The correlation of gender to identity fuels our current social structures, particularly patriarchy—a devastating and cyclical force that can transfer a tradition of dominance from father to son. The traditional institution of patriarchy can have sinister, and sometimes even deadly, consequences. In the fictional novel Zombie, by Joyce Carol Oates provides an insightful look into the psyche and motivations of the serial killer protagonist, Quentin. Zombie’s Quentin and actual serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer both sought to assert their dominance in an attempt to live up to their fathers’ patriarchal expectations. In both cases, it becomes clear that a father’s urge to maintain this patriarchal structure leads to the tacit approval and encouragement of his son’s violent attempts at dominance. This makes the fathers complicit in the serial murders that result.
Patriarchy can be loosely defined as the preeminence of men in leadership roles in society. Because patriarchy has evolved to become acceptable in most cultures, male dominance is perceived as an intrinsic characteristic rather than a learned behavior. In the cases of Quentin and Jeffrey Dahmer, the power dynamic between Quentin and Jeffrey and their respective fathers is based on this idea of hereditary male power. Because they fail to show proper signs of dominance, Quentin and Jeffrey are scorned and essentially become victims of this patriarchal cycle. Through serial killing, Quentin and Jeffrey attempt to satisfy their fathers’ requirements of masculinity and assume their expected dominant role within society. The correlation of the patriarchal need for dominance and serial killing is supported by James Alan Fox and Jack Levin’s multiple homicide crime theory: “While the range of motives for serial homicides is quite broad, research on this topic has focused heavily on issues of power and control – the dominance that serial killers achieve by controlling the lives and deaths of their victims. For those killers, murder is a form of expressive, rather than instrumental, violence” (Fox and Levin 415). The assertion that dominance-driven serial killing serves an expressive purpose makes Quentin and Jeffrey’s victims incidental causalities in their struggle to ascend the patriarchal throne. Although patriarchy requires sons to perform behaviors that are not related to asserting dominance, the most sinister aspect of patriarchy is its role as a manifestation of the forced dominance present in a father-son relationship and its effects.
In the cases of both men, the psychological predisposition to serial killing is put in place by an overly dominant father who forces traditionally masculine values upon his son. The projection of these traditional values comes most noticeably through the suppression of homosexuality. Because homosexuality involves two males, the need for dominance in the relationship is no longer present, which makes homosexuality unacceptable in a patriarchal system. In Zombie, Quentin has clearly been traumatized by this repression, as illustrated in his observations of his father: “…most fierce DAD’S EYES when I was twelve years old that time Dad charged upstairs with the Body Builder magazines shaking in his hand. ‘Son? Son?’ ‘W-What?’ I stammered. ‘I’m listening’” (Oates 34). Quentin’s capitalization of “DAD’S EYES” illustrates the potency and implied meaning of his father’s glare. By distinguishing this feature, Quentin conveys his fear of judgment, which is augmented by the description of his father’s eyes as fierce. His father’s dominance is further illustrated by Quentin’s perception of seemingly mundane actions as particularly active and forceful. Quentin’s father “charges upstairs,” an explosive act requiring an output of energy and force. Additionally, Quentin perceives his father’s anger at Quentin’s homosexual tendencies as so tangible that they are easily transferable to the present. Although the incident that Quentin describes occurred when Quentin was twelve years old, his father’s present exclamation of “Son?” can refer both to the past and the present. The overlap of the past with the present in Quentin’s recollection reflects the lasting effects of his father’s repressive parenting tactics, and Quentin’s seamless regression into his childlike submissive mentality. Although this relegation to a childlike state may seem contrary to Quentin’s father’s demand for Quentin to assert dominance, this conflict is Quentin’s father’s way of demonstrating how a “true man” should act. By making Quentin an object of dominance, his father attempts to teach Quentin how he should act and how he should repress his own sons in the future, ensuring the continuity of the the patriarchal cycle.
Similarly, Lionel Dahmer’s discovery of Jeffrey’s pornographic magazines is a chance for him to exert his dominance in A Father’s Story: “I glanced down into a stack of gay pornographic magazines. ‘Get rid of that stuff before your grandmother sees it,’ I told him” (Dahmer 83). Parallel to Zombie, the father is seen in a superior position, as he “glances down” after issuing the imperative “Get rid of that stuff.” The positioning and the actual physical structure of the sentence give Lionel Dahmer the authority to easily dismiss Jeffrey’s homosexuality without directly addressing or accepting it. Furthermore, Lionel’s description of the pornographic materials as “that stuff” creates an arrogant tone of superiority that trivializes Jeffrey’s homosexuality. Lionel also transforms Jeffrey’s grandmother into a victim who should be shielded from Jeffrey’s homosexual behaviors. The particular victimization of Jeffrey’s grandmother emphasizes the designated gender roles within society. Because Jeffrey is a man, he is expected to function as the “protector” of his grandmother’s virtue, but his possession of pornography is seen as a violation of these inherent duties. By making Jeffrey aware of his failure to imitate masculine values, his father reaffirms his own dominance while simultaneously demeaning Jeffrey for his lack of outward shows of dominance.
