Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer was born at the Evangelical Deaconess Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States, on May 21, 1960, the first of two sons born to Joyce Annette (née Flint) and Lionel Herbert Dahmer. Dahmer's mother worked as a teletype machine instructor, and his father was a student at Marquette University, working towards a degree in chemistry. His father was of German and Welsh ancestry, and his mother was of Norwegian and Irish ancestry.
It has been claimed that Dahmer was deprived of attention as an infant. As Dahmer's mother found the routine of breastfeeding exhausting and irritating, she refused to feed her son in this manner. Other sources, however, suggest that Dahmer was doted upon as an infant and toddler by both parents, although his mother was known to be tense, greedy for both attention and pity, and argumentative with her husband and their neighbors.
As her son entered first grade, Joyce Dahmer began to spend an increasing amount of her time in bed recovering from weakness. Lionel's university studies kept him away from home much of the time; when he was home, his wife demanded constant attention. She reportedly worked herself into a state of anxiety over trivial matters simply to appease her husband. On one occasion, Joyce Dahmer attempted suicide from an overdose of the Equanil pills to which she had become addicted. Consequently, neither parent devoted much time to their son.
Dahmer has been described as being an "energetic and happy child" until he became notably subdued after undergoing a double hernia surgery, which was performed shortly before his fourth birthday. He recalled his early years of family life as being of "extreme tension" which he noted between his parents, whom he observed to be constantly arguing with each other. At elementary school, he was regarded as both quiet and timid by his peers. On his first grade report card, one teacher described Dahmer as a reserved child whom she sensed felt neglected. This teacher did note that this sense of neglect seemed to stem from his mother's illnesses. Nonetheless, although largely reserved and uncommunicative in grade school, Dahmer did have a small number of friends.
From an early age, Dahmer manifested an interest in animals. Friends later recalled Dahmer initially collected large insects, dragonflies, and butterflies, which he placed inside jars. Later, he collected animal carcasses from the roadside, occasionally accompanied by one or more of his few friends; he dismembered these animals either at home or in an expanse of woodland behind the family home. According to one friend, Dahmer dismembered these animals and stored the parts in jars in the family's wooden toolshed, always explaining that he was curious as to how each animal "fitted together". In one instance, he decapitated the carcass of a dog before nailing the animal's body to a tree. He later impaled the skull of this dog upon a stake beside a wooden cross in woodland behind his house. Dahmer's fascination with dead animals might have begun when, at the age of four, he noted his father removing animal bones from beneath the family home. According to Lionel Dahmer, his son was "oddly thrilled" by the sound the bones made, and instantly developed a fixation for playing with and collecting animal bones. He occasionally searched beneath and around the family home for additional bones. With live animals, he explored their bodies to discover where their bones were located.
The Dahmer family relocated to Doylestown, Ohio, in October 1966. At the time, Joyce Dahmer was pregnant with her second child. When she gave birth to a baby boy on December 18, 1966, Jeffrey was allowed to choose the name of the baby. He chose the name David for his younger brother. The same year, Lionel Dahmer achieved his degree and subsequently obtained employment as an analytical chemist in the city of Akron, Ohio.
In 1968, the family relocated to Bath, Ohio. Two years later, over a family meal of chicken, Dahmer asked his father what would happen if the bones of the chicken were to be placed in a bleach solution. Lionel Dahmer was, by this stage, concerned as to his elder son's placid and lethargic attitude and his solitary existence; therefore, he was delighted at the initiative displayed by his son towards what he believed to be scientific curiosity. He willingly demonstrated to his son how to safely bleach and (later) preserve animal bones. This knowledge regarding the cleansing and preserving of bones was used by Dahmer on many of the animal remains which he continued to avidly collect.
Adolescence and high school
From his freshman year at Revere High School, Dahmer was seen by his peers as an outcast with few friends.[n 1] Many of Dahmer's classmates later recollected being disturbed by the fact that he drank both beer and hard alcohol, which he smuggled into school inside the lining of his army fatigue jacket and concealed in his locker. This drinking occurred before, during, and after school, and was first noted when Dahmer was 14. On one occasion, a classmate observed Dahmer consuming a cup of gin and asked him why he was drinking liquor in class, to which Dahmer casually replied, "It's my medicine". Nonetheless, in his freshman year at Revere High School, Dahmer, although largely uncommunicative, was observed by staff to be a polite student who was known to be highly intelligent. He initially achieved only average grades, which staff attributed to his apathy. He was also known to have been a keen tennis player and to have briefly played in the high school band.
Dahmer at age 17, photographed for the 1977 Revere High School yearbook
When he reached puberty, Dahmer discovered he was homosexual. He did not divulge his sexual orientation to his parents. In his early teens, he did engage in a brief relationship with another youth, although the pair never had intercourse. By his later admission, he began sexually fantasizing about dominating and controlling a completely submissive male partner. These fantasies gradually became intertwined with dissection. On one occasion, when he was approximately 16 years old, Dahmer conceived a rape fantasy of rendering a particular male jogger he found attractive unconscious and then making sexual use of his unconscious body. To render the man unconscious, Dahmer concealed himself in bushes on the route he had noted the jogger took, baseball bat in hand, and lay in wait for him to run by. The jogger did not pass by on that particular day, however. Although Dahmer never attempted to implement this plan again, he later stated this was his first attempt to attack another individual.
Despite being regarded as a loner and an oddball among his peers at Revere High School, Dahmer became something of a class clown among some students due to the pranks he regularly staged—some of which were done to amuse his classmates, others apparently to simply attract attention. These pranks became known as "Doing a Dahmer" and included bleating, simulating epileptic seizures or cerebral palsy, and knocking over items at school and at local stores. By 1977, Dahmer's grades had declined, owing to his alcohol abuse and his continuing apathy toward academic and social interactions. His parents hired a private tutor for their son, but the tutor only had limited success. The same year, Dahmer's parents attended counseling sessions to try to resolve personal differences and thus save their marriage. The counseling was ultimately unsuccessful, and they decided to divorce. Although initially on amicable grounds, both of Dahmer's parents began to quarrel frequently in the presence of their sons and, in early 1978, Lionel Dahmer moved out of the house.
In May 1978, Dahmer graduated from high school. A few weeks before his graduation, one of his teachers observed Dahmer sitting close to the school parking lot, drinking several cans of beer. When the teacher threatened to report the matter, Dahmer informed him he was experiencing "a lot of problems" at home and that the school's guidance counselor was aware of them. Shortly after this incident, Joyce was awarded custody of her younger son and vacated the family residence, moving in with family members of hers; Dahmer, having just turned 18, was legally an adult and therefore not subject to court custodial considerations.