inside jokes between Gretchen and herself (including a reference to a porno Abby found in her dad’s closet) and Phil Collins. Abby doesn’t attend church, and it’s not the power of the Bible or prayer that saves Gretchen; it’s the power of love and friendship. That seems simplistic, but it’s fantastic.
At the end of the novel, Abby and Gretchen have continued their friendship into old age, and the narrator says, “Abby and Gretchen still kept up, but it was phone calls and letters, then postcards and voicemail, and finally emails and Facebook likes. There was no falling-out, no great tragedy, just a hundred thousand trivial moments they didn’t share, each one an inch of distance between them, and eventually those inches added up to miles... [when major events happened], they learned that although those inches may add up to miles, sometimes those miles were only inches after all” (327). Real love and friendship persist throughout time, throughout separation, throughout fights and jealousy, throughout all of the obstacles life throws. And I feel like the ultimate take-away from this novel is that love is what we live for, not necessarily romantic love, but all the other major or minor loves in our lives - the references to 80s pop culture, music, art, and, if we’re lucky, our family and friends, and if we’re extra lucky, a partner. I also like to think that this presents the concept that, if there is a God, which Brother Lemon definitely believes in (check page 326), that perhaps He’s not as self-righteous as people want to believe. Maybe He’s more concerned with people choosing the right thing, which I know is subjective, but love or kindness over the limitless numbers of bad choices we can make - revenge, hatred, lies. Abby’s love for and relationship with Gretchen is far more divine than Abby’s not going to church, or the girls trying LSD, or having sex, or joking about "Bad Mama Jama’s supper in the oven” is sinful (309). I’d like to think that God would appreciate humankind’s ability to love or our ability to suffer physical, emotional, and/or psychological pain and persist, far more than He would our ability to worship His omnipotence. In any case, you should read this book.
There’s no way you’ll be disappointed.
my friend dahmer
Backderf, Derf. My Friend Dahmer: A Graphic Novel. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2012.
Alex Award 2013 - adult books for young adults.
Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer documents Backderf’s acquaintance with Jeffrey Dahmer through high school and explores Dahmer’s growing struggle with his own depravity. Dahmer grew from being invisible in middle school and interested in dissolving dead animals in acid to throwing “fake epileptic fits and [mimicking] the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy” his sophomore year of high school to his eventual first murder after graduation (47). Through Backderf’s text and illustrations, the reader questions nature vs. nurture and wonders if the adults in Dahmer’s life had not been “so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent,” perhaps circumstances could have turned out differently (11). Though Backderf’s “Dahmer Fan Club” is not completely blameless, they did laugh at Dahmer’s behavior without ever really befriending him, they are more easily forgiven because they were children. However, the openly contemptuous relationship between his parents and his being ignored by teachers, who did not even take notice when he was constantly drunk at school, are far more despicable for their absence of care or concern. Dahmer struggled, “hanging onto his sanity by the thinnest thread,” alone (123). He kept his homosexuality a secret, as well as his fantasies about dead lovers and his dismemberment of animals. However, no one took an interest, and in 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for murder – “his apartment was full of bodies! He had sex with the corpses… and ate some of them!!” (223).
My Friend Dahmer is an excellent example of young adult literature that explores an uncommon subject and is written at a high level of sophistication. The text is dark, haunting, and psychologically captivating. Kirkus questions, “If a boy is not born a monster, how does he become one?” (2399). Backderf “doesn't try to elicit sympathy for "Jeff." Yet he walks an emotional tightrope here, for he recognizes that someone--maybe the other kids who laughed at and with him, certainly the adults who should have recognized aberration well beyond tortured adolescence--should have done something” (2399). Readers must wrestle with Dahmer’s circumstances; his life was truly miserable, but does that excuse him? No. Yet, Backderf does create an emotional link to Dahmer and his hopelessly austere adolescence. Readers will ponder whether Dahmer could have led a normal existence if his family and community had shown him love rather than indifference. The graphic novel ends on an especially poignant and thought-provoking note. Ten years after graduating high school, Backderf and a couple friends met to reminisce, and when remembering Dahmer, one friend states, “Ya know what? Dahmer is probably a serial killer by now!” Backderf ends the novel with “and we all laughed” (199). In the end, Backderf acknowledges that they knew something was wrong with Dahmer, and yet no one did anything. They laughed. Readers must question their own actions (or lack of) and ponder what they would do in the situation.
Nilsen cites research that found that one of the “most popular types of nonfiction [is] cartoon and comic books” (285). My Friend Dahmer is a perfect example of this type of nonfiction text. The illustrations perfectly capture Dahmer’s psyche and the bleakness of his situation, adding to the literature. Library Journal states “Backderf's intentionally ungainly black-and-white art underscores the universal awkwardness of adolescence, and the approach has emotional resonance” (65-66); in addition, Booklist states the “blunt, ungainly drawings, with their robotically stiff figures, effectively convey the drab suburban milieu” (37). Dahmer’s face constantly appears emotionless, and the shadows that often grace his face create an element of foreboding. Furthermore, the cover art captures the essence of Dahmer and the tone of the graphic novel. Dahmer is central, staring, blankly and directly, at the reader, challenging and unfeeling. He is spotlighted, and yet, the shadows under his eyes and near his mouth render him ominous. Moreover, his classmates in the periphery appear unconcerned and oblivious to his presence, reflecting his triviality. Also, the included photos enhance the reality of the story. The photo in which the NHS teacher blacked out Dahmer’s face is affecting – “this photo would become the symbol of Dahmer’s wasted youth. The boy who didn’t belong” (117).
Backderf aptly utilizes narrative in his nonfiction. Nilsen cites evidence that “in people’s minds fiction and nonfiction are blending together” (289). My Friend Dahmer reads just as easily as a fiction novel would; Backderf utilizes literary elements, such as foreshadowing, metaphor, and dialogue. At times, it is easy to forget that the text is biographical; however, the inclusion of photos and actual cartoons that Backderf drew in the ‘70s helps remind the reader that the text is nonfiction. Additionally, Backderf cites a plethora of sources, showing from where his information derived. He utilized personal memories, interviews with contemporaries, interviews with Dahmer, news accounts, FBI files, a family calendar, and Lionel Dahmer’s book. Backderf also includes notes, explaining why details were included in the text. He also provided brief, biographical information about Jeffrey Dahmer, Joyce Dahmer, Lionel Dahmer, and the Dahmer Fan Club. Lastly, the quotes from Jeffrey Dahmer add a sense of uneasiness and reality to the graphic novel, underscoring its truth. Dahmer’s quote, “when I was a kid, I was just like anybody else” is particularly disconcerting because it hints at the possibility of a different outcome (8).
Cornog, Martha. "My Friend Dahmer." Library Journal 137.9 (2012): 65-66. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 29 July 2014.
Flagg, Gordon. "My Friend Dahmer." Booklist 108.14 (2012): 37. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 29 July 2014.
"My Friend Dahmer." Kirkus Reviews 80.1 (2012): 2399. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 27 July 2014.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace., James Blasingame, Kenneth L. Donelson, and Don L.F. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults: Study Guide. 9th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. Print.