The conflict between traditional masculinity and Quentin and Jeffrey’s individualized behavior within society causes frustration at the failure to meet expectations and subsequently results in their misguided quest for dominance over manufactured “zombies.” These “zombies” are the victims who the killers assert complete dominance over. Although Quentin and Jeffrey were capable of making their own decisions, the conflict between their perceptions of themselves and their fathers’ perceptions of them is a main cause of their violent tendencies.
According to Charles Horton Cooley’s theory of our looking glass self, “how we view ourselves is influenced by our impressions of how others perceive us. This involves a three-phase process through which we develop our self-concept: first by imagining how we present ourselves to others; then by imagining how others evaluate us; and finally by developing a sense of self as a result of these impressions” (Peck 139). Throughout Zombie and A Father’s Story, Quentin and Jeffrey are subjected to perceptions of their father’s dominance from an early age. This dominance, particularly in the form of suppressed sexuality, essentially formed their self-perceptions. The second-phase of this formation, “imagining how others evaluate us,” is clearly shown through the ways in which Quentin and Jeffrey suppress their homosexuality in order to conform to their fathers’ ideals of “true” masculinity. This ideal of “true” masculinity is illustrated in Quentin’s brutal yearnings for dominance: “A ZOMBIE would say ‘You are good, Master.’ He would beg for his food & he would beg for oxygen to breathe” (Oates 49). Quentin’s control of his ideal “zombie” is an extreme and perverse form of imitated dominance. In his need to display authority, he exaggerates its most perverse aspects, as shown through his use of the word “Master,” and his need to withhold the most basic elements of life– food and air–from his kidnapped, lobotomized slave. Although Quentin father’s insistence on dominance makes him attempt to repress Quentin’s homosexuality, Quentin’s creation of a “zombie” sex slave is his unique way of reconciling his homosexuality with society’s expectation of dominance. Ultimately, society imprisons him for attempting this form of reconciliation, even though the institution of patriarchy itself has forced Quentin to kill in order to meet its impossible standards as interpreted by him.
This reproduction of dominance is attempted so violently and frequently in the scope of a father-son relationship because dominance is perceived to be synonymous with masculine happiness and fulfillment. Quentin reflects this mentality when he reveals his internal dialogue while kidnapping SQUIRREL, a victim of his: “I began to feel revived again, and excited. For he was mine now, and always will be so” (Oates 150). Although Quentin has been raised to believe that dominance is an expected behavior, this mentality has been reinforced to the extent that it results in manufactured feelings of happiness. By first stating his excitement, and then subsequently describing SQUIRREL as a possession, Quentin directly correlates the two. The italicization of the word mine designates Quentin as the sole owner of SQUIRREL. This sense of possession is further augmented by Quentin’s use of the future tense: “will always be so.” In Quentin’s mind, his assertion of dominance has led to his complete and interminable control over SQUIRREL. This assumption of a patriarchal role, and the happiness that is accompanied by this assumption, is responsible for Quentin’s repeated attempts at fully assuming this dominant position through serial killing.
Similarly, the tendency of patriarchy to associate dominance with happiness makes Jeffrey Dahmer continue killing in the hopes that he will one day reach his true potential, although this proves to be false: “I was completely swept along with my own compulsion. I don’t know how else to put it. It didn’t satisfy me completely so maybe I was thinking another one will. Maybe this one will, and the numbers started growing and growing and just got out of control” (“Trial Diary” 31). By describing this urge for dominance as a “compulsion,” Jeffrey transforms a manufactured behavior into an instinctive one. Because the fulfillment of this instinct “does not satisfy [him] completely,” he is led to commit more murders. The progression of his murders illustrate that he is chasing the idea of dominance, and subsequently uses the murders as a vehicle that will bring him closer to his goal. This path ultimately leads him to destruction, rather than true dominance.
