The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part IV

This Is Out of Control

(the last of four parts)

On February 18, 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the sentence passed on Jeffrey Dahmer. I might not have paid it much mind if not for the photo beside it depicting a woman being subdued by court officers. The caption gave her name as Rita Isbell.

It’s one of those rare photos of a real-time event which, thanks to some stroke of luck or the sheer number of shutter closures rattled off in the passage of a few seconds, produces an image almost classical in its composition. There’s something transcendent — (OK, I’ll say it) even mythic — in the story it suggests. Her expression of rage and frustration, fatigue and resignation as she looks toward the camera lens. The triad of generic white men who frame her figure as they hold her back. The bold letters of her tee shirt stretched taught against her breasts. This isn’t just some angry woman. This is the face of a woman who is railing against an epic injustice. This is Milwaukee’s version of Judith or Medea.

I clipped that article and kept it all these years. And I still get lost in that image, yellowed and brittle as it is. In that woman’s face the story of Jeffrey Dahmer suddenly took on a meaning beyond all the hype and sensational details of his crimes.

Rita Isbell, New York Times, February 18, 1992

That image from the end of our story was what led me to uncover its beginning. And by the chance nature of blog postings — the last to go up being the first most readers will see — you might be uncovering this story in the same backwards progression.

In the last three posts, we’ve covered the basics of what Jeffrey Dahmer did. We’ve looked at the response — or lack of response — from the community, the police and the justice system of Milwaukee. We’ve touched on the evidence of deep-rooted racism and homophobia in the city, their likely role in retarding any reasonable investigation of the disappearance of 15 men from its gay bars, and the insistence of the authorities that race and homosexuality were not issues open for discussion.

Finally, we looked at the public responses of the families when at last they were given a chance to speak at the sentencing hearing. Of course, they were allowed only limited time under very controlled conditions in which to express themselves; they had hanging over them the judge’s threat of clearing the courtroom in the event of any inappropriate words or actions. But even under such formal restraints, what we heard from the family members was odd. After everything they’d been through, almost everyone who spoke made a point of thanking the system for removing Dahmer from the community, rather than asking why it took so long to do so.

Every gesture in that hearing seemed carefully choreographed to demonstrate that the system had worked like a well-oiled machine. Dahmer was found to be competent and guilty of his crimes. The city of Milwaukee and its agents were free of any responsibility for what happened. And now the system was about to remove this rogue and unique element from the community; it was about to bring justice and resolution to the people it serves. In this piece of public theater, everyone performed his scripted role. There was no mention of frustration from the families, not even from people who later expressed those very sentiments to the press. Everyone behaved.

Everyone except Rita Isbell.

Rita Isbell starts talking before she even gets near the podium. She doesn’t even pause to acknowledge — much less heed — the judge’s condescending admonishment. She’s mad. She expresses her anger directly at Dahmer. But [and maybe I'm just projecting here] her manner suggests to me that she’s had enough of the whole affair; that she’s just as angry at the court, its rules and restrictions and, perhaps, at all the other speakers who have said little about what’s gone on over the years their loved ones have been missing. With her cardigan open just enough to reveal the big, bold lettering on her tee shirt — 100% BLACK — she blows in like a storm and says at least some of what no one else had been able to say. It’s a glorious “fuck you” moment.

When she gets to Dahmer’s name, she blanks. It’s as if whatever is keeping her behavior in check won’t let her make that direct connection with the man who has come to represent all the fear and anger, the injustice and disregard of the last few years. She just calls him “Satan.”

Then suddenly that wall inside her — the one keeping her apart from her anger — gives way. She finds Dahmer’s name. And in naming him, in giving her own shape and focus to all of her feelings, she takes control of the situation. All hell breaks loose.

Angry that he’s lost control of the affair, the judge storms off and orders a recess. Five court officers descend on Isbell and subdue her. If only the Milwaukee police force had been half as aggressive in pursuing Dahmer, her brother might still be alive today.

I wonder what happened to Rita Isbell after the officers escorted her from the courtroom. I wonder if the other family members — shocked and weeping after her outburst — ever thanked her for expressing what they seemed unable to get out on their own. I wonder if anyone came up to her in the days and years since that afternoon and told her that she was the only hero in this whole long and very sad story.

