Rita Isbell, whose brother was among the young victims of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, has made it clear how little fun it is to have your victim’s impact statement made into entertainment, she reveals in an as-told-to essay for Insider.
Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s new limited Netflix series about the cannibal, Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, released Sept. 21, recreates a real-life courtroom moment, which is also one of the worst in Isbell’s life.
In 1992, Dahmer was convicted of murdering her brother, Errol Lindsay, and 16 other young men, Isbell appeared at his sentencing trial—where she stood face to face with the man who had drugged her brother, drilled a hole in his head, and strangled him to death.
She’d planned a sober procedural statement about how Dahmer’s crimes had made her and her mother feel, but she says that changed “my first time ever being in front of him. When I got in front of his face it was a whole new ball game. I recognized evil. I was face-to-face with pure evil.”
An official court video of the distraught Isbell, quaking, gesturing, and screaming at Dahmer, joined the archive of emotional media clips used by serial-killer entertainments to goose viewers before cutting to commercial. Thus, one of the worst days in Isbell’s life was replayed on cable TV through the ‘90s and ‘00s.
Today, Isbell objects to the perception of general hysteria in such usage, since there was a clear intention behind her words. “During the trial, they were portraying him as being so out of control he couldn’t stop himself,” she recalls. “But you have to be in control in order to do the things that he was doing. You have to very much be in control. So that’s why I said: ‘Let me show you what out of control is. This is out of control.'”
She continues, “I was out of body. I wasn’t myself in that moment. Whatever I had on the inside, I let it out. I didn’t hold it in and later say: ‘Oh, I wish I had said or done this when I had the opportunity to.’”
Isbell says that she felt some degree of closure after Dahmer—who was beaten to death in a Wisconsin prison in 1994—received 15 consecutive life sentences, but seeing her name, likeness and words enlisted for a hot new streaming property left her less than flattered.
“When I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes,” she said. “That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.”
Another family member of the murdered Lindsay, his cousin Eric Perry, posted his reaction to seeing Isbell’s courtroom confrontation promoted on social media.
“Recreating my cousin having an emotional breakdown in court in the face of the man who tortured and murdered her brother is WILD,” Perry wrote. “WIIIIIILD.” He added “if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) are pissed about this show.”
I’m not telling anyone what to watch, I know true crime media is huge rn, but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) are pissed about this show. It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need? https://t.co/CRQjXWAvjx
— eric. (@ericthulhu) September 22, 2022
When Twitter users asked him about the legality of using stories like his family’s, Perry accurately explained that there are relatively few protections for stories that are in the public record, nor do productions tend to reach out to the real-life subjects to give them a heads up.
“My cousins wake up every few months at this point with a bunch of calls and messages and they know there’s another Dahmer show,” he says. “It’s cruel.”
Perry questioned the value in retelling true-crime stories when so many actual victims are there to hear them.
“It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what?” he said. “How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”
For Netflix, apparently, at least one more: the streamer’s Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes premieres on Oct 7.