Because of the correlation between happiness and dominance, patriarchy is such an accepted practice that any dominance, including violence, is tacitly approved of. In Zombie, the first detailed encounter between Quentin and his father allows readers to learn of their mutual understanding concerning Quentin’s violence. This glimpse of their outwardly “normal” relationship comes when Quentin’s father visits him at his apartment: “DAD’S MOUTH shaped certain words emerging like balloons… For finally Dad gives up for he does not want to know & wipes his face with a handkerchief and says, “Quentin, how would you like to come home with me for dinner tonight?” (Oates 37). When describing the conversation, Quentin noticeably describes his father’s words as “emerging like balloons.” This description reveals the tangible distance between Quentin and his father by conveying Quentin’s father’s words as a cartoon-ish thought bubble void of any substance. Although this reveals that their relationship is a façade, it is clear that Quentin’s father has an implicit understanding of Quentin’s perversities. Because this understanding conflicts with acceptable societal standards, Quentin’s father “does not want to know.” The correlation of this sentiment with the phrase “finally Dad gives up” illustrates his conscious knowledge that information is being withheld from him. By switching the topic and asking Quentin to accompany him to dinner, Quentin’s father normalizes this tacit understanding while simultaneously conveying his approval of Quentin’s dominant actions.
A similar transference of dominance is found in the brutal reality of Jeffrey Dahmer’s murders. Although Lionel Dahmer asserts throughout A Father’s Story that he was not aware of his son’s perverse tendencies, there are instances in the book where he reveals his subconscious recognition that something was amiss, as illustrated in a conversation that he had with Jeffrey: “‘Open it.’ Jeff suddenly grew very alarmed. Do you have to look through everything?’ Jeff did not move to open it. Much later . . . I learned that he had killed yet another human being, and that the box he’d refused to open had contained a human head” (Dahmer 67). This revelation, though shocking, casts doubt on Lionel Dahmer’s claims of ignorance. Although Jeffrey’s exasperated statement, “Do you have to look through everything?” is reminiscent of a child’s stereotypical struggle for independence, Lionel Dahmer backs away from this juvenile challenge by failing to follow through with his direct imperative, “Open it.” By asserting parental control and then subsequently revoking it, Lionel Dahmer allows Jeffrey to assume control, therefore transforming Jeffrey’s childish challenge into a model of patriarchal dominance. Ultimately, Lionel Dahmer relinquishes his authority because it enables him to ignore his son’s perversity, while simultaneously supporting his son’s attempts at his own form of masculine dominance.
Although the actions of Quentin’s father and Lionel Dahmer were indirectly responsible for their sons’ killings, society’s unwavering belief in the effectiveness of patriarchy is also responsible for the seamless transition from paternal dominance to serial killing. In this way, readers’ observations of Quentin’s perverse behavior become representative of society’s murderous potential, which Steven Marcus emphasizes in his New York Times book review of Zombie: “Ms. Oates’s aberrant protagonist seems to be, on one side, little more than an individualized and mono-maniacally focused version of what American society itself is capable of” (Marcus 7). Society’s horrific capabilities become clear in its blind acceptance of patriarchy, despite Oates’ portrayal of patriarchy as an overly dominant and destructive force. In particular, patriarchy’s attempt at decreasing female influence within society creates an inherently unequal structure that promotes the ideals of male superiority. The institution of patriarchy and “true masculinity” are so ingrained into our culture that “we see Dahmer seeking to maintain and control his ‘masculine’ self, and then seeking to erase a ‘female’ other” (Tithecott 164). The fact that this conclusion is drawn from the original male-to-male violence is indicative of society’s approval of male dominance, especially over women. In his analysis of Dahmer, Richard Tithecott even goes as far as to claim that Dahmer’s murders can be viewed as “a kind of wish fulfillment, a hero of male fantasy” (158). This “hero worship” of male dominance is disturbing because it illustrates the gradual escalation of patriarchy. Although patriarchy was originally a way to maintain social order, it has become a reason to condone violence and even murder within society.
Even though individuals are legally responsible for their own actions, many factors must coincide in order to create a serial killer. In modern society, the institution of patriarchy has an undeniable effect on male serial killers because it creates an atmosphere in which serial killers are bred through an insistence on forced dominance. The fictional account of Zombie’s Quentin and the reality of Jeffrey Dahmer’s killings make it evident that a father’s influence can play a large part in prompting a person to kill. Even though this dominating influence can be responsible for the evolution of a son’s personality from an innocent child to a horrific and uncompassionate serial killer, the son’s imitated dominance makes the father reliant on the son for the continuation of the patriarchal line. Ultimately, this makes the son’s fulfillment of dominance through serial killing a triumph for patriarchy.
Dahmer, Lionel. A Father’s Story. New York: Time Warner Paperbacks, 1995.
Fox, James Alan, and Jack Levin. Multiple Homicide: Patterns of Serial and Mass Murder. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Marcus, Steven. “American Psycho.” Rev. of Zombie, by Joyce Carol Oates. The New York Times (1995): 13-14.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Zombie. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.
Peck, Dennis L. Extraordinary Behavior: A Case Study Approach to Understanding Social Problems. Ed. Audwin L. Anderson. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.
Tithecott, Richard. Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
“Trial Diary.” Jeffrey Dahmer’s The Lair. 30 March 2009. 1 April 1998.