I don’t expect anyone is going to build a monument on her behalf. But, for what it’s worth, this is mine. And that’s where this long series of posts has been leading. Thank you, Rita Isbell, wherever you are.

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12 Responses to “The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part IV”

  1. AnUnquietMind says:

    Excellent post. I often wonder whatever came of Rita after her memorable appearance in the court room that day, which is how I found myself here at your blog. Thank you for your articulate analysis of the multi-layered tragedy and injustice that is Wisconsin vs. Dahmer.

  2. admin says:

    And thank you for reading it.

  3. Matt says:

    This was beautifully written. Rita Isbell could get out what so few would consider to express in a court of law and the emotion you used to describe it was impacting. I only wish I understood her quote, “This is how you act when you are out of control.” You captured the entire affair in such tragic, cold, wonderful way. This is excellent work, and was very interesting to read. Your work is appreciated.

  4. admin says:

    Thank you very much. It’s very gratifying to think that anyone even reads this stuff, even more so that you were kind enough to leave such a nice comment.

    I agree that Ms. Isbell’s comment — “This is how you act when you are out of control!” — is a bit cryptic. I think, in part, it’s a response to the official verdict that Dahmer’s crimes were the expression of someone who had simply lost control of his impulses, rather than the methodical and carefully considered actions of a disturbed mind. The biggest question is (and remains) how much his deeds were simply those of an individual acting out his own very twisted fantasies and how much those twisted fantasies were horrible echoes of the the hatred (homophobia, racism) at large in every American city at that moment in time.

  5. Julie says:

    That video made me cry. It was masterful to reprise it with just music, so we could focus on the rage and hurt in her body, and the ironies of her being restrained as Dahmer was protected. Dear God, please don’t tell me she was cited for contempt.

  6. Maria says:

    I came here because I searched for the name John Balcerzak. I heard it in passing that no cop wants to be like him yet I didn’t know who he was until today.

    The trial happened when I was 10. I didn’t much look into it as an adult. All I really knew about Dahmer was that he is described as gay and killed and ate young boys, most of them gay or minorities.

    It often feels that the events are separated out from the context of where and when they took place. We forget what else was going on. That is probably a benefit to the system. The stories make Dahmer seem so alien and other, the only evil in the world at the time, when in fact he was so firmly at home within a system of calculated apathy and inhumanity already in place.

    I can’t quite put into words how angry and sad this 4 post series has made me feel but I thank you for them.

  7. admin says:

    Well, in many ways it’s very comforting to think of Dahmer as unquestionably other. And even without knowing what could possibly have been going on in his mind, I’m pretty comfortable drawing a distinction between him and myself.

    As you point out, what we can discuss with some first-hand knowledge is how some of Dahmer’s actions mirrored the community’s attitudes (well, maybe those reflections come to us through a fun house mirror). And the most horrific parts of the story — more than the tabloid-sensational details of Dahmer’s obsessions — are the very normal, institutionalized acts of violence against Dahmer’s victims and their surviving loved ones.

    Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Chris says:

    You are a fantastic writer. I just had to say this.

  9. admin says:

    Thanks very much: you’re very kind.

  10. Brianna says:

    That clip made me mad just watching it! They protect that wack job, but she’s getting hauled off like she’s in the wrong!!! UGGGGHHHHH! I hate this unjust system.

  11. Sandra says:

    This was amazingly well-written and moving. Thank you so much for taking the time to put it together. I am a former criminal defence lawyer, and I always wondered about that aspect of the Dahmer case – race and sexuality. It sounds similar to cases where prostitutes are being murdered in that it takes a shocking amount of time (and death) for the police to sit up and put the full force of their investigative powers into finding the killer. It’s like the deaths of certain types of people don’t matter as much as others. I know that has been said so much, it is almost trite, but it doesn’t make it ok. We don’t have to continue to accept this.

  12. admin says:

    No, we don’t have to accept this. But it means keeping on top of a system apparently designed to protect the larger community from its aggressors, watching it to make sure it does what it was designed to do.

    All that takes a sharpness and presence of mind most of lose over time. That’s why the Rita Isbells of the world are so important to the survival of a functional community – and that’s why she’s the only hero I see in this whole, sad affair.

    Thanks for reading and for your comments.

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